Two days later, Richard is still missing and I am almost losing hope of him being found. The curfew had been called off already and Isa had asked some men to join him in the search for Richard. They went out in the morning and came back in the evening without success. Ahmat had persuaded me to go with him to the farm just to keep my mind from going crazy with worry and I gratefully went with him, still praying and hoping for Richard’s safe return. I thought of making a distant call to Jeanette, but held back. What was I going to say to her? That Richard had disappeared and was nowhere to be found? She would swear a blue streak and holler for me to get outta here. Like I would leave Richard here and travel back without him. That’s unthinkable. Construction is still continuing at the site, but that seems to be irrelevant to my thoughts of the whereabouts of Richard. I feel useless as the search for Richard continued without success.
Later in the evening, as Ahmat, Isa, and I sit solemnly in the living room, different thoughts running through our minds, I ask Ahmat and Isa how they’ve been able to cope with this type of unrest, living in this area and all. Ahmat shrugs his shoulders and replies with, “Well, my dear, as you can see, this is where I come from and I wish to remain here for the rest of my days. So no one and nothing is going to make me leave.” I nod in understanding, looking at my clasped hands resting in my lap. Isa adds quietly, “This is also my home. I am not sure if Richard told you why I was building the restaurant?” I shake my head in reply, curious to listen to what he had to say. He exchanges a silent look with his father before saying, “The restaurant is being built in honor of a beautiful woman I was married to until three years ago. She died while returning from a visit to her mother in a town close to ours. I had asked her to take the car, a VW Passat just like Dad’s, but she apparently chose not to. She had walked using a route she knew like the back of her hand, as she was familiar with this part of the town, having lived here most of her life. While returning home from her visit, she met some local bandits on the way and they assaulted and killed her.” His voice breaks, and Ahmat pats his hand gently. I was deeply saddened by this story and said so. Nodding his head in acceptance, he continues, “I eventually found the hoodlums responsible and had them put in prison. They are presently serving life sentences.” I nod my head in satisfaction, my mind going to Richard again. “Don’t lose hope, Keisha,” Isa says, correctly reading my thoughts. “We are going to find Richard.”
I decide one bright morning after five days since Richard went missing to go out and do a little exploration. I ask Amman to accompany me, of course. I had called my boss and Richard’s and told them what happened; they were deeply sorry and expressed their hopes that he would be found safe and alright. I cling to the hope of finding Richard, otherwise I would simply go crazy. It scares me when I see the pained look on Isa’s face following Richard’s disappearance. It’s like he has lost hope that Richard could still be alive. He blames himself for Richard’s disappearance.
Amman and I set off after Ahmat and Isa left the house. Ahmat had gone to his cotton farm; the harvest begins next week. Isa had gone to the site; construction is still going on. This is the first time he is going to the site since Richard’s disappearance. He had been busy looking for Richard and had enlisted the help of the local police, who have had no success in their search.
Amman and I meet some women apparently going to the farm. They look at us curiously as Amman greets them using the local dialect, and they respond. One of them points at me, saying something to Amman. Amman gives a short laugh and says something in reply as they go their way. I turn to ask him what the woman said. Head bowed down, obviously shy, he says the woman had asked him if I was his wife. I give a smile and deciding to tease him, I ask him, “So what was your reply?” At my question, he snapped his head up and says rather indignantly, “Of course I say no.” I pretend to look hurt, and ask mischievously, “So I am too ugly to be your wife?” The poor young man was almost dying of embarrassment until he realized I was only joking. Relieved, he courteously asks me if I want to observe some gazelles, and that now is the right time. Giving a nod, I say, “But of course.” I get out my camera and eagerly follow him as he walks with confidence through a path he obviously knows. There was no break in his stride as he moves with sure steps for the next fifteen minutes. He would make a good tour guide, I think to myself. I take some pictures as we walk and pause to take a drink of water some minutes later. “We are nearly there,” Amman says, smiling. I nod my head in reply, slightly impatient to see the gazelles he spoke of. We are not disappointed as the gazelles appear about 50 feet from us and there are quite many of them. Finger on his lip, Amman makes for a nearby tree and motions for me to climb. I eagerly do so with the strap of my camera hung securely on my neck. When I have climbed to a certain height, I grab my camera and, focusing the lens on those magnificent gazelles, I start clicking away. It is just breathtaking. Amman is standing below the tree, obviously pleased that we saw the gazelles.
