Nobody paid attention.
“Let her go!”
I hit a trolley piled with luggage. It rolled towards a man looking up at the flight display screen but I didn’t stop to say sorry. I kept running. I dodged a bunch of school kids with noses stuck to their phones. They didn’t move an inch. They didn’t even look up.
“Katy!” I yelled, waving my hands like mad now.
Two grey-haired women sitting at a corner coffee shop turned and glared. Why can’t they see what’s happening? I kept running, my heart in my mouth.
I tripped over a step and felt my shoe buckle under me. I stopped myself from falling face first just in time. I loved my beautiful red heels and wore them whenever and wherever I could, but running after a man who’s kidnapping my best friend was not one of those times.
They were outside the main airport doors now. I burst through the doors just in time to see the man in the black suit push my friend into a black London cab. The door banged shut, catching Katy’s bright red scarf on the door well. The cab pulled onto the road.
“Noo!” I screamed. Everyone turned to look. “Help! Someone help!” I waved my hands and jumped. “Help!” No one said a word. A few people looked on ogle eyed. Most looked away, as if embarrassed by the spectacle. I watched in horror, with my heart racing, as the cab drove off with my friend inside.
Katy’s red scarf fluttered in the wind as if giving me the finger.
None of this would have happened if Katy had followed me inside the cafe.
But she’d been distracted by the shoe store next door and shoes for Katy were like crack for addicts. That’s what she spent most of her money on, even if it meant starving for a month. It wasn’t like she made a lot of money as bookkeeper for Dick’s Next Day Catering Company back in Toronto. Thank goodness Dick and his business partner, Jose, were far away now. Our get-away hadn’t been easy, but it had been fast as soon as we found out we weren’t just cheap labour at their bakery fronting as a drug business, they’d been planning to sell us all along. Like we were lemon cheesecake or a cherry cupcake. Katy and I had run out of that store and out of the city so quickly it was still all a blur.
It was only yesterday those men had chased us across town, and only several hours ago they’d hunkered inside the Toronto airport waiting to ambush us. With a whole load of luck, we’d managed to escape and board the plane. Then on the flight, I tried to sleep away my worries while Katy switched on her little TV screen to get lost in the movies. I didn’t sleep much though, and I saw Katy’s eyes flitting from the screen to the aisle and back again as if she was afraid the men would appear in mid-air. Somehow. I didn’t sleep a wink.
My mind was still a whirr now. Did the men follow us all the way here? Or did they have connections here that they called? But how did they even know we were coming to London? Did the attendant at the ticket booth give us away? And who was that man who took Katy? And why kidnap only her? Maybe they didn’t see me sitting in the cafe. But whoever kidnapped her saw me running and heard me yelling, didn’t he?
When Katy and I landed at Heathrow airport, we stumbled out half-asleep, deadly tired, only to have to walk in our heels through a labyrinth of monotonous corridors lit by stark florescent light. I was weighed down by my backpack and Katy by her fake Louis Vuitton suitcase. Thus, we wobbled our way to the departure gate just in time to board our connecting flight. But we hadn’t expected to see the sign up front.
“Oh no!” Katy said pointing to the flashing red sign.
We’d been so desperate to get out of Toronto that we’d taken whatever flight they had, and all they had was standby. That meant anyone who’d reserved a seat had first dibs while we could get bumped around when and as the airline wished. I ran up to the airline desk.
“Hi there! We already got our boarding passes. Can we can get on this flight please?” I said with a smile on my lips and hope in my heart. Maybe someone was late or a no-show. Maybe they had extra seats they hadn’t advertised. The airline attendant didn’t touch my ticket. She wrinkled her nose like it smelled of bad cheese and peered at me over her eye glasses.
“Do you not see the sign?” She said pointing. “The flight’s full.” Her tone was crisp and final.
“Can you squeeze us in please?” I said, unbeaten. “It’s just two of us.”
“We’d fit anywhere. We’re on the small side.” I heard Katy say from behind me.
The attendant didn’t look amused.
“Please? It’s an emergency.” I gave her my big brown eyed look which sometimes worked. I wasn’t lying. This was an emergency. She sighed and snapped her fingers. “Passports and boarding passes please.” She started to tap on the computer terminal, fingers flying at lightning speed. We waited silently next to the desk, our own fingers tightly crossed.
“Sorry, no seats on this one. But…”
We waited with bated breathe.
“But I see a couple of seats in the next flight departing to Delhi tomorrow at thirteen hundred hours. You won’t be sitting together and I can’t promise anything. You’re on standby after all.”
