Children all ages filled the room, some seated in chairs set against the wall, some sitting on the floor and some standing near the window. There was only one adult woman in this room. There was an eerie silence that made the hairs on Karen’s arms stand on end.

Alice walked across the room to the woman and leaned down to whisper in her ear. Her eyes widened slightly and skittered over to where Karen stood. Then she bowed slightly and nodded. Alice straightened and turned back to Karen with a smile. “This is Petra from Spain. She doesn’t speak much English but she does wonders with needles.”

Karen arched a brow. “Needles for what?”

“Oh, these children are to be adopted within the month. It’s our duty to make sure their immunization records are current, and so that is what we’re doing. At least the bare minimum. Are you good with needles?”

“Decent.” Karen shrugged, still confused. “Is that why you called me here? To administer shots?”

“You’re a nurse, aren’t you? I was under the impression you were serving the country during your stay. I was assured that you would be most helpful.”

Her condescending tone grated Karen’s nerves. “Oh I’m a good nurse. Maybe not as brilliant as Petra here, but…” she stalled, watching one of the children turn. Her brow furrowed at the faraway look in his eyes.

The other two noticed the object of her distraction and Petra stood abruptly, moving quickly to the boy before he tripped over his own feet.

Karen’s gaze remained on the boy until Petra shielded him with her body. Ignoring the pesky fluttering in her gut, she smiled at Alice. “Is there anything else you’d like me to do? I could see to the other children since Petra seems to have it under control here.”

“There’s no need,” Alice replied, tone frosty. “We have enough aides working with the other children.”

“I see…” Karen mentally counted the young ones in the room. Some slouched in their chairs, heads lolling forward as though drowsy on cold medicine or something more potent.

“Ms. Wells,” Alice’s firm tone redirected Karen’s focus. “Can you help us or not?”

“Sure! I’m at your service,” Karen answered readily. She wasn’t leaving here until she cleared her suspicions about what was going on here. “Where can I wash my hands and get prepped?”

A wary Alice gestured to a lone sink in the corner of the room. Then she spoke in broken Spanish to Petra, instructing her to hurry and get ready. Her skeptical stare returned to Karen. “Once you’re finished, I’ll have a cab ready to take you back to the airport. Your flight is in an hour, correct?”

“Correct. Thank you,” Karen said, making her way to the sink. Alarm heightened at the exposed needles and blood-spotted napkins but she quickly hid her horror as Petra approached her with a pair of gloves.

Once seated at her new station, Karen discreetly watched as Petra led the next lethargic child to sit. Horror gripped her throat. The child didn’t flinch when stuck with the needle. And with each child, her suspicions grew. All the kids in this room were drugged. And even the shrieking she’d heard earlier was snuffed out, leaving a creepy and eerie feeling. She had to get some air now!

Karen stood abruptly, alerting only Petra. “I need to pee. Donde es el bano?”

The Spanish girl’s thin brows raised in surprise, realizing that Karen must’ve understood Alice’s last directive. She reluctantly pointed with the needle across the hall, expression suspicious.

Karen nodded her thanks and stepped out casually so as not to seem suspicious. Her stomach was in tangled knots as she walked down the hallway, affirming that every room was filled with drugged children. Something was horribly amiss about this HopeWell Ministries.

“Are you sure we can trust her?”

Karen halted to a stop just around the corner and leaned her back against the wall.

“We don’t have much of a choice now,” Alice answered, tone as agitated as her male companion’s. “I should’ve been more careful. I beg your pardon, Franklin.”

“I don’t like this,” the man grumbled. “She looks like trouble. Americans and their meddling.”

“Not to worry, dear,” Alice said confidently. “It’s not like she’ll be able to say anything since she’s not leaving here alive.”

Karen gritted her teeth. She knew it! Mr. and Mrs. McShady were running an illegal adoption agency!

