Arriving just as the sun descended behind the highest point of the opposite mountain, Clement guided his jeep over the rough and sandy terrain. The earthy smell was reminiscent of Bichena, making him long for his peaceful home. The pointy roofs of both straw huts and small bungalows pierced the evening sky streaked with red-orange from the falling sun.
Like most small rural cities in the country, the small town had a more urbanized center complete with a clinic, gas station, corner store, and a church. To Clement’s growing disgust, the event was being held in the church’s fellowship hall.
“There seems to be more wares than last time,” one of Mrs. Badri’s guests proclaimed with a leery smile.
“There’ll be plenty to go around,” Mrs. Badri responded. “I have a few more shipments coming in from the south. They should be arriving soon.”
Clement’s stomach turned in revulsion. One would think they spoke of clothes or produce instead of innocent children.
“What a genius thought!” exclaimed another of her guests. “A charity fair indeed.”
The other three men chuckled in agreement, pausing to sip on their expensive champagne.
Clement had a different sentiment, wanting to hunt down the priest who authorized the event and wring his neck. It took self-control, something he didn’t think he possessed, to maintain a placid expression. Eyes watched him on every side. Not to mention the giant from the last auction standing close, scanning the men chatting up his boss.
Mrs. Badri’s smile was slight while listening to the men laughing as if she was the funniest person they’d ever known. Then her gaze skipped over Clement, the only one not laughing. One shapely brow arched inquisitively. “Were you able to eat dinner before you arrived?”
“Not too much,” Clement answered, dragging his eyes back to her face. “Prefer to concentrate while I drive.”
Her brow wrinkled, concerned. “If I’d known you would drive, I’d have offered to pay for your flight.”
“That’s not necessary,” Clement inserted, noting the curious glances from the other men. He didn’t need more attention on him; it would make it harder to slip out unnoticed.
“Well then, it’s a good thing I have prepared a small feast for you all.” Her smile brightened and her dark eyes swept over the five men before settling back on Clement. “Please join me for a hearty and delicious meal before the festivities begin.”
Bile pooled in Clement’s mouth. There was nothing festive about selling or buying children. Still, he managed a nod and with the other men, followed Mrs. Badri’s lead into an inner chamber within the church.
While Clement fought to keep his face straight and his food down, a lone sedan slowed to a stop a stone’s throw from the church. Ashon turned to Karen beside him. “Do you know how to drive a shift?”
Karen sighed. “I do, thanks to my dad…”
“Good. I’m going inside and you stay here with the car.”
She frowned. “I should be going. You stay with the car.”
“Missi.” He smirked. “I know you want to be fast and save the world but we have to make sure you won’t be recognized. I will go check and come fetch you. Okay? Stay with the car.”
“Men and their need for control,” Karen muttered as Ashon stepped out of the car and hurried down the street toward the church. Sitting back for a while, she scanned her surroundings.
There were cars parked on both sides of the road leading up to the church. Shadows crossed in front of the street and Karen sat up, squinting as a group of men approached an unlabeled bus and opened the trunk.
Karen inhaled a sharp breath as one of the men pulled a child after another, the second herding them into a group. One of the men yanked a child from the trunk and Karen gasped sharply as the girl fell on her knees. Her own injured knees throbbed and she watched in horror as the man grabbed the girl by her curly ponytail, jerking her to stand.
Her blood boiled when the man backhanded the girl in the face, causing her to fall to the floor. As he lifted a hand to slap her again, Karen slammed her hand against the car horn.
The men jerked about, searching for the sound. Karen ducked as their eyes paused their search by her car. Heart thumping violently against her throat, she counted to seven and then raised her head to peek out the window. The truck was empty and both the children and their violent escorts had disappeared.
Frowning, she straightened in the seat and immediately regretted it. One of the men was standing at the side of the street, eyes on her.
“Shoot, shoot, shoot,” she muttered, clumsily switching on the ignition as he walked across the street toward the car. She jerked the gearshift, prepared to drive away, just as a loud horn sounded behind her.
Gratefully, the man’s hard gaze shifted and he stepped back as a truck pulled up to the side of the street. He took one quick glance at Karen and then turned to the truck.
Karen paused only a minute to watch him pull open the trunk to even more children. Her stomach turned violently and she eased off the brake, driving to a more secluded location to park Ashon’s cab. She needed to be on foot and able to help the children, not car-sitting.
Rounding the street up ahead, Karen noted a sloping meadow with trees and overgrown bushes meters from the church. Cars of all kinds were parked haphazardly up and down the sloping hill. Several rundown huts were strategically camouflaged behind a few of the larger trees. Karen quickly maneuvered the cab behind one of them for safekeeping.
Clement refrained from sighing aloud. Pretending not to understand the country’s main language was draining, especially having to hear lame jokes for the second time. He managed a dry laugh and quickly held the bottle of water to his lips.
