Posts tagged “Danger

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 16

Posted on 12/07/2017

With one arm slung over Ashon’s shoulder, Karen limped alongside her rescuer out to the front of the building. Her breath was labored from having barely survived being suffocated to death, and every part of her body hurt. She groaned in pain, bowing over her stomach.

Ashon gripped her waist to hold her up. “We’re almost there, Missionary. Just a few steps more.”

The urgency in his voice reminded her that her attacker was only a few feet away and could get up at any minute. Even though she’d managed a choke-hold mastered after eight years of taekwondo, thanks to her father’s insistence that his three children learn self-defense, that bear of a man wouldn’t be held for too long.

“Slow down,” Ashon berated her softly as he guided her to the passenger’s side of his cab.

Karen bit her bottom lip to keep from crying out; the pain almost unbearable. She almost wondered if death was better than this… She leaned her head back and slowly released a breath. This wasn’t what she’d signed up for; leaving her comfortable apartment in downtown Houston and her mundane but well-paid job to stumble on a nefarious plot to sell children and survive by her rusty defense skills. Oh how she wished for a warm bubble bath and a bowl of her mom’s five-meat lasagna.

“People are inherently evil,” Jennifer’s words interrupted her silent misery and she stiffened, recalling her old former roommate’s reasoning for illegal adoption.

Ashon ducked into the driver’s seat and started the ignition. Karen grabbed his hand as he reached for the gearstick. “Wait.”

He glanced over. “What? Did you forget something?”

She shook her head. “We can’t leave yet.”

His brow furrowed. “What? Why not?”

“I can’t leave him there.”

“Why do you care? He tried to kill you.” Ashon searched her features and scowled. “Missionary, there’s a difference between good Samaritan and stupid. And what you’re thinking is very stupid.”

She frowned. “There were children in that building. Many of them, but they’re gone. Right?”

Ashon nodded reluctantly. “The building is empty.”

Karen bit her bottom lip. “Illegal adoption.”

“What?”

She looked back at him. “I have to talk to him.”

“He’s unconscious.” Ashon stared as though she’d gone mad.

“Not for long.” Karen shook her head. “He’ll get up soon and we have to be ready when he does.”

Ashon watched helplessly as she shifted in her seat and opened the passenger door. “Ready for what? Missionary?” He groaned as she pushed herself from the seat and out of the car. Then heaving a sigh of frustration, he turned off the engine and stepped out of the car to follow her.

Moments later, the unconscious man was jarred awake when Ashon poured a bucket of cold water over his face. The man jerked upright, sputtering in shock and alarm. His hands and legs flailed, thinking he was drowning until the last drop of water. Then he dragged a hand over his face, gasping for air.

Ashon yielded the metal bucket like a weapon and stood at Karen’s side. She was perched on a chair, holding the half-broken bottle in her hand.

Coming to his senses, the man blinked through red eyes at the pair before him. Immediately recognizing the woman he was assigned to get rid of, he lunged forward.

Ashon slammed the bucket against the side of his head, sending the man on his back.

“Don’t kill him,” Karen reminded him.

“We should be done with him and leave,” Ashon said through gritted teeth, watching the man sit up. “Don’t try anything stupid or you’ll die.”

Choking on a cough, the man narrowed his eyes at both and then lowered on Karen.

“Why did you try to kill me?” Karen asked.

When the man didn’t respond, Ashon clunked the man on the head. “Answer what the lady asks you.”

Karen sighed when the man stubbornly remained silent. “It doesn’t matter why. Where are the children?”

This time, the tension in the man’s eyes eased a little. His gaze flickered to Ashon’s bucket and down to the bloody bottle in Karen’s hand. He grimaced as though remembering the surprising blow to his temple.

“Speak!” Ashon commanded in a stern tone, holding the bucket closer to the man’s head.

“Dunno.”

Ashon scoffed in disbelief. One corner of Karen’s lips turned in a sneer. “Are you an imbecile or a dog?”

The man’s face hardened and his stare fixed on her face. She didn’t flinch, unafraid. “Do you blindly follow your boss’ commands without knowing why? Are you that stupid?” Karen waved the broken side of the bottle in front of his face, a smile forming when he grimaced and leaned away slightly. “Before I dig this into your skull, tell me where the children are.”

He swallowed hard, Adam’s apple bobbing. His expression turned calculative, skittering between the two.

“Don’t even think with that empty head of yours,” Karen said, leaning back. “I’ll put you in another chokehold and this time, you won’t wake up.”

Something akin to fear flitted in his eyes. Ashon smirked and nudged the man’s injured temple. “Fool. Just tell her the truth and go free.”

“It’s too late,” the man sneered, earning a hit from Ashon’s bucket. “It’s true!”

