Posts tagged “suspense

Sanctuary, Chapter 28

Posted on 09/08/2017

An hour after Karen left with Ejigu, Clement paced the length of the empty chapel. Though he believed sending Karen home was the best decision for the two of them, he felt anything but peace. She hadn’t even looked at him, ready to leave after he’d walked away from her. Back then, he’d convinced himself it was better this way, before things got serious between them. Now he wasn’t so sure; he missed her already.

A rumble sounded on the roof and Clement groaned. Nothing like rain to darken his mood.

His phone rang and Clement tugged it free from his shirt pocket. The caller ID was unknown but he accepted the call anyway. “Hello?”

“Junior, hey.”

It was Darah, his only sister. He smiled, grateful for the brief distraction. “Hey. Back from your honeymoon?”

“Been back for weeks now. I guess you’ve been too busy to call home?”

Clement walked to the altar and sat on the steps. “Yeah, my bad. How’s married life?”

“Wonderful. You should try it soon.” She giggled when he snorted derisively. “So when are you coming to visit? Your nephew’s gonna burst out any minute.”

Clement smirked. “Sounds more like wishful thinking. You being for real right now?”

“For real,” Darah laughed. “I’m ready now but he’s taking his precious time to move… just like his dad.”

“I just returned from Houston a month ago. Can’t leave for a while.”

“Aww. Yeah, I guess that’s true… missionaries can’t be gone too long.”

“Glad you understand. Don’t worry, I’ll make it up to you and my namesake.”

Darah laughed. “Who said he’ll be your namesake? Any-hey, is Karen still with you?”

His smirk eased away. “Not anymore.”

“Oh, she left already? Did you get to spend some time with her? Hope you treated her well.”

“Sort of.” He rubbed his right earlobe. “Why are you all up in my business anyway? Don’t you have better things to do, like get ready for motherhood?”

Darah laughed. “Ooh, I can hear you getting defensive. You want the truth? I’m trying to set you up.”

Clement tossed an exasperated glance to the ceiling. “And why would you do that?”

“Because you two look cute together and it’ll be another fine Teka couple for the win. I’m never wrong about these things. Abe and Phoebe, Bart and Geri, and now you—”

“Oh please. All you did was nag ‘em to get together.”

“I recall you doing the same with Bart, so hush. Any-hey, it’s my turn to nag you to get a move on.”

“But why bug me when you should be taking care of yourself and J.R.?”

“I can multitask. Besides, if you marry Karen, you’ll be coming home more often.”

Clement scoffed. “That’s unlikely. There are people I’m responsible for here…” he trailed off, recalling the same words he’d spoken to Karen on their drive to Bichena. Except he’d rescinded on his promise and sent her away. Dragging a hand over his face, he sighed heavily. “Speaking of, how’s Eli?”

“Nice transition, Junior… Not.” Darah sighed. “He’s fine. He mention how he wants to come live with you?”

A furrow formed in his brow. “I thought he’d forget about it if I didn’t call back.”

Darah snorted. “Well he didn’t. He’s begging for his birth certificate to go get a passport.”

Clement rubbed the tension between his eyes. Just as he’d finally sent Karen back to America and away from the impending danger, his baby brother wanted to come. “I can’t deal with him right now.”

“He won’t leave us alone, Junior,” Darah bemoaned. “Maybe he can come stay for a month and see—”

“A month?!” Clement shook his head. “No way. What about school?”

“I guess he didn’t tell you. He wants to take a break from school for now. Abe and Bart blame you.”

Clement scowled. “Of course they do. Which is probably why they’ll let him come for a month or longer.”

“Well, they’re holding out right now because Phoebe says no.”

He sighed with relief. It was no wonder Phoebe was his favorite sister-in-law. She was reasonable.

“But she’s gonna cave. Geri already gave in. Y’know Eli’s relentless and won’t take no for an answer.”

