Vlad touched his index finger to Ijeoma’s neck to check for her pulse but suddenly heard a sound that distracted him. He stepped away from the body and moved towards the stairs in the darkness. The sound of pattered feet became heavier as the bearer drew closer to the basement and Vlad crouched by the stairs, out of sight.
The door opened and Leela instinctively turned on the light switch, wondering why the room was in pitch darkness. The first thing she noticed was Ijeoma’s body lying limp on the floor. She screamed in panic and rushed down the stairs. Once she got to the bottom of it, Vlad leapt out of his hiding place and grabbed her. Leela was taken by surprise but panic and dread fuelled her adrenaline and she trashed out violently. Vlad struggled to maintain a tight grip but Leela who was incredibly flexible wriggled and writhed, constantly slipping out of his grip. She jabbed her elbow in his side and shot her right foot back, jamming her spiked running shoes into his shin. Vlad grunted but didn’t release his grip.
Ijeoma suddenly leapt from the floor where she’d been lying, a knife in her hand and she struck Vlad on the neck. Vlad did not see it coming because his back had been turned to her in the scuffle with Leela. He groaned in pain and Ijeoma retrieved the knife, thrusting it in again as blood began to gush out. Vlad relaxed his grip on Leela and grabbed his neck instead as he sank slowly to the floor, spluttering and choking until he passed out.
Leela’s breathing was heavy and her chest hurt.
“Are you okay?” Ijeoma asked. Her voice was subdued and her breathing slightly irregular.
“Who the hell was that?”
Ijeoma didn’t respond. She found her phone on the centre table and took pictures of Vlad’s body then composed and sent out an email.
“We’ll find out soon enough. Help me move him.”
They dragged Vlad’s weight across to the room to a corner under the stairs and Leela went back upstairs to get some cleaning agents. By the time she returned, Ijeoma was on the phone, her expression pensive.
“Yes, I suspect so too but I need a confirmation in another 10 minutes. It’s urgent.”
Ijeoma hung up and leaned against the centre table, burying her face in her palm. It was the first time Leela ever saw her ruffled and it heightened her worry.
“Ijeoma, what’s going on? What happened after I left?”
Ijeoma rubbed her eyes and stroked her chin.
“I was asleep. When I woke up, something was off. The entire room was dark and when I tried to stand up, he attacked me and tried to strangle me. He had a good angle to his grip and I realised that struggling would be useless so I pretended to struggle and slowly eased out, trying to buy myself some time and catch him off guard. Then you showed up.”
Leela knelt on the floor, her hands stained in blood and stared at Ijeoma.
“We aren’t safe here anymore.”
Ijeoma shook her head.
She suddenly turned around and began to gather up documents and folders. Her phone vibrated on the table and she picked it up.
Leela observed her keenly and saw her eyes darken.
She hung up again, shut her eyes and held her breath. When she exhaled, she cussed under her breath.
Leela stared at her blankly.
“We need to leave. This is about to get extremely messy.”
Leela swallowed. She wiped the floor hurriedly as best as she could while Ijeoma gathered up the rest of the documents and tossed items into the lone gym bag she had. Ijeoma left the room armed with the documents and headed to the car which was parked in the driveway. In two trips, she was done. Next, she placed another call across to Maj. Gen Yakubu.
“I need a favour.”
“I’ll send you an address. There’s a body here. Make it disappear please. Preferably before midnight.”
“Done. Anything else?”
Ijeoma paused briefly as though contemplating her options.
“Bishop. This is him and I’m going after him.”
“Ijeoma. Bishop is an illusion. How do you go after someone that doesn’t exist?”
“Yakubu, he does exist. And I may not have linked all the dots but I swear he is behind the crash and Aisha’s death.”
“What do you need?”
“Space to think at the moment. Just send your boys to clean up this mess first.”
Ijeoma hung up and turned to Leela.
“That man, he’s a Russian mercenary. One of the highest paid hitmen in the business. We got lucky. He never slips up, ever.”
Leela gaped and suddenly began to laugh but her laughter held no mirth and was more fear than amusement.
“Great. Just great.”
“Get your stuff let’s go.”
