Dula refused to sit with the traitor and opted to drive while Ashon and Clement debated who would watch Ejigu. In the end, Ashon volunteered for the task and Clement quietly took the seat beside his friend Dula. Saying their goodbyes to a mournful Wubit and a worried Priscilla, the men began the long drive to Djibouti.

Baba, do you know how to shoot a rifle?” Dula asked after a few moments of tense silence.

“We’re shooting guns?” Ashon asked from behind. Ejigu remained mournfully silent, eyes downcast as he sat in one corner of the jeep.

Clement didn’t answer, his mind on Karen. No matter what Ashon said, it was his fault she was in this dangerous situation. He should’ve never invited her to visit him, never gotten her involved. He wouldn’t forgive himself if anything happened to her.

“Traitor,” Dula finally called out to Ejigu. “Make yourself useful and tell us what to expect.”

With a nudge of Ashon’s elbow to his side, Ejigu grimaced and jerked to an upright sitting position. “It’s as you imagine… the Kutfi are dangerously strong and Mrs. Badri’s fortress is almost impenetrable.”

Ashon shook his head. “Then how do you suppose we get inside?”

“I’m turning myself in,” Clement answered.

Dula jerked his stare to Clement. “Are you mad? Why would you willingly walk into the lion’s den?”

“He’s right,” Ejigu agreed, panic in his eyes. “They won’t have mercy on you.”

“And you expect me to let Karen take the fall for me?” Clement snapped, rendering Ejigu speechless. In fact, all three men sat dumbfounded. He sighed. “I can’t do that. I can’t leave her there.”

“You love her, don’t you?”

Clement glared at his friend beside him. “Is that relevant right now?”

“It is, Brother.” Dula’s smile was weak. “It’ll make this mission all the more significant.”

“Even if I didn’t love her, I’d still do this.”

“I know.” Dula patted his friend’s arm and then placed it back on the steering wheel. “Then let’s do this.”

“Wait a minute,” Ejigu protested, eyes wild with alarm. “Are you really letting him turn himself in?”

Ashon clapped a hand on Ejigu’s injured shoulder. “Yes, and you’re gonna help us. Start talking.”

Ejigu felt the weight of Dula’s glare and heaved a deep sigh. “What do you want to know?”

“Everything,” Clement instructed. “From how many soldiers guard her fortress, their weaponry, where the…” he drew in a breath and released it slowly. “Where the prisons are. I want to know everything.”

Ejigu stared at the back of Clement’s head before nodding. “Fine…”

The three men sat in silence, hanging onto every word Ejigu spoke as he detailed the impenetrable fortress of Mrs. Zeinab Badri and her host of Kutfi soldiers. They’d need all the information they could get out of him if they were going to rescue Karen and leave unscathed.

A few hours into their trip, the four men stepped out of the jeep for a rest break. Dula and Ashon walked a few feet away to relieve themselves first while Clement and Ejigu stretched stiff limbs on the side of the road. Stretching his left leg, Clement snuck a look at Ejigu who grimaced in pain. No doubt the Kutfi had been merciless in their assault, but thinking about Ejigu’s attack made him more worried for Karen’s wellbeing.

He turned away and stretched his other leg, intent on ignoring Ejigu. Except the niggling he’d had after a fight with any of his siblings now plagued him. Clement tossed an exasperated glance at the sky and sighed. “Why’d you do it?”

Ejigu averted his gaze to the grassy floor and Clement nodded. “It doesn’t matter. I’m sure you don’t even know how you got this far and so low… In any case, I forgive you.” When Ejigu looked up with surprise in his eyes, Clement arched a brow. “I may not be a saint by any stretch of the imagination, but I am called to a higher standard of Christ. If I can’t forgive my brother, how can I preach on God’s forgiveness?”

Tears brimmed Ejigu’s eyes and Clement sighed. “But if you were in such a bind, you should’ve come to us. We would’ve helped you. Why become a double agent? Weren’t you tired of pretending?”

Ejigu’s lips trembled and he looked down. “I couldn’t tell anyone. No one would understand.”

“I still don’t but that’s not important. Christ expects me to forgive as He forgave me. Revenge is His, so I should let Him deal with you as I’m sure he’s doing now. You feel terrible, don’t you?”