“He’s being a brat.” Clement dragged a hand over his face, frustration mounting. Having Eleazar underfoot would complicate matters.

Just then, the chapel doors swung open and Clement looked up, his brow furrowed as a lone figure stumbled out of the darkness. Recognizing Ejigu, Clement stood abruptly. “Hey Darah, let me call you back.” He disconnected the phone and hurried to him.

Clothes soaked from the downpour, an injured Ejigu staggered toward Clement. Once Clement caught him from stumbling, Ejigu sagged against him and sobbed openly.

“What happened?” Clement glanced behind him, alarm seizing him. “Where’s Karen!?”

The younger man only groaned and turned his bleeding face to Clement’s shoulder. At that moment, Dula hurried into the chapel with Ashon at his heels. “What happened?” Dula asked, helping to hold Ejigu up.

“Where is Karen, Ejigu?!” Clement demanded, grabbing his collar tightly.

Ashon stepped forward, alarm etched in his features as he took in the younger man’s bruises and the blood. He turned toward Clement. “Where is Missy?”

Ejigu’s battered face did nothing to calm the mounting panic in Clement. “Answer me, man! Where is she?!” he demanded, jostling the injured man. He ignored Dula’s attempt to calm him down. “Ejigu, talk!”

“K-Kutfi.” Ejigu dissolved into sobs, the heart-wrenching cries echoing in the chapel.

Clement’s grip loosened and Ashon stiffened beside him, both equally stricken.

“The Kutfi are here?” Dula looked understandably terrified. “How did they find us?”

“It’s my fault,” Clement said in a daze. “I sent Karen with Ejigu to the capital an hour ago.”

“Why would you do a thing like that?” Ashon demanded, anger displayed in his face. “It’s dangerous!”

“No,” Ejigu said, sniffing loudly as he righted to his feet. “It’s my fault. I led them here.” The young man lowered his face in shame and regret. “I’m sorry.”

Anger surged through Clement, the extent of Ejigu’s betrayal hitting him like a freight train. And true to his impulsive nature, he lunged at Ejigu with avenging hands before anyone else could recover.

Ejigu was a double agent; working for both the government and the Kutfi. He’d served as an Agazi Commando officer near Somalia and some parts of Djibouti for many years when his mother suddenly became gravely ill. His sister was too young to take care of their mother by herself and even though she’d dropped out of college, her job wasn’t enough to sustain them. The money Ejigu made as an officer was not enough. He became desperate and couldn’t refuse the offer to serve as an informant for the Kutfi.

Grim-faced, Clement and Dula stared in stunned silence as the young man moaned bitterly, tears falling down his bleeding face. Distraught and afraid, this former soldier broke down as he divulged the details of his treachery to his nation and his friends.

“I just have one question…” As Ejigu lifted red-rimmed eyes, Clement continued. “Did you approach me on purpose? Were you aware I was a pastor of a church and an orphanage before you approached me?”

There was a flicker in Ejigu’s eyes and this time, it was Dula who swung his fist at Ejigu’s face. Only Ashon pulled off the older man from pummeling Ejigu to death. “Hold off,” Ashon gasped, holding his son-in-law by his arms. “We won’t be able to find out the truth if you kill him.”

“Traitor! Coward! Devil!” Dula even hurled insults in Amharic, each word a visible blow to Ejigu. “How could you do that? You put our lives in danger to save your skin? What about the kids? What about my family?!”

Ejigu lowered his head, ridden with shame and regret.

“Ashon is right,” Clement said, sounding surprisingly calm. “I would like to kill you with my bare hands but God wouldn’t like that. Besides, keeping you alive will help us more than hurt us.”

Dula threw a glare at Clement. “He’s the reason why Karen was captured!”

“And he’ll be the reason we find her again… and get rid of the Kutfi for good.” Clement narrowed his eyes at the younger man. “That is if you want to be forgiven?”

“I will never forgive him!” Dula seethed. “What if he’d lured the Kutfi here?”