We stared at her with mouths open. That would give enough time for Dick and Jose to catch up to us if they were planning to.
“Tomorrow?” Katy said.
“Don’t you have anything today?” I said.
“All booked-in passengers get priority. Here are your new boarding passes. If you need a place to stay the night, the Sheraton’s right up…..” She paused for a second and gave us a keen look.“There are quiet lounges in terminal 3 if you need some rest.”
I took the papers with shaking hands. The attendant reached over the desk and tapped the passes with a manicured red fingernail. “Tomorrow afternoon at thirteen hundred hours, ladies, and don’t be late.”
She turned away to look at the line up that had formed behind us. “Next please.” She snapped her fingers. Someone was already coming over to the desk, pushing us out of the way. We had to move. Katy and I stumbled over to closest bench and collapsed on the hard seat to catch our breath and collect ourselves.
“What are we going do now?” Katy said.
“I dunno,” I said pulling the bag off my back. I rubbed my eyes. “Find a place to sleep maybe?”
“I’m too stressed for that.”
“Do we have much choice?”
“So we just sit here and wait for them to catchup?”
“We could go sit in the washroo….” I said with a half-smile.
“Don’t even think about it,” snapped Katy. Hiding from those goons for fifteen hours in a smelly airport washroom in Toronto was enough for a lifetime.
We sat silently on that stiff bench for almost an hour, not sure what to do, our bodies numb with exhaustion and our minds paralysed by worry. Around us everyone was hustling. Men and women in sharp grey and blue suits marched to their gates, with fancy laptop bags rolling behind them. Couples, arms intertwined, walked quickly through on their way to unforgettable honeymoons or romantic getaways. Families passed by us with kids jumped around, butting each other like excited little goats. Once in a while a harassed soul would also walked by looking like they were dragged down by jet jag or travel woes, but they were few, plus they didn’t seem lost, just weary, unlike us who felt both weary and lost. Looking at all these people around us, made me feel lonelier than ever.
Katy and I must have looked quite the scene, us two girls who hadn’t washed for a day now and had slept on a dirty bathroom floor most of the night before. Katy though, still managed to attract interesting glances from men. And how could she not? She was a sinewy, red-headed Irish girl in a cute red skirt and three inch red stilettos with a polka dotted bow on top. She’d been dressed for a date with Jose, a date that never took place and one that will never happen. Right now, Jose was so persona non grata, I couldn’t even mention his name. Sitting next to her was me, a petite Indian girl in my signature black miniskirt, my own red heels and waist length black hair streaked in white. I had just enough time to throw off my apron before running out of the bakery. After that, I had way more important things to worry about than flour in my hair or icing sugar on my nose.
I looked down at my ticket. It was an Air India ticket, the same airline that had flown me from India to Canada more than three years ago. A lifetime ago. I sat back and tried to collect my thoughts. I was going full circle. I had come from Goa to Toronto to help my family back in India. Now I’m going from Toronto back to Goa to help my family out again. What was left of my small family that was. I bent down and put my head in my hands with a sigh, my foot tinkling as it moved. I reached down and touched my silver ankle bracelet, thinking of my dear cousin Preeti. It was a wedding gift from her, a gift for a wedding I didn’t show up to. It was a wedding that made me feel guilty every single day. You see, I’d run away from an arranged marriage to a man who then forced Preeti to marry him that day instead. Preeti, my innocent cousin, who was getting punished for my sins. That man’s evil alcohol-soaked face flitted into my head. The image of this man trying to corner me one day while pulling down his pants rushed into my mind like a raging angry fire. I shuddered with anger, despair and then sadness. I tried to choke back a sob. What have I done? Oh my god. This was all my fault. My fault. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, Preeti.
Ever since I found out that the wedding had gone ahead without me, my only goal in life was to get back to Goa, back to India so I could rescue Preeti from the clutches of that evil man, which is where we were heading now if we could get on a plane.
Next to me, Katy let out a loud sigh. I looked over. She was leaning back in her chair looking asleep but I could see her scanning the crowd from under those half-closed eyelids. She had her own demons to worry about. The latest and biggest one being Jose. Our boss, Dick, had been a small-time alcohol and cigarette smuggler, harmless until Jose turned up and ratcheted up their racket. He was the one who took the business from small-time contraband dealing to big time drug and people smuggling. With his good looks and suave personality, he wined and dined Katy and quickly won her over. For months he pretended to be her boyfriend, promising gifts and trips while only using her in more ways than one. He fooled her enough for her to even say those fateful three words, I love you, and for the past two days she’d been kicking herself for falling like a fool. Katy sighed again. I felt bad for her.
