Hint: there will be a charm bracelet up for grabs end of the month with Storm Chase reviewers getting extra points!
Hafiq decided that if anywhere could be nominated the armpit of Africa, it was Atbara.
His two-day trip had turned into a week. He was bored, wearing his last clean shirt and completely out of bottled water. That morning he’d hesitated before brushing his teeth with Coke but the brownish trickle from the tap convinced him that tooth decay was preferable to risking the water.
“Boss!” Ali, his local contact, was standing on the pavement, grinning up at him. “The shipment has arrived. You ready?”
Finally! Hafiq looked at his watch. His case was packed and the bill paid. If he could wrap up the deal in the next hour, he could catch the midday express back to Port Sudan.
Ali was smiling happily. He knew Hafiq was edgy after a five-day wait. With a bit of luck, he would be so keen to get back to his home on the coast that, he would not be over-zealous about bargaining.
As they walked smartly along the road to the big warehouse at the edge of the town, Ali pondered that while money was short, time was free. If he played his cards right, he might be able to push for a 10% increase in price.
They skirted the market, dodging cattle and carts loaded with vegetables. An unusually large crowd was gathering around a low wooden platform. Loud cheers and raucous whistles made Hafiq pause. For a moment he didn’t believe his eyes.
It was a girl. She was wearing the remains of a ragged T-shirt and not much else. A pair of ripped Bermudas lay at her feet. Although she was covered with mud and dust, Hafiq could see patches of pink and white skin. Two men were holding her up; showing her to the crowd that had gathered.
Without thinking, Hafiq pushed his case into Ali’s hands and joined the crowd. Pushing his way through to the front, he took a good look at her. She was definitely white. And angry.
“Get the fuck off me!”
And English by the sound of her accent.
The auctioneer was trying to cut the t-shirt away with a knife while avoiding being kicked.
She was a brave girl, Hafiq noted. While the auctioneer hacked at her clothes, another man held on to a chain linked to a metal collar round her neck with one hand and to a rope halter that bound her elbows high and tight behind her back with the other. It must have hurt but she lashed out anyway.
Hafiq was overwhelmed by a wave of lust. He had sent Ngam packing three months ago. Beautiful, submissive, eager to please and very, very boring Ngam. In contrast, this girl oozed passion. Hafiq was certain she’d never be dull. He felt a powerful urge to possess her.
The knife finally did its work. The t-shirt ripped away, revealing perfect round breasts. Swearing furiously, the girl took her attention off the auctioneer and kicked backwards at his partner. She might as well have kicked an elephant for all the harm it did. Grinning, he lifted her up until she stood on her tiptoes, preventing her from kicking. The auctioneer took a cautionary step sideways but loudly continued to proclaim her charms.
“Untouched! A virgin! A bargain for any discerning buyer!” He spoke Arabic, the common language of commerce but his accent spoke clearly of his Nubian home in the north.
“How much?” Hafiq asked.
The auctioneer turned to him with a wide grin. “This girl is not for sale, boss!”
“Then why the sales pitch?”
“We are selling the girl’s favours! What would you pay to be her first?”
Hafiq laughed. “She? A virgin? If that’s so, she’s the only one in Atbara!”
The auctioneer giggled, an odd sound for such a big man. “It’s true! I swear it on my mother’s grave. We haven’t touched her, have we, Khalil?”
From the way the two men giggled, Hafiq realised they were homosexual. Instinctively he drew away, then realised the advantage of the situation. The girl would be unharmed.
“We don’t want her for ourselves,” the auctioneer leered, “and there isn’t enough money in all Atbara to buy a girl like this but we are businessmen! There will be many customers, each willing to pay to possess her for a little time.”
Hafiq looked at the girl again. She stood totally still, staring at him. For a moment he was confused by the look in her eyes. They were dark green, he noted. The way she was looking at him, it was like she was asking him for help.
