Chapter 26

Michel, I need you to get us closer to him,” I said.  As I spoke, I gripped a conveniently placed pole with both of my hands.  “Close enough for him to hear us, okay?”

Michel spared a moment to glance up at me.  “With all of this happening, I do not know if I can get that close, Sarah.”

You’re going to have to do it anyway.  Figure something out.  I’m not worried about collateral damage and the slavers are taking their own lives in their hands at this point.”

He started to protest but stopped when he saw something in my expression.  Instead, he nodded twice, tightened his grip on the steering wheel, and pressed down hard on the accelerator.

The Urchins were huddling together for warmth and safety in the rear of the bus.  They were talking to each other in furtive whispers.  The anxiety in the air was so thick that I could almost feel it against my skin and no small part of that tension came from me, personally.  Fatima was doing her best to keep the Urchins from completely breaking, but their eventual panic had become an inevitable fact, instead of an unfortunate possibility.  As we drove directly into the fray, it was only a matter of time before Fatima’s grasp over the general mood faltered.  When that happened, there wouldn’t be anything keeping the assorted boys and girls from dissolving into chaos, which would distract Michel, Mila, and myself when our attention desperately needed to be focused on Devlin and Hisein.

I could have sworn there was a clock ticking in my head, ominous and drawing nearer, like the crocodile from Peter Pan.  “Mila, can you do anything about them? Maybe give us some room to work?”

Mila crouched a little and stepped closer to the bus’ front window.  “Nothing for sure,” she said after a few heartbeats.  “They aren’t shooting at him yet, for some reason, but that’s not going to hold up forever.  If Michel can get me into a position where I’ve got a few of those ATVs behind us, I could probably slow them down.  Might be able to take a few down permanently, but I can’t say for sure.”

Michel made a little sound of distress.  I understood that one perfectly.  Between my demands and Mila’s observations, we’d put two impossible requests squarely on his shoulders and it was perfectly clear what would happen if either request wasn’t granted.  His grip on the wheel grew even tighter and I could hear the leather creak under the pressure. 

Get back into position,” I told Mila.  “If you see an opportunity to open up a little room, take it.  Even if you can’t hit one of the ATVs, you might be able to throw up some obstacles for them?  They’ve got to swerve around walls and the like; we’ve got enough mass to just blast through.”

I can’t shoot a wall at them,” Mila said, then paused.  “But I could drop a wall or two in their path, actually.  With a little luck…”

She trailed off – or, more accurately, I tuned her out – and my attention went back to the scene in front of us.  I lacked Devlin’s intuitive eye for disorder, so the pack of vehicles didn’t seem to have any rhyme or reason.  Devlin’s bus swerved wildly in one direction or another, colliding with and bulldozing through low walls as they got in his way.   Some of the ATVs buzzed after him, following in the path he made through the debris, while others rushed in front of him and closed off paths he might have taken. 

They were herding him, I realized.  The gunmen weren’t firing because…because…why weren’t they shooting at him?  Some of the ATVs had drawn close enough for a clear shot at the tires.  Even if the slavers had been forced to shoot from a greater distance, they had submachine guns and, presumably, enough ammunition that eventually someone would hit a target the size of a small elephant.  What were the slavers playing at?  What was their game?

I couldn’t spend time worrying about that.  When we were safely back at the bed and breakfast, Devlin and I could sit down at a table and dissect every incongruous detail from this catastrophically failed incursion.  Right now, I needed to focus on making sure that we actually made it back to the bed and breakfast in the first place: Devlin, Mila, Michel, Fatima, Hisein, and all of the other Urchins included.

Michel wove a path through the streets, attempting to avoid any large pieces of debris that might have stalled us.  It was easier to follow Devlin than I would have thought; by simply plowing through obstacles, he’d left us a path as well.  Of the seven ATVs, one or two or the rear-mounted gunmen turned around at the sound of our approach.  Their surprise was palpable, even from a distance.  They raised their hands to their eyes, squinting to see if the bus was being driven by one of their own number or an outside interloper.  They were so curious and confused by the sudden arrival of a second bus that they didn’t react to Michel’s impersonation of a bull in a china shop until it was too late.