The good thing was once we got to India, it would be almost impossible for Jose to get to us. Finding us would be like finding a lost sock in the laundry room. It’ll take ages, maybe never. But for now, we had to be patient. There was nothing we could do about what happened back in Toronto. There was nothing we could do about our tickets or the flight change to tomorrow. We were on our way to our final destination and that was all that mattered.
“Hey Katy,” I nudged my friend gently on her elbow.
“Hmm?” Katy opened her eyes. Her pale face lined with worry looked older, more haggard than I’d ever seen.
“Wanna go for a walk?”
She let out a loud sigh and gave a slight head shake. “Nope.”
“We can’t lounge here all day.”
“Hey, they’ve probably got awesome shoe sales over there.”
“I’m too tired.”
“For shoe sales?”
Katy rubbed her eyes.
“Come on, let’s go check it out.”
She sat still for a minute, surveying the surrounding area. People came and went, pushing trolleys, pulling suitcases, heads lost in phone conversations, worried faces looking around for gate numbers. Announcements blared from the loudspeakers, preboarding calls, boarding calls, final calls, final-final calls. It seemed like this airport never stopped.
Katy stirred and sat up. “Yeah, let’s get out of here. I’m beginning to see Jose and Dick everywhere I look.”
“Me too,” I said. “But they’d never come here.”
“How do you know?”
“Because…” I paused. “It’s too expensive to fly here just to get us.” I had been ruminating about this for the past hour as I sat and watched carefully as men walk by, men glance our way. “They’re looking for girls to sell to men who want to buy marriage visas just to come to Canada or the States, right?”
“They only used us because we were there. Right there working in their bakery.”
Katy looked at me with a raised eyebrow.
“You see, we were convenient. There’s nobody we can call for help. We’re alone and we have nobody. They knew that and they knew no one would notice if anything happened to us.”
“You think so?”
I nodded. “Now we’re gone, they’ll just find some other girls.” I paused. “Some other poor girls. No one’s gonna come all the way here just for us.”
“That’s just horrible,” Katy was saying.
“They’ve probably already found some other girls.”
Katy shook her head. “What a bunch of double-crossing evil bastards.” Strong words for a girl who rarely swore.
Bang! We both jumped. Someone’s suitcase had dropped from their luggage trolley onto the floor and my heart rate had just jumped ten fold. Katy and I both sighed in relief.
We had to find something to do. We had to find a distraction, any distraction, or this paranoia was going to overtake us. I touched her shoulder.
“Hey, can we forget all this for a minute and go check out some shoes?” I loved shoes too so my proposal was not totally selfless. In the next few of hours, we’d walked the length of the airport, stepping in and out of shoe stores, luggage shops, bookstores, and jewelry boutiques that carried shiny pieces we couldn’t afford even if we worked a lifetime. Seeing sparkly earrings and shiny shoes did help to forget our worries for the time being.
We’d just stepped out of one of a fancy shoe store when I spotted the place I had dreamed of for years.
“Oh my god.” I stopped in my tracks and stared at the picture-perfect vision in front of me. “I don’t believe it.”
“What?” Katy looked up with a worried look.
“Over there,” I pointed at the red and white striped awning and the floor to ceiling glass window.
“That? Cafe? Why, are you hungry?”
“No but that’s not…”
“I lost my appetite after sleeping in the bathroom last night,” Katy interrupted me.
I looked at the cafe in awe. I’d seen it in glossy magazines and on TV screens, but never dreamed to see it in real life. The curvy gold lettering on the window were unmistakable. Inside, was a glass shelf that extended the width of the store and was weighed down with pastries of all kinds. Golden croissants, fresh baguettes, fancy fruit tarts, sugar buns, cheesecakes, caramels and eclairs sat side by side looking rich, full and pompous. My eyes widened. There were meringues, madeleines, macarons, multi layered mousse cakes and sweet things in all colours and shapes. The heavenly smell of oven fresh baked things wafted our way. I took a deep breath in and closed my eyes.
Mama had given me my first spark. She was the one who came to my dreams at night, bringing memories of us baking and laughing on lazy Sunday afternoons. She’d been in my life for only a short time, but I never forgot her captivating smile, that contagious laughter, and those sweet cakes she loved to make. I used to make believe that Mama was a mysterious good witch, the beautiful kind type, who’d learned an ancient magic to be able to mix simple every day things into sumptuous treats. Then later on, Chef Pierre had only added to my inspiration. Everything I learned about the magic of baking and cooking after my mother died, I learned from him.
