“But that was mean, Karen. Wasn’t there a better way to let him down easily?”
Karen rolled her eyes, sidestepping a man struggling with his roll-on luggage. “I already said no many times, and he still didn’t get it. What else was I supposed to do?”
“Threatening to bust his face should’ve been your last resort, if that.” Samina sighed. “I keep forgetting what a gangster you can be when provoked.”
“Well that’s not fair,” Karen countered, stepping around a column toward the terminal. “Why is it that men don’t get any flack for rejecting someone but women get labeled picky or gangster for saying no? Don’t I get a say who I want having access to my life?”
“No one says you can’t decide on who gets to be in your life, Kare-bear,” Samina said in a placating tone. “I’m merely making an observation that you get overly aggressive—“
“Aggressive,” Karen scoffed, slowing to a stop. “I’ll let anyone else call me that but not you. As my sister who should know me well, that word was uncalled for.” She ignored the curious stares from passersby. “I am not aggressive.”
“Okay fine, not aggressive.” Samina heaved a sigh. “Why the excessive reaction to guys? Don’t you think it’s high time you settle down?”
“No you didn’t,” Karen said, resuming her walk to the assigned gate. “You of all people shouldn’t be saying that to me. Weren’t you the one hopelessly single at age 30?”
“And I remember you saying the very same thing to me, pushing me to give Topher a chance.”
“So you’re returning the favor?” She stopped again, putting her free hand at her hip.
“I’m encouraging you to be flexible. If you really opened your eyes and looked around, the man of your dreams could be right in front of your face…”
Against her better judgment, Karen’s gaze roamed the airport terminal. It fell on a man standing near a phone charging station near her gate. Her heartbeat skipped at the familiar broad shoulders and physique of the man standing there, head bent as if studying his phone.
As Samina continued her soliloquy on meeting her husband when she least expected it, Karen recalled the unexpected encounter with Clement Teka at the airport. His easy smile and kind eyes appeared before her mind’s eye and Karen swallowed hard. Although it’d been weeks ago, she could still the solid warmth of his hands holding hers. She could feel the roughness of his shaven cheek against her lips and immediately drew the bottom lip between her teeth.
Karen stepped out of her reverie though her eyes remained on the man’s back. From where she stood, it certainly looked like Clement. Her pulse tripped. But what would he be doing in Kenya? Was he on another assignment?
Suddenly, a young boy crashed into the man’s legs and Karen drew a sharp breath as he shifted, his face coming into view. Her shoulders sagged in disappointment at the man’s unfamiliar face. Definitely not Clement Teka.
Drawing out a long sigh, Karen turned toward the gate for her flight and started walking again. “Yeah, I’m here…” she muttered, begrudging the roller-coaster ride her heart experienced at the fake Clement. She’d gotten excited for nothing.
“Did you hear a word I said?”
“Pardon me for not listening to how you met Topher for the umpteenth time. Remember I was there throughout the whole process, right?”
“You’re such a brat…” Samina scoffed. “And for your information, I was asking about the missionary guy you mentioned a while ago. Clement I think it was.”
Karen rolled her eyes as his name sent her heart skipping a beat. Perturbed, Karen spotted the nearest empty chair and perched on it. “Yeah so, what about him?”
“Oh boy,” Samina said, mirth in her voice. “You’ve got a problem with him too?”
Crossing her legs, she leaned into the chair and eyed the monitor with flight listings. Her flight to Kampala was still listed as delayed. She tamped a sigh. “Just not understanding what you’re getting at.”
“When will you get to see him? You’re heading over to Ethiopia next right?”
“I’ll see him soon…” But not soon enough in Karen’s opinion. She sat up abruptly, alerting a woman and her child sitting across from her. “Oh crap.”
Karen glanced over at the man who was now crouched in front of the boy. The fake Clement wore a smile that reminded her of the gentle smile that lit the real Clement’s face. She bit her bottom lip, mulling over what she’d just felt—what she hadn’t felt in such a long time.
