by Anthony Othuke Ominiabors
I dove to the ground as the bullet zinged past my ear. Sarah spun, hitting her head on the wall. We had been found out and we had to get out fast.
I saw the gunman first, as he leapt through the window and landed beside me. I reached for his trousers and yanked with all my strength. He landed with a thud, banging his head against a metal slab losing hold of his gun. That didn’t deter him. He reared up, scrambling in the darkness for his gun. But I was already on my feet. Two powerful jabs to his ribs and a roundhouse kick (which I picked up from watching Chuck Norris movies) to his head sent him back to the ground. Sarah edged farther away. I could hear her calling to me, warning me of lurking danger.
I closed in on the gunman and with a survival instinct like I have never felt, I rammed my elbow into his skull. He made a slurping sound and spread out before me, dead.
Another bullet flew past, grazing my left thigh. I dove for cover but not fast enough. A second bullet cut into my arm. I howled in pain, keeping as low to the ground as I could.
My thoughts raced. What had become of Mr and Mrs Alongo. Sarah would never forgive herself if anything happened to them. Thoughts of the couple fled my mind as a thousand sparks lit up the night, ricocheting of the algae ridden walls. Lucky for us, the uncompleted building was gigantic. One could get lost in its mazes for days un-end. It was an uncompleted Cathedral of some sort.
I felt a hand on mine. I flinched, closed my eyes and stilled myself against the blow that was to come.
“It’s me.” Sarah whispered.
Warm air hissed from my flared nose.
“They are coming this way, we have to move.”
She held my good arm and slowly, raised me to my feet. Pain tore through my veins. I felt my blood corpuscles throbbing and stretching to tearing point. I stood, closed my eyes and bit down hard on my lower lip.
Everywhere became silent.
Then I heard footsteps.
Dragging me behind her, Sarah ran through a corridor, turned a right, ran for what seemed to me to be hours then she turned a left. I followed blindly, cursing myself for not having involved the police.
I heard the leader of the gang bawling orders. His voice rose above the din and like ice flowed through the cracks of the old walls to where we hid, cowering at the thought of their brute strength and exponential army. Pain ate up my arms and my head felt light.
I had met the new hands early that morning. Six of them looked as grim and uptight as I must have looked when I resumed at The Daily Times some eight years ago. They wore shabby suits and worn shoes that must have been eaten up by the unfriendly asphalt. I looked them over, giving them my best smile to quell the apprehension I was quite certain they still carried within their stomachs. Sarah had caught my eye then. She stood out like gold stands out when placed near silver. Maybe it was her shy smile, or her small, sleepy eyes which shone through her nerdy small-framed glasses or the way her lips curved gracefully upward and downward like a wave at sea, or maybe it was the way she tied up her curls into a bun that had me grinning. Whichever it was, I knew I already had a favourite amongst the newbies.
I was about to begin my welcome speech with Kemi’s sudden disappearance weighing heavily on my mind when the boss sent for me.
“Good morning sir.” I bowed slightly.
Today, he was dressed in a pristine white suit. A black bowler hat hid his shiny bald head. He reminded me of Mario Puzo’s, Don Vito Corleone in his greatest book, The Godfather. He flicked ash off his Cigar, peered at me from the top of his thick lensed-goggles and with his left hand, shoved a brown case file at me. He didn’t ask me to a seat, so I stood as I flipped through the contents of the file.
“Forty-two missing persons in sixteen months” He took a long drag at his Cigar and dropped it on the silver ash tray beside him. “And they are all girls, young girls between the ages of fourteen and twenty one.” He eyed me from the top of his lenses. Then he sat back and pulled at his greying goatee.
I glanced some more through the files. Why teenage girls? Could this case have anything to do with Kemi’s disappearance, I wondered.
“I need you to take one of the new hands and check out the addresses of those missing girls. I need not remind you that this is a big case—give it your best.” And I was dismissed.
I approached the new hires.
“What is your name?” I asked the shy girl.
“Sarah, I want you to come with me, the rest of you, ask for Henry . . . he should be in the News Room at this time. He will tell you what to do.”
They nodded and walked off, their white induction files hanging from their hands, loud as signposts.
Armed with the list of missing persons, myself and Sarah hurried downstairs and got into my Honda. The first address on the list was somewhere in Yaba.
“I’m Ohmston, Ohmston Weth.” I extended my hand. At the same time, I started the engine.
“Have heard a lot about you,” She said accepting my hand.
“Good stuff I suppose.”
“Great stuff Mr Weth.” She seemed to loosen up a bit, relaxing further back on her seat.
“Please call me Ohmston.” I pulled out of the car park and climbed onto the tarred road.
She rubbed her palm against her arm. Then she looked away. “Yes sir, I mean Ohmston.”
“So Sarah, do you have what it takes to become an investigative reporter?”
She smiled. “Yes sir.” She responded with enthusiasm.
“We’ll see pretty soon, wont we?”
My phone rang. It was Amber.
“Any news?” her voice was strained. I could almost imagine her tear streaked face.
“I have been to the neighbourhood where she was last seen but I still haven’t been able to get any clues but don’t worr—”
“Darling please find my sister. I’m so scared. Mum and dad are going crazy. Please find her.”
“I will, I promise.”
I sighed. Sarah fixed her gaze on the overcrowded Lagos buses that littered the road, their dirty conductors screaming directions at the top of their voices.
Yaba was a waste of time. The girl was an orphan who lived with an aunt. The middle-aged woman was more than happy to see her gone. She had only filed a missing persons report because it was required by the authorities lest she got into trouble with the law. She wasn’t the least bothered about her niece’s whereabouts.
