I came at last to the master’s bedroom, a huge affair with a magnificent bed and a dazzling chandelier. The finely crafted portrait on the wall told me where I was. And with that realization came cold feet.
The strong midday sunlight bleached the buildings along this particular block of Nennynina Street. No 12 was a small structure with rotted zinc, most of which hung lopsided around the edges of the building. The faded green paint peeled off the wall at several points. A small garden beside the house lay overgrown with weed, giving the place an abandoned feel. I walked to the front door and rapped on the ant-infested wood. The sun rained on my neck. Sweat trickled, sticking the shirt to my skin. The Toyota Camry I had borrowed from a friend which took the full blast of the sun’s rays, stood seated on the kerb just beside No 12.
I knocked a second time before I heard heavy footfalls from within the decrepit womb. A woman with wiry hair and coal black eyes appeared. She regarded the stranger, pushing the door farther back to get a better look. She was tall, maybe five-nine, her skin was the colour of clay, mottled here and there by age.
“Yes?” she asked, widening her eyes till they stretched all over the shelf of her brow. I could see dried tears on her thin cheeks.
“Who are you and how can I help you?”
I removed my hands from my pocket and stated my name.
“I am looking for the family of Laura Okosun. Am I in the right place?
A tear slid down her left eye at the mention of the name. She nodded, hurriedly wiping her face with her dress, exposing a flabby tummy. Like a light switch turned off, her face became a mask, her expression deadpan.
“I know you are not the police because they’ve already been here. So who are you and why do you want meet La—my granddaughter’s family?”
“Madam, I am a journalist. And I have reason to believe that your em—granddaughter must have known who the people who killed her.”
Suddenly her face broke apart. The stony obduracy shattered and what shone through was the countenance of an insanely angry child.
“Of course I know who her killers are! I don’t need anyone disturbing my baby’s rest on a quest for vengeance or some silly newspaper publication. My God will fight for me, and God help Chief Coleman if he had a hand in her death.” She glared at me. “They came here one morning five months ago, Chief and his wife. They told me they had been referred here by the Mora Agency for a housemaid. My daughter was more than joyful to leave with them. But soon, I noticed that whenever she came home for the weekend, Laura wasn’t eager to return, but blind me, I’ll pamper her, sometimes even force her out right to return because we needed to save money for her schooling. Now see where that has left me.”
I listened to her words, my razor sharp brain filing away the important details. I knew I couldn’t get anything more out of her but I pushed my luck all the same. “Madam, please what exactly was Laura doing at the plaza on that Saturday morning?”
“Did you not just hear all I said! Get out!” she shrieked. A vein stood out on her forehead and from the way her breath leaped out of her flared nostrils, and her breast heaved against her chest, I feared she might have a heart attack. I said a quick word of thanks and turning on my heels, I dashed off to my borrowed car.
I mused once more, over the whole scenario. I nosed into a flowing stream of traffic that headed back to the mainland and settled my thoughts on all I had learnt so far. Thoughts of Amber, bound and tortured occasionally filtered into my mind, put I pushed them aside as quickly as they came. There was no point getting distracted. Hell bent on getting her to safety, I was pretty certain I would come up with a plan before 4:30pm. Already, the time was 12:05pm. I contemplated all I had learnt from the airport. At least John Doe was seen coming into Nigeria a week ago. With a few tips to the right persons, I had access to the security footage of the past week. A camera had caught his face—he had been the only passenger on flight JKL whose name didn’t appear on the flight manifest. Just as I suspected, there was no apparent record of his name or identity. Going to the airport was an afterthought. If his name wasn’t in the Police Population Database, then I guessed he was an immigrant or a visitor who got into the country within the past week, just about the maximum time allowed before a guest’s details were entered into the files. I mailed the pictures to Jordan and crossed my fingers.
I had another hunch. Well, not a hunch really, a lesson long ingrained into my DNA as an investigative reporter. When a case got tough and seemed impossible to crack, when none of the facts made much sense and no witnesses to testify, go back to the beginning and you just might find an Achilles heel. I veered off my initial route. Taking a short cut, I came upon the Third Mainland bridge. From there I headed for the Coleman Enterprise building whose gigantic columns I could see towering from a distance. I noticed the familiar blood red Volks on my tail. The vehicle had been behind me since I left Ikorodu.
Amateur, I thought.
