The man sits hunch backed over his bottle of Harp, a small flirtatious smile on his face. I begin to smile at him but the mosquito currently feasting on the calf of my left leg manages to thwart the effort, so I wince instead and reach to slap the pesky malaria carrier to death. I look at the small valley beside the open space where several plastic tables and chairs sit. Loud music is coming from the small building at the opposite end of our table where some men holding trays can be seen milling about.
“So what will you give me for giving you this information?” the man asks me, giving me a crooked smile.
“I don’t understand sir.”
The man shakes his head and releases a short bark of laughter.
“Who is sir?” he asks when he stops laughing. “Call me Lekan.”
“Okay Mr. Lekan.”
The scrawny man in his gray oversized suit is not impressed with my display of courtesy.
“You are too serious, young woman.”
I look at the recorder sitting on the table and wonder if I should remind Mr. Lekan why we were sitting in this ‘garden’ in the first place. I decide to do just that.
“Sorry about that, but can we talk about the missing data capture machines?”
Mr. Lekan ignores me and motions to the passing waiter white T-shirt holding a tray with the word STAR emblazoned in the middle. The man hurries over to our table.
“Please get this young lady a drink.”
The waiter turns to me, prepared to take my order. I shake my head first at him and then at Mr. Lekan.
“I don’t want anything. Thank you.”
Mr. Lekan sighs and dismisses the waiter. I sit up straighter in my seat and bring up the purpose of our meeting again.
"I know why we are here," Mr. Lekan says, a smile appearing on his oblong face now. "But you we can be friends while we are at it."
I feel the onstart of frustration and push it away with determination. Mr. Aderibigbe worked hard to get me an audience with Mr. Lekan and I don't want anger getting in the way of an opportunity to interview this former staff of INEC.
I swat away at another determined mosquito and smile at Mr. Lekan. "That is why I am here, so we can um...discuss."
"Okay," Mr. Lekan say, picking up his bottle of beer and emptying much of it into the glass beside it. "What will you like to know?"
I push the recorder towards him and smile. "Thank you."
I get a nonchalant shrug in answer, but I happily press forward.
"So, you used to work in the Garki office of INEC?"
"Why and when did you stop working there?"
Mr. Lekan raises one bushy eyebrow at me. "Why or when? Which one first?"
I give him an apologetic smile. "Why did you stop working there?"
"Office politics," Mr. Lekan says with a curl of lips. "They ganged up against me."
"Who is they?"
Mr. Lekan loosens his lips and sips from his glass. "Some colleagues."
"I was the only one who was bold enough to ask questions," Mr. Lekan says, pushing out his chest.
Mr. Lekan returns to sitting hunched over the table, an impatient look crossing his face.
"Questions about the missing machines."
"And the next thing I know, they come up with some story about me and then...sack me."
Mr. Lekan fidgets and looks briefly away. "A story about a relationship between me and a youth corper."
Mr. Lekan goes on to protest his innocence and I give him several sympathetic nods. Finally, he runs out of things to say and I jump at the opportunity to move on.
"So when did you stop working there?"
"Three months ago."
"But you were there when the machines got missing."
I sense that this part of the discussion is not useful and decide to abandon it.
"So...the machines? How did they get missing?"
Mr. Lekan slaps at his right ear and looks up at the darkening sky. He looks back at me with a contemplative frown.
"How did they get missing?"
I nod at Mr. Lekan, wondering if he is going to spend the rest of the evening repeating every question I put across to him. "Yes."
"Well, I believe they were stolen by someone very close to the...electoral officer."
I already know that much but I nod anyway.
Mr. Lekan moves his bottle of Harp and glass out of the way and leans forward, elbows on the table.
"You know about election rigging, right?"
Mr. Lekan leans back again, looking satisfied. "You can put two and two together now."
I make my calculations faster than Mr. Lekan can nod.
"So you think the machines will be used for rigging in the next elections."
"Is it not obvious?"
"Is the headquarters doing anything about it?"
"I don't think so."
"Why? Is the chairman not aware of the theft?"
"I don't know" Mr. Lekan says with a shrug, and then adds as an afterthought "I don't know but I am sure he is aware."
"Do you think the man involved is being protected from prosecution?"
"Then, the man may be linked to the corridors of power."
"Yes...yes...of course yes."
I nod and stop the recorder. "Thank you sir...sorry...Mr. Lekan."
"Is the interview over?"
"Yes," I say with a nod, reaching for my bag on the chair beside me.