“You sure you don’t want something stronger, Austin?” Mrs. Badri inquired, one brow arched.
He shook his head and gestured at the water. “Need my wits about me.”
She smirked knowingly and turned to face the other men. “Mr. Legesse put on quite the show for us at the last auction.”
“I was there,” one of the men drawled, looking the least bit entertained. Clement didn’t recognize him but from the tightness in his smile, he was still nursing some resentment over a lost bid.
“Oh right, I remember.” Mrs. Badri giggled softly. “It’s been such a long while since we had excitement at these events.” She turned to Clement, smile bright. “That last bid was suspenseful. I was worried for you.”
The man scoffed. “That was the bid I lost.”
Clement shrugged. “Well I must have wanted it more than you, I suppose…” He trailed off, realizing only then that he’d answered a statement spoken in Amharic. With curious stares on him, Clement lifted the bottle to his lips and gulped down the cool water.
The thoughtful look on Mrs. Badri’s face set him on edge. Her dark eyes skimmed his face. “Mr. Legesse…”
He raised a brow, attempting to remain nonchalant although his pulse was racing. “Hmm?”
One corner of her lips lifted in a slow smile. “How long have you been here?”
“Hmm,” Clement stalled by swallowing more water. “A year by the end of this month.”
“A year’s long enough for you to understand our language?”
“A bit.” He shrugged a shoulder. “You get to learn some while conversing with businessmen. Money talk is relatively a universal language.” He swallowed the nerves. “Besides, I had a great translator.”
The men nodded, seemingly satisfied with his response. Mrs. Badri regarded him with open curiosity. “What was your translator’s name again?”
“I never said his name. Didn’t think it important since I won’t be needing him anymore.”
Appeased, Mrs. Badri raised her glass of wine to him. “I’m a better translator, anyway.”
“The best,” Clement said and chinked her glass with his bottle, earning him chuckles from the other men.
That dreadful bell from the last auction sounded and the conversations in the room eased into silence. An anxious Clement gulped down the remaining of his water and twisted the cap on. A server walked by with a tray and he placed it there before turning to face Mrs. Badri who was still watching him.
He raised a querying brow. “Are we starting?”
“Indeed,” she replied, smile in place. “I look forward to the show, Mr. Legesse.”
“Take it easy on us, Austin,” one of the other men joked, nudging Clement with his shoulder.
Managing a smile, Clement refrained from inching away from Mrs. Badri who stood close to his side, prepared to translate the bawdy show. He drew in a breath as Mahmoud, Mrs. Badri’s hired auctioneer, mounted the stage and stepped up to the podium.
“Greetings everyone,” Mahmoud said in his thick accent.
Clement barely paid attention to Mahmoud’s introductions, Mrs. Badri’s translations or the applause that sounded around him. Instead he focused his eyes on the shadowed part of the stage where the first of many children would emerge from, and mentally calculated how many he’d be able to save at the end of the night.
Down the hall and out through the back door, a herd of captured children lined up in front of a long table. There was a sign scribbled ‘Infirmary’ and adults in street clothes were examining children at a time, checking for lice and open sores on their limbs and faces.
Ashon kept to the shadows, though his attention remained on the examined children. His stomach turned in revulsion as each child was stripped and checked for scars and open wounds. Some were forced to bend on their knees for closer inspection. He watched with growing disgust as some were nudged toward the tent labeled ‘Quarantined’.
Shaking his head, he moved along the lined tables. Overwhelmed, Ashon stopped counting the children. There was no way he and Karen could save them all in his small cab, and he cursed at his helplessness.
A child yelped to his right and alarm slammed against him like a freight truck as a woman took a razor to the boy’s hair before dousing him with almost-scalding water. This rough treatment of a child was beyond his comprehension.
He swallowed the nausea that bubbled in his throat as the boy shrieked in pain and shock. Ashon forced himself to turn away instead of what he wished to do; yanking the bowl of scalding water and tossing it on the woman.
A commotion arose a few feet up the path to the church and Ashon hurried toward it, fearing for a child’s life. Instead, he witnessed two men arguing while tugging on a child’s scrawny arms. A woman screamed amid the argument, sobbing in between.
Perturbed, Ashon approached one of the bystanders and asked in Amharic. “What is happening?”
The man didn’t look away as he answered. “Local got mixed up with the other children. Parents want him back but the worker says he is with them.”
Ashon frowned. “How did he get mixed up?”
“Free food.” The man gestured to a half-eaten loaf of bread discarded on the floor.
Anger bubbled from within and Ashon squelched it down. There was so much chaos, he didn’t know where to begin. Instead, he focused on what he could. “The quarantine, what is there?”
The man glanced once at him before looking back at the mayhem before them. “A cargo from east arrived with injured children. Not enough nurses to treat them.”
His eyes widened. “You need a nurse?”
The man shrugged, distracted as the voices grew louder and more violent.
