When he saw me, Omar perked up and squeaked.
The stupid monkey had tracked me. Behind him I saw Prof, kneeling on a small rug he'd placed in the house's main room, chest touching the ground. His lips were moving silently; he didn't stop his prayer as Omar chirped away.
I was trapped. The only way out was past five sleeping boys, a man who owned me, a crazy monkey, and a praying Arab.
It was hopeless, but I had to try. As silently as possible, I took the basin down from the shelf and slipped into the main room. Omar grabbed wildly for me as I crept by. He made contact, then wrapped his furry little arms around my leg and let himself be dragged, squeaking triumphantly.
The boys began to wake and stir behind me. Prof opened his eyes, got up from his mat, rolled it, and calmly placed it in his valise. It was strange to see no smile on his face, like his personality had turned sideways since last night.
"Good morning," he said coolly.
My first thought was to bolt. It must have shown, because Prof held up his hands warningly. "Be careful. Look around before you decide to run, my boy."
His eyes flitted to the kitchen.
Leaning against the woodstove was Monsieur Tatagani, star-ing at us with an expression of cold amusement.
He was going to let Prof turn me in. My hands.
Trembling, I stepped back into the sleeping room and drew the curtain, as if some mother's old housedress could protect me from what was about to happen.
"Stop, Luc," Prof said, his voice low. "I explained to the hotel desk clerk exactly what happened, and he told me that you lived on the streets but spent the night here with this Alphonse Tatagani. Then the monsieur here told me he would help get my case back if I paid him a finder's fee, and that as part of that fee he would take care of your punishment."
Take care of your punishment. My thoughts skittered around every-thing those words could mean.
I tried to fight it down, but what remained of the rice sludge I'd eaten the night before was crawling up my throat. I heard Monsieur Tatagani tsk as I spat it out on his rubber mat.
Once I'd finished retching, I wiped my mouth and glared up at Prof. Why was he telling me all of this if it didn't change what was going to happen? All he wanted was his stupid metal briefcase back, whatever the cost to me.
Monsieur Tatagani stepped forward, but Prof motioned for him to stay. Surprisingly, the much larger man obeyed. Something about the professor had him spooked.
"You owe a lot of money to Monsieur Tatagani," Prof said to me. "How did that come to happen? Surely not from the small amount of rice you eat."
I shrugged and spat bile. I didn't want to drag my dead family into this. And the reasons for my debt didn't matter, anyway. The amount was real.
"I have a suspicion that it wasn't your fault," Prof said.
I looked up. I'd never thought it was my fault that my mom and sister had gotten sick, or that my father had never returned. But still I felt relieved to have it told to me.
"Why don't you tell Monsieur Tatagani what really happened with the case?" Prof said. "Then he can explain everything to the police and this will all be settled."
I didn't understand. Prof wanted me to confess? But I saw a crafty tilt to his mouth and realized he'd plotted something.
I took my time wiping my mouth, waiting for the right story to come to me. "I was waiting with the bags," I said, slowly and loudly enough for Monsieur Tatagani to hear clearly. "And a creature came up. I didn't recognize what it was at first. . . ."
I took a deep breath, then rushed forward with my tale. "It was a mock man, from the jungle! Hairy and mean. He grabbed the metal briefcase, and I ran after him. I didn't want him to steal it, you see!" Now I was getting into it. I kept my eyes wide and honest and nodded gravely. One of the boys listening behind the curtain gasped.
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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