Leela did as she was told and in 20 minutes, Ijeoma was driving them to Transcorp Hilton. Ijeoma was worried. The Bishop was someone she had heard of while she was with Walrus but just like Yakubu had said, he was more a myth than a real person. No one knew what he looked like but she heard the stories of his personal involvement in war crimes across Africa, from Liberia to Central Africa Republic and even South Sudan. He derived some sick personal pleasure in torture and no one who ever crossed paths with him survived. It made sense that he would be crash an entire plane with over a hundred people and not break a sweat or feel the tiniest bit of remorse. He was cold and deadly. No African government or international court had ever tried to indict him because of course, it was difficult to track someone who didn’t exist. Rumor had it that he had undergone multiple plastic surgeries and had the ability to manipulate his looks at will. She had no idea how she was to begin finding this man but one thing was certain- it was either she found him first and took him down or he would find her and kill her.
Nifemi marched purposefully to Uzo’s desk that morning determined to obtain some form of explanation from him but when she got there, Uzo was not in. She milled around for a bit and just as she was about heading off to her cubicle, she saw him approaching. She maintained what she thought was a neutral expression but Uzo saw past it.
“Madam, am I in trouble?”
“Good morning to you too sir.”
Uzo smiled as he set down his laptop bag.
“Good morning ma. Am I in trouble?”
Uzo smiled smugly
“Twenty minutes. Big deal. No one is dying.”
“I need to talk to you about something.” Nifemi said with an air of seriousness.
Uzo raised an eyebrow in a frown.
He followed her as she led the way to the office cafeteria and took the seat right across the one she sat in.
“I’m going to ask you a question and I want you to be honest with me.”
“Okay?” Uzo asked with a half-smile and half-frown.
“Early this year, there were rumours about a guy who was dating another person’s fiancée and how the two of them killed the fiancé and fled town…”
Nifemi observed Uzo keenly as she spoke but he didn’t flinch.
“Did you read about it?”
“I don’t keep up with rumours. But why is that relevant?”
Nifemi suddenly became uncomfortable. She felt silly for the question she was about to ask. Victoria had been so sure, yet here was Uzo looking entirely clueless.”
“Well?” Uzo asked. Nifemi sighed.
“Victoria said you looked like the guy.”
Uzo laughed. “Which guy? The dead guy?”
He led her eyes and slowly, his smile disappeared. Nifemi felt really small.
“No- the, the other guy.”
Uzo studied her face for a few seconds then suddenly pushed his chair back and stood up. Nifemi stood up right after him.
“Uzo, I’m sorry!”
Uzo ignored her and made to walk out of the cafeteria but Nifemi went after him and grabbed him by the arm. They almost bumped into a couple of interns and the girls giggled mischievously as they walked past.
“What?” Uzo asked coldly
“I’m sorry. I don’t even know what I was thinking.”
Uzo maintained a cold stare.
“Oh I know what you were thinking alright. That I am a murderer.”
“Uzo it’s not like that” Nifemi pleaded.
“So how is it like? I haven’t been here for one month and you and your best friend are accusing me of being a murderer?”
His voice was not raised but each word hit Nifemi hard.
“I’m sorry. I just thought to ask.”
“Well thank you for asking. The day someone tells me you look like a murderer, I’ll be sure to return the favour.”
He snatched his arm away from her grasp and walked away without looking back. He did not even return to his desk. He left the office and took the elevator downstairs. Once outside, he exhaled loudly and paced around, trying to steady his breathing. It was the first time anyone had come close to recognising him since the incident. He had grown a full beard, changed his haircut style and even got a fake birth mark on his face to completely disguise his appearance and so far it had worked. So who was this person that was trying to blow his cover?
He also knew that Leela’s organisation had been responsible for wiping the internet so that no one would ever be able to recall the story but he guessed it was true what they said. The internet never forgot. He did not know what to do but he desperately hoped that the little act he had put up in there would deter her from asking further questions or digging further because he was not about to lose this job. He thought some more about Victoria and her claims to never forget faces. Was she legit or was she some part of another agency that was trying to smoke him out? Was this drama really over or was it just about to begin again?
He thought about contacting Leela but discarded the idea almost immediately. Leela had quit the agency. He knew her life was a mess and he was not about to get sucked back in. There was nothing she could do to help him. He could only hope that this would go away as quickly as it had come without any drama. But Nifemi had definitely taken him by surprise. He ran his fingers through his hair and walked back to the office.
