I crept around the back of the gnarled, lonely tree. An iboga bush grew alongside it, and when I nestled the case within its leaves it was out of view of anyone passing along the street. Heart pounding, I headed to Monsieur Tatagani's house.
The moment he saw me, he rose to his feet. "Why are you so late?" he asked. His voice was controlled, with no sign of irritation. "And why are you coming from that direction?"
"You saw me leaving the bar with the Arab, papa. I took him to the Hôtel Beverly Hills."
A smile, empty of happiness, spread on his lips. "Yes, I did see that."
"I thought he might have work for me to do," I said. An image of the case forced its way into my thoughts. I hoped Monsieur Tatagani couldn't see it flickering behind my eyes.
He laid a hand on my neck, like he was figuring out the force he'd need to break it. "And did he? Find work a boy like you could do? Are you finally going to pay back the thousands of francs it's taken me to keep you alive?" He laughed in his gray way. I could smell palm wine on his breath.
I shook my head, hoping to loosen his fingers. They only tightened.
"Is that so?" Monsieur Tatagani said, shoving me so I tumbled past the open front door and into the main room. I managed not to fall to the ground, which I knew would have invited more anger. Blocking the moon, Monsieur Tatagani was a figure cut out from the night, a beast come for a boy who'd stayed out too late. "You didn't ask for a coin for carrying that Arab's bag? You didn't slip a hand into his pocket and see what you could find?"
He flicked on a light, and the leer on his face was more ferocious than I'd expected.
Heart skipping in terror, I remembered that I had gotten something out of Prof that I could give Monsieur Tatagani. My trembling fingers searched through my pocket. There was a hole in the threadbare fabric, but the coin was too big to have fallen out, even during my flight.
"Here," I said, holding it out in my sweaty palm. "He gave me twenty-five francs."
Monsieur Tatagani looked skeptical.
"Twenty-five? And all that weird old man asked you to do was carry his bag?"
I nodded, and the coin was gone. Having that much money taken from me would have been agony before, but all I felt now was relief.
"Maybe sacrificing so much to keep you alive wasn't a mistake," Monsieur Tatagani said. "You've finally paid for a tiny part of your keep. Go to bed. I'll wake you before dawn so you can get back to the Hôtel Beverly Hills before the Arab wakes up. You'll do whatever he desires, and you'll bring me thirty francs this time."
He nodded, and I ducked through to where I slept. Monsieur Tatagani had separated a drafty mud-walled room from the house with an old housedress that he'd hung as a divider. This was where he kept his boys. Monsieur Tatagani lived his life cooking, sleeping, drinking with guests on the other side of that tattered housedress, while we listened in nervous silence.
Two wooden benches lined either sidewall, and it was on those that I and the other boy who'd been with Monsieur Tatagani longest slept. The rest of the orphans were lined shoulder-to-shoulder on a rubber mat on the dirt floor.
The room was so silent that I knew they were all awake and listening, eyes scrunched shut, making no noise so as not to attract Monsieur Tatagani's anger. Pierre, the youngest, had taken advan-tage of my missed curfew and laid out on my bench. "It's okay," I whispered, lying alongside him. We fit, barely. "There's room for two tonight."
"Have you already had your pee outside?" he asked.
I nodded. We weren't allowed out of the room at night, but there was a can in the corner that we could use. Pierre claimed that the smell kept him awake.
Excerpted from Threatened by Eliot Schrefer. Copyright © 2014 by Eliot Schrefer. Excerpted by permission of Scholastic. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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