Fleeing from Marrakesh from an invisible enemy who might also control the corrupt elements of the police was hard. Having one of the people trying to run registered on the Interpol missing persons register made matters worse. The worst part was that it was especially hard to flee from the city when the first step one took was going down into its deep subterranean entrails. There were rumours, of course, that the lower market was connected to a system of caverns that would lead away from the city towards, if one knew where to look, the the secret network of tunnels built by a long forgotten civilisation that stretched through the earth’s crust. Even if that was true the people who actually knew these tunnels were as much a legend as the hidden pathways themselves. There was also the trivial matter that while it was entirely possible to walk around the globe using the ancient network doing so on foot would take many years. So far no one had built an access ramp connecting that system with the highways of the world. At least not yet.
There was talk of a secret river which made its way through the bedrock twisting in strange unnatural ways into a underground ocean. Again problem number one was how to find that place. The next was the price of the passage which was considerable as only submarines were capable to leave the city to reach other destinations. Once under way voyagers were trapped both in their vessel as well as in the river itself. There was no possibility of flight. If one was trapped there the last hope was that of a quick death.
More esoteric ways to travel were hinted at, but these were dangerous at best, asking for them alone would cause considerable attention.
Lane and Monica were starting to seriously consider to go back up again to try something less extreme. Like walking through the desert to their next destination. What ever that may be. Monica was growing increasingly tense with each passing minute ready to jump at the enemies who by now she suspected to linger in every shadow. She was sure that the more they asked around the sooner they would be discovered. Monica too was getting more nervous, she became more aggressive and pushy, frustrated by their lack of success. Behaviour which in turn made Monica even more tense.
Hope was brought back talking to a man selling all kinds of talismans, relics and shards from 'magical' items from a small stall that had been squeezed with a lot of optimism and enthusiasm between two larger shops.
"So you want to leave the city?" the man at the stall asked.
"Y..." Monica was about to say but was quickly interrupted by Lane
"Not exactly." said Lane. "We are explorers."
"Why would you do need to leave the city then? I do have some very good talismans to overcome obstacles..."
"OK." Lane changed tack. "You got us. We aren't really explorers we are journalists writing for the Time magazine. We are writing about Marrakesh the City of a thousand roads. We have already the conventional roads and we know about the underground river and of course we have all heard the rumours of the tunnels below." she let that sink in for a moment. "But what we are looking for is for something in between. We have the normal and the almost fantastic, but what we are missing is the bit in between. The ways in and out of the city that are more... adventurous. If you catch my drift."
"Ah. I see. I see. Well I think that there are some very efficient items here in my shop that will help you get forward in your search."
"We were actually looking for something less exotic?" Lane said.
Monica rolled her eyes. "But even for that we will need some aid. Aid provided by the proper talismans and maybe an auspicious relic. Right?"
"Ah!" said the shopkeeper. "I see that your friend here understands how important the proper kind of aid is! Do not worry, I have many things that will be a great aid to you all!" he turned around and took a small black cylinder from a shelve. "This torch here for example. It will help your way through darkness but not only that look!" he turned on the little torch which shone quite brightly for its size. "see how bright it shines? Notice its pleasant amber light?" He waited for a reaction.
Lane was the first one who noticed that the man was waiting for his queue. "Yes." she said.
"Well this is not the only colour of light it can produce!" the man said excitedly.
"So it can glow red too?" Monica asked.
"Yes, it can!"
"Good." said Monica.
"Why is that good?" Lane asked.
"Because red light doesn't mess with your night vision."
The smile of the vendor faltered for a short moment. "Yes, yes, that too. But this torch here will shine red in the presence of deamonic forces!"
Lane forced a smile onto her face. The smile not liking to be press-ganged into service looked bitter. Monica did not go that far, one of her eye brows was raised while on the other half of her face the corner of her mouth twitched slightly.
"Demonic forces..." said Monica with a voice that should have turned the light of the torch bright crimson.
