The shiny, black sedan idles slowly through the Bwaise slums. Isaac Mugulu sits behind the wheel, his eyes scanning up and down each street he comes to from behind dark glasses. Several ragged blocks in the slums have yielded no potential targets for the young human trafficker and he is beginning to think that he has gotten out of bed early for no reason. To this point he has seen nothing but adults. Some starting chores in and around their humble shacks. Others shuffling along to points unknown in search of ways to supply their families with food for the day. It’s a hard life that Isaac knows all too well and he is thankful that is no longer true for himself. He might not be rich by world standards, but by Bwaise standards, he is wealthy indeed as attested to by the stares his car receives by those he passes by.
He now wishes he had eaten more than just the pastry because it could end up being a long day and he refuses to buy food in this neighborhood. Food for the poor. Maybe he will abandon the idea of going after a girl first and just take whichever comes first; boy or girl. Then he could deliver that one and get some decent food before returning to finish the job. BOTH had to be delivered today! Failure would bring consequences he has no desire to experience. Loss of pay. Perhaps a beating. That part of this partnership confuses him a little and he shivers at the thought of it, resolute that he will not fail.
That’s when he sees something in his rear-view mirror and draws in a sharp breath! A girl. Not just any girl, but exactly what he is looking for because she fits the customer’s description perfectly! How had he missed her? She must have come out of one of the alley-ways behind him and then onto the street. She is young, just a teenager. Long hair, very pretty and obviously on her own because she is carrying a blanket over her shoulder. He pulls the car over to the side of the road and feels his pulse race as she continues walking towards him, less than a block away. Perfect.
Just six miles away, Grace Atubu arrives at her destination and brakes her car to a stop in front of Miria’s home. It is a cobbled together menagerie of tin, wood and cloth with a faded, blue blanket hanging where a door should be. It is sandwiched between two more shacks of similar makeup, with scant inches separating the unstable structures.
Grace puts her car in park and kills the engine before grabbing up her satchel and exiting the vehicle. She walks up a well-worn footpath to the front of the shack and stops in front of the blanket which blows inward just then, exposing the dark interior of the small building. Then the blanket sucks back outward as the breeze changes direction and a strong scent comes with it. Gladys holds one hand to her nose and steps back and away instinctively. The scent of alcohol mixed with the musky stench of unwashed bodies is what drives her back. She turns her head and breaths in deeply, seeking fresh air and fighting back her gag reflex. Then she calls out. “Hello. Hello. Is there anyone home?”
At first there is no response from within, but as she stands there deciding whether to just go in or leave, she hears a groan and holds her breath to listen. A moment later, a hand emerges from the dark space and sweeps the blanket aside. The hand is followed by the head and body of a very large man; well over six feet tall and 250 pounds. He emerges and stands up to his full height, towering over Grace who subconsciously takes another step backward. The man leans in towards Grace and stares at her with bloodshot eyes.
“Who are you & what do you want?” he asks with a gravelly voice.
Grace blinks her eyes rapidly as a wave of alcohol-laden breath hits her full in the face. She forces a tight-lipped smile as she responds to the drunken giant standing before her.
“My name is Grace Atubu sir and we have met before. I am the social worker that was assigned to your sister’s children after her passing. Do you remember?”
The man rubs his eyes and looks at Grace intently, leaning even closer as he does so. Recognition crosses his face and he stands up straight once more, nodding his head.
“Yes, I remember you now. Sorry. I was sleeping when you came. You are the one who took the little ones to another home. Are they ok?”
Grace gives him another tight-lipped smile and clears her throat.
“They are doing very well sir, but that is not why I am here. I am here because of your niece, Miria. We have reports from concerned neighbors that she has not been seen in the neighborhood for some time.” She pauses for a few seconds, then adds nervously. “There have also been reports of…shall we say, loud disagreements between yourself and Miria. That’s why I am really here. To check on the welfare of your niece and see if there is anything you need assistance with in her regard.”
Mira’s uncle stiffens up, a frown crossing his face, his eyes growing dark. Once again, he leans in towards Grace.
“Miria is not here anymore. She left and hasn’t been back. She is a lazy child and a disobedient child who refused to do her chores. That’s why we argued! She is not a good child at all! I have my own children to provide for and I don’t have the time or patience for a disobedient child!”
“Sir, the report suggested that you were physically abusing her. That’s significantly beyond a mere argument.”
Mira’s uncles lip twitches and he spits back; “I was disciplining her! That’s my right!”
Grace is taken aback by the ferocity in his tone and the obvious anger in his eyes. She suddenly is concerned for her own safety and decides to change the direction of her questions.
“Sir, do you have any idea where she might have gone?”
He steps back and crosses his arms in defiance and shakes his head no.
Grace presses him.
“Sir, by law she is in your care and should something bad happen to her, you would be the one held responsible. Do I need to have someone with more authority make a visit?”
He uncrosses his arms and looks at the ground.
“She might be at the old school, straight down the road a few miles and a few blocks to the left. Right at the edge of Bwaise. My eldest daughter told me her friend saw her sleeping there.”
Grace can feel her face burning with anger, but forces calm upon herself.
“Thank you for that. Any other ideas?”
He shakes his head no again.
Grace adjusts her satchel under her arm and turns towards her car and starts walking. Halfway there she stops and calls out over her shoulder.
“I’ll be sure to let you know if I find her and if I cannot…I’ll be back.”
Mia’s uncle says nothing in return.
Isaac Mugulu sits in his car on the side of the road, the engine idling softly. His target is right behind him now and he has already rehearsed his plan in his head. What he will say to her. How all of it will play out. It will be easy for him because he was once exactly where she is right now. Obviously homeless. Obviously hungry, alone and desperate. He knows the look. He knows how she is feeling as well. She is scared and has no idea where she will sleep tonight or what, if anything, she will eat. Most of all though, she feels completely alone and unloved. That last thing is the key. The golden key.
Very soon she will be sitting right here beside me. Then it will be one down…and one to go!