“I’m not playing with you,” Karen snapped, pointing the sharpened end at his face. “Those blood streaks on your face will be permanent scars if you don’t stop fooling around. Where are they?!”

“I don’t know!” the man roared in frustration.

Ashon looked down at Karen, worry etched in his brow. “I think he’s telling the truth.”

“I don’t think so,” Karen said through gritted teeth and abruptly stood from the chair. She kicked the man in his chest until he fell on his back.

Before the man could grab Karen, Ashon hurried to grab the man by his shoulders and hooked an arm around his neck. “What are you doing?” he berated Karen who knelt in front the man.

Stare hard and unrelenting, Karen pressed the sharp edge against the man’s abdomen. “Have you heard of death by ruptured intestines?”

Both the man and Ashon gaped at her.

She didn’t blink. “I’m a nurse and a good one at that. Better than that creepy Petra chick. I know where exactly to gut you so you’ll die a very painful death.”

Even Ashon looked as frightened as the man he restrained, or at least did before Karen’s threat. The man stopped struggling under Ashon’s hold.

Karen nodded, satisfied for a bit. “Now, tell me where they’re going…”

“This is crazy!” Ashon protested from the driver’s seat half an hour later. He glanced over at Karen seated beside him. “You can’t do this.”

Karen shook her head, wiping the blood off her hands. “I don’t know what else to do.”

He clucked his tongue and pulled over the side of the road. “You can go home, Missionary. You can get on a plane and return to your easy life in America. No one will blame you. Not even your God.”

She looked his way, seeing clearly the worry in his eyes. Though they’d only just met, the few moments spent interrogating an unwilling bad guy for the truth had forged a friendship.

“This fight isn’t yours to fight, Missionary.”

Karen frowned. “Then whose fight is it? The government?”

Ashon sighed and looked back at the road ahead. “These things have been happening for a while.”

“And you have ignored it far too long.”

He flinched and tossed a glare at her. “That is not fair. What can a lowly cab driver do?”

“What you did just now is a start. Finding out where they’re taking them, whether sold to slavery or prostitution… or worse.”

Ashon swallowed hard and looked away. “And what if he’s lying?”

Karen sighed. “Then at least I tried. Going home now is not an option, even if I’m scared.”

“What if it’s dangerous?”

She hesitated, thinking about her family who would be waiting for her. Her eyes teared up. “I almost died back there. And the first thing I thought about were my folks at home, and the life that I would leave behind if I died in a foreign land.”

“Then go home, Missionary. Don’t waste your life—”

“I thought about going back and trying to live, knowing that those kids will never have the life that I’ve lived so far. They’d never get to finish school and graduate, or date whoever they wanted and fall in love, or eat chocolate-covered peanuts and cake…” She cast a glance at him.

Ashon stared at her forlornly.  Karen managed a smile. “I’m gonna be thirty-four soon and I can honestly say that I’ve lived a good life.”

“It’s not over yet, Missionary.”

“It sure isn’t. I still want to marry the man of my dreams, have his babies, and live to a ripe old age with all my grandchildren beside me.” Her eyes welled up with tears and she sniffed noisily.

Ashon heaved a sigh. “Missionary…”

“Missionary,” Karen echoed, looking back at him. “How can I aspire to be that if I’m not willing to risk my life for those I want to save for God? What kind of hypocrisy is that?”

“… You wouldn’t be the first one.” When Karen slanted a quelling stare his way, he averted his gaze. “You’re a stubborn one, Missionary.”

“That’s what I hear.” Karen rubbed at the dried stains on her fingers. After a few moments of silence, she sighed. “How far is Finch’awa from here?”

“Long.” Ashon eyed her warily and then heaved a sigh. “I will take you.”

“Oh no.” Karen shook her head. “I couldn’t ask you to do that. What about your family?”

He pulled out onto the main road, keeping his eyes ahead. “They’re gone. Lost my wife and kids to a fire years ago. I moved away to start a new life.”

Her heart ached for him. “I’m sorry Ashon. I didn’t know.”

“I didn’t mention it.” He glanced her way once. “On the worst day of my existence, Kutfi raided our neighborhood and took my surviving daughter along with a few others. We couldn’t find them.”

“Kutfi?”

“A terrorist group that attacks villages and steals children.” He gripped the steering wheel and the corner of his lips twisted in a sneer. “I ran to Kenya, thinking that darkness wouldn’t follow me. It seems I was wrong.”

Karen felt apologetic for getting him involved. “What country are you from, Ashon?”

“…Djibouti.”

Being a bachelor had its perks. Unlike his brothers who shared bank accounts with their wives and couldn’t easily spend their hard-earned money on spontaneous purchases, no one was monitoring his account closely. Clement handed the clerk his card and accepted the bag of his street clothes.