The back two ATVs turned away, each headed in a different direction, a second before the front of the bus would have collided with them.  The ATV on the left went down the mouth of an alley, but the rightmost vehicle didn’t have such luck.  A broken piece of lumber, roughly the size of an aggressive speed bump, cost him a little bit of momentum.  Michel clipped the rear of the ATV at speed, pushing it over the makeshift speed bump and crumpling both tires on one side underneath the vehicle.  Both the gunmen and the driver made it off before any limbs could be broken, but they were effectively out of commission, no matter how personally healthy they might still be.

Two down,” Mila called from the rear of the bus.  I looked back and saw her flashing a fierce grin in Michel’s direction, her hair pulled free of its ponytail and blowing wildly as we raced through the shanty town.  “Twelve more to go!”

I tried to find the same glee in the situation, but couldn’t quite pull it off.  There was still that current of adrenaline in my blood, both exhilarating and sickening at the same time, but it was starting to wear me out.  My vision was getting hazy around the edges and my knees felt weak.  If I hadn’t been holding onto the pole with a death grip, I suspected that there’d be a noticeable tremor in my hands.

Ahead of us, Devlin’s bus turned sharply to the left.  A pack of ATVs peeled away in response to the change in direction, and created a gap just barely wide enough for Michel to squeeze into.

This as close as I can get!”  I was right next to Michel, but the combined noises of both buses; the high pitched whine of the ATVs; the murmurs of the Urchins, which were quickly moving from soft voices to louder outcries of alarm, and the pounding of my own heart in my ears, I wouldn’t have heard him, if he hadn’t yelled.

It wasn’t as close to Devlin’s bus as I would have liked, but it would have to do.  I gestured at the door and Michel reached out to pull a lever.  The door folded in, allowing a rush of air to blow past me and back into the main cabin of the bus.

I could see him, through the mist of splintered wood and thickening smoke.  Devlin was behind the wheel of the bus, smiling as wide as he could.  His wide eyes frantically darted from left to right, taking in the field in front of him and deciding how to maneuver the bus in split-second increments.  Next to him, less visible because of the distance and the caked grime on the window, Hisein sat.  He didn’t wear the same smile as Devlin.  In fact, judging from what little I knew of body language and the scant amount I could make out as we sped through the shanty town, the poor boy was absolutely terrified.  His shoulders were high and pulled in close to his body; his head was ducked down so that he his chin touched his sternum.  His hands were out of my line of vision, but I suspected he was gripping the seat cushion for dear life.

Devlin!” I screamed as loud as possible, willing all of my adrenaline and fear into my voice.  “Devlin, look at me!”

I had to repeat myself twice and wave my arms frantically above my head before he took notice.  He must have put himself into that mysterious zone of his, if he hadn’t immediately noticed the presence of another bus speeding alongside him.  He mouthed something to me that I didn’t quite catch and stabbed two fingers to his right, then behind him. 

The gesture was clear enough, even if I couldn’t make out the words themselves.  “I know!  There are more of them coming!”  I over enunciated every word. Devlin was a better lip reader than me.  What he couldn’t hear or read, he’d have to pick up by intuition.  “We need a roadblock!”

He tilted his head, not understanding my intentions in the moment.  I started to repeat myself, but he turned suddenly to the right, then back to the left again.  A loud crunching sound, followed by a softer shout, came from behind us.

Ten left!” Mila yelled. 

I didn’t bother to look behind us to see what had happened.  While speaking to me – or, well, while attempting to communicate with me, even if speech wasn’t really on the table – Devlin must have noticed one of the ATVs drawing closer.  Instead of alerting the slaver and his passenger to his intention, he’d abruptly allowed him to get close enough to use a quick fishtail as a crude, but effective bludgeoning instrument.  It was similar to what Michel had done, only moments before.

Devlin hadn’t been driving like that when we’d first seen him.  Had he noticed Michel’s maneuver subconsciously and adapted it to his own purposes thatquickly?

I shook my head fiercely, clearing away any questions that popped up.  I needed to be present now

We need a roadblock!” I repeated, when Devlin pulled up next to up again.  If we continued on this street, we didn’t have much shanty town left before we entered the city of Tangiers proper.  “Do you understand?”

Devlin shook his head and lifted one hand, palm up: the universal sign of what are you talking about?

