Chapter 23

We ran, full tilt, for the tiny dot that represented Fatima’s location.  Mila followed on one side, holding her collapsible baton in one hand and a handgun in the other, eyes narrowed in search of any surprise threats.  For my part, I kept a death grip on my equipment bag, with its dual tablets, its laptop, the gun Mila had forced me to borrow, and a few assorted odds and ends that I couldn’t see myself making any use of.  The various items bumped against my hip as I dashed through the shanty town, all thoughts of stealth chased from my mind.

Before starting on this flight through the town, I’d committed Fatima’s location to memory.  I could always check the relevant tablet again, just to make sure, but she’d stopped moving a while ago.  The obvious conclusion was that the slavers had reached whatever means of transport they intended to use for the children. The more sinister conclusion, however, was that they’d decided the children were more trouble than their collective lives were worth.  If that second option were the case, I wasn’t rushing to pull together my team and accomplish a rescue; I was only hurrying to find the site of a massacre. 

I pushed that out of my mind.  Thinking about the worst wouldn’t do anything but sap my motivation.  Fatima would be okay.  The other Urchins would be alive. They just had to be.

How long until you reach them?” I asked through the comms, between breaths. 

Five minutes,” he responded promptly.  He wasn’t out of breath, as I would have expected.  Whatever training Mila had put him through must have included some cardio.   “Or we could make it in five minutes if we didn’t have these kids with us.”

And you can’t stash them anywhere,” I said, “because there’s no way to make sure that the slavers aren’t going to sweep through the area after you leave.  Shit.”

Shit,” Devlin agreed.

Mila reached a low wall in front of us.  She dropped low, sliding into position at the edge of the wall, and checked the path.  She didn’t fire her gun or leap to the attack so I assumed there weren’t any slavers in the immediate vicinity.  She touched one finger to her ear, despite knowing full well that it wouldn’t make the transmission any clearer.  “Michel?”

Oui?”  Michel’s general calm and steady demeanor sounded frayed and stressed, but he was still holding it together.  That was admirable, if not quite unexpected. He’d stayed level-headed during the London debacle, as a complete novice; saving an unknown quantity of orphans from a pack of child-murdering slavers wasn’t really any more complicated than that had been.  In fact, it was arguably a lot simpler: slavers were bad, so the team was good. 

There was something to be said for clearly drawn battle lines, at least.

Tell me that you didn’t forget to pick up a weapon,” Mila said.

Michel hesitated for an instant.  “A baton,” he said finally.  “And some pepper spray.”

What about the gun I left for you?”

I…did not think we would need it.”

Mila looked over at me and deliberately rolled her eyes in the most exaggerated fashion imaginable.  I understood her point – of course, it was always better to have a weapon and not need to use it – but I also sympathized with Michel.  Just because he was capable of functioning through the chaos that seemed endemic to our lives as of late, that didn’t mean he was necessarily comfortable with the violence of that chaos.  I certainly wasn’t.  But, I supposed, I didn’t spend all that much time actually in the field, so my delicate sensibilities were less likely to be challenged on a regular basis.

It’ll have to do,” Mila said.  She moved ahead, checking each alley for potentially hidden attackers, until she reached another wall.  There, she hunkered down. “Devlin, you’ll have to leave Michel and Hisein with the kids.   He’ll get them to Fatima’s location a little slower, but I think we’re going to need you there as soon as possible.”

I noticed that she didn’t ask Michel if he felt secure in taking on that role.  Mila rarely asked anyone how they felt about things – it just wasn’t in her nature – but even I thought that placing that much stress on Michel might be too much, at the moment.  If he felt the same way, though, he didn’t say anything about it.

Hisein, who’d remained silent thus far, spoke up immediately.  “If you are going to rescue Fatima, then I am going with you.” 

That must have been directed to Devlin, because Devlin responded.  “Listen.  When this was just an infiltration, it was okay to have you along.  But lives are at stake now.  You understand that, right?”

She is my omma,” Hisein said, as if that was all the answer he needed to give.

I wished that I could have seen the nonverbal conversation that was surely taking place on Devlin’s end of the comms.  I might not have caught every subtle microexpression or miniscule tell, but I would’ve been able to follow along a little better, at least.  As it was, I was restricted to the strictly spoken word, which – as Devlin often said – was only half of the conversation, at the absolute most.

Fine,” Devlin said.  Then, to Michel, “You can handle this?”

will handle this,” Michel said.  “I do not know how, but…I will make sure that these children are okay.”

Glad to hear it.”  Devlin took in a deep breath.   “Alright, Hisein; time to run.  Mila, Sarah?  We’ll call you when we’re in position.  Open up a line if something changes on your end.”

Will do,” I said.  I paused long enough to fish out the communications tablet and mute their lines. 

With Devlin and Hisein isolated, I turned my attention to Mila.  She was perched, cat-like, on a wedge of broken mortar, sweeping her eyes across the landscape from left to right, then back again.  She must have felt my eyes on her, because she shifted her weight and center of gravity so that she could face me.  “What is it?”

