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