A roadblock!  A…”  I struggled to think of the appropriate way to convey my message, without reliance on too many polysyllabic words.  Irritation mingled with adrenaline and a surge of other unnamed emotions and I just spat out the words with an accompanying gesture.   “Flip the bus, Devlin!  You need to flip…the…bus!

I extended one hand, palm down, then sharply reversed its orientation.  I had to do that two more times, growing more and more anxious, before Devlin got it.

You want him to do what?” Michel asked.  His attention was split now between the road ahead of us and the rearview mirror.  I didn’t have the best angle on that mirror, but even I could see that the slavers were marshalling their forces.  They knew as well as we did that this chase couldn’t go into the city proper.  I saw one of the ATV’s passengers, closer than the rest, give his submachine gun a few moments of intense consideration.

He needs to flip the bus,” I said.  My mind wasn’t quite on the question.  I was calculating distances and speeds, adjusting for variables, and trying to remember what little physics I’d bothered learning in college.  “They’ve got more mobility and they outnumber us, but we don’t need to beat them.  All we need to do is get away and Tangiers is just the place to do it.”

You want to drive this,” Michel said, “into the city?”

What I want is to trap the slavers in the shanty town or at least to give us a good head start on them.  They’re here to get rid of evidence and clear the area; they aren’t going to want to start a fight in the city center anymore than we do.  If we can manage to get somewhere with people and lights – lots of people and lights – I’m betting they cut their losses and start looking for easier targets.”

I succeeded into lacing my little speech with more faith than I actually possessed.  The slavers might have orders to eliminate or otherwise deal with the Urchins, witnesses be damned.  They could have their tendrils in the local law enforcement, who might turn a conveniently blind eye to anything that happened at the shanty town’s borders.  There might be more of them than we knew about – there almost certainly were, even if the rest of their ranks were out of sight – and a trap could be waiting to spring on us, just before we could reach freedom.

Or a million other more mundane problems could spring up at the last instant.  Devlin could run out of gas, blow a tire, or his engine could throw a rod.  Michel’s impressive skills could fail us at a critical moment.  The Urchins could snap under the pressure and throw a wrench into the works of a plan that depended on absolute perfection. 

I could be wrong.  I could be horribly wrong and the price of my miscalculation, of my overconfidence, would be absolute failure.

Acting, and failing, was still better than not acting at all.  I’d learned that much from my time with Devlin. 

Get into position,” I said, surprised at the steadiness of my voice.  “It’s going to be close.”

There was no way to convey to Devlin how thin the margin of success was.  In my head, he and Hisein would flip the bus at the critical moment, when the circling ATVs weren’t prepared for such a drastic technique.  If he braced himself just right, they’d be able to escape the crash with a minimum of injury.  In the short period of time after the deliberate over-balancing and before the slavers recovered their wits, we’d have to scoop Devlin and Hisein up and evacuate the scene. The wreckage we’d leave in our wake would have to be sufficient to stall them while we made like tall rabbits for safety.

Almost immediately, things went awry.  I’d been hoping for a few yards of space in either direction, so that Michel could pull around Devlin’s bus before it went sideways.  The arrival of two more ATVs, complete with the requisite gunmen riding butch, peeled out in front of both buses.  Devlin spun the wheel, so that his bus pulled away from ours, at the exact moment that one of the gunman decided to open fire.  A rapid burst of gunfire came from the boxy weapon in his hands, kicking up shards of wood and paper into the air.

I sucked in a sharp breath.  For an instant, my mind froze and my thoughts locked up.  Michel turned, looked over his shoulder at Mila, and nodded as some unspoken message passed between them. 

Fatima,” Mila said, “your friends are going to have to get a good grip on something and now.”  She knelt down and began to feverishly dig through the bag.

Fatima didn’t waste time asking questions.  She pointed at her honor guard and barked out orders.  Where she’d been soothing and comforting before, the Arabic came out sharp and forceful now.  The bigger boys leaped to do her bidding, crowding the younger and more impressionable Urchins against the walls where they could dig their hands into barely-there handholds.

Michel pulled our bus around, wide, and sped after Devlin.  At this angle, we were on a near collision course.  We’d only just barely scrape by. 