You wanted to attack,” I said.  “Do you have any idea how, exactly, we’re supposed to do that?”

Mila shook her head.  “Not my area.  I do the attacking and I’ll be happy to do that to these assholes.  But I don’t decide what to attack or how.”

Whose job is that supposed to be?”

She tilted her head.  “Yours,” she said, “or Devlin’s.  Obviously.”

Mila was right.  That had been a stupid question.  It wasn’t that she lacked the intelligence to formulate plans, so much as it wasn’t her area of expertise.  She operated best with concrete goals, hard targets that needed to be taken down.  It was in her nature to prefer straight-up attack; it just wouldn’t be in character for her to single out what to attack or where or how.

Of course, this wasn’t my area of expertise either, but I’d left my comfort zone figuratively miles behind me. 

I turned my thoughts to the problems ahead, trying to ignore the rush of adrenaline that now threatened to make me sick.  “We need to get the kids out.  They needed to get the kids out of here, too, but they couldn’t very well march a line of kidnapped children through the streets.  There are docks they could use, but…”

I trailed off.  There’d been a sound on Devlin’s end of the line earlier.  I’d ignored it, in favor of the much more pressing information that he’d blown our cover, but now I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  What had I heard?  What noise could have been that loud and why would the slavers have brought it with them?

When I realized what it must have been, I spoke at the same time as the thought crystallized in my head.  “A bus,” I said.  “They had to bring a bus.  That’s how they were going to get the kids out of the shanty town.”

Okay,” Mila said placidly.  “What does that mean for us?”

That’s how we’re going to get them out of here,” I said.  “If Fatima and the rest of the Urchins aren’t moving around anymore, we can assume that the slavers’ transportation is either already there or on the way there.  Either way, we’d just need to hit that area, overwhelm whatever security forces they’ve got in place, and then load the Urchins onto the bus.”

Unless there’s more people there than I can deal with.”

Well, yes, unless that happens.”  Mila’s sober assessment cast a shadow over my hasty plan, but only for a moment.  “But Devlin and Hisein can draw some of them away when they get into position.  If the main body of slavers has to split three ways – one to keep an eye on the Urchins, one each for Devlin and Hisein – that would make it a lot easier to put them down, wouldn’t it?”

Mila considered that for a few moments.  “It still won’t be easy,” she said finally.  “If I could take out a few of them from a distance, maybe it’d work, but I can’t do that.”

Why not?  You’ve got your gun on you, right?”

Of course I do.  But this isn’t a precision rifle, Sarah; if I start firing into a crowd like that, I’m as likely to hit one of the Urchins as one of the slavers.  It’ll be like it was at the command center: close the distance, start breaking bones before anyone can react.  Except…”

I finished the thought for her.  “Except the slavers don’t care about killing the Urchins.  And there won’t be an interior light I can turn off, so they’ll be able to spot you coming.”

Exactly.”  She paused.  “I can make the run, if you think it’s the best choice.”

That’d be suicide,” I said.

It’d be my job,” Mila replied.  “I don’t intend to die today, but I’m not about to start avoiding danger at every turn.”

It isn’t danger, Mila, it’s…it’s…” 

I couldn’t think of the right words.  Mila was our bodyguard, our muscle, and our shield, if necessary.  Normally we found ways to use her skills that kept her from directly clashing with armed forces, but that wasn’t her purpose.  When the Lady first contracted Mila to protect us, Mila had probably expected to be a more physical presence.  She’d probably been hoping for it, in fact, if her eagerness for conflict was any indication.

Devlin knew her better than I did.  He might have been able to say, with certainty, that she wasn’t just looking for an opportunity to throw herself into a glorious death.  I didn’t have that confidence, though.  But what did it matter if I felt unsure, in the grand scheme of things?  It wasn’t like I had a lot of options.

The tablet vibrated in my bag.  I removed it, saw that Devlin was attempting to re-open his line, and clicked the appropriate icon. 

We’re here,” he said, in a hushed whisper.  “We’ve got a little bit of height on the…I don’t know, I guess you could call it a staging area.”

I would’ve sacrificed a finger for one of my button cameras.  “What do you see?”

About five seconds of silence – five seconds that felt like fifty minutes – passed.  “There are a lot of Urchins here,” Devlin said.  “They aren’t in rows or anything like that, but if I had to guess…maybe two hundred?”

What about guards?” I asked.

I count at least a dozen.  I don’t have the best angle and there might be some that aren’t in my direct line of vision.”

Mila cleared her throat, signaling that she wanted to speak next.  That was fine by me; I didn’t even know the right questions for this sort of brute force work.

What about weapons?” Mila asked.

Semi-automatic rifles,” Devlin said.  “They look like older models, but I’m pretty sure they’ll still work just fine.  And they’re on edge, too.  Whatever set them off earlier apparently spread throughout their ranks.”

Heat rushed into my cheeks, but I said nothing.  Just because I was academically aware that Devlin wasn’t taking a shot at me, that didn’t mean my over developed sense of personal responsibility was going to accept that purely logical fact.

Mila shot me a look that I couldn’t quite read.  “Do you see any buses?”