“Calm down, son,” Ashon softly said, though his hardened gaze remained on Ejigu. “Listen, I’m barely holding back 180 pounds of muscle, young man, so you better talk or I’ll join them to kill you.”

Fear flickered in the young man’s eyes and the other three marveled at how he’d managed to live a double life for so long. His Adam’s apple bounced as his eyes darted from one man to the other before settling on Clement’s face. “I didn’t plan on—” he paused when Clement held up a hand.

“I don’t want your excuses or apologies. Just tell me where they’re taking her and why.”

Ejigu’s face twisted in pain. “It’s you they want, not her. If you go, she’ll kill you.”

Clement frowned. “She?”

“Mrs. Badri. Her husband controlled the Kutfi until his death—”

“I don’t need a history, Ejigu!” Clement snapped, his calm quickly slipping away. “Mrs. Badri has Karen?”

Ejigu nodded, bowing his head. “She must’ve recognized me somehow. I’m sorry.”

Clement felt like air was knocked out of him and he rested a hand on a pew to keep from teetering backward. He was the reason Karen had been kidnapped. Him, not Ejigu, was the real culprit.

Ashon clamped a hand over Clement’s shoulder. “Now is not the time for that. We need a plan.”

“He’s right,” Dula said begrudgingly. “Brother, we need to work together if we want to save your lady.”

Clement tucked away the guilt and regret and turned to Ejigu. “Where are they headed?”

“Djibouti.” Ejigu grimaced from the blows he’d suffered from not just the Kutfi but also both Clement and Dula’s avenging fists. He met Clement’s unrelenting stare. “I will come with you.”

Dula snorted disdainfully. “We can’t trust you. Just tell us the way.”

Ashon placed his other hand on Dula’s shoulder. “We take him with us since he knows where they are.”

Baba,” Dula protested. “He worked for those who took Wubit from you.”

He nodded, squeezing his son-in-law’s shoulder. “But he wouldn’t have come back to tell us what happened to Missy if he didn’t regret what he did. Isn’t that so?”

A despondent Ejigu dissolved in sobs while Dula and Clement scowled. Ashon turned to Clement. “What’s your plan, Missionary?”

Karen tried moving her right foot and grimaced at the sharp pain that shot up her leg. She hissed and clutched her calf, freezing until the pain subsided. A leg cramp; for the third time since she’d been transferred from Ejigu’s wrecked vehicle into a van full of scary armed soldiers.

Frisson shot through her and Karen silently scanned the metal rods barring her from escaping. The armed soldiers had tossed her unceremoniously into this dank cell an hour ago, and refused to acknowledge her or the questions she screamed at their backs as they left her here.

Groaning, Karen bowed her head and closed her eyes. “What is this?” she whispered, tears falling from her cheeks to the cold cement floor. They couldn’t even provide a blanket or a pillow. Even the small window that let in some light wasn’t enough to calm her down. “Why is this happening to me?”

The bravado that sustained her through the cramped plane ride in a tight cubicle had dissolved the minute the sickening sound of metal locking in place sealed her fate.

A sob caught in her throat and Karen choked on it, her shoulders shaking as she wept loudly for the first time since she left home. This wasn’t at all what she signed up for, never in her wildest dreams could she have imagined such a terrible end to her adventure. The thought of many innocent children having to face such a terrifying experience made her weep even louder, her despondent cries echoing against the stone walls.

Fear painted a horrifying image of her stripped to her undergarments and her thick hair shaved to the scalp. Karen trembled uncontrollably as she imagined herself being doused with cold water before the tranquilizer needle was shoved into her arm. The life in her eyes dimmed and her head lolled forward.

Screaming, Karen held her hands over her ears and shook her head to clear the ghastly images.

I am with you always.

The voice, though softly-spoken like a whisper, sounded louder than her screams. As though someone had spoken over her shoulder. Karen jerked around, coming face to face with a wall. She hiccupped, scanning the markings on the wall. Some were from the uneven and unpolished stone surface, but some were purposeful etchings on the stone.

