Chapter 1

 

AFRICA. MOM sent me to fricking Africa. I figured she’d be mad, but damn.

Okay, maybe she didn’t send me to Africa because she was pissed. Due to my “momentary lapse in judgment,” she’d had to pull strings that I couldn’t even imagine to keep me from ending up expelled, or worse, locked up. I only wished one of those strings didn’t include a plane ticket to Yaoundé, Cameroon. Or my father.

I had lived in Africa with my missionary parents in a refugee camp in the Central African Republic until I was seven. Believe me, I haven’t missed it over the last ten years. I may have been the first and only red-headed, blue-eyed baby born in a clinic near Obo (barely a dot on a map in the Central African Republic), but any nostalgic feelings for the place disappeared when Chuck—I refused to call him Dad, and Dr. Charles Martin is a mouthful—chose to stay and save the world rather than come back to the States with Mom and me. Eventually Chuck moved from the Central African Republic to Cameroon, but I didn’t know when or why it happened. I didn’t really care either.

I shifted my backpack to a more comfortable position and looked for the signs pointing to baggage claim. I felt like I’d been traveling for weeks. A two-hour drive to Chicago. Nine hours from Chicago to Brussels. A four-hour layover, then another eight hours from Brussels to Douala, Cameroon. The last leg, from Douala to Yaoundé, wasn’t even an hour, but in total I’d spent… man, I didn’t have any idea. My brain hurt too much to try and add that high. And Yaoundé wasn’t the last stop either. Chuck’s camp sat near the Lobéké National Park, all the way in the south-east corner of the country. The names of the foreign cities and images from the long trip cycled through my head.

“Attendez!”

I hadn’t realized I’d come to a stop until someone knocked into me. “Je suis désolé,” I muttered automatically. Yeah, I apologized in French. A little remnant of a childhood spent in international refugee camps.

Building pressure in my bladder had me turning into the first restroom I found. I took care of business and, after I washed my hands, I pulled out my insulin pump from where it was attached to the waistband of my jeans. Traveling with the pump and monitor was a pain in the ass. I could wear it through the security check—the device wouldn’t set off the metal detectors or body scans—but I still had to explain the apparatus and the vials to the TSA folks. I checked the monitor and blew out a relieved breath. My blood glucose registered a little high, but still within my healthy range. I adjusted the dose on the monitor and pushed the button, sending a jolt of fast-acting insulin into my veins.

My heartbeat picked up a bit as I neared the luggage return area. Part of me—a part I really wished I could quash—was anxious to see Chuck. It had been ten years. Did I even remember what he looked like? I wasn’t excited to see him. I couldn’t be. I refused.

Over the last ten years, Mom tried to placate me with explanations about all the good deeds he performed and how I should be proud of the work he did. Whatever. Pride hadn’t helped me when puberty scrambled my brains. Mom was great, but some things are better handled by a father. Like the time Mom and I had the talk about wet dreams. Yeah, that would have been so much less mortifying with a father figure. Maybe.

I tried to push down the bitterness. I had to think positive, right? This gave me a great opportunity to get to know him again, maybe build some kind of father-son relationship.

And maybe Dr. Phil would host some kind of heartwarming family reunion for us.

There weren’t many people around the luggage claim. I could hear the squeak and rumble of rollers on the carousel over the quiet murmur of voices. I looked at each face carefully, trying to find Chuck. He had the same reddish-brown hair as me, so he should stand out among the Cameroonians. Unless he wore a hat like one of those Outback-style ones the group of college kids by the big windows had. My gaze made another pass. I had no idea what I would do if Chuck wasn’t here. My fancy phone might still play music and take pictures (assuming the battery wasn’t already dead), but the likelihood of getting service out here… yeah, not likely.

A splash of neon green on black nylon caught my attention. My big duffel bag had dropped from the chute and started making its way around the carousel. I squeezed past a lady in a boldly patterned skirt and reached in front of a businessman to grab my bag. I hefted it out of the way and moved back until I had a good view of the whole area. Still no one who looked like my father. At least no one who looked like I remembered.

A massive African man wearing denim cutoff shorts and a Bob Marley T-shirt stepped to the side, revealing a younger guy who didn’t quite fit in among tourists and adventurers who came to see gorillas or rhinos or whatever in the parks. He wore khaki shorts with several pockets and a blue polo shirt. Sturdy hiking books covered his feet. The sign he held really set him apart, though—ISAIAH MARTIN.

I clutched my bag and walked over to him. I nodded at the sign. “I take it my dad couldn’t be bothered to come himself. What did he do, send one of his do-gooder minions to pick me up?”

