Posts tagged “business

Sanctuary, Chapter 19

Posted on 19/07/2017

Although he was a pastor meant to love all mankind, Clement wished to wring the necks of those responsible for drugging these children. They were barely conscious, their heads hanging as they tried to stand upright.

“You’re on a roll today,” Mrs. Badri said excitedly. “Although I expected nothing less.”

He refrained from rolling his eyes at the fake applause and watched the worker escort the purchased child to the shadowed edge of the stage. He could afford a few more children before his cash ran out.

A gong sounded and a hush fell over the crowd.  Mahmoud glanced once at Mrs. Badri who nodded her silent consent. He then faced the bidders. “For our brief intercession, our hostess has graciously provided refreshments in the chapel. We will reconvene here in twenty minutes.”

Murmurs sounded around the room, and people started toward the door with Mahmoud leading the way.

“Good show! I’ve worked up an appetite!” exclaimed one of Mrs. Badri’s guests. He and the other three men who stuck close to Mrs. Badri’s side now trailed after him out to the chapel for food and drinks.

Instead of joining them, Clement turned to Mrs. Badri with a question. “Could I see the children?”

“Of course.” She flashed that annoying leering smile. “Anxious to inspect them yourself?”

He shrugged. “Gotta see what I bought.”

“My team has properly inspected each one before the auction, Mr. Legesse.”

“I meant no harm, Mrs. Badri. I am not questioning your thoroughness. Just curious to see them.”

Mrs. Badri waved off his attempt at an apology. “I understand. Let’s go out this way. It’ll be quicker than moving through the crowd. I imagine they’d want to interrogate you on your bank account.” She gestured to another door near the back of the stage.

Fluttering in his gut was the only sign of Clement’s anxiety. He maintained a placid expression and followed Mrs. Badri, aware of the silent giant that trailed behind them.

They walked down the narrow hallway onto a sloping ramp and out through the back of the church. People were everywhere, bustling about as if it was a common marketplace. Voices of mostly adults, barking orders and yelling across the pitched tents muffled the crickets’ refrain that usually accompanied the East night air.

The area was dimly lit, with only lanterns and torchlights for inspection and illumination.

Evil abounds in darkness, Clement thought ruefully as he followed Mrs. Badri down the ramp to the field.

The silent giant bumped Clement’s shoulder as he walked past him to stand before Mrs. Badri. She spoke in Arabic and he nodded before walking ahead of them toward one of the tents. Then Mrs. Badri turned to Clement with a roguish smile. “I sent him off to locate your wares while we talk privately.”

“Privately… about what?”

“What’s your angle, Austin Legesse? You are either starting a manufacturing facility with child workers or something more personal.” She tilted her head, studying him under the dim lighting. “What are you up to?”

Clement arched a brow. “I thought I mentioned this already but it seems you still won’t let it go. Must I disclose my plans for the… cargo?”

Her raised brow mirrored his. “Well you did but that was before we got close. Wasn’t your former translator privy to your plans? Won’t you at least humor me with some details?”

He held back a scoff and paused as if contemplating whether to divulge his intentions. Then Clement sighed. “You caught me.”

Both her brows lifted. “I did.”

“You did.” He forced a rueful expression. “It’s hard to meet the bottom line if I have to pay my workers fairly… Children don’t have that problem.”

Mrs. Badri chuckled low, the sound making Clement’s stomach turn. “You’re a bad man, Mr. Legesse.”

Takes one to know one. Clement rubbed his cheek. “It’s just business, Mrs. Badri.”

Her eyes followed the movement of his hands and her brow furrowed. “Mr. Legesse?”

“Hmm?”

Her gaze lifted to his own. “Did you perhaps have surgery since our last encounter?”

Clement stilled. “Pardon?”

She tapped the side of her cheek. “I remember you had a striking feature here but now it’s gone.”

The mole! Clement bit back a curse and placed a hand over the spot she’d pointed to. He let out a soft laugh. “I did… been meaning to get one for a while now—”

“Why did you?” Mrs. Badri interjected. “It was one of your many charming qualities.”

Her leery stare made every part of his body itch. Nonetheless, Clement forced a smirk. “Thanks, I guess.”

“You’re very welcome, I guess.” Mrs. Badri giggled and turned toward the path her bodyguard had taken.

Clement made a retching face behind her back and quickly rearranged his expression as Mrs. Badri turned to address him. “Hmm?”

“Why don’t we take a tour of the facility now that you’re here? You can see what your money is used for.”

He would rather just see to the children’s safety and return to the auction hall to finish the job. Instead, he nodded and followed Mrs. Badri down the ramp to the first table on their left.

“This is the receiving line,” Mrs. Badri began. “Here we receive the shipments. The organizations that partner with us receive a percentage for receipt of delivery. Then we send them the remainder once the auction sales are complete.” She accepted a clipboard from the worker and scanned it. “Hmm, looks like HopeWell from Nairobi has just arrived with the remainder of our inventory.”