"Yes when ever the work of deamons and black magick are near the torches light will shift to red. On the other hand when there is white magick close by of the forces of heaven the light will become blue."
"How incredibly useful." said Monica letting her sarcasm have a free ride on her voice.
"Oh but that is not all!"
"This is hard to believe." Lane said convinced that the vendor would not quite get what she was trying to say.
"You will be even more impressed about what I am going to tell you next." the man said. "It will also glow green when it..."
"Feels sea sick?" Monica asked.
The man laughed the short polite laugh of a man who had learned to find amusement in even the most desperate attempts of humour of his would be customers."No. Very witty, by the way. No. When the lamps light turns green it will be because you are in the presence of Elder magic and the forces of chaos. This way you will always know which way to walk and which to avoid! Also the torch itself was crafted in Germany to highest technological standards and enhanced by hermetic inscriptions of a secret order of mages from southern Spain.
"How much?" asked Lane.
"No." said Monica.
"Surely you can see the expert craftsmanship of this piece, its incredible value. Also the batteries are included!"
"For that money I could go to Spain myself and have my contact lenses enchanted to recognize extortionists before I even have to hear them."
"It also buys you the information you seek." the vendor said showing his professional outrage.
"You have not given us any yet." said Lane.
"You still haven't bought anything." the man replied.
"I make you a deal. You give us a hit what kind of information you can give us and we will consider paying your ridiculous price."
"Well... I know where the local smugglers tend to hand around."
"Really?" said Monica. "Great then we can walk in that place and shout 'Hey! Anyone of you fuckers a smuggler? We'd really like to talk to you!' because for us to take that kind of advice you would have to pay us."
"Of course not." the vendor said. "I know a few names. I know the name of one of the most notorious transporters north of the Sahara."
"Do you..." Lane said. She was trying to be the good cop but she was still amazed by the ridiculous torch.
"I do. And that information can also be yours."
Monica sighed. "O.K. If you also throw two talismans on top of it you have a deal."
"Pleas ma'am have a heart I have a family to feed!"
"And I do not need to give you any of my money." Monica said turning around. "Come Lane we are wasting out time here."
"Wait. Wait. Wait!" the vendor said a hint of panic creeping into his voice. "If you are willing to pay 1250 Dirham I can provide you with this fabulous torch, the two talismans and the name!"
"Did the price just go up?" Monica said with something cold and sharp edged creeping into her voice.
"I need to make ends meet ma'am." the man pleaded.
"Well." Monica said turning around. "Show me the talismans first then we'll see."
"Yes, yes of course. Let me see." the man turned around going through his shelves looking for something appropriate to give them.
"Here we have the shield of Gurzil." he held up a heavy hexagonal steel pendant hanging from a steel wire it was engraved with the picture of the horns of a bull. "Gurzil is the Berber god of war. This pendant is infused with his power an will preserve the life of its wearer." He put the pendant on the counter of his little stall turning around to continue his search for a second talisman. "Ah, this is the perfect companion!" he said putting a bracelet made of green jade orbs on an elastic string. Each orb was carefully inscribed with strange symbols. "This is a prayer bracelet mad in honour of the bodhisattva Sitatapatra goddess of the white parasol protector against supernatural danger. This bracelet will protect against curses and harmful magic."
Lane and Monica looked at the items in front of them still doubting that this was worth their time and their money. "Do you have the bracelet also as earrings?" Lane asked.
The man blanched. "No. Ma'am with all due respect but talismans don't come in every shape and form that pleases you. You need to respect their form. This bracelet was made by monks in Bhutan according to most ancient traditions."
"Deal." she pulled out her wallet and counted out 600 Dirham. Lane did the same.
"Now." Lane said. "Tell us who we are looking for and where to find him."
"Her." the vendor corrected as he recounted the money, checking the bills against the light. "If you are looking for someone who knows the most exiting ways in and out of Marrakesh you need to talk to Tasnim Idris, she is if rumours are to be believed very successful and if even half of the stories about her are true slightly insane."