The young man sniffled noisily, dragging a hand under his runny nose.

Although he’d knew forgiveness to a guilty man was like heaping coals over his head, Clement marveled at how it broke Ejigu to receive grace from one he’d betrayed. Narrowing the distance between him and his young friend, Clement placed a hand on his quivering shoulder. “So you’ve got to help us get rid of them for good. Maybe we could probably do without you, but I have a feeling your help will make the difference. Will you help me… Brother?”

The younger man began weeping bitterly. By the time Dula and Ashon returned from the rest stop, they found Clement holding a crying Ejigu.

Dula paused. “Did you hit him again?”

Clement merely gave his friend a wan smile and patted Ejigu’s back. “He’s alright.”

Ashon and Dula exchanged wary glances, and Clement held Ejigu at arms’ length. “I’m giving you one more chance. Don’t let me down.”

Ejigu nodded quickly, wiping the tears from his face. “I promise.”

Dula arched a brow as Clement slung an arm around Ejigu and led him to the rest stop. “We’re making up now?” he drawled to no one in particular, then shook his head. “He’s too kind for his own good.”

“Just like Missy… they would make a fine pair,” Ashon remarked, a slight smile on his face. He turned to his son-in-law. “Do you think he will really turn himself in?”

“He means what he says,” Dula muttered, stretching his arms over his head. “But it’s our duty to keep him from getting himself killed.” He glanced at his father-in-law. “You think Karen’ll be able to hold on till then?”

“She’s a brave one,” Ashon responded and then heaved a sigh. “But she’s been through a lot. I don’t know.”

“Then we better pray she can hold on just a little bit longer…”

By the time Clement and Ejigu trudged out of the bushes, Dula and Ashon waited in the front of the jeep. Clement gestured for Ejigu to enter first, patting his shoulder in silent encouragement and then climbed in after him. Dula started the engine and maneuvered the Jeep onto the road.

“So what’s the plan?” Dula asked, glancing once at Clement from the rearview mirror.

“Ejigu will lead me inside while you two wait it out.”

“No way—” Dula paused when Ashon placed a hand over his shoulder, silently willing him to silence.

Clement pulled out his phone, dialed a number and held it to his ear. He then sat up. “Priscilla, I need you to do me a favor. Give me your father’s private number.”

Dula and Ejigu stared at him, both dumbfounded for they knew Clement had been adamant about leaving the government out of their covert missions; rejecting Priscilla’s offered assistance… until now.

“Yes I did say it wouldn’t work before but now I do,” Clement calmly answered Priscilla’s protests and his friends’ unanswered questions. “It’s time we work together, don’t you think?”

“I wish I could understand but I can’t make sense of this,” Karen said between bites. “You left your job and sold your apartment so you could find your birth mother? Did you really think she’d jump for joy to see you?”

Jennifer sat cross-legged, watching Karen devour the food on the tray, and smiled wryly. “It’s a wonder that you even have an appetite right now.”

Karen slowed chewing and looked at Jennifer. She felt sorry for the young woman who didn’t look that overjoyed about reuniting with her mother. If anything, she looked like she would rather be somewhere else than here. She lowered the smoked chicken sandwich onto the metal plate and placed her hands on her folded legs. “Were you expecting me to starve myself or keep crying?”

“Or at least look worried.”

“I am worried,” Karen countered gently. “I’m deathly afraid I might not get to go home. I’m scared that she’ll sell me to some brothel or ask her evil guards to choke the life out of me…” She exhaled a shaky breath. “I’m even more afraid for Clement and what she’ll do to him if he comes here.”

“You think he’ll show?” Jennifer nudged the metal cup of cool milk toward Karen.

Karen merely stared at the cup. “I hope not. There’s nothing for him here.” Even still, Mrs. Badri’s ominous words from earlier knotted her insides.

“Then what will you do? How could you eat knowing he may not come for you?”

“I’m gonna find a way out.” Karen put a hand over her tray when Jennifer attempted to steal a potato wedge. “Girl, I know you can easily get food for yourself. Why steal a prisoner’s food?”

Jennifer scoffed and refolded her arms. “You’re something else.”