Sniffing back tears, she scooted closer and squinted. The etchings looked like some kind of language but it might as well have been hieroglyphics. Karen sighed and pressed her head against the cool stone. She closed her eyes, ready to give up. But in that moment, she thought of her family; of her parents, her sister and brother, and her niece and nephew. She recalled the last night she’d knelt beside them in bed for night prayers and listened as they softly recited the Bible verse she and their mother had taught them.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” Karen whispered, her voice trembling. “I will fear no evil for You are with me.” A lone tear fell down her cheeks as revelation hit home. “Father, please protect me from evil.”

A metal door slammed open followed by the echoes of footsteps approaching her cell. Karen shifted around and crawled toward the bars, prepared to plead her case. As the person came in view, Karen froze in shock at the familiar face of the woman standing on the other side of the bars.

A grim-faced Jennifer, her once-colleague, stood with a tray of food. “Hello Karen.”

Karen could only stare, her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth.

Jennifer approached the gate and sighed when Karen scooted closer to the back wall, her eyes wide with fear. “Don’t look at me like that,” she mumbled, bending to place the tray right in front of the bars. “Eat.”

As Jennifer turned to go, Karen’s tongue loosened. “Wait!” Her voice rang along the walls. When Jennifer turned back with a blank expression, Karen’s mouth moved but nothing came out.

“You want to know why I’m here,” Jennifer supplied, walking back to the gate. “Or maybe why you’re here?”

Karen nodded, still unable to form the words bouncing in her head.

“It’s a long story…” Jennifer folded her arms. “And I doubt I’ll have enough time. My mother’s coming soon.”

Mouth agape, Karen gawked at the young woman as she quietly connected the dots; starting from the story about how Jennifer’s mother had abandoned her. “Why…?” she croaked out in disbelief.

“I came here to Djibouti because of her, y’know.” A sad smile twitched her lips. “The minute I saw her picture in some artsy-farsty magazine, I had to know where she was. I had to see her, had to know why she left me.”

Karen didn’t know what to say. It was clear that Jennifer still battled with the hurt of being abandoned, but it didn’t explain why she was part of child kidnapping.

“It made sense when I got here,” Jennifer said with a sneer. “She’s got a good life here, people waiting on her hand and foot, treating her like a queen. It’s no wonder she’d stay here instead of with a broke husband…” she paused when Karen’s brows furrowed. Then sighed deeply. “Look, I was surprised to see you here. She’s very angry with you. How’d you get involved in this mess?”

“I…” Karen shook her head. “I don’t know why I’m here.”

Jennifer glanced over her shoulder and then looked back at Karen, her own brow furrowed. “She’s coming so hurry, eat this.” She reached into the cell, handing Karen a bread roll. “I’ll come back when she’s gone.”

Karen obediently shoved generous pieces of the roll into her mouth, chewing fast as Jennifer collected the tray and hurried out the door. Swallowing the dry bread, Karen waited anxiously.

The metal door swung open and heels clicked loudly as her second visitor entered the prison quarters. Pulse pounding loudly in her ears, Karen willed herself not to tremble and kept her eyes on the approaching figure. The woman came to view and Karen swallowed a gasp.

There was a clear resemblance between mother and daughter; both with the oblong features and high cheek bones. This woman was darker, from many years in the eastern sun, and features harsher than Jennifer’s.

Her dark eyes narrowed. “You are Austin Legesse’s woman? Or is it Pastor Clement Teka?”

Chiils sent shivers down Karen’s spine. Still, she steeled herself against the fear that threatened to crumble her. “I-I don’t know what you mean. Who is that?”

The woman smirked although there was a wicked glint in her eyes. “It won’t do you good to lie to me, young lady. I have eyes everywhere and already know who you are, Karen Wells from Houston.” At Karen’s silence, the woman’s eyes swept over her. “No matter. I’ll soon have who I want. Rest for now.”