The dude narrowed his eyes, clearly not happy with my tone, or maybe he didn’t like being described as a minion. Either way, I didn’t care. I should have known Chuck would send someone. He had important responsibilities, after all. I wanted to spit. Pressure built behind my eyes, but I refused to acknowledge the disappointment. Easier to focus on the resentment.

“He’d have come, but there was an emergency. I’m Henry.”

“Right.” I shrugged.

He glared at me. I didn’t know why, but something about that severe look amused me. Maybe because it didn’t seem to fit comfortably on such a pretty face. He really was pretty too. Gorgeous, in fact. His face was smooth and tan from time spent in the sun, with light brown eyes, almost golden in the streaming light from the windows. He’d pulled his shoulder-length brown hair back into a ponytail at the nape of his neck. His features weren’t feminine, not really, but the word pretty suited him more than handsome.

“Your father has—”

“Don’t bother,” I said, cutting off his explanation. “I really don’t need to hear it. He hasn’t seen fit to talk to me in the last ten years; another day isn’t going to break my heart. What’s the plan from here?”

Henry folded the sign in half and tossed it into a trash bin. “We’ll head to Doumé tonight. We should get there before dark. We’ll crash at a boarding house, and tomorrow we’ll have six or seven hours until we reach the camp.”

A couple of questions floated into my head—mostly about the travel arrangements. I had a vague recollection of traveling from village to village crammed into a rusty van like circus clowns in a tiny car. Before I could ask about it, chaos erupted from the other side of the baggage claim.

Men in official-looking uniforms tried to haul a struggling and shouting man deeper into the airport. The captive man twisted and jerked in their grasp, all the while screaming curses at the security crew. I may not have known the language, but there was no mistaking the cursing. The captive—a skinny, sweaty man who looked like he was made up of sinew and joints rather than muscle and bones—twisted and bit at an arm that came close to his face. One of the guards yipped and pulled his injured arm back. The captive took advantage of the loosened grip and jerked free, sprinting forward with the speed of an Olympian.

A hush fell over the baggage claim area.

My eyes widened. Henry and I stood between the charging man and the exit.

Before I could make my feet move, Henry looped an arm around my waist and pulled me out of the way. The man darted around someone’s abandoned suitcase, hurdled a taped-up box only to trip over a green-and-black duffel bag. He flew a few feet before skidding along the polished floor, stopping steps away from Henry and me. Guards rushed over, tackling the stunned man before he could get up again.

It probably lasted only a couple of seconds, but my body shook as though I’d been involved in a drawn-out accident. Noise resumed, a little quieter than it had been before the distraction, but it soon grew to normal levels.

“What the hell was that?” I reached for my duffel bag, only then realizing the bag the man tripped over was mine. Whoa.

“Smuggler, probably,” Henry said.

“Smuggler? As in drugs?”

“Yeah, drugs, weapons, diamonds. People try to smuggle all sorts of crazy things through here. Even animals.”

“How do you smuggle an animal? Pack it in your suitcase?”

Henry shrugged. “If someone wants an endangered bird or something for a pet badly enough and they have the money, there’s always someone who’ll find a way.” He shook his head, disgust clear in his pursed lips and serious expression.

We stood there a minute in awkward silence. Henry lost in thought and me unsure what to do or say.

“So,” Henry finally said, “ready to go?”

I grabbed my bag and hooked the strap over my shoulder. “You have a vehicle?”

“I’ve got one of the camp’s Range Rovers,” he said. “We have to make a quick stop in the city proper to pick up some supplies, so if you’re hungry we can grab something there. We’ll be in the university district, so there will be a lot of options for food.”

Look at him, being the good host. “That works.”

“Let me help with your bag.” Henry reached for my duffel.

I jerked it away. “I’ve got it.”

He shrugged and headed toward an exit. When we stepped through the glass doors, I stopped, cringing against the blinding afternoon sunlight. I dropped my duffel, shrugged out of my backpack, and started digging through it. I grabbed my sunglasses, blinking in relief when the glare no longer seared my eyeballs. I’d left Wisconsin in late spring and somehow, through the magic of modern transportation, had ended up in late summer. Or at least what felt like late summer. If I remembered correctly, it was actually fall in Cameroon.

I followed Henry to a parking lot on the east side of the building, where dozens of red-dust-covered vehicles sat in rows. Henry stopped at a four-wheel-drive Range Rover and opened the back door. “Toss your stuff in here. We’ll need the cargo space in the back for the supplies we’re picking up.”

“What are we bringing back?”

“Medical supplies. Mostly bandages, gauze. You know, peroxide, disinfectants, and the like. Usually we make the trip every few months, but since you’re here, we’re picking up our order a couple weeks earlier than normal.”

“Handy,” I muttered. “A twofer.” God forbid anyone should have to go out of their way to pick me up.

I could do this. I only had to make it through three months, two weeks, and five days, and then I could go back home.