“That’s what they tell me,” Karen said, tossing a wedge into her mouth. “Wanna help me sneak out?”

Jennifer paused, looking at Karen as if she’d grown another head. “And why would I do that?”

“Because I don’t believe for a second you’re here to reunite with that monster, no offense.” Her eyes moved over the young woman’s face. “I think you’re up to something.”

“You’re delusional from being locked up too long. I’m not up to anything but feeding my mother’s prisoner.” She grabbed the tray and started to stand when Karen grabbed her wrist. “What are you doing?”

“Look me in the eye and tell me the truth.”

“Are you insane? Do you have any idea what could happen to you if you don’t cooperate? If you even attempt to escape, she won’t hesitate to kill you.”

“And you’re okay with that? Do you want to be like her that badly?” When something flickered in Jennifer’s eyes, Karen continued. “Be honest with yourself, Jen. You resent her for abandoning you. You’re angry at her for giving you up so she could make a living out of selling innocent children—”

Jennifer yanked her hand free and stumbled backward, wide eyes unfocused. “You don’t know anything.”

“I know this isn’t you,” Karen answered, unfazed. She stood and walked up to the bars that separated her from Jennifer. “The girl I shared a room with wouldn’t be party to this. The girl who stayed up all night to make cards for the Kibera children or washed their hair until her fingers were wrinkled wouldn’t be okay with this.” She shook her head. “Not that Jen, not my friend.”

Tears glistened in Jennifer’s eyes and she bit against her quivering bottom lip. Her brow wrinkled, a sign of her inner conflict and Karen felt only sympathy for the girl who probably wanted to believe that her birth mother was good in spite of all the evil she saw before and around her.

“Whether you want to believe me or not, Mrs. Badri is not your mother,” Karen said gently, wrapping her hands around the bars. She noticed the flicker in Jennifer’s eyes and felt encouraged to continue. “You were raised by good parents, you told me so, parents who gave up everything for you to have a great life. Mrs. Badri gave you up to have a great life. She’s an evil and selfish woman; something you’ll never be.”

Jennifer sniffled noisily and a lone tear slid down her cheeks.

Karen’s heart ached for her young friend but couldn’t stop now. “Your curiosity about the woman that bore you isn’t wrong, but this woman isn’t your mother. Mrs. Badri doesn’t deserve the right or honor to be called your Mom so don’t give her that right.”

“I’m sorry, I—” Jennifer paused, glanced over her shoulder and then back at Karen with fear spread across her features. “I have to go.”

Karen watched helplessly as Jennifer hurried down the shadowed corridor and winced as the metal door slammed in place. She dropped to her haunches and leaned her forehead against the metal bars. “What now?” she whispered. “What do I do now?”

The metal door opened and Karen quickly scooted back to the wall. Relief loosened her shoulders at the sight of Jennifer and she crawled back to the front of the cell. “What happened?”

“Your guy is here.”

The slight smile slipped and alarm gripped her by the neck. “What?” she eked out.

Jennifer looked grave. “The preacher guy my moth—she’s looking for, he’s here.”

Astounded, Karen dropped on her backside. Clement was here?

“Where is she?” Clement demanded, not even attempting to struggle against the rock-hard grips of the Kutfi soldiers flanking him on every side. He glared at the woman standing a few feet away with Mahmoud and her stern-faced bodyguard. “Where is she, you demo—” his head jerked back as one of the men struck him on the face.

Being held back by soldiers a foot away, Ejigu winced.

“You’re in no position to make demands, Mr. Legesse,” Mrs. Badri drawled. “Or is it Reverend Teka?”

Clement’s jaw tightened as he straightened from the blow and glared openly at her. “I won’t answer anything until you tell me where she is…” he trailed off when Mrs. Badri burst into an evil cackle that sent shivers up his spine. He bunched his fists, angry yet helpless to do anything. “If you hurt her, I swear I’ll kill you—” he received another blow to his face but recovered quicker this time, fixing his glare on her face.

Her laugh halted and she arched one brow. “Should a pastor be threatening murder? But then again, a pastor wouldn’t pretend to buy children or trick people. Tell me, Mr. Teka, which is your real identity?”