Idris, the auctioneer, grinned as he took in Hafiq’s interest in the girl, his gold watch and finally the Vector SMG hanging from his shoulder. This was a man with money.
Idris rubbed his hands together in anticipation. It had been the impulse of a moment to take the girl after she been foolish enough to jump into his boat but the prospect of the money she could make for him was just too tempting. Now he was certain the gamble had been a good one.
It was impossible to sell a white girl in Egypt. While Atbara was a safe market, Idris was well aware that if he wasn’t careful, he and Khalil might find themselves on the block. They were strong and there was a pressing need for field workers in Sudan and the farmers weren’t fussy about using slave labour.
Idris and his partner, Khalil, had been prepared to hang around for a week or two in order to make a profit on this girl; if she lasted that long. However, if this man offered a reasonable price, Idris intended to take the money and hightail it back up the Blue Nile as fast as possible.
Hafiq vaulted into the makeshift platform. Up close the girl smelled terrible. Her hair was black with dirt and matted into huge knots but the roots shone through dark copper. Her skin would be creamy white if it hadn’t been covered in scrapes, bruises and insect bites. Looking at her, Hafiq realised she was exhausted and close to collapse.
He half expected her to kick him and was surprised when she swayed towards him, coming to rest up against his chest. Despite the smell, Hafiq couldn’t stop himself from putting an arm around her waist.
Used to exquisitely small oriental girls, Hafiq was surprised to feel her head resting on his shoulder. He could feel her breath on his neck. Instantly he was sure. He wanted this girl.
Worried his prize product was worming her way into a position where she could kick this prize customer in the balls, Idris quickly grabbed hold of the girl’s collar and signalled Khalil to hold her tightly.
Lilly sucked in her breath with pain as her elbows were lifted high, almost dislocating her shoulders.
“Let go!” Suddenly furious, Hafiq pushed Idris and Khalil away, wrapping his arms around Lilly protectively. “I’ll take her,” he said. Digging into his money belt he hauled out 10 crisp hundred-dollar bills and thrust them into the auctioneer’s hands.
Idris gasped. It was more money than he’d seen in his entire life. “We have a sale!” he announced loudly. Quickly, before anyone could see how much money he had, Idris sketched a bow at Hafiq, signalled urgently to Khalil and disappeared.
Aware that the show was over, the crowd drifted away. The only person left was Ali, looking open mouthed at Hafiq.
“Look in my bag and give me a shirt!” Hafiq commanded.
His fingers couldn’t untie the rope knotted around her elbows so he carefully cut them through with his knife. He thought the girl had fainted but as he wrapped a shirt around her, she opened her eyes and looked at him. Amazingly, she smiled.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
Her voice was soft and sweet now that she wasn’t screaming like a devil.
“You’ll be all all right,” Hafiq said soothingly. “Let’s get you out of this place, ok?”
“You speak English?”
Hafiq smiled at her obvious surprise. “One of my mothers was English.”
“One of your mothers?” Lilly thought she couldn’t have heard him properly.
“That’s right. Come on, now, on your feet.”
She tried to stand but her knees buckled under her. There was nothing for it, Hafiq decided. Filthy as she was, he would have to carry her.
He took her by the wrist, placed it over the back of his neck, squatted and with one smooth lift hauled her over his shoulders. She was a dead weight. Luckily it wasn’t far to the warehouse.
“Who are you?” she whispered in his ear.
For a moment Hafiq hesitated. Shades of his ancestors. With a chuckle he realised he now knew what his great grandfather, Zubayr Pasha, the man the world had dubbed Africa’s Slaver King, must have felt like. “I am your master,” he said lightly.
“Mr Master,” Lilly said seriously, her breath tickling his ear. “My name is Lilly Chamberlain. Thank you for helping me.” She hiccupped and then shuddered. “I’m very sorry but I’m afraid I’m going to be sick.”
And she was, all over his last clean shirt.