by Anthony Othuke Ominiabors
The little girl lying naked on the thin blood-soaked mattress on the floor could not be more than fourteen. She was curled in a fetal crouch, drawing up her knees to her chin.
We barely escaped with our lives.
But of course that wasn’t good enough for The Boss. “How could you have gotten these men on your sights and let them escape?”
For the fourth time that morning, I tried to make him understand that we did not let the men escape, rather, they let us escape; but for the cover of darkness, we would have been toast.
He seemed to calm down after his phone rang, his wide lips breaking into a lascivious smile. He spoke sweetly into the mouthpiece, waving me away. I quickly excused myself, stepping into my office where a befuddled Sarah sat examining the police reports of the scene. Two glossy photographs sat beside her elbow, and as she picked them up, I could see the tears stream down her eyes.
Mr. and Mrs. Alongo had been found dead that morning on the grounds of the uncompleted cathedral – shot at point blank range. My rage knew no bounds, so did my sorrow. My head whirred but failed me in thought as I had nothing to go on with in the first place. We had lost what would have been a perfect lead to an almost impossible case.
Sarah’s snivelling got louder. Worse. I moved to her and placed my arm around her shoulders. In the silence I said a thousand words.
She nodded, resting in my arms. She cleaned her eyes with the back of her hands and picking up her frail glasses from the table top, she pressed them into her face. I got up and moved around the desk to my chair.
“We should check the murder scene again. We might find something the police missed.” Her mouth was a bitter thin line.
I doubted that very much. Inspector Rasheed, the officer I learnt was in charge of the investigation was as thorough as they came. But I obliged her, anything to lessen her pain.
We arrived at the cathedral a few minutes before mid-day. We searched every inch of the building looking for something, anything that’ll give us a fresh lead in the missing person’s case.
We found nothing.
Sarah was far from exhausted. “Let us go to Agungi. We might find something there.” The fire in her tone dared me to refuse her. I didn’t and an hour later we had broken into the massive edifice that once belonged to the Alongo’s. We searched the entire house, from room to room, cupboard to cupboard, missing nothing. Our search was rewarded two hours later when Sarah found a white card sticking from the corner of the mirror in the bathroom of the master’s bedroom. She called my attention to it. The card had two words printed in bold gold letters on its brilliant white face—La Cathédrale.
“The Cathedral?” I thought aloud. “What the hell does that mean?”
The card struck us as odd not just because of its vague connotation but also because the meeting last night took place in a cathedral. My razor sharp brain could already form a connection. I had long learnt that in my trade, there were no coincidences, only lopsided evidence that led to the bigger picture.
Sarah’s brow furrowed. She massaged her temples, deep in thought.
“I have no idea.” She said at last.
Exhausted, with nothing to go on save a vague card with a weird print, we headed back to the office.
Dusk fell. Night crawled in on us as we brainstormed in my small cubicle. Nothing came to mind still.
Sarah was in a horrible shape. Her hair was a tangled mess, her immaculate gown was rumpled and she didn’t seem to care. She hesitated when I asked her to go home. Only when I insisted on dropping her in front of her doorstep did she bite.
“Don’t worry,” I said as I dropped her off. “We will find the merchants.”
She nodded, too pained by our obvious failure to turn up a viable lead, to look at me.
I headed home, tired.
Amber was at the door, her face tear streaked, her eyes raw.
“Have you found her?” she looked behind me to see if I had returned with her little sister. She was disappointed when she saw the thick shadow that accompanied me into the living room.
“Still no leads. The police are not resting either. I’m sure something would turn up soon.”
“Ohmston, it’s been five days. Five whole days and no one has seen Kemi.” She placed both her hands on her head. “Chei! I’m finished.”
I led her to a chair and sat her down. “Please calm down. We will find her.”
“Your food is served,” she said, her voice still hoarse.
“Thank you.” I kissed her on the forehead and proceeded to my room. I flipped the white card between my fingers, staring at it a long time. I had no sudden epiphany, glomming its mystery. I dropped the card on my desk and headed into the bathtub for a quick shower.
Ronke was the last person on my mind as I drifted off to sleep.