"Sounds like she would fit perfectly into the family." said Lane. "Where can we fin her."
"She likes to hang out in a bar called The Philosophers Barrel. She is said to be of small stature short dark hair and eyes so dark as to be almost black. If that does not help she is said to be very proud so it should be easy to coax her out of hiding either with compliments or with challenges."
"That does sound quite useful. Do you know where that bar is?" Lane asked.
"Sure. Let me draw you a map." he took out a small paper towel from beneath hiss counter, it was a bit wrinkled and sported a couple of oily spots which the merchant used to enhance his map to mark some important way points.
"So it's on the right side of the street right?" Lane asked craning her neck trying to shift her view to make it easier to imagine where she would be standing entering the street.
"Yes, on the right side. But do not worry. You will recognize the bar the moment you see it."
* * * *
The Philosopher's Barrel was indeed impossible to miss. It was a large wooden house that had the appearance of a giant wine barrel lying on its side. Three stories hight it towered above everything else in the street.
Inside the place was far brighter and tidier than they had expected. The first floor was dominated by a bar the shape of an Olympic race track. Behind the bar two people were working. One mixing a cock tail the other filling steins with beer. Everything was made of light coloured wood, with tables placed with generous spacing. The result was a place that felt cosy while leaving enough room to not feel cramped. There were two spiral staircases in the back. A narrow one marked with an arrow pointing upwards and a much wider one with more shallow steps adorned with an arrow pointing down.
Lane walked over to the bar.
"How can I help you?" the guy shaking the cocktail asked.
"Two beers would be very appreciated, we are also looking for someone."
"Sure. Any particular beer in your mind?"
Lane shrugged. "The beer of the house?"
"We have many." The bartender said, pouring the cocktail in a high-ball glass.
"Well surprise me with something great and exotic then. I like dark beer with foam that you can cut and my friend here prefers her beers the colour of wheat with little bitterness."
The bartender smiled. "I think I can do that. I'll be back in a minute." he put the high-ball on a tray and carried it to a a table in the corner of the room. He served it to an old man who looked as he was just waiting for a party of adventures to appear to sell them a treasure map.
The bartender returned pulled out two bottles of beer from two different fridges under the counter. "So who's that friend you are looking for?" he asked while pouring the beer.
"Not a friend," Lane said, "more of the acquaintance of an acquaintance, really. We are looking for Tasnim Idris."
The barman did not stop pouring their beer but his expression hardened into something more serious. "And who might that acquaintance of you be?"
"Who are you, the Spanish Inquisition?" Lane asked.
"No. But if I were you I would be very careful asking around for the Dragon Captain."
"Dragon Captain? Are you serious."
"It's how most people call her these days. She worked very hard to gain the respect of everyone here. Almost all smugglers... I mean couriers here are men. She worked hard to gain their respect sometimes she had to punch the respect out of some of the more stubborn ones. Long story short. Since she appeared she has attracted trouble and sometimes her allies of yesterday are the people on her shit-list today."
"No problems then." Lane said. "We are actually clients. We have a job for her and would thus like to speak with her."
Monica smirked saying: "Thus? Really...?"
After an failed attempt of glance murdering Monica Lane turned back to the barman. "So? Is she here?"
"Yes, she is here. You'll find her upstairs second floor. She usually sits by the window overlooking the street with her back to a wall. She is shorter than you are. But don't call her short. She has very short hair. A bit more than a stubble on the sides and back and short spikes on top."
"Right. Thanks." said Lane.
"That's 70 Dirham." said the barman serving them their beer.
"It's very good beer and its imported."
"OK. Here you go. Make it 80 for your trouble."
"Much obliged." the barman said. "One final piece of advice: the Dragons greatest weakness is her pride. You can use it to your advantage but be also very careful not to wound her pride, that will make her instantly angry. Especially coming from strangers. Who do look more like tourists than anything else."
"Why does everyone hate tourists?" Lane asked. "Thank you for your help."