At the woman’s exit, Karen sagged in defeat. The evil woman had discovered Clement’s identity, which meant that this abduction wasn’t a mistake. She’d been captured in order to lure Clement here, to his demise. The bread stuck in Karen’s throat suddenly pushed upwards and she expelled the contents forcefully.

Jennifer hurried inside and halted in front of the cell, grimacing at the sight. “Are you alright?”

Groaning, Karen wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and tossed Jennifer an accusing glare.

“She’s a piece of work, isn’t she?” Jennifer said with a wry smile. “Don’t worry. She won’t kill you.”

Not yet she won’t, a disturbed Karen thought, her hope dissipating fast as Jennifer set the tray before her.

<<Chapter 27 || Chapter 29>>

Sanctuary, Chapter 18

Posted on 18/07/2017

Arriving just as the sun descended behind the highest point of the opposite mountain, Clement guided his jeep over the rough and sandy terrain. The earthy smell was reminiscent of Bichena, making him long for his peaceful home. The pointy roofs of both straw huts and small bungalows pierced the evening sky streaked with red-orange from the falling sun.

Like most small rural cities in the country, the small town had a more urbanized center complete with a clinic, gas station, corner store, and a church. To Clement’s growing disgust, the event was being held in the church’s fellowship hall.

“There seems to be more wares than last time,” one of Mrs. Badri’s guests proclaimed with a leery smile.

“There’ll be plenty to go around,” Mrs. Badri responded. “I have a few more shipments coming in from the south. They should be arriving soon.”

Clement’s stomach turned in revulsion. One would think they spoke of clothes or produce instead of innocent children.

“What a genius thought!” exclaimed another of her guests. “A charity fair indeed.”

The other three men chuckled in agreement, pausing to sip on their expensive champagne.

Clement had a different sentiment, wanting to hunt down the priest who authorized the event and wring his neck. It took self-control, something he didn’t think he possessed, to maintain a placid expression. Eyes watched him on every side. Not to mention the giant from the last auction standing close, scanning the men chatting up his boss.

Mrs. Badri’s smile was slight while listening to the men laughing as if she was the funniest person they’d ever known. Then her gaze skipped over Clement, the only one not laughing. One shapely brow arched inquisitively. “Were you able to eat dinner before you arrived?”

“Not too much,” Clement answered, dragging his eyes back to her face. “Prefer to concentrate while I drive.”

Her brow wrinkled, concerned. “If I’d known you would drive, I’d have offered to pay for your flight.”

“That’s not necessary,” Clement inserted, noting the curious glances from the other men. He didn’t need more attention on him; it would make it harder to slip out unnoticed.

“Well then, it’s a good thing I have prepared a small feast for you all.” Her smile brightened and her dark eyes swept over the five men before settling back on Clement. “Please join me for a hearty and delicious meal before the festivities begin.”

Bile pooled in Clement’s mouth. There was nothing festive about selling or buying children. Still, he managed a nod and with the other men, followed Mrs. Badri’s lead into an inner chamber within the church.

While Clement fought to keep his face straight and his food down, a lone sedan slowed to a stop a stone’s throw from the church. Ashon turned to Karen beside him. “Do you know how to drive a shift?”

Karen sighed. “I do, thanks to my dad…”

“Good. I’m going inside and you stay here with the car.”

She frowned. “I should be going. You stay with the car.”

“Missi.” He smirked. “I know you want to be fast and save the world but we have to make sure you won’t be recognized. I will go check and come fetch you. Okay? Stay with the car.”

“Men and their need for control,” Karen muttered as Ashon stepped out of the car and hurried down the street toward the church. Sitting back for a while, she scanned her surroundings.

There were cars parked on both sides of the road leading up to the church. Shadows crossed in front of the street and Karen sat up, squinting as a group of men approached an unlabeled bus and opened the trunk.

