Our borrowed method of transportation lasted longer than I would have expected – far enough away that the shanty town and its growing pillar of smoke grew small in our wake, almost back to the warehouse where the main body of Urchins hid themselves away from the city – until its engine finally gave up the ghost. It sputtered, coughed, hacked, and died in a violent burst of thick, black smoke that darkened the windows even more and threatened to find its way in through the occasional crack in the vehicle’s walls.
Fatima, Hisein, and the newly retrieved members of her honor guard herded the younger Urchins off of the bus and into a semblance of a line. They led the children through the side streets of the city, taking great care to avoid any popular thoroughfares as the sun climbed higher into the sky. Tourists and locals alike were waking up and preparing to start their days of shopping, selling, or stealing. No reason to disrupt that ritual if not absolutely necessary.
The sight of a disorganized crowd of filthy orphans marching through the streets would probably have alarmed a few people under normal circumstances, but I suspected that the adult members of the underworld in this city had honed the ability to ignore unpleasant truths. No matter how well equipped and trained the slavers had been, there simply wasn’t any way that one of the Urchins’ own number could have provided them with enough information to get away with as many children as they’d nearly absconded with. Someone among the shopkeepers and pickpockets – probably more than a few someones – must have known what was happening and been complicit in it.
I wished I had the time to dig deeper into that. With a little time, my team and I could deal truly awful damage to any organization that had tacitly allowed kidnapping and slavery to take place under their watch. But I’d already lost a full twenty-four hours in pursuit of equipment – equipment which I hadn’t even managed to acquire – and there were only two days left on the Community’s impossibly short timer.
Oh well. I could always come back later. When the Lady used the information I’d stolen to claim power in the area, there would inevitably be a few stragglers who’d try to continue operating without her consent. There’d be a target or two worthy of my scorn and attention when I could afford to spend the time such an endeavor required.
Devlin, Michel, Mila, and I formed the rear guard of the troupe of Urchins. Even Mila didn’t think the slavers would attempt an attack in broad daylight with witnesses, in an area where the cops frequently patrolled. That didn’t keep her from staying tense and prepared, however. Every step she took seemed deliberate, placed with exquisite care, so that she was never fully off balance. The guns she’d brought into the shanty town had vanished back into the appropriate holsters. The bag of weapons she’d pilfered from the slavers was zipped shut and slung over one shoulder. To the average passerby, it could have been anything from a change of clothes or a sackful of souvenirs.
I didn’t understand how she could still be so alert. The adrenaline I’d been using as fuel for so many hours in the shanty town had long since run out. In its absence, I felt a little lightheaded and the world spun – just a little bit – around the edges. I stumbled over every third or fourth step, unless I forced myself to pay specific attention to where my feet landed, at what angle, or with how much pressure. Doing that just made me more exhausted and sharpened the feeling of nausea from a distant thought to an immediate pressing concern, however, so I just accepted the occasional misstep as the cost of doing business.
We didn’t talk much as we walked back to the warehouse. Mila and Michel were a little bit ahead of Devlin and me, speaking to each other in low whispers. Every now and again, as they swung their arms back and forth, their fingers just barely touched. Michel seemed to be unaware of the incidental contact, but I couldn’t imagine that Mila was doing it by accident. In virtually every other circumstance, she’d been in complete control of where her body was and hyper-cognizant of its movement through space.
I’d known people who got worked up after a job. Maybe that was Mila’s thing? But if that was her personal fetish, wouldn’t something have already happened after London and the other frenetic jobs we’d tackled since that first assignment? Had something already happened?
Next to me, Devlin cleared his throat. “So,” he began, “I feel like I should make it clear that I did have a plan to get out of that situation.”
I lifted an eyebrow in his direction, slow and dramatic, and waited for him to elaborate.
“I know you said that you don’t want me risking my life for no reason. Or assuming that you guys would all be better off leaving me to stew in my own mess. That wasn’t the case…at least, not this time.”
“Oh?” I made my mouth into a perfect little ‘o’ and laid a hand on my chest, like an antebellum southern belle. “Please, tell me how you were going to slip that particular noose, Devlin?”
“We had flairs on the bus,” Devlin answered, “and there were two propane tanks that we stole from one of the generators. When we’d gotten some distance, I was going to use the flairs in conjunction with the propane tanks to make things more difficult for the rest of the slavers. It was the same thing I did to get the first explosion, only I was pretty sure I could aim the tank for maximum effect.”
He didn’t even have the grace to pretend like he hadn’t known exactly what to do beforehand. While I’d been panicking and desperately attempting to string together some series of events that wouldn’t end in someone’s violent death, Devlin had already crafted an escape plan for himself.
I scowled before I could help myself. “You expected there to be as many slavers as there were?”