Keisha climbs down eventually, joining Amman. They continue their walk, hoping to see more animals. I pray we don’t walk so far into the grasslands. Isa’s wife’s misfortune is still fresh on my mind, and Richard is still missing, Keisha thinks silently with a pang, tears almost starting to her eyes. She blinks rapidly, getting out her sunglasses and hastily putting them on. I don’t want to upset Amman, who is kind to take me sightseeing. I voice my concern to Amman, but he smiles reassuringly and says that we would take a shorter route when going back to the house. We hear some sounds ahead of us, and Amman, for the second time, motions for me to climb a tree which is right behind us and I do so quickly, instinctively sensing that all is not as it should be. Amman moves forward silently, as if taking a stroll.
Two tough-looking young men appear and begin to ask him questions rather harshly in the local dialect. Amman, seeming unruffled by their hostility, replies to them. I look at them, my heart pounding in fear. These men look really mean. I know that calm has returned somewhat to the town after the curfew following the unrest and Richard’s disappearance. But this does not mean that everyone is totally safe. The men continue their interrogation for the next five minutes as I try not to look down, obviously terrified that I might unknowingly draw a glance from one of them. Isa’s narration of his wife’s misadventure comes to my mind now, more vividly than ever. Eventually, they move on after one spits close to Amman’s feet in disgust. Amman quietly motions for me to remain in my perch, and I gratefully oblige. I think I have had enough of the craziness of this town to last me a long time, and I can’t wait for the next three days to be on board my flight back to Miami. But thinking about going back to Miami without Richard seems so heartbreaking. Amman looks around furtively to make sure all is clear before asking me to come down.
The sound of running feet reaches us, however, and needing no prompting from Amman, I remain glued to my perch, scared out of my wits. We see two young women who were rather scared and nervous appear, almost out of breath. They stop upon seeing Amman and, panting, they speak rapidly, almost incoherent in their narration. I notice a strange look come over Amman as he listens and goes still. He speaks to them quickly, then asks me to come down, and I do so hurriedly, wondering what is happening, though I feel that there is a connection between what is happening now with the two angry-looking men that passed here earlier. Amman introduces me quickly to the two young women, who are surprised to see me climb down from the tree, mentioning that I was the wife of the man they talked about. I nearly fainted when I learned it was Richard they were talking about. “Have they found Richard?” I ask desperately, terrified that he might be lying seriously ill somewhere or probably dead. Amman says urgently to me, grabbing my hand, “Look, ma’am, there’s not enough time to explain everything to you. But those men that passed us earlier were Richard’s captors and dangerous. Richard escaped early this morning and they are looking for him.” I glance at the women still looking about them nervously, impatient to be on their way. “These women,” Amman continues, “had been ordered by those men to look after Richard while he was held prisoner, and now that he has escaped, they are running for dear life, fearing the punishment that awaits them.” My first thought was to go looking for Richard and I say so to Amman. He shakes his head vigorously, saying, “No, ma’am, it is dangerous for you to look for him now. Believe me.” I nod reluctantly, realizing that what he says made some sense. A feeling of unreality grips me as I think of Richard alive and probably lying hurt and frightened somewhere.
The two young women run off almost immediately and Amman beckons for me to follow him closely as we make for home using a much-used and familiar route. I heave a sigh as we meet many pedestrians and some men riding bicycles on this route. Some vehicles also drive past, raising some dust, but I don’t mind in the least. All my thoughts are on Richard and his welfare. I feel so frustrated and helpless as Amman and I walk back home. Ahmat and Isa are not yet home. I turn to Amman, expressing my frustrations in not looking for Richard’s whereabouts. “Ma’am, those men we saw a few hours ago in the bush would think nothing of killing anyone that stands in their way,” Amman explains patiently. “And those women you saw?” he continues, and I give a nod. “Well, I am sorry about them. They are in serious trouble and a terrible fate probably awaits them if they are catch by those men.’ I correct Amman automatically, saying, “caught by those men.” A slight shudder passes through me at the sheer madness occurring at this day and age. “So, what do we do now?” I ask, near hysteria. “All hope is not lost, ma’am,” Amman says kindly. “I am going to call two trusted friends of mine to go with me in search for Richard’s whereabouts,” he says with confidence. I nod in acceptance and sit down, removing my backpack containing my camera and placing it gently on the floor.