Karen inhaled a sharp breath as one of the men pulled a child after another, the second herding them into a group. One of the men yanked a child from the trunk and Karen gasped sharply as the girl fell on her knees. Her own injured knees throbbed and she watched in horror as the man grabbed the girl by her curly ponytail, jerking her to stand.

Her blood boiled when the man backhanded the girl in the face, causing her to fall to the floor. As he lifted a hand to slap her again, Karen slammed her hand against the car horn.

The men jerked about, searching for the sound. Karen ducked as their eyes paused their search by her car. Heart thumping violently against her throat, she counted to seven and then raised her head to peek out the window. The truck was empty and both the children and their violent escorts had disappeared.

Frowning, she straightened in the seat and immediately regretted it. One of the men was standing at the side of the street, eyes on her.

“Shoot, shoot, shoot,” she muttered, clumsily switching on the ignition as he walked across the street toward the car. She jerked the gearshift, prepared to drive away, just as a loud horn sounded behind her.

Gratefully, the man’s hard gaze shifted and he stepped back as a truck pulled up to the side of the street. He took one quick glance at Karen and then turned to the truck.

Karen paused only a minute to watch him pull open the trunk to even more children. Her stomach turned violently and she eased off the brake, driving to a more secluded location to park Ashon’s cab. She needed to be on foot and able to help the children, not car-sitting.

Rounding the street up ahead, Karen noted a sloping meadow with trees and overgrown bushes meters from the church. Cars of all kinds were parked haphazardly up and down the sloping hill. Several rundown huts were strategically camouflaged behind a few of the larger trees. Karen quickly maneuvered the cab behind one of them for safekeeping.

Clement refrained from sighing aloud. Pretending not to understand the country’s main language was draining, especially having to hear lame jokes for the second time. He managed a dry laugh and quickly held the bottle of water to his lips.

“You sure you don’t want something stronger, Austin?” Mrs. Badri inquired, one brow arched.

He shook his head and gestured at the water. “Need my wits about me.”

She smirked knowingly and turned to face the other men. “Mr. Legesse put on quite the show for us at the last auction.”

“I was there,” one of the men drawled, looking the least bit entertained. Clement didn’t recognize him but from the tightness in his smile, he was still nursing some resentment over a lost bid.

“Oh right, I remember.” Mrs. Badri giggled softly. “It’s been such a long while since we had excitement at these events.” She turned to Clement, smile bright. “That last bid was suspenseful. I was worried for you.”

The man scoffed. “That was the bid I lost.”

Clement shrugged. “Well I must have wanted it more than you, I suppose…” He trailed off, realizing only then that he’d answered a statement spoken in Amharic. With curious stares on him, Clement lifted the bottle to his lips and gulped down the cool water.

The thoughtful look on Mrs. Badri’s face set him on edge. Her dark eyes skimmed his face. “Mr. Legesse…”

He raised a brow, attempting to remain nonchalant although his pulse was racing. “Hmm?”

One corner of her lips lifted in a slow smile. “How long have you been here?”

“Hmm,” Clement stalled by swallowing more water. “A year by the end of this month.”

“A year’s long enough for you to understand our language?”

“A bit.” He shrugged a shoulder. “You get to learn some while conversing with businessmen. Money talk is relatively a universal language.” He swallowed the nerves. “Besides, I had a great translator.”

The men nodded, seemingly satisfied with his response. Mrs. Badri regarded him with open curiosity. “What was your translator’s name again?”

“I never said his name. Didn’t think it important since I won’t be needing him anymore.”

Appeased, Mrs. Badri raised her glass of wine to him. “I’m a better translator, anyway.”

“The best,” Clement said and chinked her glass with his bottle, earning him chuckles from the other men.

That dreadful bell from the last auction sounded and the conversations in the room eased into silence. An anxious Clement gulped down the remaining of his water and twisted the cap on. A server walked by with a tray and he placed it there before turning to face Mrs. Badri who was still watching him.