Realization hit her like a slap in the face. At thirty-three, Karen had her fair share of boyfriends and almost-relationships to know what she now experienced was a budding crush on Clement Teka.
“Oh man.” She let out an incredulous laugh and shook her head, unaware of the attention she drew around her. “Oh man…”
“Okay, you’re scaring me. What’s going on?”
Karen placed a hand over her mouth, smudging the fresh stain on her lips. “I like him,” she whispered, wonderment in her tone.
“Like who? The slimy soccer guy?”
The question darkened Karen’s mood and her expression. “Heck no.”
“I’m joking…” Samina giggled. “Well duh, you couldn’t stop talking about him after your patient’s son’s wedding.”
“Really?” Karen arched a brow. “Me?” She hardly gushed about anyone.
“Uh-hmm. So what are you gonna do about this Mr. Clement guy?”
Karen shrugged and crossed her legs. “When I see him, we’ll go from there.”
“Or you could call now and check up on him. Find out how he is. You still have his card right?”
“Now that’s an idea!” Karen smirked. “This marriage life’s sure made you gutsier, Sammie.”
“Oh shush. Call him first and then call me afterwards.”
“Hey, I’m not gonna confess or anything—”
“Sam, it’s not—this woman.” Karen sighed at the dial-tone signaling the end of the call. She then groaned and hit her forehead with her hand repeatedly. “You’re too old for crushes, Karen. Get it together.”
Karen peeked around the phone to see the woman eying her skeptically while holding her timid child hiding under her arm. She swallowed a scoff and pushed back thick braids to reveal the Bluetooth earpiece. Then clicking her teeth when the woman averted her gaze, Karen stood and prepared to leave.
“Hey Karen!” a familiar voice called behind her.
Turning around, Karen watched Jennifer jogging toward her, hands full with souvenir bags. She arched a brow as the young woman came to a stop and bent over, gasping for air. “You okay?”
“Good,” Jennifer swallowed a breath and straightened to her full height. She flashed Karen a smile. “I thought I was gonna miss the flight.”
“It’s delayed for a few hours,” Karen replied dryly.
Jennifer’s brow furrowed, her smile disappearing. Something flitted in her eyes that had Karen eying her warily. The undecipherable expression eased away as Jennifer’s smile returned. “Oh well… We’ll get there eventually. Uh, excuse me, ladies room.” And without a word, she spun about her heels and hurried off with her luggage and souvenir bags toward the nearest bathroom.
Karen merely turned in search for a quiet corner to mull over the newfound discovery of her feelings for Clement. A few hours would be enough time to understand why the kind yet mysterious missionary intrigued her.
“This is crazy!” Priscilla protested and turned to toward the desk under the window where Clement sat with his back to her. “By far the dumbest plan I’ve ever heard! Worst than the last one even.”
Dula frowned in deep concentration while affixing a dusty-looking wig onto Clement’s head.
With both men ignoring her, Priscilla scowled and rounded the desk to inspect Dula’s handiwork on Clement’s face. What she saw only made her scowl deepen. “And is the mole really necessary? It looks too fake.”
“If you’re here to run your mouth and criticize, just leave.”
Dula paused at Clement’s cold tone. Priscilla steeled her spine. “Don’t you see how stupid this whole plan is? You’re fooling no one with this sorry attempt of a disguise.”
Clement slanted a withering glare at her and then at Dula. “Why’s she in here again?”
“She does makeup better than me,” Dula replied with a shrug, holding a brush to the synthetic curls.
“Anyone can do it better than you.” Priscilla snatched the brush. “Move.” Although he was physically stronger than her, Dula willingly stepped aside much to Clement’s rising annoyance.
“Give him back—”
“If you don’t want to get caught the minute you step foot in that marketplace, shut your trap.” She grabbed his chin and tilted it upwards. Both glared at each other.
In the tense silence, Dula shifted his feet uncomfortably. A war could erupt with Clement’s fiery temper and Priscilla’s sharp tongue, and he was tired of always playing mediator between the two. He’d hoped that the break from each other would do them good, but it’d proved worse in each other’s absence.