"You are welcome and good luck."
Lane and Monica walked towards the stairs that where marked with the upwards arrow.
"I hope that this does help us instead of causing more problems." Lane said.
"We need to get out of here as soon as possible and a smuggler might be exactly what we need. She is called the Dragon Captain, the captain implying that she has some sort of vehicle." Monica said.
They reached the stairs and started climbing.
"Could be. But it most likely means a boat. The underwater river is to big of a risk." Lane replied.
"Right now we have hardly any options, besides she could also be the captain of a plan." Monica said.
"Where do you get all that optimism from?" said Lane. Now that she had passed the first floor the steep narrow steps slowly took their toll. She was concentrating hard on keeping her breath even. Wishing that she had spent more time working out back home. Or here for that matter.
"what can I say. I'm a positive person. It's what's kept me alive all these years." Monica said. She did not show the slightest hint of exhaustion which made Lane hate her a tiny little bit.
When they reached the third floor they had expected it to be as empty as the ground floor. To their surprise the discovers that the room was filled with people, the murmur of conversation and the mouthwatering aroma of the local food. They carefully worked their way past the tables towards the street facing side. On their side the one table that also had a wall adjacent to it was occupied by two women and to men who were caught up in a lively discussion held over a table with mostly empty plates.
So they made their way towards the other side where to their great relief they found a table with only one person sitting there. A woman with the skin the colour of chocolate made with cream and cinnamon, she looked just like the barman had described her apart from an eye patch over where her right eye used to be. Her left eye the colour of amber was darting between Lane and Monica while her body tensed almost imperceptibly. Lane and Monica stopped in front of her table. Lane nodding in greeting, while Monica held up her hands with empty palms towards the smuggler eyes keeping her eyes locked on to her.
"We need transportation." said Lane.
"And hello to you too, stranger." said captain Idris.
Lane did not really know what say to that. While he was still trying to come up with a clever reply Monica jumped in.
"We need an extraction from here, now. WE can pay." Monica said. 'Can we?' thought Lane.
"Extraction? I carry passengers. I'm a courier not a taxi." Idris said leaning back, relaxing. "Unless you stuff yourself in sound proof boxes I can't see us coming to an agreement."
"If it's a matter of price..." Monica started to say but she was cut of by Idris.
"It's not about the money. It is about the principles."
"See?" Lane said, her wits having returned to her. "We should have listened to Martin," it was the first name that came to her mind, anger instantly seeped into her voice, "while he is a total turd he told us that the Dragon Captain would not be able to help us."
"Not able...?" Idris asked.
"You talked to Martin?" Monica said, "About her? Are you crazy?"
"Remember when we were talking about the best professionals in Marrakesh who might get us out of her. And we asked around?" Lane said giving Monica a meaningful look.
"Yes? But Martin? Why would we listen to him after what he did to you in... Asunción?"
"He might be a dick but he" Lane gritted her teeth, "is an expert on these kind of things. He told us that she was just a glorified lorry driver."
"A what?" Captain Idris said jumping up from her chair.
"Yes," Monica nodded slowly, "he mentioned several others who would be better at the job then her as, how did he call her, the girl smuggler was only good for pushing crates around."
"What?" Captain Idris's eyebrow was twitching slightly while she radiated an aura of cold murder.
"That is obviously bullshit." Lane said turning towards the captain, she tired to look her in the eye but failed. "We told him that you could move anything out of everywhere."
"Damn right I am."
"Well as long as it's not people." Monica said. Lane's head whipped around facing her friend, her eyes widening in horror. If Monica was afraid it did not show. She easily held the gaze of Idris, her face betraying no emotion at all. "I respect that you have your principles, but it seems that some people seem to confuse them with a lack of ability. Not us obviously because we would have not approached you if did not believe 100% that you are the individual best suited to fulfil our needs."
"I'd love to meet the people who talk like that and say these things to my face. Lack of ability." Idris said her clenched fists slowly losing their colour her face distorted by rage.
