Mr. Mahmoud Hawa was a portly man with skin so black, the neon light in front of the building cast a bluish hue on him. He wore his hair as clean-shaven as his face except for thick and bushy brows that now bent in a deep V as he studied the clipboard under a flashlight.

Before him, a nervous Ejigu and Clement exchanged furtive glances. They stood tense, waiting for the man to finally look up from his guest list, aware that their names were not on it.

“Your name is not on my list,” Mahmoud Hawa said, lifting his head.

Clement cast an expectant look at Ejigu, seeking a translation although he perfectly understood the man. However as Mr. Legesse, an Oromo businessman who lived overseas, he was not supposed to understand anything but English.

Ejigu nodded, easily translating the words and Clement frowned belatedly. “How can this be?” he demanded with a Southern twang. “I registered months ago!” Then he turned his fierce glare at Ejigu. “Did you not pay the fee on time?”

“I-I did, s-sir,” Ejigu said with a rehearsed tremble in his voice. “T-they must’ve—”

“You incompetent nincompoop!” Clement growled and struck Ejigu on the cheek.

As they’d practiced hours ago, Ejigu jerked his head backward as if Clement’s hand wielded such force. Mahmoud flinched indirectly and gripped the clipboard. Clement turned a scowl to the broker. “If I can’t attend the auction, I demand a refund.”

Lost and perturbed, the portly broker looked helplessly at Ejigu who displayed a painful grimace while gingerly touching his mouth. “R-refund?” the broker eked out.

Clement frowned. “You speak English?”’

“Little,” the broker quickly answered and gestured to the door. “Please, no refund. Go inside.”

Both Ejigu and Clement exchanged glances, but didn’t hesitate for long before stepping around Mahmoud’s hand toward the open door.

“That was easy,” Clement muttered as they entered the darkened hallway.

“Too easy,” Ejigu answered, still holding his jaw.

Clement glanced once at him. “You okay?”

“I owe you one,” Ejigu merely said before leading the way down the dank corridor. They could already hear voices in the shadows, and the place reeked of alcohol, human waste and something else Clement didn’t dare identify.

The voices got louder and the stench of strong liquor filled Clement’s nostrils as they stepped out of the shadows into a dimly-lit hall. Men and women alike were packed like sardines, and it was no wonder why there was a strict guest list to maintain some sort of order. Although currently, there was little of that with free, limitless alcohol and uncontrolled chaos in the room.

Standing near the doorway, the two newcomers scanned the room with a seriousness unlike the others in the room. Clement noted the podium where the broker would begin calling out the ‘merchandise’, frightened little boys and girls a long ways away from home.

His lips thinned in a firm line and his hands bunched at his sides. Eyes moved to the main floor where the bidders would lift their numbered pallets. Because they were late, the numbered pallets were no longer available but there were plenty of bidders without one. He wouldn’t be the odd one out.

A laugh rang out amid the chaos and his eyes skimmed one corner, noting the well-dressed men and women congregating near the bar. Their cavalier smiles boiled Clement’s blood. These monsters had no reservations about buying children for their sick pleasures.

In this underground chamber that served as a gentleman’s club during most days except auctions, no one would’ve expected that an illegal act could occur here. Or maybe they did and turned a blind eye to it. Especially if some of the officials benefited from funds raised in the absence of a moral conscience.

Clement doubted any of these men and women had an ounce of morality or could even spell it if their lives depended on it. A handful of middle-aged women ogled him even with the unsightly mole affixed somewhere on his face. One went as far as to wink audaciously and toast him with her wine glass.

With a brief nod in greeting, he scanned the other side, noticing some men paused their boisterous talk to regard the two newcomers. Closing off any expressions that would attract undue attention their way, Clement turned to Ejigu still perusing the room with barely-veiled disgust.

“How long do we have before it starts?”

“Hopefully not long,” Ejigu answered through clenched teeth. “I can’t stay here much longer.”