Ijeoma held the phone to her ear as it rang out one more time before dialling the number again. It was 6am. Why was he still asleep? A grumpy voice, laden with sleep suddenly came through the line.
“Hi Mr. Benson.”
She heard him sit up in bed and imagined that the sleep would have immediately cleared from his eyes.
“I’m calling this early because I need to warn you. Things are about to happen very fast.”
“What?” she heard the fear in his voice but continued nonetheless.
“This morning, you’re going to call your clients and convince them to take a settlement of 2 million naira each.”
“Just shut up and listen.” Ijeoma snapped impatiently.
“You will convince them to take the money because that is all they’re going to get. Your handler will likely contact you before midday today. He is probably going to be very angry. Should he ask about your communication with me in recent time, you must tell him that you haven’t heard from me at all. And the moment that call drops, take your wife and your kids and leave town. The money will be transferred to your clients before the end of the week. But you must convince them today to take it. I don’t care what you have to say to make that happen.”
“But, I can’t just do what you’re asking me to do. That’s just crazy. How am I supposed to just leave town?”
“Do you value your life and those of your family Mr. Benson?”
“Then do exactly as I have said. There is a storm coming and I assure you, you do not want to get caught up in it.”
Ijeoma hung up the phone and looked out the window. The sun was nowhere in sight but the streets were beautifully lit. She had barely gotten any sleep through the night and had been awake since 4am, thinking and strategizing. She needed to get a team together. She had killed a person she was certain the Bishop had sent to her and she knew he would be pissed. It was only a matter of hours before Bishop realised something was wrong. Thankfully it had bought her some time.
But her mind was still a web of chaos. Somethings were not adding up. Why was the Bishop involved? If he was behind the air crash, what were his motives? Was he working for someone else? Although that would not make sense. The man never worked for anyone. She remembered chief Ubong and decided to call him. He needed to be given a heads up. Chief Ubong picked up on the second ring.
“Good morning chief.”
“How is it going?”
“Well, that depends. I think I may have found the person behind the crash but it is a lot more complicated than I can explain. I just need to ask a couple of questions first. What other airlines were in play for the title of national carrier?”
“Just 3 other top ones. I’ll text you a list.”
“That would be helpful. Next, apart from you, who else knows where I live?”
“Just Fola. Why?”
“Hmm. Well, something-”
Chief Ubong quickly interrupted.
“Ah, I just remembered. Jide called yesterday evening to ask where you were. He said he needed some information urgently and couldn’t reach you on phone so I told him to try the house.”
Ijeoma cursed silently. It was him. She had been right.
“Chief, are you sitting or standing at the moment?”
“I’m sitting in bed, why?”
“Good. Keep it together. Jide is not your friend. He tried to have me killed last night.”
“I beg your pardon??”
“Keep it together chief. Yemi and I had our suspicions. Yemi had him followed the other day and she’s done some investigations. He has not been working on the case like he told you he was and he has been in contact with whoever hired the other lawyer.”
“Oh my goodness.”
“But I need you to do me a favour chief. You need to act like all is well. I left the house last night and I’m back at the Hilton. If he contacts you about my whereabouts again, just tell him you haven’t heard from me. When do you get back?”
“Hmm. Sunday evening.”
“Alright. Hopefully I have more answers then. Meantime, I raised the settlement offer to 2 million naira per family. Please have your account officer ready to wire the money to the families by close of business today. Again, do not mention this to Jide. Do your best to remain normal and clueless if he calls you. It is important that he does not know he has slipped up.”
“Alright then. Please be safe.”
“I will chief.”
Ijeoma hung up and turned around to find Leela sitting up in bed.
“What’s the plan for today?” Leela asked.
“I need you to do some serious digging and find out everything you can about these three airlines.”
Ijeoma tapped on her phone repeatedly as she spoke.
“I just sent you a text. Dig. Find me anything from their financials to their leadership. I want to know who sits on the boards, who has shares and to what extent. Flag anything you can that strikes you as a similarity between those 3.”
Leela nodded as she reached for her phone.
“Does this Bishop person worry you?” Leela asked.