I didn’t have the time to fool around with some incompetent spy. I pushed the gas pedal to the floorboards, weaving through the mild traffic on the bridge with adroitness. Other road users screamed invectives at me, but I paid them no heed. I looked through my rear mirror, and there it was, the vehicle tailing me, trying but failing to follow my streak. I had several cars between us now. I cut into the first intersection off the bridge and weaving through the potholes, veered off into another lane. The road behind me clogged up as a result of my insane driving. I watched the cars slamming brakes and come to a maddening standstill while I zoomed off towards the plaza.
The Coleman Enterprise was an unbelievably gigantic structure that housed Coleman Investments. Within its walls was the Coleman Mart, the Coleman Cinemas, the Coleman Brewery, the Coleman Bookshop and several others. The plaza was still cordoned off from the public. The police man doing the beat was Okey, one of the many officers on my boss’s payroll.
“I don’t have the keys Ohmston,” he complained, wiping sweat off his furrowed brow.
“Don’t worry pal.” I tapped his broad shoulders, moving past the yellow tape and towards the front door. I had it open in a few minutes—tweaking the lock was the easy part. I moved into a long corridor, veering off to the right, I came upon a massive mart. I turned on my torch, spilling its bright rays into the gloom. The Coleman mart showcased a wide array of goods ranging from canned foods to brand new cars. I walked every aisle, missing nothing in the conspicuous glare of my torch. I noticed the position of the cameras. There was nothing to find here. I was dismayed. Walking towards the entrance, the torchlight caught a huge renaissance portrait of a classic Van Eyck in a dismal part of the mart. All around it were stacked cartons waiting to be sorted out. The canvass sat slightly askew in a not too visible way. It was a huge one, covering a good part of the wall. It was lengthy too. I flashed my torch on the opposite wall. There was not one single camera angled this way. I stepped around the cartons and tried to straighten the portrait. It clambered to the floor with a thud, and in its place was a small door, barely big enough to size someone of my build. I depressed the button on the center of the door and watched it slide to the side, to reveal a small rectangular room with no windows. It was an impasse.
I looked within the empty room and found a latch cleverly built into its floor. I pulled it open and checking the depth with the torchlight, I jumped in. I walked forward a few steps and soon discovered I was on my way out of the plaza. The tunnel meandered left, right and center like a writhing snake. The darkness was pierced by the bright light I wielded. The musty tang of age and decay hung in the air. Cobwebs nested everywhere, but I could see that the webs had recently been disturbed by intruders.
The tunnel plunged deeper into the belly of the earth, and at some point I was tempted to turn back and flee. I was beginning to feel claustrophobic when at last I came upon a brick wall. Above my head was another latch. It slid back at one shove from my hands. I climbed out in a dark, dank smelly place, a cellar of some sort. Dust and stale sweat burdened the air. The place looked abandoned. The cartons heaped here were covered by years of dust and dirt. Several footprints appeared before the rays of my torch. I followed the prints up a set of brick stairs. A metal door loomed abruptly before my path. I turned the knob. It was locked.
Extracting my tools, I picked the jamb. Then slowly, very slowly I opened the door. Inch by inch I pushed my head through ready to duck at the slightest sign of presence. I looked into a long empty corridor. Satisfied I was alone, I came out and hurried to the first door on my right. Where I was, I had no idea, but I was determined to find out.
I turned off the torch and kept it in my jacket pocket. I ambled around the house, moving from one room to the other. No one seemed to be home. I came at last to the master’s bedroom, a huge affair with a magnificent bed and a dazzling chandelier. The finely crafted portrait on the wall told me where I was. And with that realization came cold feet.
Before me, grinning happily, their smiles frozen in time, was Chief Coleman and his wife!
Hurry and get out of here!
My brain jammed. Instinctively, I pulled out my Colt. Something caught my eyes as I turned to leave. I moved cautiously to the edge of the bed. Splayed on the bedside shelf was Chief Coleman’s bead. The rope which tied them together had snapped in two, now they lay in a pile, the glittering red beads! I brought out the bead I had picked up from the police morgue and compared their hues. It was a perfect match.
But my findings made no sense!
This wasn’t the right place to ponder, besides the clock on the wall read 2:40pm. I had a long drive ahead of me and one could never predict the Lagos State traffic.