Alarm rang in Clement’s head as she handed the clipboard back to the worker. He refrained from reaching for it and followed Mrs. Badri to the next station. “Did you say Nairobi?”

Mrs. Badri paused in step and glanced his way. “I did. Have you been there?”

Clement nodded. “Of course…” He frowned, immediately thinking of Karen.

“I predict you’ll want to bid on them too. That look in your eye is telling, Mr. Austin.” She laughed and continued her stroll to the next station.

Shoving down his concern for Karen, Clement followed her. “May I ask you a question?”

“Yes, of course.” Mrs. Badri passed the station where children were being stripped down from their old, dirty clothes and fitted with the auction uniform; a simple white t-shirt and shorts.

“Why do you do this? Isn’t it risky?”

Mrs. Badri paused again and looked back at him. “Isn’t it risky for you also, buying child labor?”

Clement shrugged. “It’s good for my bottom line.”

She regarded him for a brief moment and then smiled. “Then you should understand why I do it.” She continued walking. “I’m answering a need that no one wants to admit they have. For various reasons, parents can’t take care of their children and sell them off to orphanages who can’t function in overcapacity. Then there are people, like yourself Austin, who have needs and will pay whatever it takes to have it answered. For some like you, it’s as simple as cheap or free labor. For some, it’s companionship or the long-awaited desire for a child of their own. For some, it’s a darker kind of need… nonetheless, it’s a need that must be met at all costs.”

Clement bunched his fists. “And you sleep well at night, knowing you’d fulfilled that need.”

“Sleeping pills are a small price to pay for the returns.” Mrs. Badri paused once more and scanned the field. “It isn’t the mainstream way to do business, but I’m not operating a business… it’s a charity.”

He would give anything to shut her up, wishing he’d never asked. Her twisted way of thinking was beyond comprehension; not that evil made any sense. Clement turned his face to look anywhere but at her. His eyes fell on a tent labeled ‘Quarantine’.

“We have located your cargo. Would you like a peek before we head back inside?”

Clement nodded, unable to form a word. With a heavy heart, he silently followed Mrs. Badri to meet her bodyguard standing outside one of the many tents in the field.

Karen was a bundle of nervous energy. She couldn’t stop her hands from shaking and was thankful that Ashon currently occupied the supervisor’s attention with him acting as translator on Karen’s behalf. Once he’d received full instructions, he gave Karen a thumbs up sign when the supervisor turned to face her.

“You,” the supervisor said, gesturing at the children slouched on top of the medical cot. Then pointed to her eyes. “Look well.”

Karen held up a hand, pressing her thumb and index finger together. “Sure thing.”

The supervisor frowned and turned to Ashon who smiled. “She said yes.”

With a wary glance at Karen and the children, the supervisor finally exited the tent. Karen waited for Ashon to check that she’d left and once he returned, she hurried to his side. “What’d she say?”

“That you should just watch them and do nothing until the nurse comes.”

Karen’s shoulders sagged with relief. She would not be party to the drugging of these innocent children. Her eyes moved over their sleepy faces and then back at Ashon. “So what’s the plan?”

Ashon looked back at her. “We transport them to the cab.”

Although this is what they’d planned for, her heart skipped a beat. Karen bit her bottom lip. “How though? She’ll notice if they are missing…”

“Not if we constantly replenish the children here.” Ashon placed both hands on his hips. “I watched the flow of things. The children arrive and are inspected. There are some sent immediately to the auction, but some are sent here to Quarantine for closer inspection.”

Karen gasped. “So as we bring some in, we take some out.”

Ashon nodded. “We take turns leaving the tent so it is not obvious that we are entering and leaving the camp. As I go out to the cab with some, you will bring the new ones in.”

“That could work if we get the timing right.”

“One child at a time will be easier. They are small enough to transport.” Both Ashon and Karen regarded the small children, thin and worn from their ordeal. Then Ashon turned to Karen, brows raised. “Ready?”

She drew in a breath to calm her nerves and looking down at the children bereft of hope, she sighed deeply. “Let’s do this.”

Ashon nodded. “I’ll go first.” He moved slowly to the cot where the four children sat listelessly. Crouching down, he placed his hands on one of their knees. To Karen’s dismay, the child didn’t even flinch and stared over Ashon’s head.

Karen clucked her tongue. “I bet that drug is supposed to keep them docile throughout the auction.” She swallowed the bitterness in her mouth. “It might work for our benefit though.”

“You are right.” Ashon turned and presented his back to the child. “Missi, help me put him on my back.”

Once Karen secured the child’s thin arms about Ashon’s neck, she stepped back as Ashon stood to his full height and turned to face her. “Be careful,” she said, eying the child who leaned his cheek against Ashon’s ear. Heart aching, Karen smoothed a hand over the boy’s warm cheek.

Ashon nodded. “I will be back soon.”

Karen watched the flap of the tent drop back in place as Ashon exited stealthily. She moved to the other three boys and squatted in front of them. She gave them a smile they wouldn’t respond to. One of them was probably the same age as her nephew, and her eyes grew teary.

