A chill walked Amara’s spine and broke her concentration on the movements of the martial arts exercise. As she hit the wall to propel herself into the air, she slipped and landed in a heap on the matted gym floor of the church run community center. She peered toward the door. The local drug lord and his nephew paused in the doorway. Ramos was probably headed to Father Joe’s office for his weekly visit. Her hands coiled into fists.
Ramos moved away but Miguel sauntered to her side. He stroked her cheek with a finger. Her body shook. Every day he grew bolder.
Miguel leaned closer. “Gonna own you, babe. Make you mine.”
She shook her head. “No.”
He leered. “Once I take you hard, I’ll own you body and soul ‘til I lire of you. Then my boys will have a taste.”
Words of defiance froze on her tongue. His hooded gaze stripped her naked. He squeezed her breast. “See you soon.”
She rose and completed the final exercise of today’s martial arts training session. A quick glance at the door showed he was gone. She should have felt relief but her hands shook and the sour smell of fear remained.
“Ready for a match?” another of the students asked.
Amara shook her head. “I have to leave.”
The teenager stepped closer. “Wonder what Ramos wants?”
“Father Joe will know but I don’t intend to ask.” With shaking hands she pulled on her jeans and tee shirt and tied her sneakers. In a half-run, she hurried to the door and left the community center.
Outside, aromas reached her. Cooking food, exhaust from cars and busses. Her own fear-laced sweat. Noises penetrated. Music, horns, people’s voices. Her head darted from side to side. Was anyone watching her?
What could she do? Each time she’d encountered Ramos’s nephew her fear strengthened. Each time his words carried the same threat.
“Gonna plow you good, babe. You’ll sing for me real sweet.”
She had no one to guard her back. Hadn’t had anyone since her father’s death. She sighed. She’d almost had a friend. An undercover cop had saved her. Then Ramos had discovered the man’s identity. Seth had vanished. Was he dead?
As she scurried toward the apartment building where she lived with her uncle and his family, she fought to control the fear rocketing through her thoughts. Her breathing came in quick gasps. After her father’s death and her mother’s suicide, her uncle had reluctantly given her a home. Social Security benefits had been the reason but she would soon age out.
When she reached the building instead of stopping on the fourth floor she continued up the stairs toward the roof. She wasn’t ready to hear her uncle’s demands for her to quit school and find a job. She rubbed her arms. There was no one to help her.
The sound of feet on the stairs from below reached her. She crouched and peered through the railing. She sucked in a breath. Would her pounding heart shatter her ribs? Why was Ramos here? One of his bodyguards pounded on her uncle’s door.
When the men entered the apartment, she raced lightly up the rest of the stairs and opened the door to the roof. The heavy metal slab nearly slipped from her hands. She paused for a moment to use a piece of wood to block the handle. She ran across the roof. Once she reached the edge, she slipped over the low wall and placed her feet on the fire escape. Step by step she made her way down until she reached the fourth floor and the windows of her uncle’s living room. Had she missed anything of importance? The unseasonable heat of the autumn day meant open windows. She crouched where she could hear.
“Mr. Ramos, what do you want from me?” Her uncle’s voice vibrated with fear.
“I have come to offer safety for you, your wife and children. There will also be money allowing you to relocate.”
Ramos’ smooth voice sent chills darting over Amara’s skin. Her hands clenched.
“What do you want me to do?” her uncle asked.
“You have a beautiful niece. I have a handsome nephew who is my heir. Miguel wants the girl. Bring her to me and all will be as I promise.”
Would her uncle accept? Amara knew the answer. He had no love for her other than for the money she brought into the house. Her body tensed. The metal of the fire escape burned her hands.
“What if she won’t obey me? She holds herself apart from the family.”
Ramos laughed. “You will make her obey. Aren’t you the man of the house? Bring her to me. She was seen entering the building not long ago.”
When her uncle said nothing, Amara felt a moment of hope.
“I said now,” Ramos barked.
“But…” Her uncle rose. Would he tell the drug lord she hadn’t come home?
To keep from crying out, Amara bit her finger. Time to move. She had to escape but where could she go? When they didn’t find her in her room would her uncle remember how she often went to the roof? She eased to her feet. No time or way to reach her room and the stash of money she’d hidden. She needed a place to hide. With care she climbed to the roof and rolled over the wall.
After her breathing slowed, she searched her pockets. Phone. Twelve dollars, mostly singles and some change. The paper Seth had given her before he disappeared. If she ever needed an escape, today was the time. She read the words.
Life got you down? Have unsolved problems?
Looking for an escape? The answer is in your stars.
A counselor is available night and day.
Dial 1-800-555 ASTR
Was it possible? Did she have a choice other than to explore this option? If she didn’t call her life would change in a manner she feared. She had to reach the street, make the call and find this place. She scurried across the roof. The next building was close enough to jump.
She drew on the lesson of the day. She backed several yards, ran and used the edge of the wall to propel herself across the three foot gap. Curling into a ball, she twisted and landed lightly. A laugh burst free. Three more times she leaped gaps between the buildings until she reached one where an alley intervened. She walked to the edge looking for a way to the street. A rusty fire escape gave her hope. She opened the phone and made the call.
“How can I help you?” a woman asked.
Amara drew a deep breath. “I need an escape. The answer lies in my stars.”
“You’ve reached the right place. Come and we’ll help you. This is our address.”