What are you –“

I didn’t get to finish the question.  Mila pulled her head out of the bag, clutching two objects about the size of large apples.  Michel pulled the bus up alongside Devlin and held there.  Behind us, the two newcomers and a large contingent of the forces we hadn’t yet dealt with drew closer still.  I realized that I was holding my breath but could not, for the life of me, manage to remember exactly how to exhale.

The lead gunmen raised their guns and pointed them straight through the open emergency exit.  From this angle, I couldn’t see Mila’s eyes, but I could track the motion of her head.  She focused on the ATVs, said something in a voice that the rush of air whipped away from my ears, and then turned to the side.  She looked directly at a ramshackle building, constructed more from litter than lumber, and threw one of the apple-sized grenades directly at its base.

It went off just before it reached the ground, blowing out the base of the wall in a blast of force.  If the explosion had taken place any higher, the wall would have fallen backwards, away from the pursuing riders.  But she’d picked the perfect moment and, instead of clearing a path for the ATVs, the wall fell precisely in their way.  At their speed, the lead vehicles didn’t have a hope of dodging to either side and their riders went flying over the handlebars the instant their front wheels touched rocky, uneven ground.  The rest of the pack was forced to slow down, so that they could find other routes that weren’t so treacherous.

You’re up!” Mila yelled.

Michel took his cue and stood – literally stood – and forced another few miles per hour out of the beleaguered bus.  I hadn’t noticed the sound of its grinding engine earlier, caught in the heat of the moment, but I couldn’t seem to hear anything else right now.  Still, Michel demanded more speed and the bus gave it to him.  He pulled ahead of Devlin, then turned so that both vehicles formed a straight line.

Mila waved one arm frantically, gesturing for Devlin to move.  He ducked out of view, followed quickly by Hisein, just before Mila picked back up the assault rifle and sent a burst of gunfire straight through the bus’ front window.  It splintered, cracked, and then finally shattered completely. 

Hurry up!”

Devlin seemed to intuitively grasp Mila’s meaning.  As he helped Hisein to his feet, Michel gradually decelerated.  The two buses bumped into each other, our vehicle’s emergency exit door scraping against the remaining metal of the other’s window frame with an ear-splitting screech.

Hisein searched the crowd of Urchins – all of whom who had now lapsed completely into a state of dumb wonder – for Fatima’s face.  He found her, standing next to me, and steeled himself.  Then, he leaped from one bus to the other.  Mila caught him with one arm and helped to steady him.  When he had his footing, Mila pushed him behind her and held out a hand to Devlin.

He hesitated.  The whining engines of the ATVs were getting closer again behind us and, ahead of us, I could see lights.  The sun was rising, yes, but not all of Tangiers’ evening lights had been switched off yet.

Hurry up!” Mila yelled.

Devlin took off his belt and wound it through the steering wheel, gripping one end in a tightly clenched fist.  He took stock of himself once more, backed up slightly, and gave himself a running start before he jumped over the gap.

The belt went taut, then pulled against the steering wheel when Devlin was still airborne.  It turned sharply – too sharply – to one side.  The bus had held together under considerable stress, but this last violent wrenching proved to be one insult too many.  Its tires locked up, forcing the bus to turn from parallel to ours until it was perpendicular.  Then, with a groan and a towering crash, it flipped over.

Momentum kept the fallen bus from stopping completely, but we had actual impetus on our side.  As Devlin’s stolen vehicle fell, sliding through buildings and losing a little bit of speed with each individual impact, we gained distance.  The whine of the ATVs slowed, then stopped, as they realized there was no way around this new obstacle in anything resembling decent time.  Besides, the sun was almost up.  We’d made it out of the shanty town, or near enough that it was indistinguishable.  They’d lost the chase.

Devlin fell to his knees, gasping greedily for oxygen, as soon as we were clear.  I started to push my way through the crowd of Urchins who, understandably, were very interested in Hisein and Fatima at the moment.  Mila helped Devlin to his feet and he wiped a river of sweat from his forehead.

Then he smiled at me.  “Fancy meeting you here,” he said.  “Mind if I catch a ride?”

If it hadn’t been for Mila, I would’ve slapped the grin off of his face.  