Sniffing the tears back, she placed a hand on his knee while her gaze moved over each one of them. “We’re gonna save every single one of you. I promise you that.”

The flap of the tent opened and Ashon emerged, breathless. Alarmed, Karen quickly rose to her feet.

“It’s fine. I found a shortcut to the cab.” He grinned and moved quickly to the bed. “You go now. I’ll wait here.”

She wanted to ask how he’d ensured the child would stay in the car but didn’t want to waste time. So she adjusted the veil around her face and moved to the edge of the tent.

“Missi,” Ashon stopped her and smiled when she turned about.

“Hmm?”

“Everything will be fine.”

Karen managed a nod though her stomach was in tangled knots.

“Go and come back.”

She drew in a breath and exited the tent into the open field. Releasing it slowly, her eyes scanned the camp and settled on a table a few feet away. A man-woman pair inspected boys and girls from head to toe. She straightened her shoulders and started across the path to the station.

The woman glanced up, frowning at the newcomer. Straightening, she regarded Karen in her garb and then over her shoulder. She asked something in the native tongue Karen didn’t understand.

Karen nodded, jerking a thumb in the direction of the tent.

The woman glanced over her shoulder and back at Karen, then nodded and nudged the girl into her arms. Without another glance, she gestured to the line of children awaiting inspection.

Karen gripped the girl’s shoulders and guided her around, her heart racing as they walked toward the tent.

Ashon was already piggybacking one of the boys, awaiting Karen’s return. He sighed with relief when Karen and the little girl entered the tent. “I was beginning to worry.”

“I’ll be quicker next time,” Karen promised, gulping air as she led the girl to perch on the bed. She noted the children barely registered their fellow mates, the drug overcoming all sense of their surroundings.

By the third time Ashon emerged from outside, Karen was ready. Tucking the loose ends of the veil under her chin, she hurried past Ashon. Outside she glanced around her and crossed the path toward the inspection station. The man-woman pair didn’t even give her a moment’s glance, passing her yet another mild-mannered child. She squeezed the boy’s shoulders and steered him toward the tent. So determined she was to get back in time and too distracted to see the three people walking right into her path. Grabbing the boy before he fell on his face, Karen landed wrongly on her right ankle and dropped to the floor, the boy toppling on her. She hissed in pain and frustration, having delayed Ashon for a time they couldn’t afford.

“Are you alright?”

Karen stiffened at the American male voice above her head and peered up. A man held out a hand to her. She squinted at the unfamiliar face of the man with salt-and-pepper hair. Hesitating only a moment, she ignored his hand and slowly helped herself up.

The man lifted the boy to stand and Karen seized the boy’s hand, tugging him toward the tent.

“Excuse me, your veil…”

Karen bit back a curse and slowly turned to retrieve the veil. “Thank you,” she mumbled, snatching it from his hand. Without looking up at the man, she ushered the boy toward the tent.

Clement felt like the wind was knocked out of him and he gaped at the fleeting figure of Karen Wells leading a young drugged boy toward the tent labeled “Quarantine”. He couldn’t breathe.

Mrs. Badri clucked her tongue. “Our twenty minutes are up, Austin. We should get back to the chapel.”

His feet wouldn’t move, his eyes fixed on the tent Karen had entered. Air swirled loudly in his ears and he couldn’t hear a word Mrs. Badri had spoken, questions swarming his mind.

Why would Karen be here, disguised as a local? And why would someone like her be part of this horrid operation? Could this be the real scheme behind her sabbatical?

Shock morphed to indignation. Anger fueled the energy to his feet and he started after her, except Mrs. Badri’s hand grabbed his arm, preventing his advance. “What?” He growled at her.

She blinked in surprise and her grip loosened. “I said it’s time to head back for the auction.”

Realizing he was still the abominable Mr. Austin Legesse, Clement’s scowl eased away. “Oh… right.”

Mrs. Badri eyed him askance. “Ready to go?”

“Yes.” Clement shrugged her hand away and pocketed his fists. “Let’s go.” He gestured with his chin for her to lead the way and once she turned toward the church, he turned a glare in the direction of the tent. One way or another, he was going to find Karen and demand an explanation for her presence here.

“I don’t think we can take any more,” Ashon finally said the dreaded words. A knot appeared between his brow and he looked down at the four children. “I have four already and that leaves no space for you.”

Karen shook her head. “Go without me for now.”

He looked at her as if she’d grown a second head. “Are you crazy? I can’t leave you here.”

“Just for now. I’ll find a way to hide the next five until you return…”

Voices sounded just outside the tent and both Ashon and Karen froze. The flap of the tent lifted and the supervisor returned with a woman in tow.

Karen gasped sharply, recognizing the woman instantly. It was Petra from HopeWell!

At the audible gasp, the young woman looked at Karen and squinted at her disguise. Then her eyes widened in recognition. They’d been found out!

<<Chapter 18 || Chapter 20>>

Sanctuary, Chapter 9

Posted on 28/06/2017

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 practiced Southern twang. “I registered months ago!” Then he set his fierce glare on 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—”

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

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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