Amara repeated the street and number. “Which bus comes closest to you?” She listened carefully. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
With caution she crept down the metal ladder. Half-way down, one of the rusted rungs broke and a piece of metal clattered to the ground. She clung to the stairs until she felt sure no one had heard. She reached the ground and dashed to the street.
Seeing a bus approaching she raced to the stop, climbed aboard, paid and requested a transfer. She slumped on a seat and cautiously studied the other riders. Was anyone watching her? Were any of the riders connected to Ramos?
Her rapidly beating heart steadied. She left the bus, studied the map at the stop and waited for a second bus, one to take her near the destination. After a short ride, she stepped to the sidewalk. During the ride, the adrenalin rush had faded. Her posture slumped with exhaustion. When she reached the house, she walked up the steps and rang the bell twice.
An elderly woman with iron gray hair and twinkling brown eyes opened the door. “How can I help you?”
Amara sucked in a breath. Fear warred with the desire for safety. “I need an escape. The answer is in my stars.”
“Come in.” The woman moved aside.
Amara slipped into the foyer. Tension oozed from her muscles. She braced herself with a hand pressed against the wall. She was safe. She had to believe this was so.
After regaining her balance she followed her elderly escort down the hall. Framed photographs caught her eye. She paused to study one showing a dog lying beside a pool of clear water with rows of gray pillars in the distance.
“So that’s the one to interest you,” the woman said. “Why?”
Amara shrugged. “I don’t know but the scene makes me feel safe.”
“Are your troubles desperate?”
She nodded. More than she cared to admit to a stranger.
“I see.” The woman beckoned. “Come and share a meal with my sister and me. Then we’ll talk.”
Amara’s stomach growled. “Thank you.”
“While we eat, you can tell us about yourself.”
Amara swallowed. Could she reveal her troubles to a stranger? For a time she’d escaped Miguel and Ramos. Though the woman and the house soothed her fears, could she trust the change in her emotions? She wondered how long the calm would last.
They entered a large room. Amara noticed a table with six chairs. On the wall, a huge horoscope wheel bigger than any she’d seen in the New Age shop around the corner from the apartment caught her attention. Was she here to have her horoscope read?
A second woman whose hair was as white as new cotton balls and just as fluffy carried a tray with several covered dishes to the table. Delicious aromas of spices reached Amara.
“Help yourself.” The gray-haired woman poured steaming cups of tea.
Amara dished rice into a bowl and spooned a mixture of meat and vegetables over the rice. She tasted and sighed. ”Delicious.”
“Now tell us about yourself,” the white-haired woman said.
Amara began her story. When she spoke about her father’s death, tears spilled down her cheeks. “He was my best friend and teacher.”
The oldest of the women patted her hand. “Tears are good.”
Amara wiped her eyes on the napkin. “My mother couldn’t live without him and took her own life. I went to live with her brother. He didn’t like my father and tolerated me because of the money. He would have given me to the drug lord, Ramos, to buy safety for his family.” She sighed. “Though I don’t like them I don’t want him or his family to suffer when they learn I’m gone.”
The gray-haired woman patted her hand. “People will search and not find you. You’ll be declared dead.”
“I had a friend. He gave me your number. He was an undercover cop. He vanished. Did Seth come here?”
“He did.” The oldest woman smiled. “He was sent to a place where he was needed.”
“Is there a place for me?”
“Perhaps.” The iron-gray haired woman filled a glass with a ruby liquid and set it at Amara’s place. “Do you know the day and the time of your birth?”
Those words brought a warm memory of the day before her father’s last deployment. He’d shown her the combination to the lockbox and her birth record. “December fourth at two twenty AM.”
“You are a Sagittarian. You have a gift for handling animals, a need to see justice and to quest for the spiritual and knowledge.”
The women rose and walked to the double wheel. They began placing colored balls on segments of the inner wheel.
“What are you doing?” Amara asked.
The older woman turned. “Creating a picture of the heavens at the moment of your birth.”
The other turned. “You face a choice. You can remain in this house for several days and return to find another way to solve your problems. Or you can go to a land where your skills and potential are needed. You can bring justice to the people in this other place. Will you go?”
“What do you mean? How would I travel?”
The older woman turned. “As to the means of travel, you wouldn’t understand. If you accept we will send you.”
“You will be given a task to perform to earn your right to be in this world,” the younger woman said.
“What if I fail?”
“Failure could mean your death.”
Amara drew a deep breath. Did death beckon everywhere she went? She faced that sentence here. To become Miguel’s possession and to suffer living with him would mean the end of who she was. All she wanted was to be loved and to belong. “And if I choose to go?”
“You will be transported to an ancient
Egypt. Not the one of this world
but on a different continuum. Once there you will learn what you must do.”
"What kind of task?” Did they really mean she would be sent to an alternate world?
“We don’t know what will be asked of you. If you accept you can never return. You cannot speak of anything of this world that doesn’t fit the time, place or the culture of your destination.”
Amara grasped the cup she’d been given. Could she do what was needed? She would be alone in a foreign land. Here, after her parent’s death, even among relatives she’d been alone. Facing the unknown seemed a better choice than living with what could happen to her here.
“What if I succeed?”
“You will find what you seek.”
A home and love had been her desire since her parents’ death. A wish and a prayer filled her thoughts. Her grip on the cup tightened. She was afraid but she’d lived with fear since the news of her father’s death had been delivered.
“Will you go?” Two voices spoke as one.
Amara met their gaze. “Yes.”
“Then drain the cup.”
As she finished the last drop of the spicy liquid, the giant horoscope wheel spun. Her vision blurred. Darkness claimed her.