Before Clement could offer some form of encouragement, a gong sounded. Mahmoud had stepped into the chamber, his clipboard tucked under his arm. Beside him was a dark giant of a man, holding a mini-sized gong in his big hands.

Not a word of instruction was given and yet the guests began moving toward the stage. Then the broker walked through the crowd of people, pausing only to greet a few with a handshake or a nod. Although the guests conversed among themselves with smiles, Mahmoud meant business and walked past them to mount the stage. His giant bodyguard stationed himself at the edge of the stage, his gaze fixed above their heads and onto the back wall.

Clement and Ejigu slowly walked to the empty space near the back. The front of the stage was crowded with people eager to begin the auction.

Mahmoud’s eyes scanned the room and then swept a hand over one edge of the stage. “Let us begin!”

A hush fell over the crowd as a woman stepped out from behind the wall divider, leading a boy and girl no older than the seven-year-olds in the Bichena orphanage.

Ejigu drew in a sharp breath and Clement’s stomach rolled violently at the gruesome sight before them.

Both children’s wrists were bound by a tightly-secured rope.

The room was silent as the woman guided the two meek children to the front of the stage. Then she retreated to the back of the stage and clasped both hands in front of her.  Clement frowned as the children didn’t move, their bound hands limp in front of their small bodies. What was more shocking was their heads were bowed, lolling as if they could barely hold it up.

Nausea pushed up Clement’s throat as realization hit him square in the gut. These children were drugged!

It took everything in him to keep from scowling. There were too many eyes all around.

“Twins, a rare find,” Mahmoud began in a voice that filled the silence in the room. “Five years of age. Obedient and loyal. Hardworking and strong.”

Barely paying attention to Ejigu’s unnecessary translations in English, Clement waited in derision for the broker to describe each child as if they were a horse or other animal set up for auction. He took one furtive glance at the bidders near him, disgusted by their engrossed nods and pensive expressions while contemplating each child.

“I open the bid to start at 1000 birr.”

Clement easily did the calculations before Ejigu muttered his translation, disgust and anger mounting as pallets raised in the air. Someone’s precious child was worth only 20 U.S. dollars to this despicable crowd.

“Do I have a 2,000 for the luck twins?”

“2,000!” a woman cried from the back and Clement’s shoulders stiffened. To those that believed in superstition, this two-for-one prize would be most sought out by all the bidders.

Nonetheless, Clement poised himself to outbid every single one. He hardened his gaze on the twins barely conscious and strengthened his resolve. He planned to buy every single child in this auction even if it emptied his savings account. He was prepared for that.

The bidding for the lucky twins began with gusto, pallets going up every second. Enthusiasm thrummed through the chamber as each bidder grew more excited at the prospect of winning. But when Mahmoud called out the latest price at 20,000 birr, the excitement ebbed to a pause.

Bidders began lowering their pallets. After all, there were many other children to be showcased tonight.

“The lucky twins for 20,000 going once. Going twice…”

Clement struck the opportunity and raised his right hand. “30,000!”

Heads turned in his direction. Mahmoud’s brows furrowed. The bidder at 20,000 scowled and pointed at Clement. “Where is his pallet? His doesn’t count,” the man protested, waving his pallet up. “20,000!”

The others spoke in protest at this audacious newcomer invading their event. Some muttered their confusion and curiosity about him. The irate bidder kept screaming his 20000-bid and waving his pallet.

Fueled by the crowd and the two children who were now resting their heavy heads against each other, Clement held his hand higher. “45,000!”

This time, Ejigu stared open-mouthed at him.

“Karen, let’s go already. I hate being late!”

“Then go without me. I’ll catch up later,” Karen answered, rifling through her suitcase. She pushed her tennis shoes and sandals aside, lifting up a stack of jeans and shirts to search underneath. “Ugh… where did I put that thing?”

“What thing?”

Karen jolted in surprise and glanced over her shoulder, frowning at Jennifer. “I thought you’d left already.”

Jennifer eyed Karen’s open suitcase. “I guess you didn’t hear me say I’ll wait.”