She took one step back, intent on leaving the house unnoticed. Once outside, she’d have to call back the cab driver who would take her to the police and report—

Suddenly a hand seized her by the arm, yanking her away from the wall. Karen started to turn when something slammed into the side of her head and immediately everything went black.

A couple walked out, the man pushing the stroller that carried two young girls while the woman held the hand of their older son. Right behind them walked out flight attendants and the pilots.

Clement and Ejigu stepped aside for the entourage to pass, before Clement turned back to the doors. Yet no sign of Karen. The perturbed feeling from earlier when he called her phone and didn’t get a response now returned in full-force.

He turned and hurried to catch up with one of the pilots. “Excuse me,” he said, walking into the man’s path. “Was that the last daytime flight from Nairobi?”

The man nodded and sidestepped Clement to catch up with his colleagues. Clement heaved a sigh and parked his hands at his hips.

“Maybe she missed it again,” Ejigu said, having heard all about Karen on the way up from Bichena.

Clement stared at the empty doorway, unable to shake off the unsettling feeling.

As promised, he’d promptly sent her the money to book the flight but didn’t receive an email saying she’ received it. When he woke up hours later, there was no alert message that Karen had either received or accepted the money transfer. Chalking it up to a service malfunction, Clement boarded Ejigu’s jeep by dawn and the two headed for the capital. On the drive over, he called her phone but there was no answer.

“I’ll go find the tourists.” Ejigu sighed and sauntered off toward the baggage claim.

Clement walked instead to the nearest concierge desk. “Is there a way I can find out about a passenger’s flight? I’m supposed to pick her up but she’s not on board, and her phone isn’t working.”

The woman looked sympathetic. “Maybe she arrived earlier and wandered off. What is her name?”

Karen was neither a child nor senile to wander off. Still, Clement would believe anything other than the nagging feeling that Karen was unable to board her flight. “Karen Wells.”

Tapping the button, the woman spoke into the phone that amplified her voice onto the intercom. “Karen Wells, please come to Arrivals gate. Your party is waiting for you.” After repeating it three more times and waiting for five minutes, the woman lowered the phone to its receiver. “Maybe you could try the airlines and see if they can give you something useful.”

Clement hesitated to leave, just in case she returned. The woman tapped the receiver. “If she comes this way, I’ll alert you. What’s your name?”

“Clement Teka. I’ll just check with them and come right back. Thank you!” He hurried off in search of the airline desk, hoping his worries were unfounded and that Karen had indeed arrived.

A man greeted Clement as he approached the counter. “Are you checking in?”

Clement shook his head. “I need some information about a passenger.”

“I’m sorry, sir, I’m afraid I can’t give out—”

“She’s my-my wife and I can’t get a hold of her.” Clement swallowed against the lie that came too easily. “She was supposed to board a flight early this morning but I’m worried that she didn’t get on. Her phone won’t go through, which is unlike her. It’s been a hectic morning so I really hope you can help me.”

The man looked conflicted but after regarding Clement’s flustered expression, he sighed. “What flight?”

Clement frowned. “Uh, th-the one from Nairobi.”

“… There were three flights from Nairobi this morning, sir.”

“Right.” He shook his head and sighed deeply. “Please, could you just look up her name and see if she boarded the flight or not? She missed the earliest flight so I sent her money to get the next one. She didn’t give me the exact flight number, so—”

“What’s her name?” the man started typing on the keyboard, a furrow between his brows.

Clement dared not breathe with relief. Not yet. “Karen Wells.”

The man paused and looked up. “Could I see some ID?”

He quickly pulled out his wallet and tugged the license from its sheath. Then paused, realizing his mistake. “We just got married, and she’s finding it hard to let go of her last name.” He chuckled, a bit nervously, as he handed the license to the man.

The man’s gaze volleyed between his picture ID and his face. Then a smirk lifted the corner of his mouth. “My wife was the same way. Didn’t change it until our first child.” He handed it back to Clement.

“Oh man… I hope it won’t take that long. Karen Teka has a better ring.”