Michel, I need you to get us closer to him,” I said.  As I spoke, I gripped a conveniently placed pole with both of my hands.  “Close enough for him to hear us, okay?”

Michel spared a moment to glance up at me.  “With all of this happening, I do not know if I can get that close, Sarah.”

You’re going to have to do it anyway.  Figure something out.  I’m not worried about collateral damage and the slavers are taking their own lives in their hands at this point.”

He started to protest but stopped when he saw something in my expression.  Instead, he nodded twice, tightened his grip on the steering wheel, and pressed down hard on the accelerator.

The Urchins were huddling together for warmth and safety in the rear of the bus.  They were talking to each other in furtive whispers.  The anxiety in the air was so thick that I could almost feel it against my skin and no small part of that tension came from me, personally.  Fatima was doing her best to keep the Urchins from completely breaking, but their eventual panic had become an inevitable fact, instead of an unfortunate possibility.  As we drove directly into the fray, it was only a matter of time before Fatima’s grasp over the general mood faltered.  When that happened, there wouldn’t be anything keeping the assorted boys and girls from dissolving into chaos, which would distract Michel, Mila, and myself when our attention desperately needed to be focused on Devlin and Hisein.

I could have sworn there was a clock ticking in my head, ominous and drawing nearer, like the crocodile from Peter Pan.  “Mila, can you do anything about them? Maybe give us some room to work?”

Mila crouched a little and stepped closer to the bus’ front window.  “Nothing for sure,” she said after a few heartbeats.  “They aren’t shooting at him yet, for some reason, but that’s not going to hold up forever.  If Michel can get me into a position where I’ve got a few of those ATVs behind us, I could probably slow them down.  Might be able to take a few down permanently, but I can’t say for sure.”

Michel made a little sound of distress.  I understood that one perfectly.  Between my demands and Mila’s observations, we’d put two impossible requests squarely on his shoulders and it was perfectly clear what would happen if either request wasn’t granted.  His grip on the wheel grew even tighter and I could hear the leather creak under the pressure. 

Get back into position,” I told Mila.  “If you see an opportunity to open up a little room, take it.  Even if you can’t hit one of the ATVs, you might be able to throw up some obstacles for them?  They’ve got to swerve around walls and the like; we’ve got enough mass to just blast through.”

I can’t shoot a wall at them,” Mila said, then paused.  “But I could drop a wall or two in their path, actually.  With a little luck…”

She trailed off – or, more accurately, I tuned her out – and my attention went back to the scene in front of us.  I lacked Devlin’s intuitive eye for disorder, so the pack of vehicles didn’t seem to have any rhyme or reason.  Devlin’s bus swerved wildly in one direction or another, colliding with and bulldozing through low walls as they got in his way.   Some of the ATVs buzzed after him, following in the path he made through the debris, while others rushed in front of him and closed off paths he might have taken. 

They were herding him, I realized.  The gunmen weren’t firing because…because…why weren’t they shooting at him?  Some of the ATVs had drawn close enough for a clear shot at the tires.  Even if the slavers had been forced to shoot from a greater distance, they had submachine guns and, presumably, enough ammunition that eventually someone would hit a target the size of a small elephant.  What were the slavers playing at?  What was their game?

I couldn’t spend time worrying about that.  When we were safely back at the bed and breakfast, Devlin and I could sit down at a table and dissect every incongruous detail from this catastrophically failed incursion.  Right now, I needed to focus on making sure that we actually made it back to the bed and breakfast in the first place: Devlin, Mila, Michel, Fatima, Hisein, and all of the other Urchins included.

Michel wove a path through the streets, attempting to avoid any large pieces of debris that might have stalled us.  It was easier to follow Devlin than I would have thought; by simply plowing through obstacles, he’d left us a path as well.  Of the seven ATVs, one or two or the rear-mounted gunmen turned around at the sound of our approach.  Their surprise was palpable, even from a distance.  They raised their hands to their eyes, squinting to see if the bus was being driven by one of their own number or an outside interloper.  They were so curious and confused by the sudden arrival of a second bus that they didn’t react to Michel’s impersonation of a bull in a china shop until it was too late.

