Karen exhaled a sigh of relief once all the children were securely strapped in the backseat of Clement’s van. They silently stared at their rescuers with big, innocent eyes, and Karen’s heart ached for the many others left behind. If only Clement’s van was big enough to hold all of them.

Clement’s hand rested on Karen’s shoulder. “Let’s get you inside.”

Nodding solemnly, Karen limped toward the passenger’s side and paused as Clement opened the door. Her cheeks tingled despite the gravity of the moment as Clement stepped close and placed his hands at her waist. “I could’ve gotten in by myself,” she mumbled as he lifted her off her feet like he had the five children and placed her in her seat. Still her ankle and knees thanked him for the gesture.

“I know you can but indulge me,” Clement said in a placating tone as he reached across for her seatbelt.

“I got it,” she said a bit too loudly, pressing her back against the seat.

Eying her suspiciously, he removed his hand and stepped away. “Fine.”

Once he shut the door and rounded to his side of the van, Karen exhaled the breath she’d been holding when he lifted her to the seat. She quickly strapped on her seatbelt by the time he climbed into his seat and folded his long legs inside. “So what now?”

Turning on the ignition, Clement paused to glance behind at the quiet children. “We hightail outta here.”

“Where are we going?”

He looked back at her. “To take them back home.”

Though she had a strong feeling Ashon was long gone, Karen couldn’t help searching the area she’d parked the car a few feet away from where Clement parked his. Finding the spot empty, Karen returned her attention to Clement. “I’m presuming you know where they live?”

“Not yet, but we will. For now, we’ll go to my home where it’s safe.” He set the gear on drive and slowly eased the car from its hiding place. “By the time we get home, the tranquilizer should’ve worn off.”

“By the time we get home…” Karen echoed, followed by a frown. “Wait, how long is the drive?”

“About sixteen hours, give or take.”

She barely contained the groan and dropped her head back.

Unaware of her pained silence, Clement patted her knee before taking hold of the steering wheel. “Sit tight.”

Maneuvering the van up the sloping hill toward the main road, his eyes watched for any moving shadows. Thankfully, he’d rented a simple van with tinted windows and would not draw much suspicion even if Mrs. Badri’s men scoured the area.

Mrs. Badri shoved through the crowd, Mahmoud and her bodyguard standing on either side of her as she came to the empty campground. She and the guests stood awestruck, completely taken aback by the scene before them. Tables and chairs were overturned, tents fallen, and listless children roaming aimlessly while some of the workers that returned to the campground struggled to herd them into a circle.

“What is the meaning of this?!” Mrs. Badri shouted, all patience dissipated.

After one severe glance form Mrs. Badri, Mahmoud turned to the people with a smile. “Please follow me inside for some refresh—”

“No more refreshments!” a person in the crowd shouted. “Where are the children?!”

Mrs. Badri quietly scanned the ruckus below. Workers attempted to bring order to the camp, straightening tables, chairs and the fallen tents. Her lips thinned in frustration as a few hurried to retrieve the wandering children, dragging them away from the bushes and back to the tents.

“Madam,” Mahmoud whispered near her ear. “What should we do?”

Mrs. Badri turned to face her guests, that hospitable smile noticeably absent. “Standing out here won’t make it easier or faster. Why stand out here and risk getting bitten by mosquitoes instead of staying inside an air-conditioned room while we prepare your purchases?”

Murmurs buzzed through the crowd as the guests voiced their annoyance with the unprofessionalism of the event. The second part of the auction was ridden with delays and absences of the children, causing Mahmoud to stumble and misinform the bidders.

“Unacceptable!” one Egyptian businessman sneered and stalked back into the church.

The  guests became increasingly discontent, especially with Mrs. Badri’s lack of hospitality. Mrs. Badri faced her bodyguard, the action only angering the rest of the guests. Ignoring their fiery protests, she gestured for him to lean in. “Find out where Mr. Legesse has disappeared to immediately.”

As the bodyguard swiftly made his way down the ramp in search for his mistress’ evasive guest, Mahmoud took his position before Mrs. Badri, ready to defend her from the frustrated bidders.

Watching her burly bodyguard jog across the camp grounds in search of the evasive American businessman, Mrs. Badri’s brow furrowed in thought. “American intruder…” she mused aloud and made her way down the ramp toward the camp grounds.

The raised voices of the guests was muffled as she walked toward the tent meant to hold the sold children.  It was unmanned. Slowing to a stop, Mrs. Badri studied the tent. Then her eyes lowered to the floor.

Bending over to pick up the discarded gray object, she turned it over as her fingers brushed the silky curls of the false hairs sewn along clumsy tracks of the wig.

The curls and texture of this wig were identical to the hair growing out of Mr. Austin Legesse’s scalp. Her fingers tightened around the wig until one of the tracks came undone. Her blood boiled. “Fake. He’s a fake.”