He shook his head. “No, but I knew they’d send everything they had after me. The fact that I was just serving as bait didn’t occur to them. As far as they knew, I could have driven straight back to the town and alerted the authorities. They needed to keep what they were doing as quietly as possible, after all.”
I really wanted to poke holes in his reasoning, purely out of spite, but he seemed to be on pretty solid ground. “What happened to your earbud? Why couldn’t you tell us what you were thinking about doing?”
“How do you think I got the flairs?” Devlin asked. “Hisein and I had to sort of tag team a pair of guards that were patrolling away from the main group. I guess one of them got in a lucky hit. I didn’t really have an opportunity to start looking for the earbud at the time and, besides, I didn’t even realize that I’d dropped it until too late.”
That was a valid response, unfortunately. A deep well of frustration boiled in my stomach and Devlin wasn’t being courteous enough to give me something I could actually vent that frustration on. With no other recourse, I tightened my jaw, crossed my arm, and tried very hard not to yell at him for no reason at all for the rest of the trip back to the warehouse.
The abandoned building looked different in the early morning light. It was still a massive construction, still run down from years of benign neglect, but it didn’t seem as monolithic as the previous night. At the head of the line of Urchins, Fatima rapped out a sharp code on the big double doors. About a minute passed a series of knocks came from the other side of the doors.
Fatima gestured to her flock, speaking in Arabic. Then, she raised her eyes so that she was looking at my team and switched to English. “Something is wrong,” she said.
It was a testament to how tired I was – a night without sleep was one thing, but that same night after running on adrenaline for hours was a whole new level of exhaustion – that I barely shrugged at Fatima’s pronouncement. Of course something was wrong. Something was always wrong.
Devlin fared better with the adrenaline withdrawal and general sleep deprivation than I did. “What’re you talking about?”
“I do not know,” Fatima said. “But…something. You feel it too, Hisein?”
The boy was in the midst of the crowd of Urchins, albeit slightly closer to the front. His height allowed him to look over the shortest children without too much trouble. He nodded in response to Fatima’s question.
“What kind of trouble are we talking about?” Mila asked.
“Nothing I cannot handle,” Fatima said. She repeated the knock-code, altered just slightly and stepped back.
After a few beats of silence, the massive double doors at the front of the warehouse swung outward. When my eyes adjusted to the darkness inside the building, I saw that the doors were being opened by several of the Urchins. Two of the beefier orphans could have handled a door by themselves, but someone had tasked the weakest and most underfed to this particular duty. It took four of the Urchins to open each side until Devlin, Michel, and two of Fatima’s honor guard stepped up to assist them.
When the Urchins on door duty saw who’d summoned them, they each went still with shock. When they saw past Fatima, to the teeming horde of their brothers and sisters they’d thought long dead, every single one of their little mouths dropped open in surprise. Some ran forward, pushing their way through any resistance, until they could hold their presumed-dead loved ones. Others backed into the gloom of the warehouse, seeking safety and assurances before they allowed themselves to hope again.
One of the Urchins – he hadn’t been a part of the crew assigned to open the door, but had merely been nearby – took one look at Fatima, one at the assembled Urchins, and one at my team and me before he spun on one heel and fled deeper into the warehouse’s guts.
“If we were hoping to surprise Mamoud,” Devlin said, “we certainly can’t do it now.”
“What makes you think he’s reporting to Mamoud?” I asked.
“Who do you think would be most interested in knowing that Fatima didn’t just come back, but that she came back and rescued the kidnapped Urchins?”
“Mamoud.” I felt idiotic for not immediately coming to that conclusion but, in my defense, I was extremely tired.
Devlin didn’t seem to notice my lapse in common sense or, if he did, he was choosing to display common sense in keeping any uncharitable thoughts locked up inside his head. Six of one, half a dozen of the other; whatever his reasoning, he didn’t say anything further.
When we were able to separate the interior Urchins from the exterior ones, we followed the children back to the secret door leading down into the basement. As we went, clusters and knots of children peeled off, in search of somewhere to lay their heads. The warehouse lacked amenities like clean bedding, water to shower with, sufficient food storage, and so on; but one thing it had plenty of was empty space. When some of the exterior Urchins spotted an empty spot on the floor, they rushed over to claim it before someone else could see the same space.
It didn’t matter how quickly they went, however. There was more than enough empty square footage to house all of the Urchins. Not all of them went, though. By the time we reached the secret door, our party size had trickled down to a thin fraction of its previous number. Mila, Michel, Devlin, and I collectively formed the core team. Fatima and Hisein walked side by side – or nearly side by side, since he kept distance at a half step behind her – and continued to confer with each other in quick Arabic. Of the Urchins we’d rescued, about one in five had chosen to stay with Fatima and the rest of us, in order to see how things would play out.