"So you won't stay and have a drink?"
I make excuses about seeing Mr. Aderibigbe before returning back home. Wearing a forlon look, Mr. Lekan asks for my phone number. Reluctantly, I dictate the number to him. He dials the number, giving a nod when the ringtone of my phone cuts through the evening.
"That is my number," he says, giving me a leering look. "Save it. Maybe one of these days we will hang out...properly."
I nod and walk away with a brisk goodbye. I know I will not be having a second interview with Mr. Lekan. Apart from vindictive colleagues and a story about an affair with a youth corper, I have learned nothing new.
I push the gear stick backwards, switch off the ignition and reach for my ringing phone on the dashboard.
"Hello Ladi, it's Raina."
"I know. I still have your number on my phone."
I unsnap my seatbelt, open my door and step into the parking lot of the mint.
"So what's up?"
"I wanted to say hi."
Raina falls silent for some seconds. I look at the sky and at the towering building before me. It is getting late, and I have to see Mr. Uchendu before he closes for the day.
"So I have to go for a meeting now."
"I just wanted to say I saw your flat mate some days ago."
I begin to walk towards the building of the mint. "I see."
Raina pauses again. I am beginning to lose patience with her stalling now.
"Is that all?"
"Can we talk later?"
"I think you should be careful Ladi."
"Yes. You are living with a complete stranger. I won't trust her so much if I were you."
I slow down my steps now that I am just a few inches to the entrance of the mint. Where did Raina meet Arisha?
"Where did you meet Arisha?"
"I saw her at a restaurant somewhere in Garki with...some men."
Unsure what to do with this information, I remind Raina about my meeting and she hangs up with a promise to call back sometime. Slipping my phone into my trouser pocket, I walk quickly to the beckoning entrance of the mint.
Three lifts later, I walk into Mr. Uchendu's office. Rita is not at her desk. I head straight for Mr. Uchendu's door and knock. The door is thrown open in the next instant and Mr. Uchendu stands before me, a polite smile on his face.
"Good evening Mr. Ladi," he says, stepping aside for me to walk into his office. "I was just about to leave. As you can see, I am the only one in this place."
"I won't take much of your time," I tell Mr. Uchendu, walking towards one of the sofas arranged round a coffee table. Mr. Uchendu joins me in a matter of seconds.
"I am sorry I couldn't hear most of what you tried to discuss over the phone."
I pause as Mr. Uchendu arranges the lapels of his suit jacket around him. When he finally settles down, I continue our conversation. "I just had a few questions to ask about the situation on ground."
"The scandal?" Mr. Uchendu asks with a weary sigh.
"As you know, the president has ordered an investigation into the matter and a probe is being organized by the senate."
"Do you have any idea why we were indicted in the scandal?"
Mr. Uchendu purses his lips and shakes his head.
"No. Unlike the D.P.E which is still under the Federal Government, Va Rue is independent."
"Va Rue was not indicted. We were."
Mr. Uchendu taps his chin with one of his long tapered fingers, his eyes growing narrow and thoughtful.
"Your uncle's is Va Rue's partner and besides most of the contracts done by his company."
"There is no way my uncle would have been involved in something like this. I think he is being dragged into something he knows nothing about."
"Then he has to ask his partners what they know about the case."
I sigh and push up to my feet. "I will suggest that to him."
Mr. Uchendu walks with me to the door. "I could help in running some checks on Va Rue if you want."
I give Mr. Uchendu a smile of gratitude. "That will be nice."
"You know Musa?"
"The name sounds familiar."
"A good friend of mine. You met him at my party."
I want to remind Mr. Uchendu that I met more than one of his friends at the party, but the picture of a tall slim man watching me like a hawk as I talk with a small group of Mr. Uchendu's friends comes to mind.
"I remember now."
"He works at Va Rue."
"I am sure he will be happy to help somehow."
"Nothing I can't do for a friend," Mr. Uchendu says, giving me a bright smile. I return his smile and walk into the outer office.
"And erm...Ladi, would you like to hang out with me and a couple of my friends at Jabi Lake this Saturday?"
I am tempted to tell Mr. Uchendu a straight no but I am in the mood for some diplomacy, besides, I don't know what his friend might unearth on the bribery case.
"Four in the evening. It is a casual affair. It will be nice if you can make it."
I grit my teeth and lie. "It will be nice to be there. I just have to check my calendar to be sure no other event falls on that day."
"Okay," Mr. Uchendu says with a nod. "I will be on the look out for you."
