Mrs. Badri walked quickly down the narrow hallway with her bodyguard in tow, both in search for a missing Austin Legesse who excused himself for a bathroom break.
After his absence stretched to half an hour, she reluctantly left the auction in Mahmoud’s care and gestured for her bodyguard to follow. Pushing open the door and stepping onto the ramp that would lead them to the temporary campground, she slowed to a stop and gaped at the scene before her.
Tables were overturned, several tents collapsed and a handful of children roamed the grounds aimlessly. Some of the workers managed to herd as many children as possible, but the others ran back and forth, yelling at each other. It was complete disorder, and Mrs. Badri despised disorder.
“What is the meaning of this?” she demanded, her voice muffled by the ruckus. She grabbed the shoulder of a worker hurrying past, realizing belatedly it was Alice, the co-owner of Nairobi’s HopeWell Foundation. She quickly loosened her hold. “What is happening?”
“An intrusion,” Alice wheezed, trying to catch her breath.
She frowned, eyes moving over the chaotic scene. “What? Who would dare?”
“Americans,” the woman sneered and jerked a thumb over her shoulder at the young woman standing meekly beside her. “Not to worry, my people are searching all over for her.”
Mrs. Badri’s expression darkened as she turned to her bodyguard. “Find out where Mr. Legesse has wandered off to…” Then she returned her attention to Alice. “What American?”
Alice swallowed air. “A pesky nurse from Nairobi.”
“Nairobi? You brought her here?!”
“Not quite…” Her gaze shifted over Mrs. Badri’s shoulder. “We will take care of it.”
“You better or you will pay dearly for this,” Mrs Badri said and with one condescending glare, turned away.
Alice waited for Mrs. Badri to stomp back toward the church before she scoffed in disgust. “Entitled witch…” She then turned to a silent Petra. “Return to the tent immediately.”
Petra retreated to the Quarantine tent and Alice hurried to help the workers gather the wandering children. Two shadowed figures dashed past the tent and toward the trees. One of the pair tripped over and the other backtracked to aid his comrade before the two continued their hastened retreat to the bushes.
Karen tugged her hand from Clement’s and bent over her knees, gasping for air.
Clement rounded her bent form to peek through the tree curtain hiding them from view. They had the advantage of seeing the camp and the workers running about like headless chickens. “Coast is clear. Let’s go.”
“Hold on.” Karen groaned. “This is… crazy.”
“I did tell you to stay in the van and wait.”
“Shush.” Karen straightened and stretched her back. “Where are we going?”
“The tent nearest the church.” Clement peeked out once more. “There are too many people. Let’s wait a while.”
“Thank God,” Karen said, lowering to a squat. Instantly, she hissed in pain and dropped to the floor on her bottom. Straightening her right leg, she cradled her foot.
“It’s probably sprained,” Clement muttered, squatting beside her. “We need to wrap it,” he said, placing his hands under hers. “Give me your scarf.”
“But it’s my disguise,” Karen protested weakly as she loosened the veil from her neck and held it out.
“They’re either looking for Karen Wells and whoever you’re supposed to be in this getup, so we’ll have to change your outfit.” He gently lowered her foot and shrugged off his suit jacket, then began unbuttoning his shirt.
“Whoa!” Karen averted her gaze and squeezed her eyes shut. “W-what are you doing?”
“Relax,” Clement muttered, pulling off the dress shirt to reveal a white fitted tee underneath. “Put this on.”
Karen warily regarded the shirt he dropped over her knees. “W-why?”
Tugging off the curly wig, he placed it on top of the shirt. “Because no one’s gonna look twice at a pair of disheveled locals. Put this on too.” Clement turned his back to her.
Biting her bottom lip, she reluctantly pulled off her tunic and set it aside before reaching for the discarded men’s shirt. “Don’t turn around,” she warned, gaze fixed on his back as she inserted one arm at a time.
Clement snorted. “Suspicious, much? Relax, I’m a man of my word.”
Karen rolled her eyes, buttoning the shirt quickly. “Just say you won’t.”
“I won’t,” he said, amusement in his tone. It was a dire situation they were in, but he couldn’t hold back the mirth. Never in his wildest dreams would he have imagined Karen on the same bizarre mission to rescue stolen children.
She paused, watching his shoulders shake as though holding back laughter. “What’s so funny?”
He shook his head, one hand near his mouth. “Nothing. You done yet?”