I couldn’t blame them. If it had been me in their shoes, I would’ve demanded to see the person who’d sold us out pay for his crimes personally.
The underground lair where the Urchins congregated was filled to the brim with orphaned children. At the bottom of the ladder, there was only enough space for a child of Fatima’s size. When she stepped into that circle of space, her head held high and proud, all of the Urchins stared at her for a long, pregnant second. Then, with a gesture and a word from Fatima, they cleared away enough for the rest of us – the team, Hisein, and the Urchins who had stayed to see what came next – to join her.
Almost immediately, I felt the difference in the atmosphere. There was an almost recognizable scent in the air, metallic and hot. Everyone was too tense and that feeling spread through the group of Urchins we’d retrieved like a plague. In the hours since we’d left on our mission, somethingdrastic had taken place. We’d missed a development while we’d been away. I could only guess at what that development had been.
“Look,” Devlin whispered, directly into my ear. He pointed past my head, toward the dais where the Rubbish Throne sat.
It hit me, then, and I knew who would be seated upon the Throne.
Mamoud didn’t occupy the chair with the same lazy, dismissive air of his predecessor Farrad. He leaned forward, elbows on knees, like a waiting predator. I couldn’t actually see his pupils from this distance, but I could easily imagine that they were narrowed in our direction.
“The little bastard,” Mila muttered. “You think he had this planned?”
I shook my head and spoke without moving my lips. “I think he saw an opportunity with Fatima away and he made a move. His arrangement with the warlords to provide fresh soldiers ended as soon as the slavers showed up to get rid of evidence.”
Devlin picked up the thread of my thoughts, so seamlessly that he might have been reading my mind in real-time. “If he couldn’t make a deal with the new guys – and they were as likely to add him to the shipment, just for knowing about them – then he had to seize power now, while there was still power worth taking.”
“So he got lucky?” Mila asked.
“Not lucky,” Fatima said. “We came back. He did not expect this.”
As one, I turned with the rest of the adults to regard Fatima. For someone who’d had power stolen from underneath them, she seemed entirely too calm. Mamoud had tried, indirectly, to kill her only hours before. Now he had the Rubbish Throne and the loyalty, however reluctant, of the main body of Urchins. He could give the order to submit her to any number of indignities and there was little she could do stop it.
But I wouldn’t have known that from her expression or her bearing. She waited in silence, daring Mamoud to speak. A little bit of her confidence trickled into the rest of the Urchins standing near us. Unconsciously, I found myself mimicking her and I noticed Devlin and Michel doing similar things. For her part, Mila appeared conflicted. She still held a trove of weapons and the Urchins with weapons carried clubs, knives, and broken bottles. If things got bad, she could get us out of the basement, but at what cost to her psyche?
Mamoud broke under the tension first. He turned his head slightly and spoke several sentences in Arabic. The Urchin who’d fled at the first sight of our ragtag band stood next to him. That boy listened to Mamoud’s words, nodded once, and then called out in a weak, quavering voice across the suddenly hushed horde.
“Your deal with Farrad,” the boy said, “is over.”
It took me a moment to realize that he was only translating for Mamoud. I wondered why the boy was going through the trouble. Both he and Fatima spoke Arabic; for that matter, I was fairly certain that most of the Urchins spoke that language. Using English didn’t make sense, unless…
“He’s afraid,” Devlin said.
I fought back the urge to swat at him for stealing my thunder. “He doesn’t want us to get involved, so he’s making this show for our benefit,” I finished. “If we leave, he’s positive he can handle Fatima and the Urchins we saved on his own.”
“Shame we aren’t going anywhere,” Mila said. She cracked her knuckles, one at a time, and moved her free hand closer to the bag of weapons slung across her chest.
Fatima held up a tiny hand. She didn’t even face Mila when she did it, but the gesture did its job. Mila stopped moving.
“No,” Fatima said. “This is not your fight. I will take care of this.”
“I do not mean any offense,” Michel said, “but you are outnumbered. We are outnumbered. If Mamoud decides that he wants to hurt you, then…”
“He will not,” Fatima responded. Again, I was struck with her absolute, unshakeable confidence. “Hisein?”
The scarred boy practically hopped forward. “What do you need?”
“Translation,” she said. “It is as important that our new friends understand this as it is for our family to know what has been done.”
Hisein hesitated for only a moment before he nodded.
Fatima took a step forward. The crowd of Urchins – every single one of them occupying the space where her foot would have fallen – took an equal step back.
She raised her voice and, despite the fact that a child her size couldn’t possibly have much in the way of lung capacity, her words carried as well as Mamoud’s had.
“Then we will make a new deal,” Fatima called out.
“Mila, stay ready,” Devlin murmured. “I don’t know what she’s got in his mind, but one way or another…this is going to be a hell of a show.”