"Some people," Lane said forcing herself to face captain Idris, "simply lack the balls. We came to you because you are the best at what you do. No matter what you are transporting. If you wanted to you could, in principle get us out of here with no one noticing. Right?"
"In principle," Idris said "I could get you out of anywhere."
"Don't worry captain." Lane said. "We won't trouble you any more. We understand you and we respect your wishes. We will simply walk away, look form someone else and let the rumours be rumours." Monica tensed very slightly when she heard these words. Captain Idris remained very still.
"Just the two of you?" Idris asked.
"Yes." Lane said.
"Were do you need to go?"
"For now simply out of here. Preferably to Europe, ideally to England."
"I can get you out of here with out batting an eyelid. With my eyes closed. I could do it while unconscious. I can get you to Europe without breaking a seat. England will be complicated."
"You could get us to England?" Lane said with genuine surprise.
"It is possible. Hard though. Very far away from my usual haunts and no easy way to get there. Oh and England would be expensive. Extremely so."
"How expensive?" Monica asked.
"Five figures." Idris said.
"Dirham?" Lane asked.
Both Idris and Monica snorted.
"Euros." Idris said.
"How close to six figures would that be?" Monica asked. Lane wondered why she was still following that train of thought.
"Hard to say." Idris said, as she was figuring out the costs in her head she started to relax again. "Half way there. Depending on how it all goes the cost will shift down or up. No less than 30k, probably not more than 75..."
"Lane. Acording to your assumptions, how fucked are we if we don't leave?"
"Worst case scenario?" Lane said.
"Be a bit positive. Only considering we are not followed and have not been found yet." Monica said. Idris was watching them now with open interest.
"Well. Being so optimistic as to assume that at least two very influential parties are looking for us I'd say that we are very, very fucked already."
"OK. Dragon Captain Idris?" Monica said.
"We will pay you 10k out front and in cash." Monica said.
"We will?" Lane asked.
"For that I will have to take the cask out of my travelling bag. I will do so slowly, there will be some searching involved though." Monica said squatting down slowly, carefully opening her bag. She nodded at Captain Idris who nodded back. It took her some searching until she found what she was looking for. She slowly pulled out one hand open and empty and the the other which was holding between two fingers a white envelope. She got up again and threw the thick envelope on the table it landed with a thud sliding half ways towards the captain. Idris took the envelope keeping her eyes moving between Lane and Monica. She opened the envelope and looked into it. She had only intended to look at it for a second. She looked for several extra seconds.
"What you see there are ten-thousand Euros. That shall be your payment to get us out of here. Once we are at a more secure location we can discuss your further payment." said Monica.
"How much trouble are you actually in? Just a rough estimation." said Idris.
"We could get killed on our way from here to your ship." said Monica. "It is not very probable but it is a possibility."
Idris started to smile. "Really?" she asked. Monica nodded, Lane just look unhappy. "Who is after you?" Idris asked.
"A man named Khalid El Harrak, the police and maybe an unknown third party."
Captain Idris laughed. "If that is true your fate is sealed."
"I don't believe in fate." Monica said.
"Really?" asked Idris. "Why not."
"If fate really existed life would be far to depressing and if I believed in fate I would be dead already."
Now Idris grinned. "You are right. Fuck fate. I accept. I will get you out of here unharmed. My principles will to see this as a test of their own strength. And," her face darkened again, "my doubters will hopefully learn the errors of their ways before I return."
Ten minutes later they were on their way to the ship of Captain Idris.
"Some basic rules." Idris said. "I'm the captain on board of the Unconquered Sun my word is the law. If I say something has to happen it happens. That has nothing to do with me being a megalomaniac. Aboard the ship I have command so that we do not crash and burn. If you have any comments or questions or doubts. Keep them to yourselves until we are out of any kind of trouble and I am in a good mood. Clear?"
"Sure." said Lane. "Just like in the kitchen."
"The kitchen?" Idris asked.