Two of them,” Devlin said.  “Looks like they’re stripping the seats out of one bus, though, so…maybe they’re just going to use one of them as a decoy?”

I did some quick math in my head.  Life as a Ford hadn’t given me much of an opportunity to ride public transportation, but life as a thief had occasionally forced me to avail myself of buses, subways, and the like.  Assuming the majority of the Urchins were around Fatima’s size, give or take a foot, the slavers could probably fit around seventy of them into a single bus.  With the seats removed, and the Urchins piled up together, that number could easily go up to a hundred or more.

Mila was still talking.  “Makes sense.  Especially now that they know we’re here, they’d want to throw us off of our game by leaving a false trail.  Is there any way you could use that?”

Huh?  Use what?”

The extra bus,” Mila said.  “The one that you think they aren’t actually going to use.  Is there any way you can turn that to your advantage?”

Maybe?” Devlin said.  His voice went up at the end of the sentence, as if he wasn’t sure what Mila was even asking of him.  “What do you two have in mind?”

Mila gave me another look.  This time, I understood it.  She was prompting me to step up, to explain my own plan to Devlin.

There was a not-insignificant part of me that rebelled at the thought of sharing my own half-baked idea.  I drowned that part of my psyche in the adrenaline flow flooding my body.  “I’m thinking that we can use the buses as our getaway vehicles,” I said.  “If you and Hisein can distract some of the guards around the Urchins, we should be able to get them on board one of the buses.”

There at least twelve men down here,” Devlin said.  “All of them armed and there’s at least twenty feet of open space around the Urchins and their guards.”

Mila sucked at her teeth.  “I was afraid of that.  A lack of cover just means they’re going to spot me even sooner.”

Well, we’ve got to figure out something,” I snapped.  Immediately, I regretted it, but the outburst had already happened.  No point in dwelling on it.  Still, I modulated my tone before continuing.  “We’ve got somewhere around a hundred kids to rescue and we can’t march them all out of here, single file.”

The three of us went quiet, each of us presumably thinking heavy thoughts.  Devlin spoke first.  “The bus thing was a good idea,” he said.  “Use their own equipment against them and all that.”

Yeah,” I said, “but you just pointed out that there’s barely any chance that Mila sneaks up on and takes out the guards without getting shot first.  If the guards are still there, we can’t get the Urchins on board the bus and, even if we did manage that, we wouldn’t be able to get away from them.  They’re trying to kill us, we’re trying not to get anyone killed.”

Unless they have it coming,” Mila added.  I frowned in her direction and she shrugged her indifference back at me.

Right, that’s fine,” Devlin said.  “We can’t distract enough of the guards to make it safe for you to just make an approach.”

Then what?”

I could just steal the bus,” Devlin said.  “That would work, wouldn’t it?”

I opened my mouth to respond, blinked, and then closed it slowly.  “Yes,” I said eventually.  “That…would probably also work.”

We only need a little bit of a headstart on the slavers,” Devlin continued.  He was getting more animated and I knew that he was warming to the plan.  “Get Fatima, her Urchins, and the ones with Michel on board either one of these buses  – or both, even – and then get the hell out of dodge before the slavers have an opportunity to start concentrating fire on us.”

Mila waited a few moments to see if I was going to say anything.  When I didn’t, she sighed and spoke into the silence.  “What do you want us to do?”

Sarah, you’ve got the information the Lady needed.  You should stay out of this as much as possible.  Not because you can’t handle yourself,” he said in a hurried voice, “but because you’ve got the most valuable goods on you right now.  If you get caught or that information gets lost, then we’ll be staring at a dead end.”

Okay,” I managed to say.

Mila, you should stay with her and only move in to grab whichever bus we’ve left behind after we’ve had a chance to put some distance between us and this spot.”

You want me to babysit Sarah?”

I want you to protect Sarah,” Devlin said, with only the barest hint of irritation in his voice.  “Don’t worry, I’m sure there’ll be plenty of people interested in picking a fight with you.  That’s fine, as long as it’s one or two at a time, and we aren’t going to be putting the kids in danger.  Got it?”

Mila nodded, although her disappointment was plain on her expression. 

She and I reached the edge of a large clearing.  The two of us plastered ourselves to a wall, hoping that distance and shadow would provide concealment, since we hadn’t been able to find any location with a suitable view that would also keep us hidden.   In front of us, stretched out across perhaps a two or three dozen yard area, there was a clearing. In that clearing, sure enough, there were several lines of children mulling about. Occasionally, a grown man would step into view long enough to prod one of the children with the barrel of his rifle.  I mentally adjusted Devlin’s estimate of their number up by about twenty.

Are we all clear on what we need to do?” Devlin asked.

I nodded absently.  Mila spoke for me.  “All clear.”

With the tablet, I temporarily muted Devlin and navigated through the sub menus until I could speak directly to Fatima.  “You’re being very brave,” I said.  “Don’t say anything, but we’re coming to get you alright?  We are coming to get you.”

A dozen seconds passed by and no one spoke into the comms.  Then, in the tiniest little voice imaginable, Fatima said, “Okay.” 

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