“It’s fine. Just go,” Karen replied distractedly, upending the contents of her suitcase onto the carpeted floor of their hotel room. Just when she’d finally made her decision to contact Clement and see how he was doing, his business card was nowhere to be found. “That would really suck if I lost it.”

“Lost what?” Jennifer asked, squatting beside Karen. “What are we looking for?”

“A business card.” Karen paused in her frantic search and looked at Jennifer. “Did you see it?”

“A business card,” Jennifer echoed incredulously. “We’re doing all this for a card?”

Karen rolled her eyes and continued rummaging through her clothes. “Forget it. Go.”

Jennifer sighed and lifted one of Karen’s jeans to inspect it. “Did you check your pockets? Your wallet? Your passport?”

Again, Karen paused and frowned. “My passpo—” immediately, she recalled the moments after kissing Clement’s cheek when she pulled out his business card from her wallet and studied it for just a brief moment before the TSA agent ushered her along the fast-moving line. “You’re a genius!” She reached for her purse, pulled out her passport and shook it until the card slipped from its binding.

Plucking it from the floor, Jennifer frowned. “Trans-Amharic Miss—”

Karen snatched it from her and crawled over her open suitcase to where her international phone was charging. Without hesitation, she dialed Clement’s number.

“Who’s Clement Teka?” Jennifer inquired, pushing Karen’s clothes back into the suitcase.

“Someone,” was all Karen said, focused on the droning dial tone. Part of her wished he’d pick up and the other part of her wished to meet his voicemail.

“Hello?”

The female voice that answered was not at all what she expected. Karen sat up, a frown forming on her face. “Hello? Who is this?”

There was a pause on the other end and Karen’s frown only deepened, wondering if she’d dialed the wrong digits. Jennifer mirrored her frown and mouthed ‘what?’

Karen shrugged. “Hello, who is this?”

“You’re the one who called this phone,” the woman finally spoke up. “Can I help you?”

Karen glanced down at the card. Yep, she’d typed it correctly. Which could only mean one thing. She refocused on the call. “I’m trying to reach Clement Teka. Are you his secretary?”

Again, the brief stretch of silence filled the airwaves and Karen frowned. “Hello?”

A short, sardonic-sounding laugh answered. “Clement isn’t here and I am not his secretary.”

Karen arched a brow at her frigid tone. “….okay?” Why would Clement leave his phone behind, and with this unfriendly female? “When will he be back?”

“No idea.”

Her frown deepened. “Where did he go?”

The woman sighed in exasperation. “You haven’t told me who you are. Why would I give out his location?”

Karen bid what was left of her patience. “My bad. I’m Clement’s good friend from the U.S.”

“Your name?”

“It’s Karen,” she said through gritted teeth.

“Last name?”

Jennifer mirrored the scowl forming on Karen’s face.

“It’s Karen Wells. Hey, could you have him call me when he returns?”

“I already told you I don’t know when—”

“Yeah, heard you the first time,” Karen interrupted, annoyed. “Just give him my name and my number.”

“…which is?”

It took everything in her to hold it together. This woman, whoever she was, was grating her nerves. “I’ll just call back later. Bye.”

“Yeah, bye.”

“Wait!” a pesky thought niggled at her and she gave voice to it. “If you’re not his secretary, who are you?”

Yet another moment of silence and Karen thought the rude woman had hung up already. Then the woman sighed. “I’m his girlfriend.” Click.

Hearing the dial tone, Jennifer ventured to ask a stunned Karen. “What was that about? Who was that?”

Flummoxed, Karen lowered the phone to her lap as though she was in a trance. “Nothing at all.”

“Who’s Clem—” Jennifer paused when Karen abruptly stood. “…you okay?”

“Yup,” Karen said, her voice strangely chipper and didn’t match her darkened expression. “Let’s get going. We’re already late.” She walked past Jennifer out of their hotel room.

<<Chapter 8 || Chapter 10>>

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