C.B. Lewis © 2019
All Rights Reserved
The rain had finally stopped. The cobbles gleamed in the hazy moonlight, dappled with the warmer glow from the windows of the houses. It was late enough for the streets to be deserted, and the marketplace was silent.
Booted feet tramped by through the streets.
Half a dozen Janissaries. Members of the Sultan’s elite guard. All armed with swords and guns. In better days, they would have been a comforting sight. Now, they were the reason people shuttered their windows and closed down their shops at night. With tensions rising across the city, it was better to stay out of their way.
In the shadows between the stalls, a dark figure crouched out of sight.
It wasn’t the best idea.
Less than three feet away, there was a broad gutter cutting through the road ankle-deep with the waste of the day. Even with the breeze from the Bosphorus, it stank.
A donkey turd bobbed by.
Qasim El-Fahkri made a face, leaning further back into the shadows and away from the gutter.
It was going to be a relief to get back to the twenty-first century, a time with better hygiene and less danger.
Something brushed against his shoulder.
Only a few years earlier, Qasim would have screamed like a kid, fallen over, or added a sample of his own to the gutter. Thankfully, he’d been on enough missions to know how to control himself, even if his heart was slamming against his ribs and he’d snapped his mouth shut so hard he’d gashed his lip.
There were no shouts and, whatever it was, it didn’t have fingers or a grip on him or a knife at his throat.
He twisted around.
A cat was standing on the cobbles, within arm’s reach, glowering at him as if he had mortally offended it for getting in its way. Standard cat, then. Relieved, he turned his attention to the soldiers. They were at the edge of the market now. He just had to stay out of sight a little…
The cat yowled.
Qasim whipped around. “Shh!” he hissed. “Please, shh!”
The cat either didn’t speak panicked human or didn’t care and yowled again. The soldiers weren’t leaving. Their footfalls had turned, coming back, approaching.
Qasim glanced around wildly. There were only two exits from the marketplace, and one of them was definitely not available, on account of the swords and the men attached to them.
The cat wasn’t shutting up either.
Some part of his brain must have been operating because he grabbed the sodden creature and shoved it down the front of his robe. It squirmed but, mercifully, didn’t remember it had claws. Qasim wrapped his arms over his chest and held his breath.
The footsteps came closer, paused, then moved away again.
Qasim exhaled, closing his eyes.
Too close. Far too close.
Cautiously, he slid closer to the edge of the market stall and peered around it. Between the other stalls, he could see the soldiers heading for the gate. All five of them were marching briskly, and he waited until they were out of sight, then slipped out from behind the stall and straightened up.
Maths. Bollocks! Always a weakness, but he’d never failed to count to six before.
The lingering Janissary—sneaky bastard—grabbed at him.
Everyone thought Qasim was cool in a crisis, which was frankly hilarious. He was the proverbial swan: majestic on the surface, paddling like mad underneath.
Still, there was always a bit of him that seemed to know what it was doing, and it dinged the man hard across the head, hard enough to send him reeling and crashing into the nearest stall.
The cover on the stall gave way, taking one of the support beams with it. The silence shattered as wood and canvas and a full-grown, fully armed man crashed down on the cobbles.
Qasim turned and ran. Behind him, the fallen soldier was yelling. There was some very vulgar Turkish in there, nearly beyond Qasim’s vocabulary, but enough for him to feel offended on behalf of his mother and goats.
The streets were a labyrinth—one he’d memorised as much as possible in the weeks leading up to the mission. Just in case, Dieter and Gulshan had both insisted, and as Qasim ducked down a passage and skidded around a corner into a broader alleyway, he wanted to kiss them both.
There was a wail from inside his robe, and the cat wriggled against his chest, but there was no time to stop or release it. “Shh,” he panted as he vaulted over a staircase wall and dropped into the alley below. He ducked under the stairs to catch his breath.
From the street above, the shouts of the men chasing him rang out.
For once, he appreciated the curfew. The drama at the Hippodrome had people on edge. It wasn’t official, but with Janissaries raising arms, people preferred to take refuge indoors. A political storm was about to break. No one wanted to be caught in it. It also meant no one would flag the guards down and let them know where he was. Problem was he was out in the dark with roaming bands of Janissaries and had a rendezvous point at least a half a mile away.
“Where are you?” Tahmila’s voice was a breath in his ear. “I’m here already.”
He sighed with relief. She’d made the rendezvous point. One less thing to worry about. He leaned out cautiously from beneath the stairs. It sounded like the soldiers were spreading out, but none of them had come near his hideout yet. “Half a mile. Long story.”
No pressure at all. Qasim eased out of his hiding place and glanced around to get his bearings. The trouble with moving away from the main square was so many of the smaller alleys were practically identical. If he went down the wrong one and hit a dead end, he might well end up hitting a very literal dead end a short time later.
The cat shifted under his robes. It felt like it was curling up and making itself comfortable. Of course, it bloody was.