I woke up very early and left for work while Amber was still fast asleep. Sarah was already in my office, waiting for me. She looked brighter and wore a smile.
“I know where to find la Cathédrale.”
I gazed at her in amazement. “You do?”
She nodded happily, not unlike a schoolgirl, her eyes gleaming.
“It’s a school for priests. It’s located on that long stretch along Epe expressway.”
“And you know all this, how?”
“My brother. He supplies their bread.”
A school for priests? What then was the connection?
I suddenly felt tired. Deflated. We were heading back to square one because there was no way I was breaking into a seminary.
Sarah thought different. “He has a delivery by 03:00pm. We can go with him and take a look around.”
I had to look at her twice to make sure she wasn’t joking. “You mean we should go snooping around a seminary?”
“It’s the only lead we’ve got and I think it’s worth our attention.” She crossed one shapely leg over the other.
She was right.
It infuriated me that she seemed to be taking the lead.
“Ok then, 03:00pm it is.”
At exactly 04:30pm the blue van marked Jombo Bread pulled to a stop before the heavy wrought iron gates that walled the sanctum of the priests from the outside world. After what seemed like an eternity and an inspection of the van by three fierce looking guards, the delivery van was allowed into the vast compound.
I dislodged the pan of bread that rested on my head and crept out from the false bottom we had created in the van. Sarah followed. We crept behind a dusty Peugeot and watched a dark skinned lady with an apron tied around her waist, roll a silver cart into the garage. She began the tedious task of offloading several hundred loaves of bread.
La Cathédrale was a castle.
I stared, mouth wide open at the grand edifice that stretched into the forest trees surrounding the compound like a fistful of leaves around a nest. I would never have believed it had anyone told me such a place existed in Nigeria.
Sarah cast me a quick glance.
Our time was ticking already.
Looking left and right and finding no one in the immediate vicinity save the bread woman, we made a run for a side door facing the east of the car park. Lucky for us, it was unlocked. We walked into a long winding corridor. The walls were tall, shiny and bare. Its floors were laid with the finest of marble.
“Sarah!” I whispered. My voice whispered back at me.
She turned and looked at me, her eyes wide with fear.
“This place is too big. We have to split. We have ten minutes.”
“Let us meet back at the garage.”
I felt uneasy letting her wander off on her own but a split was the only way we could cover one-fourth of the building within our rendezvous time.
Together, we raced along the meandering path until we came upon two intersections.
I moved to the left. I wished her Godspeed.
I veered off into the hallway on my right.
I had barely taken three steps along my new path when I heard a loud scream from up ahead. I hurried along the corridor, skipping behind the huge fat pillars whenever I sensed the presence of another.
I came upon rooms, several rooms. But each one of them was empty, though I could quickly see that they were occupied. Four men dressed in cassocks emerged without warning from a bend. I ducked, and hid in one of the empty rooms. I came out only after I had heard the last of their heavy footfalls.
I came upon a large hall. It was empty.
Where was everyone? I wondered.
I crossed the hall into another corridor. I withdrew immediately, taking cover behind a huge oaken door. The scream I had heard earlier definitely came from one of the rooms here. Already, I could see several doors.
Two bare chested men came out of two separate rooms almost at the same time. Their bodies were shiny with sweat. Their muscled arms hung limply from their shoulders like labourers who had just finished tilling an enormous land. They grinned at each other as they walked out into another hallway.
I looked at my wristwatch.
I had less than two minutes to get out.
I tiptoed to one of the doors the ugly looking men had come out from and slowly, turned the knob.
The little girl lying naked on the thin blood-soaked mattress on the floor could not be more than fourteen. She was curled in a fetal crouch, drawing up her knees to her chin. She drew back into the wall as I stepped in, her eyes a thousand spools of horror.
I said a thousand prayers at once not to meet her this way, if she was held here.
I felt bile rise to my throat. This was the height of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man. I knelt beside the abused girl. I saw fear constrict her throat. I watched helpless as she gasped for breath. Her eyes bulged, her fingers curling in a pale death struggle.
I lost my head.
Pulling my gun from its holster, I raced into the corridor, in search of water… in search of life.