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By Lisa Harris
Zondervan Copyright © 2010 Lisa Harris
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Chapter One MONDAY, NOVEMBER 16, 3:11 P.M. KASILI OUTDOOR MARKET
Natalie Sinclair fingered the blue-and-yellow fabric that hung neatly folded on a wooden rod among dozens of other brightly colored pieces, barely noticing the plump Mama who stood beside her in hopeful anticipation. Instead she gazed out at the shops that lined the winding, narrow paths of the market, forming an intricate maze the size of a football field. The vendors sold everything from vegetables and live animals to piles of secondhand clothing that had been shipped across the ocean from charities in the States.
Natalie stepped across a puddle and turned to glance beneath the wooden overhang at the stream of people passing by. Even with the weekend over, the outdoor market was crowded with shoppers. Hip-hop-style music played in the background, lending a festive feel to the sultry day. But she couldn't shake the uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach.
Someone was following her.
She quickened her steps and searched for anything that looked out of place. A young man weaved his bicycle through the crowded walkway, forcing those on foot to step aside. A little girl wearing a tattered dress clung to the skirt of her mother, who carried a sleeping infant, secured with a length of material, against herback. An old man with thick glasses shuffled past a shop that sold eggs and sugar, then stopped to examine a pile of spark plugs.
Natalie's sandal stuck in a patch of mud, and she wiggled her foot to pull it out. Perhaps the foreboding sensation was nothing more than the upcoming elections that had her on edge. All American citizens had been warned to stay on high alert due to the volatile political situation. Violence was on the rise. Already a number of joint military-police peacekeeping patrols had been deployed onto the streets, and there were rumors of a curfew.
Not that life in the Republic of Dhambizao was ever considered safe by the embassy, but neither was downtown Portland. It was all a matter of perspective.
And leaving wasn't an option. Not with the hepatitis E outbreak spreading from the city into the surrounding villages. Already, three health zones north of the town of Kasili where she lived were threatened with an outbreak. She'd spent the previous two weeks sharing information about the disease's symptoms with the staff of the local government clinics, as well as conducting awareness campaigns to inform the public on the importance of proper hygiene to prevent an epidemic.
In search of candles for tonight's party, Natalie turned sharply to her left and hurried up the muddy path past wooden tables piled high with leafy greens for stew, bright red tomatoes, and fresh fish. Rows of women sat on wooden stools and fanned their wares to discourage the flies that swarmed around the pungent odor of the morning's catch.
Someone bumped into her from behind, and she pulled her bag closer. Petty theft might be a constant concern, but she knew her escalated fears were out of line. Being the only pale foreigner in a sea of ebony-skinned Africans always caused heads to turn, if not for the novelty, then for the hope that she'd toss them one or two extra coins for their supper.
Her cell phone jingled in her pocket, and she reached to answer it.
"When are you coming back to the office?" Stephen's to-the-point greeting was predictable.
"I'm not. I'm throwing a birthday party for you tonight, remember? You let me off early." A pile of taper candles caught her eye in a shop across the path, and she skirted the edge of a puddle that, thanks to the runoff, was rapidly becoming the size of a small lake.
Stephen groaned. "Patrick's here at the office, and he's asking questions."
She pulled a handful of coins from her pocket to pay for the candles. "Then give him some answers."
Natalie thrust the package the seller had wrapped in newspaper into her bag and frowned. Patrick Seko, the former head of security for the president, now led some sort of specialized task force for the government. Lately, his primary concern seemed to revolve around some demographic research for the Kasili region she'd been compiling for the minister of health, whose office she worked for. Her expertise might be the prevention and control of communicable diseases, but demographics had always interested her. Why her research interested Patrick was a question she'd yet to figure out.
The line crackled. Maybe she'd get out of dealing with Patrick and his insistent questions after all.
"Stephen, you're breaking up."
All she heard was a garbled response. She flipped the phone shut and shoved it back into her pocket. They'd have to finish their conversation at the party.
She spun around at the sound of her name. "Rachel, it's good to see you."