I nod my goodbye and leave Mr. Uchendu’s office, still not satisfied with where my investigations have led me to. In the car park, I dig out my phone, call my uncle and ask if he knows Mr. Uchendu’s friend Musa.
“Slim, tall and almost effiminate?” My uncle asks minutes later.
I think the description suits the man I saw that evening at Mr Uchendu’s house and tell my uncle so.
“I know him.”
“Mr. Uchendu happens to think he might help in finding out why we were indicted in the bribery scandal.”
“Well, the young man isn’t someone I was too friendly with. I am not sure he can do much for us.”
“Maybe he can.”
“Let’s wait and see.”
I drive back to the apartment under the cover of darkness, and it is then that Raina’s words come back to me. Why does she think I have something to fear from Arisha? Had the men with Arisha been suspicious looking?
Throughout our three year relationship, Raina had been responsible for weeding out friends she perceived as disloyal from my life. Half of the time, she had been proven right. The other half? I will never know. They had simply melted away under the heat of Raina’s unfriendly gaze. Still, it won’t hurt to watch Arisha even though I think I may have fallen in love with her.
Lydia hugs her cardigan around her as she watches me with an amused smile, the evening breeze playing with the strands of her braids and pushing them across her eyes.
“Arisha, you can’t run away from going back to Wuse today, unless you have somewhere else to pass the night,” Lydia tells me, pushing back the braids and tucking them behind her ears.
I clutch the strap of my brown shoulder bag and look at the busy road.
“You don’t understand Lydia.”
“I understand,” Lydia insists with a nod. “You like him, and you are scared you will jump him.”
“No, not like that,” I tell Lydia with a laugh. “I just find it hard to think straight with him in the apartment these days.”
“You can’t escape seeing him. It is his apartment after all.”
“Good, so go home,” Lydia says, shooing me towards the road.
I make a face at her and check my wristwatch. It is a few minutes to eight o’ clock.
Giving Lydia a hopeful smile, I begin to scan the road for taxis. “Maybe he will be asleep when I get back to the apartment.”
“And if he is not?”
I think about Lydia’s question and shake my head.
“I don’t know.”
“Arisha just go home,” Lydia says, giving me a gentle shove towards the road. “You overthink everything.”
Fifteen minutes later, I am on my way to the apartment, nervous at the prospect of facing Ladi without knowing why. Soon the trip is over. I pay the taxi fare and walk upstairs to the apartment, the fluttering in my stomach making each step a tedious one. At the door, I fit the key in my hand into the lock and pray that Ladi is locked in his room. God must have gone on break because when I push the door open, Ladi is sitting at the dinning table, holding what looks like playing cards and looking up at me with a smile. The butterflies in my stomach begin their nervous fluttering again.
I smile at Arisha as she walks into the living room, a small smile on her lips. I look into her eyes and see anxiety written all over them. She looks almost guilty.
“Hi,” I greet back, nodding at her. “You came back quite late.”
“I had a few things to do.”
Like what? Meeting strange men at restaurants?
Arisha tries to make conversation as she asks how long I have been back from work.
“One hour ago.”
Giving me another nervous smile, Arisha excuses herself and walks to the guestroom. I lower the cards in my hands to the table and stand up from the dining table. Pacing up and down the living room, I toy with the thought of going to asking Arisha about the men she met at the restaurant, but I change my mind after some minutes. I have no right to pry into her life like that. The men may have been colleagues of hers.
Avoiding paranoia, I walk to one of the sofas and sit down. Picking the television remote control, I try to lose myself in the information coming from the documentary on Discovery Channel.
After five minutes of aimless pacing, I check my reflection in the bathroom mirror, pull down my oversized shirt to cover the blue jeans cut offs under it and decide to brave the journey to the kitchen to search for dinner. Ladi is now on sitting before the television and barely turns when I walk back into the living room.
I search the freezer compartment of the fridge and bring out the bowl of stew I made the previous evening. Pushing it into the microwave, I set the timer and then walk to the door of the kitchen. Ladi is engrossed in the programme on television. He doesn’t seem to notice my nervousness. Maybe Lydia is right. I am overthinking everything. Passionate kisses or not, Ladi is still my flat mate, nothing more.
I stroll past him to a sofa and settle down, making sure to pull the edges of my shirt down my knees. When I look up, I find Ladi’s eyes on me.
“You came back.”
“Trying to defrost the stew,” I tell him, pointing towards the kitchen.