We made a U-turn and headed to the second address in Ogudu. The girl’s parents and neighbours helped us little. The only information we got from them was the colour of the missing girls dress, her age, and the day she went missing, details I already had in my file.
The midday sun burnt fiercely, threatening to barbeque our skins through my metal hood. My Air condition system had packed up some few days back. Ah, so much for owning a car.
Sarah was more than cheerful as we made these stops, asking intelligent questions and making brilliant suggestions, not complaining about the heat like I would have. She impressed me with her every word.
I thought of Ronke. I felt a pang of guilt. I made a mental note to go see her at the end of the day. I still did not know where things stood between myself and Amber. I wasn’t fooled by her sudden show of affection.
We were heading from the sixteenth address in Lekki with no progress to show when Sarah surprised me.
“Ohmston please, while we are here can I quickly see my aunt who lives two blocks from here at Agungi? She just survived a fibroid operation and her phone has been switched off all morning and . . .”
I felt irritated by her request. For starters, it was too early on the job for her to ask me for such favours, favours that took time from our working hours. But strangely, I found myself acquiescing. We drove to the fenced compound. She insisted I come down with her. I did.
The couple were more than happy to receive us. The introductions over with, I decided Mr and Mrs Alongo were jolly folks.
Despite the intangible joy that seemed to permeate the house at Mrs Alongo’s recovery, I could almost poke a finger at a domineering gloom.
I overhead Sarah talking excitedly with her aunt, something about a man who promised to have a cure to her childlessness while I sat with the man of the house, laughing over a glass of Hennessey.
“We are to meet the mystery man by 7pm,” she effused, beaming brightly.
“Really?” Sarah threw back her head, hands akimbo.
“Yes o my dear. I just can’t wait to hear what he has to offer.” she raised her eyes to the ceiling. “Hmm, a child’s cry in this house at last. Lord please hear my prayers and let this man be for real.”
“Agnes!” Her husband chided. “That meeting is supposed to be a secret. Now the whole neighbourhood will hear it.” He smiled at her.
He faced me, continuing his war tale in his day as an ECOMOG soldier in the slums of Liberia.
We left them thirty minutes later. At this time, I had lost what little patience I had left. I had a job to do—first of which was to teach this greenhorn some fundamental lessons about The Daily Times and its creed.
We drove in silence, past the dirty streets of Obalende and through the third mainland bridge. We headed for Surulere.
“Don’t you find it strange,” Sarah’s voice disrupted the quiet.
“Find what strange?”
“My aunty and her husband’s secret nocturnal meeting with a miracle child-giver.”
“There are a lot of strange folks; I don’t see why meeting with some guy who has probably patented some strange child-bearing portion should interest me.”
“Hmm.” She was thoughtful for a while. “When I was a kid, I heard of this Chief who sold neonate babies for whooping sums. He kidnapped young girls and mated them with his gang. Anyway that was a long time ago,” she said with a dismissive wave of her hands. “That cannot possibly happen anymore, not with modern science and advancements in technology anyway.”
I floored the brakes, pulling the car to an abrupt halt by the sidewalk.
I cursed myself for ignoring what had been staring at me all along. I was getting sloppy and it scared me. I had failed to dig into the very first question I should have asked.
Why teenage girls?
I had a hunch.
“Sarah please can you call your aunty and ask her the location of the meet. Give her some flimsy reason for asking. Tell her a friend of yours is interested, anything, just get her to give you the location.” I was excited.
Sarah stared at me, her glasses making her look like an innocent teen who had just been asked to go into Brad Pitt’s hotel room at night.
She rolled her eyes. She made the call, got the address. Uhm, I got me a go-getter right here.
And we waited.
At exactly 7pm, we parked some distance away from the abandoned structure and moving through the bushes, crept into the cathedral.
As an afterthought, I asked, “Can you use a gun?”
She shook her head. “No.”
“Follow me, quietly.”
We edged toward the pool of light at the centre of what would later be called the altar. Mr and Mrs Alongo stood before a tall, well-built man whose face was hidden in the shadows. I edged closer, moving out of the darkness that shrouded my presence.
“Five million for a baby girl, eight for a boy. We are very discreet and as soon as our transaction is complete, that will be the last you’ll hear from us.” The man had a guttural voice. He spoke slowly, very slowly.
His next words, confirmed we had just met the brain behind the missing girls.
I saw Mr Alongo whisper to his wife. He shook his head repeatedly.
“But I’m not pregnant. Won’t it be suspicious if I just emerged with a baby?” Mrs Alongo was sold.
“That, we will take care of. We will arrange your travel documents to any country of your choice, to return when your child is born. Your husband must spread the news in your absence that you are pregnant and he sent you overseas for safe delivery. Several of our maidens are this minute, heavy with child.”
I could not begin to imagine the little girl’s fate.
I heard Sarah gasp, raising her hand to her mouth.
The movement of her hands dislodged a stone from the windowsill through which we peeped.
In the snap of a finger, several dark shadows emerged from the walls. A ball of bright light caught our frightened faces. And the bullets began to fly towards us with abandon, quaking the once quiet night.
We stood up from where we crouched and chanced movement further south. Our attackers were dangerously close.
I held on to Sarah, my breath laboured and jagged. We took two more turns and came upon fresh air. I breathed in a little strength, and with a bust of speed, we raced across the open field, through the bushes amid the loud bangs of wild shots. We raced towards our parked vehicle, leaving the fight for another day.
To be continued……