A loud horn sounded at the gate. I dashed out like a priest chased by sin, almost smashing my head against a pillar. I hurried back into the cellar and picked my way down the dank tunnel just as I had come.
I tore through the streets. My discoveries were frightening. First, Laura was a servant in the Coleman household, murdered because she had somehow recognised Major Taiwo Smith. And that meant one thing—the major was probably a regular guest in that household. Second, was the John Doe. I glanced at my phone. I had no missed calls. I still could not see how Chief Coleman tied into the massacre. Even if he was behind it, what could have been his motive? I wished I could talk to Ronke, her deep knowledge of criminal profiling would have come in handy. But I hadn’t the time, and I knew she would probably be in a drug induced sleep by now. I picked up my phone, dialled the hospital and left a brief message.
Showing on a huge electronic billboard was a live broadcast of Chief Coleman Campaigning in Osun State. He waved his hands emphatically at the boisterous crowd. I stepped on the brakes, pulling to the sidewalk. Sweat broke from my forehead. I cleaned my eyes and looked again at the screen.
He wore his beads alright, throwing my half-baked theory to the wind.
What was going on, I wondered.
I nosed my way back into traffic and headed for Apapa.
I arrived Tincan Island at exactly 4:00pm. Armed with my Colt, I headed to Pier 13. My phone rang. It was Jordan. He sounded so excited I could hardly grasp his words.
“Jordan! Calm down. What did you find?”
He told me.
Everything fell into place at once.
From my findings, there couldn’t be more than five men waiting for me in Pier 13. I was pretty certain I could surprise them. I took a small boat moored beside the Marina and rowed to Pier 12. I dove into the water and swarm some distance through the slip to the next pier. I climbed aboard the metal platform, soaked to my last skin. Several caravans dotted the quay, a riot of colours in metallic pews.
Unlike other Piers in the wharf, Pier 13 seemed deserted.
From behind a blue caravan, I observed the platform. I noted movement to my right, at precisely my three o’ clock, and another at my eleven o’ clock. I headed for the brigand on my left. Edging close to the caravans, I stole my way around. I came up shortly behind a rail-thin man dressed in fatigues which were tucked into shiny black Rodentin boots. He cradled an AK-47, sweeping his gaze on the expanse of water before him. I crept behind him. Wrapping my biceps around his neck, I drew him away from the open. His weapon clattered to the ground while he struggled, kicking fiercely. His hands dug into my eyes, temporarily robbing me of sight. I released my grip a notch, reached for my stiletto and plunged the serrated blade into his larynx. He jerked. The wound spurted blood from the severed arteries. I pushed him to the ground, wiped my hands on his uniform. I took out my handkerchief and wiped blood off my face.
I headed for the sentry I had spotted at my three o’ clock. I came upon him so fast, he stared speechless as my knife plunged into his chest. I held his head between my hands and twisted the neck. The sickening plop made me shudder.
At this time, I was seized by a strange rage. Amber was my jewel, and anyone who threatened her threatened me. As I disposed of the second guard, I fumed. I was mad. Imagining this brute manhandling my fiancée almost made me bash his lifeless skull upon the metal floor.
I moved deeper into the pier. The time was 4:30pm.
I hadn’t gotten past three caravans when I felt the cold barrel of a gun resting on my skull.
“I warned you not to come here with a bag of tricks, didn’t I?”
My captor smashed the butt of his gun on my head before I could reply. Pain rushed through my brain, beneath my skin and my head exploded in a billion bright lights. White heat spread over my vision, and I felt myself being dragged away by two grotesque silhouettes.
A bucket of cold water woke me up. Seated beside me was Amber, her big round eyes luminous with fear.
“Baby are you okay?” I managed to spit out the words, biting my lip in agony.
She nodded. Her hands were tied behind her back, and then strapped securely to the hinge legs of the metal chair she sat on.
Major Taiwo loomed before me. He was about forty, with shoulders seemingly as wide as a barn beam. His face was a square of granite with a few narrow lines carved into it at the eyes and the corners of the mouth.
“Do you really think you can get away with this?” I looked into his jet black eyes.
He spat. “Hahahahahaha. I can get away with anything Mr Weth. Where is the bead?”
I ignored his question. “What do you think Chief Coleman will do to you and your toy soldiers if he finds out you are screwing his wife?”