Ladi nods and returns back to watching television. I try to do the same but I find it difficult to tear my gaze away from him. I can’t help admiring his side profile and the biceps peeking out of his red short sleeved T-shirt. I see him begin to turn and quickly look away, but not without noticing the jiggling of his right leg. Is he nervous?
I know Arisha is watching me and that knowledge is causing me to lose focus on the documentary on television. I have been aware of her since she walked out of the guest room a few minutes ago but have done my best to keep my mind from running haywire with crazy ideas. Until now.
I turn to Arisha and find that she is now staring at the television but I know her attention is forced. Unable to stand the tension, I sigh and stand up from the sofa. Time to go to bed before I do something stupid.
I take one step forward, about to turn into the open space leading to bedroom, but stop just in time, avoiding a crash with Arisha who is standing up now. I silently will her to move but she stays there, looking up at me as if cornered. I take one step back and freeze when she steps towards me, closes the gap between us and leans on a tiptoe to press her lips against my own.
God! What am I doing?
I don't wait for an answer before I press myself against Ladi, seeking lips, finding it and searching under his shirt for skin. I feel him stiffen in surprise before reaching down to snake one arm around my waist. Deepening the kiss, Ladi teases, withdraws and sucks on my lower lip before plunging back into my mouth to meet my tongue. I moan and press harder into him, wanting more, needing more.
I feel my control slip away as Arisha moans into my mouth. I try to step away to push up her T-shirt for a feel of her skin but she leans into me, eager to continue the kiss. I oblige her but find my way under her shirt. The soft flesh of her breasts is encased in what feels like a slight padded bra with lace trimmings at the top. I find the clasp behind her back and undo the bra. Taking each mound in my hands, I trace her hardened nipples with the thumb and forefinger of each hand. Arisha breaks our kiss and breathes into my neck, fingernails biting into my forearms.
I draw in a sigh, step away from her, and push my hands in my pockets in a bid to gain control over myself.
Arisha folds her arms across her chest and watches me with wide eyes.
Biting her lower lip, Arisha nods distractedly I walk past her and head for my room, wishing for a moment that she had not stopped me.
The loud beeping of the microwave delivers me from my inertia. I stumble to the kitchen on legs that feel like stilts and press down the power button of the microwave. My hunger completely gone now, I grapple with the knowledge that I want to do more than kiss Ladi. I lean on the kitchen counter top, Lydia's soft reprimand coming back to me.
You overthink everything.
Leaving the kitchen, I head back to the place I really want to be now. Ladi's arms.
I stop in the act of pushing the bathroom door open and walk to open the room door. Arisha stands before me, looking determined and frightened at the same time. I shake my head at her, refusing the need in her eyes.
"No we can't."
As if she does not hear me, Arisha walks straight into my arms.
I close my eyes, feeling every shred of control slip away.
"I won't stop you this time."
I open my eyes, pull her into the room and close the door behind her.
"I won't stop this time."
I won't stop this time
The dark look is back in Ladi's eyes and I try to fight the tremor that travels through my hands as I reach for the hem of my T-shirt and pull it over my head. My unfastened bra comes off with it. The cool air of the air conditioner causes a break out of goose pimples on my flesh, and I reach to cover my exposed breasts, feeling suddenly shy.
Ladi is the picture of self control.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" He asks, his voice hoarse with desire.
Not trusting myself to speak, I nod at him. Without another word, Ladi's lips swoops down on mine in another mind blowing kiss, his hands taking care of the items of clothing I am holding between us. He looks behind him to toss the shirt and bra on the round soft furnishing close to the bathroom door, and then returns his attention back to me. My thoughts become hazy in a matter of seconds, and my hands begin their feverish exploration up and down his shirtless body. I feel myself moving slowly, and it is when Ladi lowers me to the bed that I realize that we have moved halfway across the room already.
Standing up to step out of his jogging pants, Ladi meets me in bed again, his arousal visible against the front of his boxer shorts. His body is toned and supple. I reach up to caress his chest as he kisses me lightly on the lips before moving lower to capture the nipple of my right breast in his mouth, tongue flicking expertly over the taut nipple. His left hand squeezes my other breast gently, thumb running in slow agonizing circles around the nipple. I bite down on the cry of pleasure that tries to escape my lips. Moving to the left breast, Ladi cups and feels my right breast now, sending me over the edge with his tongue and fingers.
Ladi raises his head to look at me, questions in his eyes.
I hastily try to correct the misunderstanding.
"No...I mean...don't stop."
