Arriving at the center’s administration building an hour late, Karen and Jennifer attempted to sneak in the conference room packed with volunteers. One of the project managers for the center stood in front of the room, talking through a presentation projected on the wall behind him.

Guarding the door was another project manager who handed them a stapled pack of papers. “You’ll have to sit at the back,” he said, censure in his tone for their late arrival.

Once seated, Karen thumbed through the packet listlessly. She hadn’t yet recovered from that unsettling phone call with Clement’s girlfriend. “Get it together,” Karen muttered under her breath, annoyed with herself. She flipped the pages noisily, determined to distract herself.

Jennifer nudged her elbow and pointed to the correct page of the presentation handouts. Karen rolled her eyes but flipped to the right page.

“Now let’s talk about the legal ramifications of stealing children.”

Karen lifted her head, confusion marking her brow. Stealing who?

“It sounds crazy but there are instances where children as young as infants are stolen from their parents’ homes and sold…” he paused when gasps rang out in the room. Then he nodded, expression grave. “How many of you have heard of child soldiers?”

Both Karen and Jennifer reluctantly raised their hands along with the others in the room.

“Well, that is one result. The others range from child prostitution, illegal adoptions or child slavery.” His gaze swept over the crowd and then pointed to one side of the room. “Yes, question?”

“I’m wondering about illegal adoptions,” one of the volunteers spoke up. “How does that happen?”

“It’s rather simple, actually… all it takes are two desperate parties and a middle man in between looking to take advantage of both.” The man sighed as the slide changed to a sad picture of crying children. “The parties are the birth parents and adoptive parents of the child. The middle man is an entity looking to make some money out of someone’s desperation. What are the steps to illegal adoptions?”

Interest perked, Karen sat up. Jennifer sat tense in her seat. The room was silent, each volunteer hanging on the speaker’s words.

“It begins with a couple desperate for a child. They’ve been stuck in this waiting game, for let’s say ten years, and they’d give up anything to finally adopt a child. Some parts of the world in Asia and Europe are growing stricter in their adoption regulations, so they turn to organizations in third-world nations.”

Jennifer shifted in her seat and Karen clucked her tongue in disbelief.

“None the wiser,” the speaker continued. “They are contacted by an organization promising an easier process than they’ve experienced. Growing more desperate as the years go by, this couple and many like them agree to pay the set price and wait anxiously for the call.”

The slide changes to a picture of a smiling mother embracing her equally-joyful son. Karen’s gut tightened.

“Then there’s a widow struggling to raise her children. She’s got plenty mouths to feed, and her youngest is far too young to contribute as her older three. She loves her son very much but has no hope.”

A chorus of sighs filled the room and Karen blew out a breath. “Unbelievable.”

“The first thing an organization like this does is first get close to these widows and impoverished communities. They offer cheap if not free healthcare, free food and fun activities for the children while they work. They build trust and rapport, and the families let down their guard. Then one day, while the parents are out earning a living, the middle man takes the children–yes, question?”

Karen grappled with the thought of someone snatching a child.

“But what if it’s for their own good?” Jennifer asked, drawing the full attention of everyone in the room. “Like you said, that mother couldn’t properly take care of herself or her older kids. She would’ve ended up neglecting the child anyway, so why can’t the desperate couple just adopt him and give him a life he wouldn’t have otherwise? In my opinion, they’re doing the mother a favor.”

The volunteers began talking all at once, some in agreement and some protesting. Karen just stared at Jennifer as if she’d grown a horn in the middle of her forehead. Attempting to gain control of the classroom, the speaker tapped the table with his pointer. “In most cases—”

“So her rights as his mother mean nothing?” Karen interrupted loudly. “How ridiculous to debate whether the mother has the right to keep her child, regardless of how hard it is. Did she beg them to take him away? No. So snatching her child without consent is illegal. Plain and simple.”

Another chorus of consents and protests filled the room, and Jennifer frowned. “And if her son ends up dead because she can’t provide for him, what then? Who’s held responsible for that?”

“That’s a bit extreme,” Karen countered firmly.

“Both are extreme,” the speaker interjected over the microphone. “But both happen. That is why Trinity Cross Mission and others like us are taking corrective action to create a safe environment for the children of Kampala. Illegal adoption and other forms of child pilferage are and will always be prohibited.”

Though the matter was settled by the speaker, the two roommates warily eyed each other now realizing for the first time that they stood on opposite ends of a matter.