“You don’t understand,” I said pulling Katy towards the shop. “It’s Chef Pierre.”
“The king of bakers.”
Katy pressed her nose to the glass window and frowned. “Six euros for a pin pong sized sugar ball?”
“They’re amazingly good,” I said staring. “I’d do anything to work here. I’d even sweep the floors.”
Katy was frowning at the cakes on display. “Who even buys these? These are crazy prices and I don’t need more fat or sugar.”
“That doesn’t mean no calories.”
“These are sugarless. I’ve made these before at the bakery and you loved them. They’re really good.”
“Easy for you to say,” Katy said. “I’m going to gain ten pounds just by looking at them. How you stay skinny with all the sweet stuff you stuff yourself with, I don’t know.” She sniffed as two beautiful European women walked into the cafe just then. “You and those French girls.”
“No sugar, I told you,” I said with a smile. “And small portions.” Katy was always complaining about her hips and her looks, when she was the most popular girl in school and the prettiest girl I knew.
“Right.” She didn’t seem impressed. “Oh look!” Her eyes had caught site of the shoe store next door. “Oh my god, look!” It was her turn to grab me by the arm and propel me away.
“Oooh, Jimmy Choo!” She walked towards a looking pair of four inch red boots studded with Swarovski crystals, that sold for the price of our yearly wages, even on sale. She picked them up with a squeal of delight.
“Can I try these on?” she said to the store attendant.
I watched her as she sat on the shoe bench admiring the leather and plastic goodies around her. I knew I’d lost her, at least for the next hour or so. This was her heaven. Mine was next door.
“Hey Katy,” I said, “I’m going to check out the cafe, ok?”
“I’ll join you soon as I’m done.” She wasn’t even looking my way. I left her to her own devices and stepped into the cafe by myself.
I felt goosebumps on my arms as I crossed the threshold of Chef Pierre’s cafe. He was my hero, my role model, the person I’d looked up to on those dark days at Mrs. Rao’s house back in Toronto. From his magazines articles and cook books, he’d kept me company on days when it felt like the whole world was against me and I was all alone.
Chefs in Europe are akin to royalty. They come from regal lineages with noble blood and ever nobler connections. These are people who grace the covers of flashy Euro magazines and hang out with fashion designers, film stars and famous artists. Chef Pierre though, was someone you’d never think belonged to that crowd. That’s because he didn’t. He came from a poor family, the son a coal miner from the south of Belgium. He fought his way to the top, beating his rivals armed with only a whipping whisk and his Grandma’s recipes. He didn’t make himself popular with his family when he ran off to the Netherlands to marry his true love, Andre. In the snazzy magazine photos, handsome, buff Andre looked like he’d just stepped out of GQ and fit right in with the film stars. Next to him, Chef Pierre looked like the village boy, out of place in any high society social club. He was the homely, friendly, next-door kind of guy you could go out for a drink with. He was different.
Just like him, I was different too. Born in Africa, but not really African, grown up in India but not really Indian, lived in Canada, but not really Canadian, I was a strange mixed-up girl who’d been everywhere but belonged nowhere. Just like Chef Pierre, I had a big dreams. If there was one wish, other than to return to Goa and find Preeti, it was to own my very own bakery one day. I’d spent my entire childhood and teen years learning how to cook and bake. What I made in Dick’s bakery made him money, a lot of money. I knew because Katy kept the books.
All I wanted now was to spend my time baking and cooking like I used to with Mama those Sunday afternoons a long time ago. She made baking fun, something you did because it made you happy. I wanted the world to try her recipes, to put smiles on people’s faces and make them forget their worries. It was from her, I’d discovered the happiness of mixing batters and swirling icing. If I could spin magic like her every day, I’d be the luckiest girl in the world.
I looked at Chef Pierre’s goodies laid out in front of me now. How many of these recipes had I read in those glossy foodie magazines? How many of these had I tried to make? My mouth-watered as I looked at each, trying to identify each one, wondering which to try first. A sponge soft éclair covered with dark melted chocolate? Or a melt-in-your-mouth cheesecake with red jelly and fresh raspberries on top? I’d been so absorbed in the world of pastries that I never noticed the tall man in the black suit walk up to Katy next door.
Coming out in 2018 at Amazon.com near you!