The back two ATVs turned away, each headed in a different direction, a second before the front of the bus would have collided with them.  The ATV on the left went down the mouth of an alley, but the rightmost vehicle didn’t have such luck.  A broken piece of lumber, roughly the size of an aggressive speed bump, cost him a little bit of momentum.  Michel clipped the rear of the ATV at speed, pushing it over the makeshift speed bump and crumpling both tires on one side underneath the vehicle.  Both the gunmen and the driver made it off before any limbs could be broken, but they were effectively out of commission, no matter how personally healthy they might still be.

Two down,” Mila called from the rear of the bus.  I looked back and saw her flashing a fierce grin in Michel’s direction, her hair pulled free of its ponytail and blowing wildly as we raced through the shanty town.  “Twelve more to go!”

I tried to find the same glee in the situation, but couldn’t quite pull it off.  There was still that current of adrenaline in my blood, both exhilarating and sickening at the same time, but it was starting to wear me out.  My vision was getting hazy around the edges and my knees felt weak.  If I hadn’t been holding onto the pole with a death grip, I suspected that there’d be a noticeable tremor in my hands.

Ahead of us, Devlin’s bus turned sharply to the left.  A pack of ATVs peeled away in response to the change in direction, and created a gap just barely wide enough for Michel to squeeze into.

This as close as I can get!”  I was right next to Michel, but the combined noises of both buses; the high pitched whine of the ATVs; the murmurs of the Urchins, which were quickly moving from soft voices to louder outcries of alarm, and the pounding of my own heart in my ears, I wouldn’t have heard him, if he hadn’t yelled.

It wasn’t as close to Devlin’s bus as I would have liked, but it would have to do.  I gestured at the door and Michel reached out to pull a lever.  The door folded in, allowing a rush of air to blow past me and back into the main cabin of the bus.

I could see him, through the mist of splintered wood and thickening smoke.  Devlin was behind the wheel of the bus, smiling as wide as he could.  His wide eyes frantically darted from left to right, taking in the field in front of him and deciding how to maneuver the bus in split-second increments.  Next to him, less visible because of the distance and the caked grime on the window, Hisein sat.  He didn’t wear the same smile as Devlin.  In fact, judging from what little I knew of body language and the scant amount I could make out as we sped through the shanty town, the poor boy was absolutely terrified.  His shoulders were high and pulled in close to his body; his head was ducked down so that he his chin touched his sternum.  His hands were out of my line of vision, but I suspected he was gripping the seat cushion for dear life.

Devlin!” I screamed as loud as possible, willing all of my adrenaline and fear into my voice.  “Devlin, look at me!”

I had to repeat myself twice and wave my arms frantically above my head before he took notice.  He must have put himself into that mysterious zone of his, if he hadn’t immediately noticed the presence of another bus speeding alongside him.  He mouthed something to me that I didn’t quite catch and stabbed two fingers to his right, then behind him. 

The gesture was clear enough, even if I couldn’t make out the words themselves.  “I know!  There are more of them coming!”  I over enunciated every word. Devlin was a better lip reader than me.  What he couldn’t hear or read, he’d have to pick up by intuition.  “We need a roadblock!”

He tilted his head, not understanding my intentions in the moment.  I started to repeat myself, but he turned suddenly to the right, then back to the left again.  A loud crunching sound, followed by a softer shout, came from behind us.

Ten left!” Mila yelled. 

I didn’t bother to look behind us to see what had happened.  While speaking to me – or, well, while attempting to communicate with me, even if speech wasn’t really on the table – Devlin must have noticed one of the ATVs drawing closer.  Instead of alerting the slaver and his passenger to his intention, he’d abruptly allowed him to get close enough to use a quick fishtail as a crude, but effective bludgeoning instrument.  It was similar to what Michel had done, only moments before.

Devlin hadn’t been driving like that when we’d first seen him.  Had he noticed Michel’s maneuver subconsciously and adapted it to his own purposes thatquickly?

I shook my head fiercely, clearing away any questions that popped up.  I needed to be present now

We need a roadblock!” I repeated, when Devlin pulled up next to up again.  If we continued on this street, we didn’t have much shanty town left before we entered the city of Tangiers proper.  “Do you understand?”

Devlin shook his head and lifted one hand, palm up: the universal sign of what are you talking about?