“He gives me cause for concern. But I will handle it. Just get me the information I have requested. Meantime, are you able to face Uzo again?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Because I need you to go to Lagos and check him out. It’ll take Bishop a matter of days to make a connection and go after him. I just need to be sure he is safe for the next couple of weeks. If you can convince him to go underground, that would be great. I don’t want him moving around in daylight. He might well be a walking corpse.”
A knock sounded on the door and Ijeoma stiffened. She reached for her gun which was tucked in the back of her jeans and moved slowly towards the door as the knock sounded again. Her phone vibrated with a text but she ignored it.
“Who is it?”
Ijeoma seemed to relax and she opened the door, only a crack. Malik stood outside, his expression blank. Kazeem was standing beside him, eyes bloodshot. They must not have gotten any sleep. Ijeoma regarded them suspiciously then opened the door fully for them to come in. only then did she notice the bags that were on the floor beside them. They both carried the bags into the room and placed them in a corner.
“What are you doing here?” Ijeoma asked.
“The General. He sent us.”
Ijeoma smiled. Yakubu was trying to protect her. She picked up her phone and saw the text message he had just sent.
Sending you backup. They should be arriving shortly. Contact if you need anything.
She typed a short reply.
She turned to Malik whom she had mentored briefly while still in Walrus and she remembered how they had both been mandated to hunt her down. It almost felt like a betrayal but she knew that as far as the games went, loyalty was something that changed with the tides.
“It’s good to see you Malik. We have a lot of work to do.”
She gestured towards Leela.
“This is Yemi. Yemi, Malik and Kazeem. They are here to help.”
Leela nodded and got out of bed.
“I better get started on my research then. When do you need me in Lagos?”
“Tonight at the latest. Quick trip. If you can return tomorrow, that would be great.”
To Malik and Kazeem, Ijeoma said
“Guys, you can set up over there.” She gestured to a table across the massive suite and the guys followed the direction of her hand. They set down their bags and began to unload technical equipment as well as some guns. They could tell that Leela did not recognise them. And indeed she would not have because all the time they had been hunting Uzo and herself, Leela had actually never seen them.
Nifemi ate her lunch in silence. Fola sat across from her watching her pick at her food.
“Stop staring at me that way. It’s creepy.” Nifemi finally spoke up.
Fola cleared his throat in embarrassment.
Nifemi eventually pushed the plate away. She was not that hungry anyway and her nerves were all over the place. The awkward conversation with Uzo this morning had left her feeling bad. She was usually not the one to judge people based on hearsay but the moment Victoria had convinced her that Uzo was the same person from the tabloids, she had come to him, half-convinced that he was guilty. And Uzo’s shock and hurt at the accusation made her feel bad. Now lunch with Fola was her penance. Fola called this morning to say he would be leaving town earlier than planned and she agreed to let him take her to lunch but this was clearly a bad idea. He had just ordered her food then proceeded to stare at her while she ate.
“So what’s your big explanation?”
Fola cleared his throat again.
“Erm, so towards the end of my program, I met this guy who I became really good friends with. We just clicked and we used to hang out a lot. I didn’t know he dealt drugs and one night he set me up. I got arrested and was on the verge of losing everything. But this German girl I told you was in love with me at the time came to my rescue. Her father had sick money and somehow in a matter of weeks, they were able to make everything go away. The day I got out of jail, she made me sign a contract to never contact you again. That was the basis on which she negotiated my freedom. She blocked you on all my social media and eventually insisted that I went off social media completely. There was nothing I could do. We moved together to Germany after grad and lived there for 4 years till she died in a car accident. I just packed my stuff and came home. But I didn’t know how to contact you or where to start mending things from so I just laid low. Chief Ubong offered me a job as his Executive Assistant and I took it. I’ve been working with him since then.”
Nifemi looked at him, uncertain of his story but she said nothing.
“Babe, please say something.”
Fola reached across the table and took both her hands in his.
“Nifemi, I am sorry. I know it doesn’t in any way make up for the wrong that I did but I am sincerely sorry. If there was anything I could have done at the time, I would have.”
Nifemi smiled sadly.
“The truth. You could have gotten your family to tell me the truth, not treat me like some leper. You could have left me a message secretly. You could have done 5 million other things, but you didn’t. There was a wealthy German girl who was in love with you and you let yourself get carried away by all her wealth. Don’t come here and try to spin some story to make me feel sorry for you. I don’t.”