Six frightened children huddled close to each other near the van. In captivity, they only had each other as protection and support throughout the fear and abuse from their captors. Gone was the unfocused look in their eyes; the effects of the drugs wearing off. No doubt they’d be more frantic once inside the van.

Ejigu smiled kindly as he addressed them. “Don’t worry, you are safe now.”

The distressed twins shifted away from Ejigu, looking past him to a disguised Clement who stood with Mahmoud, the man that stole them from their parents and sold them to strangers.

Unaware he was being sized by half-drugged children, Clement held back a sigh as Mahmoud recounted another stack of cash. “Do you plan on counting the whole 135,000?” he growled impatiently.

Mahmoud looked up in mid-count, a furrow in his brow. “Where you get this much?”

“I’m an American businessman—” he clicked his fingers to signal Ejigu. “Come explain to him.”

“Yes sir,” Ejigu said, hurrying over to Clement’s side. “Mr. Legesse is a successful businessman with many retail properties and a consulting firm in America. Big money is no trouble for him.”

Though Mahmoud nodded in comprehension, he eyed Clement suspiciously from his graying temples to the mole near his cheek. He then studied the money bag Ejigu handed him after the auction.

Both men stood with baited breath. Then Mahmoud zipped up the bag and looked up. “Good doing business,” he said in his best English and held out a hand to Clement.

Regarding the man’s pudgy fingers, Clement wanted nothing more than to squeeze the man’s fingers until it broke. He wouldn’t be able to hit that gavel pronouncing the successful sale of a child to a sick stranger. With a broken hand, he would need another way to earn money…

From the corner of Clement’s eye, the stone-faced bodyguard shifted into view and Clement promptly shook Mahmoud’s hand. “Till next time,” he promised with a gleam in his eye.

Mahmoud’s bushy brow shot up. “Next time?” This time, he sought Ejigu’s assistance.

“We may not have time, Sir,” Ejigu said to Clement, gaze firm. “You have many meetings to attend.”

“Ah, meetings…” Clement said, realizing he’d misspoken. “Well that’s too bad. I was having so much fun.”

His gaze narrowed, stare skeptical as he studied the two men. Then his gaze shifted over Clement’s shoulder, acknowledging the newcomer with a nod before Clement felt a tap on his shoulder.

“I asked Mahmoud to stall you a bit so I could personally thank you for a good show tonight. Mr. Legesse, was it?” a woman inquired in an accented English.

Clement recognized her as one of the women who openly ogled him in the auction chamber. Stifling a groan, he managed a smile. “That’s me. And you are?”

“Mrs. Zeinab Badri. Is there a first name, Mr. Legesse?” she arched one perfectly-shaped brow.

“Austin,” Clement replied. “Would love to stay and chat but we must be going. Long journey.”

“Yes,” Ejigu answered just as stiffly. “Right this way, sir…”

“I’d like to invite you to our next event, if you’re still in the area,” Mrs. Badri said before they stepped away. She flashed an easy smile, exposing her perfect pearly whites that contrasted against her smooth dark skin. “I would like you to accept my offer. We’ll be better hosts next time, won’t we Mahmoud?”

Chagrined, the broker managed a nod. “Y-yes Madam.”

“So would you, Austin, join me at the next event?”

Clement would’ve rather spent his night with a band of thieves than this madam of ill-repute. But it seemed Mahmoud answered to her requests, which could mean easy access into the other auctions. He kept his expression blank. “I don’t see why not.”

Mrs. Badri’s smile brightened. “Wonderful!” Her gaze flitted over to the van where the children stood and her smile waned, her gaze hardening. “So what are your plans for them?”

“Do I need to disclose that to you? Is that part of the deal?”

“No, just curious. You seemed quite passionate about winning.”

“I love children.”

A slow smile lifted Mrs. Badri’s lips. “Obviously…”

That leery smile made Clement itch and he turned to Ejigu. “Load them in the van. I’ll be there shortly.”

“Yes sir,” Ejigu replied, risking a glance over his shoulder before hurrying back to the children.

“I guess we’ll see each other at the next one,” Clement promised, gaze hard on Mrs. Badri’s face.

Her smile didn’t waver. “That you will. Have a safe journey home, Austin.”

Clement merely nodded, refusing to exchange unnecessary words with the monster and her minions. He glanced once at Mahmoud who eyed him warily and then turned away. “Hurry,” he mouthed to Ejigu who was ushering the last of the six children into the van.