My words hit him with the impact of a rocky slab. He reared back, surprise and fear written all over his face.
“Y-you don’t know what you are talking about. Quit wasting my time and hand me the bead!” he snarled.
I smiled. “Oh, but I’m sure you do, Major. I’m sure you know exactly what I’m talking about. The puzzle finally fits. I was quite unsure until the moment I told you. Your reaction says it all.” I scratched my chin with my shoulder blades and continued. “You found yourself in the snares of Chief Mrs Coleman, how that happened I don’t care much about. You visited regularly while her husband was away on his campaign trips all over the country; time enough to acquaint yourself with the household staff, Laura Okosun inclusive. She detested you openly and you knew it. But that was not why you and your goons were in the plaza that day, was it?”
He took a huge stride forward and smacked me across the face. “Shut up!” He pulled his gun and levelled it at my head.
“Wale, Bode, Anslem, leave us.” The three hard-faced men walked out of the caravan. They threw me baleful looks; they couldn’t wait to have their hands around my throat.
“You know nothing Mr Weth, and even if you do, you can prove nothing.”
“Watch me,” I wasn’t scared of this thug. He had gone soft for a woman, like most men his size. I continued, hacking at his courage with my words.
“You were in that plaza because of Andrew Coleman, Chief Coleman’s heir.” I dropped the bombshell.
The Major walked to a far end of the wall, brought out a gleaming knife and cleaned its sharp end against his khaki.
“Your mistress probably begged you, maybe paid you, I don’t know, but the point is you agreed to take on the job, make it look like a hostage situation gone sour. You were supposed to make some impossible demand of the federal government, and when it cannot be met, you’ll kill the hostages, meanwhile the real target all along was John Doe. But Laura recognised your voice. Your mistress who was watching the whole scenario from the CCTV feeds in her bedroom panicked. She gave the ‘kill’ order and you carried it out. A job excellently executed, but you left signs as conspicuous as a mountain. For example, disappearing into thin air—that was a silly move.” I paused to catch my breath. “Mrs Coleman paid off inside men to wipe off her step sons records from the police database and also to wipe off his flight records. She must have suddenly remembered that with his face, his identity could easily be gotten from the internet. She couldn’t wait for you to make the hit, so she stormed the police department all by herself. You got there while she was already in, and you planted the bomb on the police van to ease her getaway. You were about planting a bomb in my car when she emerged with Andrew’s head, and you both had to run for it. That done, you were quite certain you were home free. Afterall, this was the first time Andrew Coleman was stepping into Nigeria on an invite from his supposed step mother, who booked him into the Champs Hotel instead of taking him to his father’s house. Nobody would recognise him. And nobody did.”
Major Taiwo wrapped his hands around his head, gazing into the ocean. Dusk was fast approaching.
I continued. “She had gotten home when she discovered that a bead was missing. She had painstakingly picked them all up after the morgue attendant made a desperate grab for her hand, or so she thought. Trust Romeo to step in for his Juliet, save the day. You knew I was in the police building, so you went to my fiancées house, abducted her. You had to go all out of your way to retrieve your mistress’s bead, to cover up her blunder.”
“Nobody will believe you, besides you’d never leave here alive.” His face had become a hideous mask, throbbing and pulsating with hate. I shrank from his hateful stare. I needed to buy more time. So I continued, engaging his every sense.
“I am pretty certain Chief Coleman doesn’t even know about his son’s arrival. His wife’s greed was total, and you were her tool. A man of your reputation, brought down by a woman, what a shame.”
“Geeeeeyaaaaaaaaa . . .” he lunged at me, the sharp end of his blade raised for the kill.
The shot was loud, reverberating within the enclosed metal room. Major Taiwo stopped in his tracks, gaped at me as if to ask, “who are you?” and he toppled. Dead.
“Are you okay? We started coming as soon as Inspector Ronke relayed your message.” Inspector Rasheed, Ronke’s partner ran to my side and began loosening the ropes. Another officer ran over to Amber. Three more officers marched in the three ex-soldiers, cuffed together like thieves.
“I’m fine. I’m fine thank you. How about Mrs Coleman?”
“An elite team is on its way to the Coleman estate. She will be behind bars soon enough. Thank you very much Mr. Weth, you are indeed a hero.”
I smiled wanly and limping to the side of my fiancée, I threw my arms around her and buried my tongue between her lips.