She stood up to leave and Fola held her arm and knelt down.
Nifemi’s eyes darted around the restaurant in nervous embarrassment.
“Stop this Fola! Get up!”
“Not until you tell me you forgive me Femi. I can’t. I know I hurt you and its killing me. Please.”
More people were turning to observe them and Nifemi wished the ground would open up and claim her.
“Stand up. Please.”
Fola stood up but still onto her arms.
“Femi, I’m not asking you to take me back. I’m just saying you should let me prove to you how sorry I am. Let me make up for everything. As your friend. Only as your friend. Please.”
Nifemi’s shoulders dropped and she turned away to avoid his eyes.
“Fine. But no more kneeling in public.”
Fola smiled, hugged her then pecked her on the cheeks.
“Thank you love.”
They sat down together for a few more minutes of awkward conversation before Nifemi finally returned to the office. Once back, she played the entire lunch with Fola over and again in her head and tried to convince herself that his story was true but she realised that it made no difference to her. Fola had died to her a long time ago and his sudden reappearance with a sob story was not enough to reignite any significant form of interest. She was emotionally exhausted and just needed a time out.
The rest of the day flew by quickly. Victoria sent her a message to say she was making an impromptu weekend trip to Ibadan. She had no plans for her Friday night and decided she would just go home, make some dinner and curl up with a good book. As everyone packed up around her to leave, she remembered Uzo again and went back to his desk. He had not spoken to her at all during the day and whenever their paths crossed, he always looked away. Uzo had been laughing at something Mosun was saying but the moment he saw her, the laughter disappeared. Mosun hugged him then turned to leave and Nifemi could not understand why she was suddenly jealous.
“Still mad at me?”
He slipped his laptop into his bag and gathered up his phone and wallet.
“Uzo, I’m sorry. Please. This- this feels really weird, you not talking to me all day.”
“I’m talking to you now, aren’t I?”
She turned around and walked away and Uzo mentally kicked himself. He was acting like an ass. Nifemi was being gracious and his attitude was totally uncalled for.
He went after her and found her packing up her own things.
Nifemi didn’t look up.
“We can both choose to act like assholes Uzo. It’s nothing new to me.”
Uzo was shocked.
“Wow. The way you go from zero to hundred in seconds will forever amaze me.”
“Sure. Like how you went from zero to hundred this morning when I asked you a simple question?”
Uzo raised both hands in the air.
“Okay, okay, truce. I overreacted. I shouldn’t have dragged my annoyance this long.”
“Why do I feel like you were trying to punish me for something?”
“Well, maybe coz you wouldn’t tell me about this mysterious nobody who showed up at the exhibition yesterday.”
“I kuku don’t have work.”
Uzo clasped both hands together like a market woman as he spoke and Nifemi laughed some more.
“Plans for tonight?” she asked as they walked out of the office.
“None. My guy has a movie date with his girlfriend. 3 is a crowd.”
“And you? No girlfriend to take to the movies?”
“Well, the last one I tried to date had me caught up in some murder scandal so I’ve stayed away from those.”
Nifemi caught the twinkle in his eyes and she smacked his arm.
“I’m not going to hear the last of this now am I?”
Uzo shook his head multiple times.
“Let me put you out of your misery tonight then. Let’s go see a movie. My treat.”
Uzo put his hand to his chest in mock surprise
“My goodness. Are you asking me out on a date?”
“Dream on, dreamer.”
“Stop forming. Yes, girlfriend, we can go see a movie together.”
He slipped his arm around her waist and Nifemi laughed and slapped it off.
“Mumu. It’s like you want another murder scandal on your head.”
The elevator buzzed open and the two of them got into it, still laughing. The moment the doors shut, Uzo pulled her close to himself and looked into her eyes intently.
“For you, I would not mind another scandal.” Nifemi’s breath caught in her throat and just as suddenly as he had drawn her in, Uzo released her and burst into laughter. Nifemi slapped his arm again.
“You’re so useless.” Uzo grinned and stroked his beard while the elevator made its way down. Nifemi checked out her appearance in the mirror, suddenly self-conscious. She needed to touch on her makeup and put on some perfume as well. Tonight would surely go well.