He slunk forward, darting from one patch of shadow to another. The clouds were thinning, and the moonlight was growing brighter. He slipped between two rows of buildings, clinging as close as he could to the walls. People were still awake inside the houses. Lamps were lit. Voices carried. The scents of woodsmoke, spices, and cooking meat made his stomach gurgle.
No one noticed him. The soldiers seemed to have fallen away behind him. Still, there was no reason to be reckless. He yanked his boots off, balancing precariously on one foot then the other. Dirty feet could be washed, but the rap of a boot’s heel in the silence could be as deadly as yelling and waving his arms.
He turned into another alleyway and continued north. Under his robe, the cat started kneading at him. He hissed between his teeth as claws dug through his shirt.
“Why haven’t I dropped you yet?” he whispered, peering down through the collar of his robe. In the darkness, the cat was damned near invisible.
“Me?” Tahmila. Again.
He made a face as he stepped into another narrow passage and then swore as a rope strung across it caught him right across the forehead. Always with the unexpected clotheslines. He ducked and hurried onwards, hoping to hell it was just rain and not blood or cat doings soaking through his clothes.
Ahead of him, the passage widened into a broader avenue, and he approached the corner of the building with caution, his heart pounding. Two blocks to go and he would be home free.
Boots clattered on cobbles nearby. Qasim slammed against the nearest wall, sinking into the shadows. A low wail rose from his robe, definitely with claws in the skin underneath it, but he held his breath, biting his lips, and tried to work out how screwed he was.
Voices raised. Not close enough to make out their words. Shouted, but not loudly. At least half a block from one another. The thump of running footsteps. Calls for support. He strained his ears, trying to work out how screwed he was. Something about movement.
The cat started squirming and struggling inside his robe.
He grinned down at it.
He pressed his shoulders against the wall, counting down from ten to slow his heartbeat, and listened as they drew closer and closer. Two of the voices were clearer now.
Qasim yanked down the collar of his robe and squeezed. The cat erupted, yowling. It shot out into the light. One of the soldiers yelled in surprise, and there was the crack of a rifle being fired. The other snorted in disgust and berated him for a false alarm and for not even being able to hit a target three paces in front of him.
Good. Qasim released a trembling breath. Just turn around and—
Qasim whipped around. Another soldier at the other end of the alley. One of the men from the marketplace. Well, not quite so clean an escape as he’d hoped. He sprinted out of the alleyway as fast as he could and sent the two cat-startled soldiers spinning.
Adrenaline and a three-second head start were good enough. He pegged it as fast as he could, grabbing at corners of buildings to whip himself into the winding maze of buildings without breaking his pace. They were chasing him now, and, well, who didn’t like some added spice in their reports?
“Coming in hot,” he panted, running full tilt towards a mound of stacked timbers, praying like hell it would hold as he scrambled up it and onto the wall it was braced against. He glanced back. Still coming, but in armour, they would have no chance. Especially, if some absolute bastard shoved his foot against the pile of timbers and sent them cascading down.
A shot whistling by his ear ensured he wouldn’t stay to see the ensuing chaos. He launched himself off the other side of the wall. It was farther than he expected, and he grunted and stumbled when he hit the ground. Pain shot up one ankle, but it was better than being shot. Something brushed his leg, and he flinched, half expecting arrows. No. Small, furry, and glaring at him.
Qasim laughed breathlessly. “Same to you,” he rasped, stumbling to his feet. Since it had made itself useful before, he scooped the cat up again and broke into a hobbling run. The familiar warehouse doorway—their assigned rendezvous point—was up ahead.
Without warning, shouts and pounding feet came at him from all directions. His heart plummeted to his stomach. He was close, but so were the soldiers. The white fire of pain in his leg was nothing compared to the thought of the Grand Vizier being ripped into confetti by an angry mob led by the very men he was fleeing.
“Qas?” Tahmila was starting to sound worried. “There are soldiers coming this way.”
“Yeah. About that long story…”
“Qas! What do we do?”
He braced one hand against the wall, wincing. He couldn’t run, not when his leg was hurting so much. If he missed this jump, there was no way he’d make it out of the area and to the second rendezvous point. “I can see the door. Get through. I’ll follow.”
He laughed, hobbling on as fast as he could. “Bluffing. It’s called bluffing.”
The door was only yards away, but the shadows of the Janissaries, cast by flickering torches at the far end of the street, also loomed closer. They were coming in fast.
“Go,” he repeated, sinking into an alcove packed with baskets and straw. He closed his eyes and took an unsteady breath. There was only one option if he wanted to get out alive. “Tell them I’ll try for a jumping flash in two minutes.”
“Start the count the second before you get through. Two minutes. Go!”
He didn’t listen to her protests, glancing out into the street. There was no way to the door without being seen. He squinted around the alley. Straw and baskets. Not exactly useful. He glanced up and grinned. Bloody clotheslines everywhere.
“Qas. Two minutes.”
He raised his eyes to the sky, casting up a prayer, and pushed off from the wall. Either he was about to make the most spectacular exit in TRI history, or he was about to die horribly trying.