Her friend shot her a broad smile. "I'm sorry if I startled you."
Natalie wanted to kick herself for the uncharacteristic agitation that had her looking behind every shadow. "I'm just a bit jumpy today."
"I understand completely." Rachel pushed a handful of thin braids behind her shoulder and smiled. "I think everyone is a bit on edge, even though with the UN's presence the elections are supposed to pass without any major problems. No one has forgotten President Tau's bloody takeover."
Natalie had only heard stories from friends about the current president's takeover seventeen years ago. Two elections had taken place since then and were assumed by all to have been rigged. But with increasing pressure from the United States, the European Union, and the African Union, President Tau had promised a fair election this time no matter the results. And despite random incidences of pre-election violence, even the United Nations was predicting a fair turnover under their supervision-something that, to her mind, remained to be seen.
Natalie took a step back to avoid a group of uniformed students making their way through the market and smiled at her friend. After eighteen months of working together, Rachel had moved back to the capital to take a job with the minister of health, which meant Natalie rarely saw her anymore. Something they both missed. "What are you doing in Kasili?"
"I'm heading back to Bogama tomorrow, but I'm in town because Patrick has been meeting with my parents to work out the labola."
"Really? That's wonderful." Her sentiment was genuine, even though she happened to find Patrick overbearing and controlling-as no doubt he would be in deciding on a bride price. She hugged her friend. "When's the wedding ceremony?"
Rachel's white teeth gleamed against her dark skin, but Natalie didn't miss the shadow that crossed her expression. "We're still discussing details with our families, but soon. Very soon."
"Then I'll expect an invitation."
"Of course." Rachel's laugh competed with the buzz of the crowd that filed past them. "And by the way, I don't know if Patrick mentioned it to you, but Stephen invited us to the birthday party you're throwing for him tonight. I hope you don't mind."
"Of course I don't mind." Natalie suppressed a frown. Stephen had invited Patrick to the party? She cleared her throat. "Stephen just called to tell me Patrick was looking for me, but it had something to do with my demographic reports. Apparently he has more questions."
"Patrick can be a bit ... persistent." Rachel flashed another broad smile, but Natalie caught something else in her eyes she couldn't read. Hesitation? Fear? "I'll tell him to wait until they are compiled. Then he can look at them."
Natalie laughed. "Well, you know I'm thrilled you're coming."
She would enjoy catching up with Rachel, and she had already prepared enough food to feed a small army. It was Patrick and his antagonistic political views she dreaded. She'd probably end up spending the whole evening trying to avoid them both.
"I'm looking forward to it as well." Rachel shifted the bag on her shoulder. "But I do need to hurry off. I'm meeting Patrick now, but I'll see you tonight."
Natalie watched until her friend disappeared into the crowd, wondering what she'd seen in her friend's gaze. It was probably nothing. Rachel had been right. Her own frayed nerves were simply a reaction of the tension everyone felt. By next week the election would be over and things would be back to normal.
A rooster brushed her legs, and she skirted to the left to avoid stepping on the squawking bird. The owner managed to catch it and mumbled a string of apologies before shoving it back in its cage.
Natalie laughed at the cackling bird, realizing that this was as normal as life was going to get.
Spotting a woman selling spices and baskets of fruit two shops down, she slipped into the tiny stall, determined to enjoy the rest of the day. She had nothing to worry about. Just like the UN predicted, the week would pass without any major incidents. And in the meantime, she had enough on her hands.
She picked up a tiny sack of cloves, held it up to her nose, and took in a deep breath. With the holiday season around the corner, she'd buy some extra. Her mother had sent a care package last week filled with canned pumpkin, chocolate chips, French-fried onions, and marshmallows. This year Natalie planned to invite a few friends over for a real Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey, mashed potatoes, greenbean casserole, pumpkin pie-
Fingers grasped her arm from behind. Natalie screamed and struggled to keep her balance as someone pulled her into the shadows.
Excerpted from Blood Ransom by Lisa Harris Copyright © 2010 by Lisa Harris . Excerpted by permission.
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