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?”
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.
“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!