“Make it quick,” was Clement’s stiff response and closed his eyes.
Priscilla winked at Dula who nodded his thanks and started for the door.
“Go over the schedule, Dula,” Clement said, stopping Dula in his tracks.
Dula turned back to the room. “If you leave here by noon, you’ll get to Bahir Dar by six latest. The auction begins at seven and last till ten.” He paused when Priscilla sighed deeply, glanced once at her tense expression before continuing. “The broker’s name is Mahmoud. He’s got the list of bidders, which means you’ll have to bribe him. Besides the money we prepared, we—”
Priscilla sighed again and Clement’s eyes opened slowly. She averted his gaze and continued powdering the roots of the wig for a more-realistic graying hairline.
Dula waited only a moment before continuing. “We’ve prepared a box full of…” he paused yet again when Priscilla heaved a deep sigh.
Clement frowned. “What is it now?”
“It’s foolish to think that a seasoned broker’s will allow a stranger to bid without verifying authentic ID. You don’t think he’ll be suspicious about your intentions?”
“We’re prepared,” Dula supplied before Clement could answer. “Once he arrives in Bahir Dar, Clem becomes Mr. Legesse, a businessman from Debre Marqos in need of—”
“Spare me the details,” Priscilla said coldly, lowering her stare to Clement’s. “It doesn’t matter if you changed your voice or spoke fluent Oromo, you look nothing like a middle-aged greedy businessman with a sick fondness for young boys.” She said that last bit with a sneer.
Clement’s lips thinned and he glared at her. “Since you have yet to come up with a more viable solution…”
“I don’t need to come up with one to know yours sucks.”
He scoffed. “Of course it does, but at least I’m doing something.”
“And after you go risking your life with that hot temper of yours, who’ll protect us here? When they realize they’ve been hoodwinked by a missionary pastor from Bichena, what stops them from coming after us?” Priscilla frowned at their pointed silence. “Don’t tell me you didn’t think of—”
“Dula, take the brush and finish the job. She’s done here.” Clement averted his face and closed his eyes.
“I can’t believe you. Stubborn, blind fool.” She slammed the brush on the table, brushed past Dula and slammed the door on her way out.
Clement heaved a deep sigh in the silence.
“She’s right, y’know,” Dula finally said at Clement’s right shoulder.
“You got a better idea?” Clement’s lips twitched a smile at Dula’s silence. “Then come finish the makeup. It’s almost noon.”
Dula shuffled noisily to the spot Priscilla had abandoned. “What if it’s not just the Kutfi you meet there? Most of these guys know each other from other auctions. They may be suspicious at a newcomer.”
Clement’s eyes opened, his glare hard on the windowsill. He could hear the children’s innocent laughter as they played in the compound. “It’s a risk I’m willing to make.”
“What about your family? What do we tell them if…”
His gaze shifted to Dula’s, and he knew his friend was still conflicted letting him go alone. He managed a smile. “I don’t plan on dying anytime soon. Trust me.”
Unconvinced, Dula heaved a deep sigh but continued powdering Clement’s curly-haired wig.
“Have no guilt, my brother,” Clement said after a moment of silence. “If I was married and had a young child, I’d have to let you go alone.” His lips twitched when Dula grunted. “It’s biblical, y’know.”
“A soldier does not go to battle so soon after his wedding ceremony. He has a year to settle his household and make his wife happy before leaving for war.”
“It’s been two years since my wedding ceremony,” Dula drawled with a hint of mirth in his voice.
“The Lord gives exceptions. You just had your son.” Clement grinned easily. “He’ll understand.”
“And this is war?”
Smile fading, Clement met Dula’s pointed stare. “Depends on what happens at the auction.”
The wrinkles in Dula’s face only deepened. “That’s why I can’t have you go alone. This is dangerous—“
The door swung open and both men turned to see Ejigu waltz in, a duffel bag slung over one shoulder. “It’s time to go, Brother.”
Clement sat up in alarm. “What…”
“I’m going with you,” Ejigu said as calmly as the expression on his face.