Giving me a sexy smile that makes him almost unrecognizable, Ladi's head begins to travel brazenly down south. I feel the light kiss on my navel and tense when his fingers finds the button of my shorts, releases it and unzips it slowly. Finding lacy red panties, Ladi's eyes glow in appreciation and he gives me another sexy smile. I look into his eyes, take a mental picture and then stow it away in my compartment of favourite memories.
I lift my body off the bed as Ladi tugs down my shorts. Kissing my inner thighs, Ladi parts my legs slowly, hands traveling up to hold my waist. I begin to tense from feeling him so close to the core of my womanhood, and try to push at his shoulders to stop him, more self conscious now than ever.
With my help again, the panties go the way of the shorts and I lay back, naked and gloriously warmed by Ladi's touch. I begin to push him away again when he settles at the juncture of my thighs but my resistance is feeble and gives way to acquiescence when he kisses that forbidden place. The sensations are jarring and I clutch at the sheets to hang on to my sanity. My cries are many but I have no idea what I am saying.
I feel the heat of Arisha's arousal on my tongue and I keep teasing the soft flesh under me, driven by a need to satisfy her. Her cries are punctuated with sharp intakes of breath. I find them distracting but satisfying.
Just when I know she is close to having an orgasm, I pull back and push up to meet her.
I lift off the pillows to take Ladi's lips in a kiss as his arousal presses against my belly. With a groan, he breaks the kiss and leans across me to pull the top drawer of the bed stand. A condom comes out with his hand and I stare at it, the realization of what I am about to do hitting home.
You overthink everything.
I push my fear away and concentrate on the sight of Ladi leaving the bed and slipping off his boxers. Rolling down the condom over himself, Ladi climbs back into bed and pulls me close.
"I know I said I won't stop, but I will now if you want us to stop."
I shake my head slowly. Taking his cue, Ladi parts my legs and enters me slowly. I wince from the strangeness of it after a long time of being celibate. Ladi stops and stares down at me in concern.
"Did I hurt you?"
Beginning to move slowly, Ladi treats me to slow sensual kisses until I grow accustomed to him moving inside me. I run my fingers down the sides of his neck as we kiss. When he leaves my lips to bury his face into the pillow seconds later, I stare at his neck, mesmerized by the vein there, I clamp my mouth over it and suck gently, flicking my tongue over the spot occasionally and enjoying his groans.
Increasing the tempo of our lovemaking, Ladi pushes me over the edge until I find myself craving release. I urge him on with my hand, lips and words I barely understand. With a quiet arggh, Ladi shudders with his release, and lowers himself to me. I caress his face gently as we try to catch our breath. Okay I love this man, now what?
I hold Arisha, and try to wrap my mind around the fact that we have just been intimate. Her fingers trace patterns on my face and I drift between bliss and logic.
I like this chic.
Don't confuse lust for something else. You just had sex, it is normal to feel mushy.
So now, what do I tell her?
Thank you? For what?
Nope. Too cold. Besides, I really like her.
I bet she is killing to hear you say those three words.
I love you?
No. Arisha is a smart girl, and I just..can't..
Now I am wondering about Mr. Audi.
He is her boyfriend.
I stop my conversation with my inner voice and pull away from Arisha. She watches me discard the condom and then reaches for the sheets to cover her body. I turn to her.
"The guy with the Audi, are you dating him?"
Her answer takes forever to come and when it does, it comes in form of a simple head shake.
"Okay," I say, pulling the rest of the sheets over me and pulling her against me. "So...date me?"
What? You moron. It is just sex. Do you ever learn?
I ignore the raging of my inner voice and wait for Arisha to give me an answer.
I smile and kiss her lips.
I return Ladi's smile, feeling foolish but very happy. I let him roll me on top of him, his hands on my waist.
"You are very sexy," he tells me, a boyish grin on his face. "Especially when you moan."
I smile and bury my face in his neck. It is when I am raising my head up that I see the business card on the bed stand beside Ladi's head. I think nothing of it until we lie spoon fashion after a shower later that night.
Pelican Steel...A subsidiary of Hassan and Sons.
Hassan and Sons. Hassan and Sons. Where have I seen that name before?
My memory is dulled from sensual pleasure but I search in determination until the answer comes back to me.
The mint case!
What was the card doing here? Did it belong to someone Ladi knows? Was that why he asked for those papers?
Go to sleep Arisha, my inner voices coaxes. Don't overthink this.
I do just that. Maybe tomorrow, Ladi will have some answers for me.