The man only chuckled and continued typing. The furrow didn’t loosen up.

Clement replaced his license into his wallet. His eyes stayed on the man’s face. “Anything?”

“Mr. Teka, I don’t know how to say this…” He lifted regretful eyes to Clement. “Your wife isn’t listed in any of these flights. Are you sure about the date?”

Clement nodded. “We spoke right after she missed her flight. I’m sure about the date.”

“Then I’m not sure what else to tell you… I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, thanks.” Clement mumbled, distracted by worry rather than disappointment. For all he knew, Karen changed her mind about coming to Ethiopia or decided to prolong her stay in Kenya. She hadn’t accepted his money, which was probably a good thing or he would’ve felt cheated out of a few hundred dollars. But still, it would’ve been nice to get a heads-up either way.

Meeting Ejigu outside loading luggage into the trunk, Clement hurried over to assist him with a heavy bag.

“She didn’t show?” Ejigu asked, studying Clement’s perturbed expression.

“Guess she changed her mind.” He had no other explanation for her absence.

“That’s irresponsible. And still no call?”

Clement didn’t answer, loading another one of the bags. For all he knew about Karen, irresponsibility didn’t seem her style. Especially not after she’d dutifully nursed Darah’s cantankerous father-in-law back to health. Regardless of what she’d decided, he hoped she was safe and that his worries were unnecessary.

Just then, his phone rang and Clement almost tripped over himself to answer it. The familiar number deflated his expectation and with a sigh, he answered. “Dula, what’s up?”

“Are you on your way back now?”

Clement glanced once at Ejigu before answering. “Not yet. Just picked up tourists at the airport and I’m not sure if I’ll wait for Ejigu before going to the head office first. Why?”

“Another village was raided last night.”

Clement’s stomach sunk. “How many?”

“Ten this time.”

He clenched his teeth. “Which village?”

“Gech’a. They burned a few huts to distract the adults and stole their way in and out quietly.”

“Quietly, my foot!”

Ejigu returned to the back of the van, mirroring Clement’s scowl. “What happened?”

“Another kidnapping. Gech’a.”

Ejigu sucked in a breath, horror plain in his young face. “Child soldiers!”

“Not before they sell off the younger, weaker ones.” Clement’s expression turned pensive. “Can you drop me off at a bank?”

“But you can’t go without me!”

“I told you I would. I’m going alone and that’s final.”

“Brother,” Dula said on the phone. “Don’t act recklessly. Come back first and we’ll make a decis—”

“Every second we waste, a child’s life is endangered.” Clement disconnected the call before Dula could say another word and held Ejigu’s gaze captive with his hardened stare. “I won’t ask you to come along. Just drop me off at a nearest bank and I’ll take a bus from there.”

Ejigu scowled. “A bus? What rich American businessman takes a bus?”

“Trust me. I know what I’m doing.” His phone rang and this time Clement ignored it, dropping one hand over his friend’s shoulder. “I meant what I said earlier. I will never force you to come with me. Just drop me off and I’ll take it from there.”

Ejigu’s eyes twitched, his nerves getting the better of him. Clement gripped his shoulder to assure him everything would be fine and then released him to walk on his side of the van. “Sorry about that, folks!” he said to the tourists who replied good-naturedly and began asking him questions about the capital.

When Ejigu’s phone started ringing also, he too ignored it, knowing it was Dula trying to reach him. Reluctantly, he trudged to the driver’s side and got in. Clement was busy telling an animated story, and Ejigu eyed him warily before turning on the car’s engine.

Clement’s laugh waned as he glanced once at Ejigu’s tortured expression. No doubt the younger man worried for his safety and fretted about coming along.

He sighed, wishing he wasn’t the cause of such anxiety. But he couldn’t sit back and watch helplessly while a village lost their children to terrorism and corruption. In that moment, worries of Karen’s whereabouts were pushed aside for a greater worry to occupy his thoughts.

<<Chapter 13 || Chapter 15>>