He raised a querying brow. “Are we starting?”

“Indeed,” she replied, smile in place. “I look forward to the show, Mr. Legesse.”

“Take it easy on us, Austin,” one of the other men joked, nudging Clement with his shoulder.

Managing a smile, Clement refrained from inching away from Mrs. Badri who stood close to his side, prepared to translate the bawdy show. He drew in a breath as Mahmoud, Mrs. Badri’s hired auctioneer, mounted the stage and stepped up to the podium.

“Greetings everyone,” Mahmoud said in his thick accent.

Clement barely paid attention to Mahmoud’s introductions, Mrs. Badri’s translations or the applause that sounded around him. Instead he focused his eyes on the shadowed part of the stage where the first of many children would emerge from, and mentally calculated how many he’d be able to save at the end of the night.

Down the hall and out through the back door, a herd of captured children lined up in front of a long table. There was a sign scribbled ‘Infirmary’ and adults in street clothes were examining children at a time, checking for lice and open sores on their limbs and faces.

Ashon kept to the shadows, though his attention remained on the examined children. His stomach turned in revulsion as each child was stripped and checked for scars and open wounds. Some were forced to bend on their knees for closer inspection. He watched with growing disgust as some were nudged toward the tent labeled ‘Quarantined’.

Shaking his head, he moved along the lined tables. Overwhelmed, Ashon stopped counting the children. There was no way he and Karen could save them all in his small cab, and he cursed at his helplessness.

A child yelped to his right and alarm slammed against him like a freight truck as a woman took a razor to the boy’s hair before dousing him with almost-scalding water. This rough treatment of a child was beyond his comprehension.

He swallowed the nausea that bubbled in his throat as the boy shrieked in pain and shock. Ashon forced himself to turn away instead of what he wished to do; yanking the bowl of scalding water and tossing it on the woman.

A commotion arose a few feet up the path to the church and Ashon hurried toward it, fearing for a child’s life. Instead, he witnessed two men arguing while tugging on a child’s scrawny arms. A woman screamed amid the argument, sobbing in between.

Perturbed, Ashon approached one of the bystanders and asked in Amharic. “What is happening?”

The man didn’t look away as he answered. “Local got mixed up with the other children. Parents want him back but the worker says he is with them.”

Ashon frowned. “How did he get mixed up?”

“Free food.” The man gestured to a half-eaten loaf of bread discarded on the floor.

Anger bubbled from within and Ashon squelched it down. There was so much chaos, he didn’t know where to begin. Instead, he focused on what he could. “The quarantine, what is there?”

The man glanced once at him before looking back at the mayhem before them. “A cargo from east arrived with injured children. Not enough nurses to treat them.”

His eyes widened. “You need a nurse?”

The man shrugged, distracted as the voices grew louder and more violent.

Ashon grabbed the man’s shoulder. “I have a nurse. I will go find her.” Releasing the man’s hand, he started back down the path toward the street where he’d left Karen. Shoving through the crowd of villagers who had come to witness the mayhem or rather intervene, he hurried across the street to where his cab was supposedly parked… except it wasn’t there.

Panic washed over him as he ran down the row of parked cars, barely missing a zooming motorcycle. His pulse raced as he hurried down the street. “Missi!” he called out into the night. “Missi!”

Karen smiled as she watched the woman adjust the thin flowery blouse over her slim shape. When she looked up, Karen’s smile widened. “You like?”

Though the woman had no idea what she’d uttered, she flashed Karen a beautiful smile.

“Thank you,” Karen gestured to her acquired clothes; a simple gray tunic made from thin material and a faded skirt that skimmed her ankles. Her feet were fitted with sandals that revealed her neon-yellow painted toenails. She’d exchanged her designer jeans, flowery blouse and name-brand shoes for the normal attire of a local whose house was within walking distance from where she’d left Ashon’s cab.