She yanked open the tent flap with her free hand, her eyes swept over the empty space. Then with a growl, she whipped the tent flap back in place. Hurrying up the ramp, she called out to Mahmoud who attempted to calm the agitated guests. “Thief! He’s a thief!”

Mahmoud spun about. “Madam?”

“Aust—Mr. Legesse is a fake and a thief.” Mrs. Badri bunched her fists.

A chorus of gasps sounded from the shocked crowd. “You mean he stole from us?!”

“He’s a fake?!”

Mrs. Badri ‘s face contorted with barely-contained fury. “I want him found. Now.”

Mahmoud started down the ramp in pursuit and Mrs. Badri turned to the guests, reeling over the subterfuge. To think that she’d willingly welcomed the stranger, revealed the intent of her business, fed him while he shamelessly tricked her.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” she addressed the group. “We have been infiltrated by a thief and a fraudster, and I am personally responsible for allowing him to enter our midst without due protocol.” She held a hand against her heart beating wildly with rage. “I promise you this night that I will stop at nothing until the fraudster who dared pull the wool over our heads be caught and dealt with.”

“He should die,” a guest shouted in anger. He was probably one who lost a bid to the quick-witted and influential Mr. Legesse.

The crowd murmured their mixed feelings about the declaration, but Mrs. Badri remained quiet. She had her own dark plans for Mr. Legesse or whatever his real identity was, and the sooner she found him the better.

“Do we have any information about him?” one ventured to ask.

Regret stilled her tongue. She had not done her due diligence to know more about the real man behind the disguise. Her silence said it all.

The guests murmured amongst themselves, predicting what would happen to the man who had stolen children under their noses. Mrs. Badri fumed in silence, recalling the moments she’d spent with Mr. Austin Legesse from the first day they met in Debre Markos. Every single instance now seemed planned by the fraud, an attempt to garner her interest in him and she’d fallen for it hook, line and sinker.

Her cellphone rang in the pocket of her dress jacket. She reached inside and recognizing the number, she quickly answered. “Found him?”

“Sorry Mrs. Badri,” Alice’s regretful tone replied. “I’m afraid we were mistaken…”

Her scowl only darkened. “What do you mean mistaken? You said it was an American intruder.”

“Well yes, an American intruder but…”

“But,” Mrs. Badri snapped out. “What is it?”

Alice sighed deeply. “The man we chased isn’t American at all.”

“Excuse me? What are you saying right now?”

“My men and I chased a car from the church thinking it was the American lady and the man you were looking for. But unfortunately, it’s just a local merchant selling his produce.”

Mrs. Badri moved away from the crowd and down the ramp. “Produce?” she sneered in disbelief.

“Yes Madam. Produce. He has five boxes and more in the trunk. We checked two and…” Alice sighed once more. “I am terribly sorry.”

Gripping the railing, Mrs. Badri looked down at the empty tent. “So you mean to tell me you chased the wrong person.”

“I apologize—” the rest of Alice’s words disconnected as Mrs. Badri slammed the phone on the floor.

“Hello?” Alice repeated into the phone and exhaled in exasperation. Then pocketing the phone, she looked up as her men stepped away from the car. “Nothing?”

The men shook their heads and stepped back at her command. Walking up to the driver’s side, she studied the man behind the wheel.

Slender and dark-skinned, the man’s dark hair sprinkled with gray was cropped close to his scalp. Wrinkles marked his face around his lips, nose and eyes, showing his age. Neither brawny nor broad-shouldered, he didn’t quite match Mrs. Badri’s description of Austin Legesse.

Still, she had to ask one last time. “Why were you at the church?”

He stared in silence, confusion etched in his brow. Alice sighed and repeated in stilted Amharic.

Nodding in understanding, he patted the box beside him. “I said I’m a farmer. I sell my produce to neighboring towns.”

It took her a while to understand, her handle on the language not as good. “Then where is your farm?”

The man hesitated and then narrowed his stare at her. “Why? You want to buy my land?”

Alice frowned and straightened. “What is my business with land?” She muttered in English and gestured for him to move forward. “Go.”

The man eyed her suspiciously. “Why did you stop me then? What are you looking for?”

“None of your business,” Alice answered firmly and stepped away from the car, turning back to her men. “Let us return before the she-devil makes a bigger fuss.”

The men grunted in reply and jogged back to the truck. Alice glanced once at the four boxes in the back passenger seats and the two stacked in the front. She’d already seen the fresh vegetables peeking from one box and felt no need to further upset an innocent farmer.

Still, it irritated her that the farmer had ignored their signals for him to stop miles back. Instead, he’d taken them on a wild goose chase only to discover he was late delivering his goods to the next town. Shaking her head in annoyance, Alice stormed back to the truck and climbed in.