Giving him a hairy stare, she buttoned the shirt all the way down. “Almost…”
Clement pressed his lips together to muffle the laugh. A loud tear made him choke and he whipped around, his eyes widening as Karen ripped off one of the sleeves. Humor fled instantly and he grabbed her hand. “What are you doing?”
“The sleeves are too big,” Karen simply replied and tugged her hand from his. “It’s cumbersome.”
“Cumber…” Clement sighed deeply as she tossed the sleeves aside. “That was an expensive shirt, Karen.”
“It’s a plain white shirt, Clement.”
“That plain shirt costs more than your plane ticket, the one you didn’t end up using by the way.”
“Well, that was dumb.” Karen fastened the wig onto her head. “Why spend money so carelessly?
“Yeah, remind me of that the next time you need me to bail you out.”
“Petty, much?” She patted his back. The feel of his solid muscles under her fingers had her pause. He certainly wasn’t built like any pastor she’d ever met. She lifted her hand quickly, flexing her fingers. “Relax, I’ll reimburse you.”
“Didn’t ask you to do that. You done dressing yet?”
“Yup.” Karen waited until he’d turned around. “How do I look?”
“Unrecognizable.” He glanced down at her foot. “Think you can make the trip? If not, I can carry you.”
Although he said it casually, the picture of him sweeping her off her feet made her face warm. Karen cleared her throat. “I’m fine. Let’s go.”
When he held out his hand, she nudged aside. “I’m good. Lead the way.”
“…You’re something else.” He shook his head and turned to peer out, spotting a few workers strolling through the campgrounds, keeping guard over a few of the standing tents. He exhaled a breath. “On second thought, you stay while I get the kids back here. Once we’ve got enough, we’ll head for the van.”
“I’m not a sitting duck, Clement. I can help.”
“Not without slowing us down or making your injury worse. We can’t risk that.” He turned to her. “It’ll be better this way. Can you trust me?”
She had no other choice now that Ashon left without her. Clement was her only ticket out of Finch’awa and if anything happened to him, she would be stuck here. “Be careful.”
“For sure. I’ll be back.”
When Clement ducked out from under the curtain of leaves into the campground, Karen released the breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding and began to pray he would return safely and soon.
He’d never been good at hide and seek; a game championed only by Darah and Eleazar, his youngest siblings. They could hide for hours, until they’d been forgotten by everyone else. Now crouching behind a table, Clement channeled one of them as he contemplated sneaking past the two workers guarding the tent.
Security had tightened since the news of Karen’s intrusion. Clement gritted his teeth as a broad-shouldered man strolled up to the workers, a rifle slung over one shoulder. The thought of Karen being a target of that weapon angered him.
The quicker he got to the children, the sooner they could all leave this Godforsaken place. So he geared himself to bolt as the armed guard turned at a shout across the camp. The three men shifted their focus and Clement got ready to take his first step when a lone figure ran past the table.
He ducked out of sight as the three men gave chase after the figure, leaving their post clear. Seeing his chance, Clement bolted across the path toward the unmanned tent.
With one quick glance around him, he ducked inside. A gasp inside and he stiffened, immediately spotting a woman sitting by the children. Her widened gaze looked up from head to toe, and Clement regretted discarding his disguise too early.
She stood abruptly and stepped in front of the children, arms stretched wide like a shield. “Who are you?” she demanded in Amharic, suspicion clear on her face.
He ignored her and took a step forward.
“Stop!” she held up a hand, visibly agitated. She grabbed a child’s shoulder, eyes darting between Clement and the entryway.
“Listen,” he started in her native tongue. “It is dangerous there. I came to help.”
She narrowed her eyes at him and shook her head. “Stay away. You thief.”
Clement scowled, unable to help himself. “You’re the thief here. Stealing children from their families and selling them off.” He advanced another step, forcing the woman to inch backward. “How much did you sell your soul for, huh? A hundred? Five? Ten?”
Her gaze volleyed between him and the children that remained seated, heads lolling. She drew in her bottom lip, conflict in her features.
“Since you can’t answer, it must be quite the payoff. Shame on you.” He took another step forward. “So here’s what’s going to happen. You will quietly sit there while I take these children back to their families. You’ll keep your mouth shut, at least until I’ve left with each one of them, and perhaps I’ll pray for your soul to be saved. Deal?”
Brows furrowed, her skittish gaze darted over his shoulder.
“Don’t even think of yelling out. There’s no one out there to rescue you.” Clement flashed a menacing smirk when she flinched. “Now if you don’t want my trouble, sit still and we’ll leave quietly. Understood?”