Amman leaves shortly after, instructing me to lock the door. I do so, and retire to my room to take a shower. The heat is rather oppressive and I am sweating rather profusely. I put on the AC and try to lie down. I couldn’t sleep a wink, though I tried to. The thought of Richard’s escape and the great danger he still faced is too hard to contemplate.
I must have dozed off, for I hear the insistent ring of the phone twenty minutes later. It was Isa, and he was screaming excitedly into the phone. Someone answering to Richard’s description was seen close to the next town, according to him, and he looked disheveled and beaten up. I choke back a sob at his words, and Isa apologizes. “I am sorry for all of this, Keisha,” he says quietly, sober. I answer weakly, “It’s okay, Isa.” “Look, I am going to search for him right away,” he says. I reply, “Thank you, Isa. Remember, don’t blame yourself for what happened. It could have happened to you or anyone else.” Isa whispers, “Thank you Keisha for your kind words.” I also give Isa a quick narration of what transpired earlier today while I was out with Amman, and from the silence at the other end, I realize that what I said must have made a strong impression on him. He swears softly, “My goodness, Keisha, please don’t ever go out again, with or without Amman. I can’t have you hurt or missing too.” I reply that I do understand perfectly, adding that Amman has also gone out in search for Richard, and hang up, my hope rising more with the probability of finding Richard safe and sound.
We gather in the living room late that night, still not able to find Richard. I have just narrated my adventure earlier that day with Amman, drawing some exclamations from Ahmat and Isa in the local dialect. I could see the shock on their faces, and Isa says he had some strong words for Amman for exposing me to unnecessary danger, but I raise my hand in protest, saying, “No need to admonish Amman. I had asked him to accompany me on my sightseeing tour in the first place when I ought to have known better, given the recent unrests and all.” It is nothing short of an anticlimax, as we realize that Richard could be very much alive but his whereabouts are still elusive. “It’s funny,” Isa says suddenly in the silence that followed. “My close friend, Youssef, the foreman, resigned today. He says he had an emergency to take care of in Senegal. Something about a cousin who met with an unfortunate accident at a sugar factory. But he never told me he had a cousin.” Shrugging my shoulders, I say, “Well, he may feel he’s not obliged to reveal everything about him to you. However, I’m sorry about his cousin.” Isa nods in reply. “Youssef has been quite helpful in getting the work at the site done efficiently and speedily, too.”
Amman comes in then to announce that food was ready. I could see that we are all too preoccupied at the whereabouts of Richard to eat. Ahmat gets up, encouraging us with, “Let’s all go and take in something. We will definitely find Richard.” Amman stands uncertainly by the dining table looking remorseful, and I feel sorry for him. He must have overheard Isa’s outburst earlier. I give him a smile as I take a seat at the table, thanking him for the lovely dish he has prepared for us. Smiling back less uncertainly, he exits with a polite bow. The food is actually mouthwatering and I say so to Isa and Ahmat, who agree. “Yes, he’s an excellent cook. But he can be ignorant at times,” Isa says, still angry at him for exposing me to possible danger. We are all silent for the next few minutes as we contentedly eat the catfish pepper soup with rice and vegetables. “Amman is really a gifted cook,” I think silently. However, my thoughts go back to Richard again, and I guiltily push my plate away. Ahmat asks in concern, “Are you okay, dear?” Isa also looks at me with concern. “I’m alright. It’s just, jus…” To my horror, I feel tears well up in my eyes and I choke back a sob. Asking to be excused, I leave the men at the table and go to my room. On getting to my room, I realize that I had been inconsiderate in my actions. Now, I have succeeded in spoiling what was really a lovely dinner for these nice and hospitable gentlemen. I wash my face hastily at the bathroom sink and go back to the living room, trying to assure Isa and Ahmat, who look up as I enter, that I was alright.
Being quite considerate, the men discuss other topics, obviously leaving out the part about Richard. I was thankful for this. Ironically, I was the one that brought on the topic, as I say to Isa, “Richard never told me you were married.” He smiles slightly, saying with a distant look in his eyes, “I met Sarah twenty years ago, when I came down here from the United States with Mum and Dad.” Ahmat nods his head silently at this. “You must have children,” I say gently. Isa nods his head, saying, “I have two: a boy and a girl. The boy is eighteen and the girl is sixteen. They are both students in different schools in Florida.” “That’s great,” I say, impressed. “I’m proud of them,” Isa continues.