“The suit fits you well sir,” the clerk said, swiping the bank card before handing it back.

“Thank you.” He pocketed the card and quickly signed the receipt. “Is there a wig shop around here?”

The clerk looked up, one bushy brow arched. “Wig shop, sir?”

“For my wife. She’s into those things.”

“Wouldn’t know, sir…” the clerk said stiffly, accepting the merchant receipt copy. “Have a good day, sir.”

“Right,” Clement muttered, staring at the unnatural part of the clerk’s voluminous auburn curly hair. “Thanks.” He carried his bags and walked out of the store, dressed differently than when he first came in. He’d worn a simple t-shirt, loose jeans and sneakers. The clerk and attendants eyed him warily, but the minute he asked for one of their luxurious suits, they hurried at his beck-and-call.

Money ruled the world, and made people do very terrible things.

Clement slung the bag over his shoulders and stalked across the street to the beauty salon. The bell above the door welcomed him in, along with the potpourri of ladylike scents. A dark-skinned petite woman greeted him at the door with a bright smile. “Welcome. May I help you?”

“Yes you can,” he answered, scanning the shop. “Could I get one of your most hideous wigs?”

“Excuse me?”

“Something spirally, not straight. Oh, and is gray here.” he tapped his temple. “You got something like that?”

The woman looked befuddled but nodded. “Uh, I think so…”

“Great. Please show it to me.”

An hour later, an unrecognizable Clement Teka strolled into the hotel and walked up to the front desk. “Hello,” he said in English. “Could I use your phone? I must’ve misplaced my phone while out shopping.”

The man assessed him openly and deciding Clement was an affluent patron, he nodded. “Here you go, sir.”

“Thanks so much,” Clement grinned as he accepted the desk phone. Pulling out his wallet, he tugged out a scrap of paper he’d scribbled a phone number. Dialing the number, he waited as it rang.

An unfamiliar voice answered and Clement stood straighter. “Yes, good afternoon. This is Z.B. Culture Gallery correct? Good, could I please speak with Mrs. Badri? Yeah sure, I’ll hold.”

The desk manager placed a cold bottle of Perrier on the counter, and Clement gave him a smile. The man gestured for him to wait, and quickly untwisted the cap open. Fighting a chuckle at the man’s attempt to win his favor, Clement accepted the opened bottle and took a long sip of the disgusting water.

“Hello, this is Mrs. Badri. Who is speaking?”

Her haughty tone only made his stomach turn but Clement smiled through the disgust of having to play nice with the monster woman. “Hello Mrs. Badri, this is Austin Leg—”

“Oh Austin! What a lovely surprise. I wasn’t expecting to hear from you so soon.”

“Well, I couldn’t stop thinking about our last encounter.” Clement made a face and turned from the curious desk manager’s stare. “Hoping to take you up on your offer before I leave the country.”

“Oh really? Well I’ve been thinking about seeing you also.”

“Great minds think alike. So let’s make it happen?”

There was a brief pause and muffled voices on the other end. Then Mrs. Badri asked. “Where are you?”

“In the capital. I could come meet you at your gallery.”

“You seem in a hurry, Mr. Legesse.” Mrs. Badri chuckled low. “That excited to meet with me?”

Clement rolled his eyes. “Been meaning to buy some art. Figured I’d get it from an expert and a contemporary like yourself.”

“How flattering.”

He clenched his jaw and gripped the phone, awaiting her reply.

“I’m actually on my way to an auction. I’d love to have you accompany me, if you’re up for it.”

All hairs stood alert and Clement straightened. “Of course. Where?”

“Finch’awa. It’s not far from the capital by plane. I’m flying there by jet, so I’ll meet up with you there shortly.”

“Sounds good.” His fake smile slipped the minute the call disconnected. Reaching into his suit breast-pocket, Clement freed two twenty-dollar bills and handed it over along with the phone. “Thanks for your help.”

“Not a problem, sir,” the man answered amicably as he pocketed his tip. “Will you be booking a suite?”

“Hmm, maybe when I get back. Could you point me to the nearest car rental?”

“Certainly. I’ll have one of our guys drive you over there.”

“Brilliant.” Clement gestured to the lounge. “I’ll wait here then.”

“Yes sir. I’ll get them right away.”

“Sure, take your time.” Clement strolled to the lounge area and stood by the window; reluctant to wrinkle his suit. There he sipped the complimentary water while mulling over his next steps upon arriving at Finch’awa.

Not particularly keen on playing friendly with the she-demon Mrs. Badri, Clement mouthed a prayer for favor. It was strange asking God to aid his deceitful and dangerous mission… but it was for a good cause.

“Sir?”

Clement tucked away the prayer and turned to see the desk manager smiling. “Yes?”

“Your ride is here.”

<<Chapter 15|| Chapter 17>>

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