Rena put up a hand.  “Peace, Kal.  The tunnels down there don’t connect to any of the bigger cave systems under the city.  I checked.  There are only two ways out.  Nobody down there can leave this way without us seeing them.  Besides, it won’t do any good to stir things up before Smudge gets into position to watch the other exit.”
        Kal stopped and forced himself to calm.  She had a point. “Do we need to worry about the city watch?”
        Rena waved an unconcerned hand.  “Won’t be a problem.  I’ve called in a favor with the local watch captain.  He’s making sure the patrols skip this area for a few hours.”  She frowned.  “I wish it wasn’t necessary, but the Great Families have their fingers in everything these days, trade, manufacturing, the watch, nothing is safe.  Even good people are pledging to one family or another just to survive.  Most of the city watch are just trying to do their jobs….”
       Kal continued the thought. “But if the Great Families, our own elected leaders, send an order down from on high and command the watch to make an example of someone, or turn a blind eye to something else, what can the watch do?  If an officer refuses, he’ll be fired and replaced by a yes-man who will do everything he’s told but doesn’t care about upholding the law.”
       “Recently, the Great Families have been fighting amongst each other for control of the smuggling trade, all under the guise of cracking down on illegal shipping.  With that in mind, we can’t risk involving the watch.  It’s too hard to predict what might happen.  They might refuse to help or go in guns blazing and kill everyone, including Obrin.  Arranging for the watch to stay away is by far our best bet.”
        Kal made a disgusted grunt of agreement.  “The city is growing more dangerous every year.  It might not be so if the watch didn’t waste half its time fulfilling special requests for the Great Families, though I suppose complaining about the situation isn’t going to solve anything.”  He sighed then gestured towards the three buildings surrounding them. “So, what about the people who work here?  Do we need to worry about bystanders?”
        Rena grinned.  “Turns out these three buildings are all part of the same office, a branch of the city Customs and Duties Assessment Ministry.  It’s mostly storage so only seven people actually work here.  Anyways, all of the office folk found a free pass to Elmarnio’s Inconceivable Illusion show, good for this afternoon only, waiting in their office mailboxes.  When they went out for lunch, nobody came back, and the place is deserted.”
        Kal snorted a laugh. “That’s amazing.  Nice work.  Considering it’s the C.D.A., keeping them occupied is probably a civic duty.  But honestly, how did you get so many tickets to Elmarnio’s show?  He’s usually booked for weeks in advance.”
        Rena’s grin deepened.  “It’s possible I taught him some of the arcane techniques he uses in his show.  Not everything he does is an illusion.”  She closed her mouth with an exaggerated gesture.  “But I’ve said too much already.”
        Kal tipped his hat.  “You have thought of everything.  So, how long before Smudge is in position?”
        “Not long. He left the same time I did, and the other exit isn’t far away.”
        Kal nodded to himself.  Smudge was many things - crass, obnoxious, utterly dependable.  He would be where he said he would be.
        Kal brushed the remains of a pigeon’s nest off a barrel and seated himself.  “So, when you saw Gara, did you see if Obrin was there too?”
        “As I said, there are only two ways into their lair.  I tried to sneak in, but both entrances are guarded by sentries.  I couldn’t get a close look.  So, what have you learned?  Bring me up to date.”
        Kal sighed.  “Obrin’s a young man who got himself into trouble, and I need to get him out of it.” 
        “That much I gathered.  I spoke with his parents yesterday.”
        Kal frowned. “How are they holding up?”
        “They’re worried sick but trying to put a brave face on it.”
         Kal gave a snort. “I can’t blame them. They’re right to be concerned.  Obrin will have to make it up to them.  If he makes it back.  If he survives.”
         “The lesson’s no good if it kills the pupil?”
         Kal kicked at the ground. “Something like that.”
         Rena sighed. “So, how did Obrin get himself captured?”
         “He fell in with a rough crowd.”
         “Plenty of those in Arkebis.” 
         “True enough.  I suppose Obrin’s story isn’t anything uncommon.  He comes from one of the poorer neighborhoods.  A year or so ago he meets a group of young men just a bit older than himself who have everything he doesn’t, nice clothes, respect and money.  They invite Obrin to hang around with them.  He’s intrigued so naturally he accepts their invitation.  They pay for his meals, introduce him to girls and teach him a few fighting techniques all mixed in with a pinch of hope for a better life.  This goes on for a while.  Then the ugly truth sails into port.”
         A touch of sadness crept into Rena’s voice.  “Wait, let me guess.  This is when Obrin finds out the nice clothes, food, girls, etcetera are no longer gifts.  If he wants them to keep coming, he needs to start pitching in.  Well, he can’t stomach the thought of losing the money and self-respect he’s gained, and besides he’s afraid of angering his new friends.  Deep down he knows it’s a bad idea, but he agrees.  They only ask for simple favors at first, keep lookout, stash some stolen goods, deliver messages, things Obrin can justify.  But slowly, they push him into more and more risky acts.  By the time he realizes he working for a crime syndicate, he doesn’t know how to back out.  And now that he’s in deep, he discovers all too late that the syndicates won’t put their necks out for low level grifters.”
         Kal waved a hand towards Rena. “Right on the nose.  The syndicates love to use crime gangs like the one Obrin got mixed up in.  It’s how they groom potential recruits.  If along the way some, or most of them, are arrested or killed, well, that’s how you weed out the ones who wouldn’t have made proper criminals in the first place.  But it gets worse.  Obrin and his gang specialized in robbing warehouses near the skyport.  They would pay informants to identify poorly guarded goods and then make off with everything they could carry.  I guess they should have paid their informants better since the last ship they tried to rob was captained by a particularly nasty smuggler, and it wasn’t poorly guarded.”
         “Gara, I presume?”
         “The very same.  Obrin was captured when he and his friends tried to rob Gara’s ship.  That was three days ago, which puts us on a strict timetable since smugglers never stay in one place for long.  We’re lucky we found Gara before he set sail.”
         “Luck?  Give yourself some credit.  You’ve been working your network of contacts raw for the last three days.  Honestly,” she flashed an impish grin, “I never thought I’d be grateful you knew so many lowlifes.”
         Kal laughed. “That’s not the half of it.  I know…. politicians.” He put all the dread he could into the final word.
         Rena smiled then concern crept back into her eyes.  “What are the chances that Obrin is dead?”