“God will understand if the world was rid of you,” he sneered from a bleeding mouth.

Mrs. Badri held up a hand before the soldier could strike Clement one more time. Her expression darkened. “You didn’t do your proper research before you thinking you could trick me. Or else you would have realized my spy in your camp.” Her gaze swung to Ejigu who lowered his head.

Clement’s facial features twitched as she chuckled wickedly. “You must really think you’ve won, huh?”

Her smile froze but she raised her shapely brow. “You’ve been captured. What else could it be?”

“In case you didn’t know already, good always overcomes evil.”

Mrs. Badri scoffed derisively. “How convenient for you to spout your Bible here.” Her expression hardened as her gaze shifted to one of the soldiers. “Lock ‘em up.”

As the Kutfi soldiers shoved Clement and Ejigu towards the double doors, it swung open and a woman stepped inside, gasping for air. She glanced once at Clement and then rushed past him toward Mrs. Badri.

“What’s the matter?” Mrs. Badri asked.

“She’s gone.”

Clement whipped around, predicting the ‘she’ was Karen.

“What do you mean she’s gone?” Mrs. Badri demanded, anger contorting her features.

“I tried to bring her food,” the woman paused, gulping air. “A-and she knocked me down before… before grabbing the keys.”

Clement and Ejigu exchanged surprised looks, and Clement returned his attention to the woman who looked like she’d barely survived a brawl. He stared in awe at the woman’s disheveled appearance. Karen had escaped from her prison cell?

“We will find her,” Mahmoud promised, gesturing for the Kutfi soldiers that guarded the back doors. He led the way out of the double doors, the soldiers hurrying after him.

“I’m sorry—”

Mrs. Badri swung her hand at the woman’s face. “Who told you to go there? Who gave you permission?”

Stricken, the young woman held a hand to her injured cheek and gaped at Mrs. Badri.

Livid, Mrs. Badri turned to her bodyguard. “Lock her up and keep her out of trouble.”

The bodyguard grabbed the young woman who attempted to struggle in his unrelenting hold. She whimpered when she could struggle no longer. Mrs. Badri then pinned Clement with her murderous glare. “I won’t rest until I’m finished with the lot of you. Take them to their cells. No one sleeps until we find that pesky woman.” Turning on her heel, she sauntered in the other direction toward another set of double doors.

Clement watched as the bodyguard dragged the sobbing young woman after Mrs. Badri, and the doors shut behind them. He noticed that there were only four men in the room with them; the guards assigned to lock them up. His eyes sought Ejigu’s and though fear flitted in his friend’s eyes, Ejigu gave him an imperceptible nod.

The guards roughly pulled at their arms, turning them toward the open double doors. Clement mentally counted to four and extended a foot in front of a guard holding Ejigu. The man stumbled forward, his hold loosening on Ejigu’s arm. The young veteran didn’t waste a beat and swung his elbow into the other guard’s face and kicked his chest, sending the soldier staggering backwards.

As predicted, one of Clement’s guards released his arm to reach for Ejigu. Shoving his elbow into the other guard’s gut, Clement spun around and slammed a fist in the man’s face. Fighting as though they’d trained together for years instead of hours, Ejigu and Clement successfully disarmed the guards until they were the only two standing. The disabled soldiers rolled on the floor, groaning in pain.

Pocketing their newly-acquired weapons, the two friends shared a look of understanding and then parted ways; Clement headed out the door Mrs. Badri had exited while Ejigu hurried toward the prison cells.

As he hurried down the shadowed hallway, Clement prayed he would find Karen before anyone else.

Suddenly, a piercing sound cut through the silence. He halted, recognizing the sound as a gunshot. Clement’s eyes widened in realization and he started running toward the sound, fear nipping at his heels.

Then what sounded like a fire alarm blared through the silence following the gunshot. The wall and ceiling lights flashed on and off; alarm warning that danger was up ahead. He picked up his pace, his racing heart lodged in his throat. Black smoke slithered like a python from the end of the hall toward him, but Clement didn’t stop, running as fast as he could.

Holding one hand over his mouth and nose, Clement rushed into the blinding smoke.

<<Chapter 28 || Chapter 30>>