A roadblock!  A…”  I struggled to think of the appropriate way to convey my message, without reliance on too many polysyllabic words.  Irritation mingled with adrenaline and a surge of other unnamed emotions and I just spat out the words with an accompanying gesture.   “Flip the bus, Devlin!  You need to flip…the…bus!

I extended one hand, palm down, then sharply reversed its orientation.  I had to do that two more times, growing more and more anxious, before Devlin got it.

You want him to do what?” Michel asked.  His attention was split now between the road ahead of us and the rearview mirror.  I didn’t have the best angle on that mirror, but even I could see that the slavers were marshalling their forces.  They knew as well as we did that this chase couldn’t go into the city proper.  I saw one of the ATV’s passengers, closer than the rest, give his submachine gun a few moments of intense consideration.

He needs to flip the bus,” I said.  My mind wasn’t quite on the question.  I was calculating distances and speeds, adjusting for variables, and trying to remember what little physics I’d bothered learning in college.  “They’ve got more mobility and they outnumber us, but we don’t need to beat them.  All we need to do is get away and Tangiers is just the place to do it.”

You want to drive this,” Michel said, “into the city?”

What I want is to trap the slavers in the shanty town or at least to give us a good head start on them.  They’re here to get rid of evidence and clear the area; they aren’t going to want to start a fight in the city center anymore than we do.  If we can manage to get somewhere with people and lights – lots of people and lights – I’m betting they cut their losses and start looking for easier targets.”

I succeeded into lacing my little speech with more faith than I actually possessed.  The slavers might have orders to eliminate or otherwise deal with the Urchins, witnesses be damned.  They could have their tendrils in the local law enforcement, who might turn a conveniently blind eye to anything that happened at the shanty town’s borders.  There might be more of them than we knew about – there almost certainly were, even if the rest of their ranks were out of sight – and a trap could be waiting to spring on us, just before we could reach freedom.

Or a million other more mundane problems could spring up at the last instant.  Devlin could run out of gas, blow a tire, or his engine could throw a rod.  Michel’s impressive skills could fail us at a critical moment.  The Urchins could snap under the pressure and throw a wrench into the works of a plan that depended on absolute perfection. 

I could be wrong.  I could be horribly wrong and the price of my miscalculation, of my overconfidence, would be absolute failure.

Acting, and failing, was still better than not acting at all.  I’d learned that much from my time with Devlin. 

Get into position,” I said, surprised at the steadiness of my voice.  “It’s going to be close.”

There was no way to convey to Devlin how thin the margin of success was.  In my head, he and Hisein would flip the bus at the critical moment, when the circling ATVs weren’t prepared for such a drastic technique.  If he braced himself just right, they’d be able to escape the crash with a minimum of injury.  In the short period of time after the deliberate over-balancing and before the slavers recovered their wits, we’d have to scoop Devlin and Hisein up and evacuate the scene. The wreckage we’d leave in our wake would have to be sufficient to stall them while we made like tall rabbits for safety.

Almost immediately, things went awry.  I’d been hoping for a few yards of space in either direction, so that Michel could pull around Devlin’s bus before it went sideways.  The arrival of two more ATVs, complete with the requisite gunmen riding butch, peeled out in front of both buses.  Devlin spun the wheel, so that his bus pulled away from ours, at the exact moment that one of the gunman decided to open fire.  A rapid burst of gunfire came from the boxy weapon in his hands, kicking up shards of wood and paper into the air.

I sucked in a sharp breath.  For an instant, my mind froze and my thoughts locked up.  Michel turned, looked over his shoulder at Mila, and nodded as some unspoken message passed between them. 

Fatima,” Mila said, “your friends are going to have to get a good grip on something and now.”  She knelt down and began to feverishly dig through the bag.

Fatima didn’t waste time asking questions.  She pointed at her honor guard and barked out orders.  Where she’d been soothing and comforting before, the Arabic came out sharp and forceful now.  The bigger boys leaped to do her bidding, crowding the younger and more impressionable Urchins against the walls where they could dig their hands into barely-there handholds.

Michel pulled our bus around, wide, and sped after Devlin.  At this angle, we were on a near collision course.  We’d only just barely scrape by. 