Ashon grabbed the man’s shoulder. “I have a nurse. I will go find her.” Releasing the man’s hand, he started back down the path toward the street where he’d left Karen. Shoving through the crowd of villagers who had come to witness the mayhem or rather intervene, he hurried across the street to where his cab was supposedly parked… except it wasn’t there.
Panic washed over him as he ran down the row of parked cars, barely missing a zooming motorcycle. His pulse raced as he hurried down the street. “Missi!” he called out into the night. “Missi!”
Karen smiled as she watched the woman adjust the thin flowery blouse over her slim shape. When she looked up, Karen’s smile widened. “You like?”
Though the woman had no idea what she’d uttered, she flashed Karen a beautiful smile.
“Thank you,” Karen gestured to her acquired clothes; a simple gray tunic made from thin material and a faded skirt that skimmed her ankles. Her feet were fitted with sandals that revealed her neon-yellow painted toenails. She’d exchanged her designer jeans, flowery blouse and name-brand shoes for the normal attire of a local whose house was within walking distance from where she’d left Ashon’s cab.
The woman nodded her own thanks and gestured to a bag full of what resembled samosas. Karen’s mouth watered and her stomach growled on cue. Still she shook her head. “No money.”
The woman shook her head in reply and reached down to grab a handful, extending them to Karen. There was gratitude in her beautiful eyes and Karen had no choice than to accept it. No doubt the woman understood the value of Karen’s exchange, and offered free some of what she would sell to her customers.
Moments later, mouth full of samosas, Karen started back up the sloping hill toward the church. She had no idea where to begin searching for Ashon.
She halted in step, recognizing the name and the voice.
Karen choked on the samosa and started toward the voice, worried that he would call undue attention when they needed to be undercover. Running up the hill, she spotted him and waved a hand full of samosas. She growled in annoyance as one slipped from her hand and she swallowed what was in her mouth before replying. “Here!” she loud-whispered, hurrying to meet him halfway.
Ashon frowned as an unrecognizable woman hurried to meet him while waving. He paused and glanced once behind him. Seeing no one, he turned back to her.
“It’s me,” the woman whispered as she came to stand before him.
He squinted once and then his eyes widened in recognition. “Missi? Is that you?”
Karen snorted derisively. “Yeah.”
“Why are you dressed like that?” he watched as she stuffed something underneath her shirt. “And is that…” he sniffed, the aroma tickling his nostrils.
“Samosas.” She shoved one in his hand. “Eat.”
“Where did—how did you…?”
“Don’t ask, just eat. Did you find something?” she stuffed another in her mouth.
“Where’s my cab?” Ashon bit into the pastry and sighed, realizing only now how hungry he was.
“Down the hill. I had to drive away so they won’t catch me.” She placed another pastry in his open palm. “What did you find out?”
“Who wouldn’t catch you?”
“Ashon, concentrate. What did you find out?”
He stuffed the rest of the pastry into his mouth. “It’s a commotion. Children everywhere, people are mad.”
“Evil is always mad.” Karen heaved a sigh. “What else? Did you find a way to get the children out?” She stuffed yet another in her mouth and handed one to him.
“I think I found a way.” Ashon eyed her warily. “Though I don’t think you are ready for it… Still, come.”
Karen wanted to ask what he meant by that, but he’d already started back up the hill. Tamping down a sigh, she picked up the long skirt and hurried after him.
Ashon’s description did the chaotic scene no justice. Karen couldn’t believe her eyes. Children were being herded like cattle and goats, being dragged by their thin arms from one station to another. She almost lost the digested samosas upon watching the rough treatment on these children. This was by far worse than what she’d witnessed at the HopeWell Ministries clinic.
Her heart twisted in pain and it took everything in her to keep from not running in the other direction. Madness could not describe such a gruesome sight.
Ashon touched her arm as they came to a stop, and she blinked from her horrified daze. “Wait here,” he said and left her again. She refrained from wrapping her arms around herself. She needed to be strong, now more than ever.
Karen forced herself to look around, noting a line of children being led by two adults toward the church. Her heart skipped a beat. Whatever happened in there was beyond her control. She’d have to focus on saving the ones out here.
“Missi!” Ashon’s voice pulled her attention back to the ghastly scene. He emerged from behind a tent with a middle-aged white woman directly behind him, gesturing for her to come.
Making sure it wasn’t Alice from HopeWell, Karen straightened her spine and walked over to meet him.
Ashon spoke in a language she didn’t understand, and she watched the woman’s face as he spoke. The furrow between the woman’s brow eased away and she looked to Karen with a smile that was anything but sinister.
Relieved and grateful for whatever Ashon said, Karen turned to him. “What did you just tell her?”
“That you could help the children get ready. They need to be treated and… tranquilized before the auction.” Ashon could barely get the last few words out, his face taut.
Karen gaped at Ashon, barely able to hide the horror from showing on her face.