Her driver made a wide U-turn and sped off toward Finch’awa. Exhausted, Alice sat back in the passenger’s seat to mentally prepare herself for Mrs. Badri’s impending wrath.

“Call Petra,” Alice instructed one of the men sitting behind. “And find out what is happening.” She reached for her phone to call Franklin, her partner. “It’s time,” she said once he answered on the first ring. “Plan B.”

Ashon watched from the rearview mirror as the truck disappeared under the hill. He released the baited breath and rested his forehead against the steering wheel.

They were saved.

For a moment there, he believed it was over when they nudged the heavy boxes, starting with the one beside him. Ashon peered down at the box containing fruits and vegetables, thanking his lucky stars he’d stumbled into a woman’s hut as he ran for cover.

Although the plan was to leave Karen and hide the children, he’d decided last minute to find her. Then he spotted her racing toward the bushes, a man leading her by the hand. At first, he’d thought to go after her but noticed workers heading toward their hiding place. Thinking fast, he ran across the camp grounds in attempt to distract them. Running as he did in his younger days, Ashon led his pursuers away from the camp and wished Karen would be able to get to safety.

But his racing heart and tired limbs threatened to give way, so he swerved on his path, stumbling down the hill and onto a prickly bush. The voices of his pursuers sounded above him and Ashon rolled onto his stomach, crawling toward the nearest hut. The first was shut and his legs wouldn’t carry him to the next hut, not yet at least. Still, he had to try or he would be no help to Karen or the children waiting in the car.

Crawling into the second hut, Ashon crouched in the shadows. The voices of the men echoed in the valley as they called out to search the trees and bushes. Re-positioning himself, his foot hit a box. Hand roved the darkness and his fingers traced a stack of boxes. Reaching inside, he traced the bumpy skin of a sugarcane stalk. An adjacent box held dried corn and potatoes.

Then it dawned on him. This was how he could inconspicuously transport the children.

He began the blind search for empty boxes. A series of calls sounded in the night sky, echoing in the valley. Ashon paused his search and waited as the voices faded into the distance. They’d forgotten about him…or found Karen!

Urgency fueled his next movements as he gathered as many boxes as possible, shoving one with as many vegetables as possible. Hauling the box with vegetables with one arm and pinning the empty folded boxes under the other, Ashon dashed up the hill to his parked cab loaded with the children.

Time was of essence. Yet in his urgency, Ashon maintained a gentleness about hiding the children. Picturing his own little girl, he gently guided each child to a crouching position. Their eyes were wide and emotionless, as if accustomed to such conditions. Though his heart regretted adding to their trauma, he was still grateful they didn’t fight their temporary hiding place. He lowered the boxes over their bowed bodies, having punctured holes for breathing beforehand.

Setting down the box with vegetables, Ashon drove the car into the camp grounds, honking his horn and flashing the headlights. Karen’s safety came first; after all, she’d risked everything to save these four children.

One of the boxes shifted and Ashon glanced at the rearview mirror. He then reached behind and lifted one box at a time, revealing the children crouched underneath. They stared at him with their big dark eyes, reminding him of his little girl he’d lost forever.

If only there had been a Karen to save his daughter from being sold. If only there had been someone to risk everything to ensure her safe return home.

Karen let out a great yawn and fanned in front of her face. “Phew, sorry!” she said at the end of the yawn.

Clement smirked, eyes glued on the road. “No need to apologize. It’s your first heist. It can be exhausting.”

“Heist,” Karen snorted, settling back in her seat. “After being in the car for almost thirty hours, exhausted doesn’t begin to describe it.”

“Then go to sleep like the kids. They’ve been out since we left.”

“Hm, maybe later.” She shifted to face him. It was too dark to make out all his features but she stared anyway.

“If you insist.” Clement chuckled. “You’ve been in the car thirty hours?”

“Yeah. How else did you think I made it this far?” Karen propped her chin on her hand. “If it wasn’t for Ashon, I wouldn’t have made it here at all. He saved my life, y’know?”

Clement was silent briefly and then he cleared his throat. “Who is Ashon?”

“The guy who brought me here.” Karen blinked a few times. “He was my cab driver at first, but he came back to get me, and after some begging on my end, ended up driving me over here. It’s like fourteen hours from Nairobi. Did you know that?”

“I know.” Clement frowned. “So he drove you to Finch’awa and left you behind?”

“As if,” Karen scoffed and closed her eyes. “He’s as stubborn as you. Actually, he saved four children we could save and I told him to go on without me.”

It was time for Clement to scoff. “You’re more stubborn than anyone I know.” He frowned. “Hmm, did you say cab driver? What did the car look like?

“A small sedan. Gray maybe.” She opened her eyes. “What?”

“A gray sedan was what diverted attention from us earlier.” At her silence, Clement looked back at her. “Look like this Ashon guy just saved your life for the second time… and mine.”

<<Chapter 21 || Chapter 23>>