The woman nodded her own thanks and gestured to a bag full of what resembled samosas. Karen’s mouth watered and her stomach growled on cue. Still she shook her head. “No money.”

The woman shook her head in reply and reached down to grab a handful, extending them to Karen. There was gratitude in her beautiful eyes and Karen had no choice than to accept it. No doubt the woman understood the value of Karen’s exchange, and offered free some of what she would sell to her customers.

Moments later, mouth full of samosas, Karen started back up the sloping hill toward the church. She had no idea where to begin searching for Ashon.

“Missi!”

She halted in step, recognizing the name and the voice.

“Missi!”

Karen choked on the samosa and started toward the voice, worried that he would call undue attention when they needed to be undercover. Running up the hill, she spotted him and waved a hand full of samosas. She growled in annoyance as one slipped from her hand and she swallowed what was in her mouth before replying. “Here!” she loud-whispered, hurrying to meet him halfway.

Ashon frowned as an unrecognizable woman hurried to meet him while waving. He paused and glanced once behind him. Seeing no one, he turned back to her.

“It’s me,” the woman whispered as she came to stand before him.

He squinted once and then his eyes widened in recognition. “Missi? Is that you?”

Karen snorted derisively. “Yeah.”

“Why are you dressed like that?” he watched as she stuffed something underneath her shirt. “And is that…” he sniffed, the aroma tickling his nostrils.

“Samosas.” She shoved one in his hand. “Eat.”

“Where did—how did you…?”

“Don’t ask, just eat. Did you find something?” she stuffed another in her mouth.

“Where’s my cab?” Ashon bit into the pastry and sighed, realizing only now how hungry he was.

“Down the hill. I had to drive away so they won’t catch me.” She placed another pastry in his open palm. “What did you find out?”

“Who wouldn’t catch you?”

“Ashon, concentrate. What did you find out?”

He stuffed the rest of the pastry into his mouth. “It’s a commotion. Children everywhere, people are mad.”

“Evil is always mad.” Karen heaved a sigh. “What else? Did you find a way to get the children out?” She stuffed yet another in her mouth and handed one to him.

“I think I found a way.” Ashon eyed her warily. “Though I don’t think you are ready for it… Still, come.”

Karen wanted to ask what he meant by that, but he’d already started back up the hill. Tamping down a sigh, she picked up the long skirt and hurried after him.

Ashon’s description did the chaotic scene no justice. Karen couldn’t believe her eyes. Children were being herded like cattle and goats, being dragged by their thin arms from one station to another. She almost lost the digested samosas upon watching the rough treatment on these children. This was by far worse than what she’d witnessed at the HopeWell Ministries clinic.

Her heart twisted in pain and it took everything in her to keep from not running in the other direction. Madness could not describe such a gruesome sight.

Ashon touched her arm as they came to a stop, and she blinked from her horrified daze. “Wait here,” he said and left her again. She refrained from wrapping her arms around herself. She needed to be strong, now more than ever.

Karen forced herself to look around, noting a line of children being led by two adults toward the church. Her heart skipped a beat. Whatever happened in there was beyond her control. She’d have to focus on saving the ones out here.

“Missi!” Ashon’s voice pulled her attention back to the ghastly scene. He emerged from behind a tent with a middle-aged white woman directly behind him, gesturing for her to come.

Making sure it wasn’t Alice from HopeWell, Karen straightened her spine and walked over to meet him.

Ashon spoke in a language she didn’t understand, and she watched the woman’s face as he spoke. The furrow between the woman’s brow eased away and she looked to Karen with a smile that was anything but sinister.

Relieved and grateful for whatever Ashon said, Karen turned to him. “What did you just tell her?”

“That you could help the children get ready. They need to be treated and… tranquilized before the auction.” Ashon could barely get the last few words out, his face taut.

Karen gaped at Ashon, barely able to hide the horror from showing on her face.

<<Chapter 17 || Chapter 19>>

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