The conversation continues for the next forty minutes before we all call it a night, with Richard still in everyone’s thoughts. I fall asleep as my head touches the pillow, but not before experiencing a tingling down my spine from a thought relating to something significant about Richard’s disappearance.
It must have been about three hours later when I was roused from my sleep by a persistent knocking on my door. I sit up abruptly on my bed, disoriented at first, then my heart begins to pound in fear as the knocking continues. Getting off the bed swiftly and tying a wrap, I move to the door, asking quietly who it was. “It’s me.” A voice I recognize to be Ahmat’s answers. I glance automatically at my watch, with its luminous dial, and it reads 3:45 am. Heart still pounding, I turn the lock, opening the door. I saw Ahmat outside the door, with a look of excitement on his face. My mind flies to Richard. Perhaps they‘ve found him. I voice my thoughts, trembling in both fear and excitement. Ahmat nods his head in reply. I give a small cry and hug him automatically, overcome by an indescribable feeling. Then, thinking that perhaps I had overreacted, I apologize quickly, then follow him into the living room.
“It’s only us in the house. Isa and Amman left the house ten minutes ago,” Ahmat says. “We received a call from the local police,” Ahmat continues as he sits down on a sofa and I do the same. “Richard apparently had located a police station and called us from there. He sounded all right, though.” “Oh my God, oh my God,” I say repeatedly, totally overwhelmed.
We hear the sound of Isa’s Ford truck about an hour later as it draws up close to the house and stops. Ahmat and I rush out and what a sight befalls us! Richard is being helped along by Amman as Isa slams the door and comes around to assist him, who seems to be limping. I cover my mouth to hold back a cry as I run to Richard, my friend and lover. We look at each other and I begin to sob brokenly at his battered and disheveled state. But I detect an amazing strength in him also. I move along with the three of them as we make for the house, Ahmat holding the door open for us. Richard shakes his head when I suggest that we give him some food to eat, but he requests a drink of water. Amman brings a bottle of water for him which he finishes in two quick gulps. Ahmat puts on the AC in spite of the whirring fans above. The room feels warmer than usual. Richard gives a gentle cough and, shaking his head slightly, gives me the most wicked grin ever. He begins his tale of abduction, which we are all waiting to hear. At this point, I notice something eerie that almost made my skin crawl—and I wonder why I hadn’t noticed this before—the uncanny resemblance of Richard to Isa. This was the thought that eluded me as I drifted off to sleep last night. Had Isa perhaps been the intended victim, and not Richard? I say so out aloud in the room to no one in particular. Richard looks at me in surprise. “Keisha, how did you arrive at that possibility?” he asks, eyes widening in amazement. I shrug my shoulders. “Awww, nothing,” I reply with embarrassment. “Looking at you and Isa right now, I figure that you bear a strong resemblance to each other, and I thought: what if kidnapping you was a case of mistaken identity?” Richard exclaimed, “Woman, you’re wasting your time as a writer with some travel agency. Why not consider being a detective?” I smile inwardly, and barely holding myself from rushing to him and hugging him fiercely, I nod for him to start his story.
And what a tale that is unfolded to us…while at the restaurant, and in the commotion that followed, he was overpowered by two strange men, who quickly bundled him unceremoniously into a waiting vehicle. As they drove him towards an unknown destination, one of his abductors had received a phone call from a man, whom he believed had sent his abductors to kidnap him. The man had raved and ranted, calling them “idiots.” That they had the wrong man, and how could they be so stupid? The angry man’s voice, which was undisguised in his rage, sounded familiar to Richard, but he wisely showed no sign of recognition whatsoever. He was taken to a small building in an isolated area and unceremoniously bundled into a room with an old mat on the floor. He was locked in this room and barely given food and water. He was usually followed by one of his gun-toting abductors when he needed to use the bathroom. What scared him most when he was in captivity was the fact that his abductors revealed themselves, making it less likely for him to get out of this alive. He had even tried engaging one of the men in a banter, but got a hot, deafening slap from him that left an angry red imprint on his cheek. He had been so docile in his captivity, causing his abductors to taunt and humiliate him. But he had bided his time, praying for an opportunity to make good his escape from his captors, who were beginning to get bored with him, which was surely not a good sign. His worst fears were realized when two frightened young women were brought to his room one morning, after four days in captivity. At the mention of these women, I look at Amman and he nods in reply, obviously making the connection to the nervous and frightened women we met in the bush yesterday while he escorted me on a sightseeing tour.