Attempting to walk casually to the passenger’s side was tough, urgency nipping at Clement’s heels. He didn’t look back at the frightened children packed in the back. Instead he kept his face forward, lifting a hand to wave at Mrs. Badri as Ejigu put the car in reverse.

It wasn’t until there was a mile in between their van and the three figures in the distance, did Clement and Ejigu both heave sighs of relief. Then Clement unbuckled his seat and turned to face the children who stared at him wide-eyed and afraid. His heart twisted in pain at the torture in their eyes. They had been through a hell he wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy.

“Children,” he began in softly-spoken Amharic. “Don’t be afraid.” He put a hand over his chest. “I am Brother Clement and this is Brother Ejigu. We have come to save you.”

One of the twins, with eyes glistening with unshed tears, gazed at Clement in disbelief. “Where are you taking us?” A child whimpered, followed by another.

He was tempted to take off the itchy wig but knew that would only alarm the children. Instead, he offered a gentle, encouraging smile. “We’re taking you home. Your families are waiting for you.”

On cue, the six children broke down sobbing. He could’ve sworn even Ejigu swiped a hand over his face. His own eyes teared up as the kids clutched at each other, wailing all the way home.

Watching a grateful mother clutch her twins hours later, Clement felt a pang of regret as he pictured the mothers that still wept over their lost children. There were many more auctions selling off children, not to mention the platoons filled with newly-trained child soldiers or brothels housing children.

He swallowed at the hardened lump in his throat. He couldn’t save every child, and that was the most frustrating part of his existence. So while the parents celebrated the return of their stolen children, Clement mulled over his despairing thoughts.

On the long drive home, Ejigu glanced his way. “You okay?”

“No,” Clement answered, staring out the window at the wilderness. “This helplessness sickens me.”

Ejigu grunted. “At least you’re doing more than some politicians are doing.”

“Even if I could be everywhere at one time and have all the money in the world, it still won’t be enough.” Clement propped his elbow against the door and leaned his head back. “Evil would still prevail.”

“Is that what a pastor should say? Doesn’t good overcome evil in the end?”

Clement snorted but didn’t answer. They both knew by experience how overpowering evil could be.

The two friends occupied themselves with their thoughts for the long drive home. Although this was a victory, it seemed insignificant compared to the overwhelming corruption that ruled their lives. The orphanage and small communities were in constant danger, and it seemed there was no end to the perils. Clement knew the moment they arrived in Bichena, there could be another incidence of child kidnapping. He’d have to leave home again, withdraw thousands from his U.S. bank account, put on another disguise or arm himself with a deadly weapon, just to save yet another child.

It was worth it. Putting his life on the line, fighting the good fight for those that couldn’t, was his life’s mission. It hadn’t been the reason he dropped out of school ten years ago, but it had become the reason he lay awake at night. It thrilled him to see the innocent smile of a child, and agonized him to see the big fat tears streaming down one’s soft cheek. The horror of a child’s death ripped his heart in two, and the violation of another stoked a fury he hadn’t felt since he became an ordained minister.

Exhausted, Clement practically dragged his feet down the pebbled path to the church steps. It was an hour past sunset by the time Ejigu pulled into the empty compound. This was the second night in a row since he’d missed seeing his children. Praying that there won’t be an incident tonight so he could spend a day with the children, he pushed open the door to the empty church.

Ejigu shuffled behind him, yawning loud enough for it to echo along the hollow chapel walls. “I’m starved.”

“I’m sure Wubit made some dinner. Help yourself.” He continued past the kitchen door. “Goodnight.”

“Not eating?” Ejigu called after him.

“Not hungry,” Clement answered, seeking the solace of his bed instead. He pushed open the door and stepped inside. Barely taking off his shoes and oversized dress shirt, he fell face forward on the mattress.

The moment sleep descended, the door burst open and jolted Clement awake. He turned on his side and scowled as Priscilla sauntered into his room.

“You can’t knock?!” he growled, attempting to calm his racing heartbeat.

Stone-faced, Priscilla perched on the edge of his bed and crossed her arms. “Sit up, we need to talk. Now.”

He started to protest, wanting to sleep away the horrors of the day. But the severe look on Priscilla’s face stopped him. She wouldn’t take no for an answer, and he was far too tired to fight. He slowly sat up and sighed. “Fine. Talk.”

“First things first. Who is Karen?”

<<Chapter 9 || Chapter 11>>