"Yes one is the cook and the others can either do as they are told or get the fuck out of the kitchen."
"When you put it like that. Yeah. It's a lot like that."
"You are the expert in the ship," said Monica, "that makes you the boss aboard the ship. Just common sense."
"Good. Another thing. I have moments when the mere presence of other humans drive me up the walls, one of the reasons I don't take passengers." she cast a significant glance at them. "So when I am getting close to that point I will ask you to go to your cabins and stay out of my hair."
"Cabins?" said Lane.
"Yes cabins." said Idris. "That does not make you passengers though. This is also an important point. You will be my crew. For what ever that's worth."
"I know my way around a combustion engine if that helps." said Lane.
"Better than nothing." Idris said turning around a corner leading the group slowly to parts of the lower market where there were hardly any people at all, the streets were hardly bounded by stalls any more instead they were walking through high ceilinged tunnels more often that had buildings broken out of the stone. "Do you have any practical skills?" she asked Monica.
"I'm pretty good at weapon maintenance and I can make some really good empanadas."
"Really." Idris nodded to her self. "That will be handy. What are empanadas?"
Monica did not get to reply. In front of them two masked figures clad in black appeared from a side alley. Lane looked back to see how far the last junction was only to discover that behind them another pair of men clad in black had appeared. "I think we are surrounded." Lane said.
"Shit." said Monica. "So they were following us after all." She dropped her bag. Crouching next to it she opened it while keeping the men in front of her in her field of vision. "How far behind us is the enemy, Lane."
"30 yards or something?"
"I'm sorry Captain Idris. This is our fault." Monica said.
"No." said Idris. "These guys are my problem." She turned to the men in front of them who were walking slowly towards them, unsheathing swords with blackened blades as they did so. "I told your boss that it was his own fucking fault. I do not carry mines. I do not carry living things, especially not humans inside containers and I very certainly do not carry poison gas. I gave him back the commission money and even gave him the GPS coordinates of where I dumped his precious gas in the ocean."
If the men did understand anything Captain Idris had said the did not react in the slightest to her word. They kept advancing towards the group. Spreading out slightly to make sure that their prey could not slip past them.
"Can you fight?" Idris asked.
"I can." said Monica.
"I can't but I will try not to panic?" said Lane.
"Lane." Monica said. "Take this."
"What's that?" Lane asked.
"A signal pistol. Stay between me and Captain Idris." Monica moved past her friend holding long elegant stainless steel dumbbells in her hands. They had ergonomically formed grips with thick metal rings above and below of them, which Lane realized would very well as hand-guards. "If," Monica said, "one of the fuckers gets to close to you shoot him with a flare. It will not kill him but hurt him a lot and if you are lucky set his clothes on fire. Try to keep calm."
Lane tried her best focusing on her breath concentrating on not screaming and not hyperventilating. That was enough of a task to block out most thoughts about her being murdered by sword wielding maniacs.
"One last thing." said Captain Idris.The men were now moving in perfect unisons. While Captain Idris was still shouting out her warning they had grabbed into their pockets, pulling small perfectly round metals spheres out of hidden pockets.
"Yes?" asked Monica. Their assailants pressed a button on top of the spheres, something cracked inside them followed by a hissing noise.
"Hold your breath." The men threw their strange grenades.
"Why?" The blue spheres arced high through the air.
"Just trust me." Idris blurted out before drawing a deep breath. Moments after the had reached their zenith the grenades exploded into a million slivers of metal that started to glow in an intense bright light, slowly drifting to the ground.
Monica held her breath. Lane didn't. She was to focused on just breathing regularly. As the little glowing particles drifted towards her she noticed that she despite her very regular breathing she was starting to suffocate. That was enough to hyperventilate. Gasping she said. "The air... can't... can't breath..." she fell to her knees clutching the signal gun with one hand her throat with her other while things around her started to grow dark.
It was that at this moment the four silent attackers started to sprint towards the group covering the last bit of the distance with their swords held high ready to cut them down.
* * * *