These women were brought to keep him company for the whole day. “We want you to carry this sweet memory with you as you move on to the next world,” one of his captors had said with a cold laugh. The door had been locked with a soft click. He had assured those women, with signs and gestures, that he had no intention of doing whatever that had been vilely suggested by his captors. A look of obvious relief had appeared on their faces, but then one of them said in broken English that they would find a way to set him free. She told him to do as she had suggested when the time came and he had agreed.
It was late in the morning when one of the women started moaning, faking being in the throes of passion; the other woman followed with another moan, encouraging Richard with a nod to join in their make-believe act. Richard did so with convincing grunts and groans. He felt stupid, but did so all the same, if only to leave this godforsaken place alive. He was very much aware of the danger he was in—the women included—if anything went wrong with the plan. The guard who was listening to these sounds of ecstasy, his small mind obviously conjuring some sexual fantasies, had unslung his gun, put it away, then fiddled with the lock. The occupants in the room were already positioned, ready to lunge a surprise attack on the unsuspecting guard. They understood the danger they were all in and the risk of instant and violent death that awaited them if they failed. Hearts pounding but determined, they fell on the unsuspecting guard. Richard knocked him out with well-delivered punches that grazed his knuckles. The three quickly made their escape, not caring to know the whereabouts of the other guard, such was their desperation to escape. The women had pointed towards a particular direction for Richard to go while they took a different direction, mentioning that it was safer and less likely to draw attention than if they moved together. One of the women removed a shoulder wrap, giving it to Richard to wrap on his head like a turban to keep his curly dark hair under wraps. Richard thanked them and asked them to be more careful. They had gone their separate ways.
At this point, as we are all glued to our seats listening to this fantastic tale, I mention my experience this morning with Amman when we were out in the bush on a sightseeing tour. “We met these frightened women right after seeing some dangerous- and mean-looking men, who gave a description of Richard. I had observed the men from on top of a tree, which Amman urgently instructed me to climb, when we initially heard some strange sounds right before they appeared,” I say. Amman gives an affirmative nod. “I hope the women are okay,” I say with feeling, silently thanking them for saving Richard’s life.
Richard makes a sign for me to come closer, and I do so. Tears are rolling down my cheeks unchecked, but I do not care. I feel so lucky to be given a second chance with this wonderful man again. Ruffling my braids, Richard says with a certain dullness, “Well, it beats me that Youssef, your trusted friend, could do this to you, Isa.” Isa hisses in disgust, as Ahmat cries out in alarm in the native dialect. “Yes, Papa,” Isa says heavily, nodding. “It was Youssef that organized the kidnapping. But as Allah would have it, they got the wrong man”—he inclined his head towards Richard—“instead of me.” He continues with a wry smile, looking at no one in particular. “Maybe he was resentful of my trying to build a restaurant, thinking that it could be an avenue for drug trafficking. He had mentioned that to me in passing once. But that was a long time ago, and I had thought nothing of it.” At this, Richard asks, “So, why not burn down the restaurant instead of trying to kidnap or kill you?” Isa shrugs his shoulders, saying, “Beats me.”
I could see that Richard was exhausted, and we both make excuses as we retire to our rooms to freshen up. Everyone had been emotionally wrung out these past few days. I personally request Amman to bring some food to the room, as Richard and I need some time together.
It so happens that Richard and I get ready for our return trip to Miami. Isa and his father had been so nice and hospitable to us. Our trip could have been perfect, save for the kidnapping and the unrest. I know this will make a terrific tale to Jeanette, who loves crazy adventures. It pleases me to add that Youssef was caught eventually as he crossed the Senegal border, and he is surely going to prison for a long time, for attempted murder and kidnappping. Isa is definitely going on with the building of the restaurant, which is almost completed. I only pray and hope it doesn’t eventually get burned down. He has invited us back for its opening, and I told Richard it’s a definite no, as going back so soon after our recent experience is foolhardy. He was with me on this one, thank goodness. The events this past week were ones I wouldn’t care to relive again, if I could help it. Trying moments, they were.
For all installments of “Moments,” click here.
- Part 1