From where they sat under the shade of the trellis, Kat and Ella had a direct view of the arena. Groomsmen led horses back and forth along a corridor between the barns. Along the edges of the barn and corners of the arena, barrels overflowed with flowers and bushes. Horses’ coats gleamed and their polished hooves were neatly shod. Throughout her teenage years, Ella had spent the summers at the local racetrack with her family. However, the horse’s at Kat’s stable were nothing like those racing at the track. Compared to the leggy, muscular thoroughbreds, these creatures were refined and compact. Adapted to harsh conditions in the desert, they exhibited large nostrils and alert ears. The tip-off though was the way carried their flowing tails up high, like waving flags behind them.
“These are Arabians. Am I right?” Ella said.
Kat’s cheeks crinkled around her eyes. “I knew you were beautiful, but I couldn’t tell from your mom’s pictures you were also smart.”
Ella scratched the back of her neck, pretending to ignore the compliment.
“Yes, they are indeed Arabians. ‘Created by the gods from the desert sand and wind’ or at least that’s how the legend goes.”
“How do I keep them all? I can’t take all the credit, that’s where my dearest Zalika comes in. While I do admire the gorgeous animals, Zalika is the true horsewoman. Her father bred and raised Arabians for Saddam himself. After his fall, many of the horses were stolen or slaughtered. She’s procured them at various horse markets including Baghdad. I won’t lie, some cost a pretty penny, but we can sell them easily for double in Europe or the United States.”
The thought of such frivolous use of money among such squalor made Ella cringe. “I don’t understand,” she said through gritted teeth. “The price of one of these horses could pay for a month’s supply of food at a refugee camp.”
Kat raised an eyebrow, looking taken aback by the harsh tone of Ella’s words. “Of course, you’re right dear, but—”
“How can you sit here among all this?” Ella said, getting to her feet. “When there are families being torn apart and every day more children are orphaned?”
Kat pursed her lips as if waiting for Ella to finish.
Ella’s chest heaved as she clenched her fists. “Here you are, drinking your fancy wine, and not ten miles west, people are literally starving to death!”
Kat tilted her head but didn’t reply. As if an idea struck her, she knitted forehead, narrowing her eyes. “I want to show you something. Follow me?” Without waiting for Ella, the old woman had pushed herself up from her chair and had begun tottering out into the glaring sun toward the arena. Three horses were being worked, two ridden and one long-lined. They trotted in the shade along a grove of trees, their polished hides slick with sweat.
Kat paused at the fence, resting an elbow over the top rail as Ella joined her.
“You see that young man over there,” Kat said, pointing to a man on the ground lunging a spirited gray mare. “That’s Qadir. He’s been with us two years this fall. He was fifteen when his entire family was killed in an air strike.” Kat’s eyes grew distant as she gazed toward the boy.
“They’d been preparing a family dinner when Qadir’s mother had asked him to fetch a birthday present for his father from the store down the street. On his walk home, a missile struck the side of his family’s house. Qadir had to watch his home burn, with his father’s wrapped gift clutched in his arms.”
Ella’s chest tightened. Her cheeks felt hot, feverish.
Kat turned and rested her back against the fence. She motioned to a middle-aged woman and older man attending to a pair of water buckets. “Sayyid and Jasmin came only a few months ago. Jasmin lost both her husband and son to suicide bombers. Sayyid is her father. His brother joined a terrorist cell and was responsible for the suicide attack at the cafe last February.”
Ella bit her lip. “Alright, but what exactly are you trying to say?”
Kat flicked an annoyed look at her. “Now don’t make me take back my compliment about you being smart.” She motioned around her again. “Everyone you see here has been affected by an act of violence in one way or another. However, we welcome them here. We provide a decent wage as well as room and board. And if needed, transport out of the country.”
Ella’s eyes widened as the words struck her. They were smuggling people out of Iraq. And to think she’d raised a critical eyebrow at their contraband wine last night.
“You can’t be serious.” Ella narrowed her eyes at the gray-haired woman.
“Serious as a heart attack,” Kat smirked and knocked on the wood rail behind her.
“The same as the wine,” Kat said. “When we export horses out of the country, we have to send a few grooms to go along as well. Tend to the horses en-route, make sure they’re cared for and fed. And once they’re delivered to their new owners, whether it be France or England.” Kat paused and gave a small shrug. “There have been occasions, the shipping containers return empty.”
Ella couldn’t believe it. It was almost too clever to work, and yet, it did.
“And you’ve never been—” Ella trailed off.
“Been caught?” Kat supplied. “No, dear and we hope to keep it that way,” She shot Ella a stern don’t-tell-a-soul-or-I’ll-kill-you-myself look.
Ella shrank under the woman’s glare and gave a quick nod. She felt a sense of honor that Kat had disclosed such a secret to her. She’d never betray it. However, Ella knew someday they’d get caught. The authorities would get tipped off eventually and shut them down. But until that day, Ella hoped many more lives could be saved.