What are you –“

I didn’t get to finish the question.  Mila pulled her head out of the bag, clutching two objects about the size of large apples.  Michel pulled the bus up alongside Devlin and held there.  Behind us, the two newcomers and a large contingent of the forces we hadn’t yet dealt with drew closer still.  I realized that I was holding my breath but could not, for the life of me, manage to remember exactly how to exhale.

The lead gunmen raised their guns and pointed them straight through the open emergency exit.  From this angle, I couldn’t see Mila’s eyes, but I could track the motion of her head.  She focused on the ATVs, said something in a voice that the rush of air whipped away from my ears, and then turned to the side.  She looked directly at a ramshackle building, constructed more from litter than lumber, and threw one of the apple-sized grenades directly at its base.

It went off just before it reached the ground, blowing out the base of the wall in a blast of force.  If the explosion had taken place any higher, the wall would have fallen backwards, away from the pursuing riders.  But she’d picked the perfect moment and, instead of clearing a path for the ATVs, the wall fell precisely in their way.  At their speed, the lead vehicles didn’t have a hope of dodging to either side and their riders went flying over the handlebars the instant their front wheels touched rocky, uneven ground.  The rest of the pack was forced to slow down, so that they could find other routes that weren’t so treacherous.

You’re up!” Mila yelled.

Michel took his cue and stood – literally stood – and forced another few miles per hour out of the beleaguered bus.  I hadn’t noticed the sound of its grinding engine earlier, caught in the heat of the moment, but I couldn’t seem to hear anything else right now.  Still, Michel demanded more speed and the bus gave it to him.  He pulled ahead of Devlin, then turned so that both vehicles formed a straight line.

Mila waved one arm frantically, gesturing for Devlin to move.  He ducked out of view, followed quickly by Hisein, just before Mila picked back up the assault rifle and sent a burst of gunfire straight through the bus’ front window.  It splintered, cracked, and then finally shattered completely. 

Hurry up!”

Devlin seemed to intuitively grasp Mila’s meaning.  As he helped Hisein to his feet, Michel gradually decelerated.  The two buses bumped into each other, our vehicle’s emergency exit door scraping against the remaining metal of the other’s window frame with an ear-splitting screech.

Hisein searched the crowd of Urchins – all of whom who had now lapsed completely into a state of dumb wonder – for Fatima’s face.  He found her, standing next to me, and steeled himself.  Then, he leaped from one bus to the other.  Mila caught him with one arm and helped to steady him.  When he had his footing, Mila pushed him behind her and held out a hand to Devlin.

He hesitated.  The whining engines of the ATVs were getting closer again behind us and, ahead of us, I could see lights.  The sun was rising, yes, but not all of Tangiers’ evening lights had been switched off yet.

Hurry up!” Mila yelled.

Devlin took off his belt and wound it through the steering wheel, gripping one end in a tightly clenched fist.  He took stock of himself once more, backed up slightly, and gave himself a running start before he jumped over the gap.

The belt went taut, then pulled against the steering wheel when Devlin was still airborne.  It turned sharply – too sharply – to one side.  The bus had held together under considerable stress, but this last violent wrenching proved to be one insult too many.  Its tires locked up, forcing the bus to turn from parallel to ours until it was perpendicular.  Then, with a groan and a towering crash, it flipped over.

Momentum kept the fallen bus from stopping completely, but we had actual impetus on our side.  As Devlin’s stolen vehicle fell, sliding through buildings and losing a little bit of speed with each individual impact, we gained distance.  The whine of the ATVs slowed, then stopped, as they realized there was no way around this new obstacle in anything resembling decent time.  Besides, the sun was almost up.  We’d made it out of the shanty town, or near enough that it was indistinguishable.  They’d lost the chase.

Devlin fell to his knees, gasping greedily for oxygen, as soon as we were clear.  I started to push my way through the crowd of Urchins who, understandably, were very interested in Hisein and Fatima at the moment.  Mila helped Devlin to his feet and he wiped a river of sweat from his forehead.

Then he smiled at me.  “Fancy meeting you here,” he said.  “Mind if I catch a ride?”

If it hadn’t been for Mila, I would’ve slapped the grin off of his face.  

Maybe.

Maybe.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s