Quickly, he moved toward the cot and assessed each child. Two he could easily carry and the other three, he would lead them by the—
The woman rushed past him for the exit. Clement heaved a deep sigh in exasperation but kept his focus on which child to lift in his arms first.
The sound of the tent flap lifting and dropping back into place had him smirking. “Back so soon…?” Glancing over his shoulder, he frowned as Karen limped to his side. “I thought I told you to stay hidden.”
“You were taking too long.” She brushed past him to squat in front of the children. “Were you planning on carrying them by yourself?”
“I planned on a few trips,” Clement mumbled defensively.
“Well don’t just stand there. That woman’s gonna return with those scary guys and we’ll be stuck.” She shifted, presenting her back. “Help me.”
He raised a brow. “Nu-uh, your ankle.”
“Clement,” she said in a tone that brooked no argument.
“Must you be so stubborn?”
Karen slow-blinked. “The more time we waste arguing, the less time we’ll have to escape unnoticed.”
“You’re just gonna slow us down. I had it under control—”
Clement reluctantly placed one of the children onto her back. “If I hear one word about your ankle later…”
“You won’t. Let’s go.” Karen secured one hand around the child on her back before standing. With her free hand, she assisted Clement to position the next smallest child onto his back.
With all five children were accounted for; Karen responsible for two and Clement for three, they moved toward the tent’s entrance.
Thundering feet sounded just outside the tent and both Clement and Karen halted. They glanced worriedly at each other. Clement stepped in front of her to peek through a narrow opening beside the tent flap.
Workers rounded in front of the tent; some armed with rifles and clubs.
“How many?” Karen whispered, a tremor in her tone.
“Too many.” Clement watched helplessly as the workers quietly snuck toward the tent, the armed men backing them. From the group, he couldn’t spot the attendant that must’ve tattled against him. “Step back,” he ordered Karen in a quiet tone, his mind moving a mile a second to figure out how to disarm the men before they had a chance to harm Karen and the children.
Thankfully, Karen readily distanced herself and the children from him. Worst scenario, he’d distract the guys outside while she escorted the children out through the back.
That softly-spoken appeal pervaded his musing. Clement glanced over his shoulder at her. Karen’s bottom lip was caught between her teeth, and her eyes revealed worry. In that split moment, Clement wished to hold her and to wipe that worried look in her eyes.
He swallowed the desire and fixed his gaze on hers. “Can you manage all five?”
“I won’t have to since you’re coming with me.”
His lips twitched. “Well, I…”
A revving engine roared outside the tent, followed by a blaring horn. Both Karen and Clement perked at the sound. A chorus of incoherent shouts responded to the blaring horn. Clement returned his attention to the tent opening.
Three men stood with their backs to the passageway. Shifting his view over the shoulder of the man on the outermost right, he squinted to see clearer. Panic and anger filled the voices shouting outside and the workers seemed disoriented, glancing every which way for the pesky sound.
“What’s happening?” Karen whispered.
“Looks like a car,” Clement muttered, squinting at the lights flashing intermittently. He watched as the guards stepped away from the tent, clearing his view of the campground. An incoming silver car zoomed past the tents, and the workers chased after it including the men guarding the tent.
The campgrounds emptied as the car diverted attention from the tent. Clement’s shoulders drooped in relief.
Karen stood at his side within seconds. “What happened?”
Wasting no time, Clement gathered the children and led the way out of the tent. Though sure the campground was relatively empty, he paused to scan their surroundings before letting Karen know the coast was clear.
She promptly came to stand at his side and scanned the area for herself. “Where’s everyone?”
“Gone for now.” His eyes settled on the shadows in the trees. “Let’s run for—”
Karen dashed for the trees with the child on her back bopping and the other stumbling to keep up.
Clement swallowed a laugh and followed, making sure none of the children he escorted would fall behind. They stumbled into the shadowed bushes, Karen careful to lower the child from her back onto the grass before she lowered herself to the floor, immediately cradling her injured ankle.
Although grateful for her help, Clement scowled and squatted before Karen. “How bad is the pain?”
“I’m okay,” she gritted through clenched teeth.
“No you’re not.” Clement watched as she positioned herself to stand. “What—where are you going?”
“We can’t waste a minute.” Karen ushered the five children by circling her arms around their shoulders, and proceeded to limp toward the cars parked down the sloping hill.
Clement watched her with growing concern. Her pronounced limp indicated a worse injury than he’d anticipated. But she was right; they couldn’t waste even a second. He sighed, following after them.