I approach the woman with a brown mop of old weavon on her head and thick bi-focals sitting on her nose.
“Good morning ma,” I greet, doing a half curtsy.
The woman continues typing, a square dusty computer monitor obscuring most of her face. The office is quiet apart from the tap tap of the woman’s fingers on her keyboard and the squeaking of the old ceiling fan above us. I look helplessly at the door behind the woman. There is a red sticker with white letters in the middle.
2013 My year of divine intervention
I notice that the typing has stopped and I look down to see the woman looking at me, a mildly irritated expression on her face.
The woman cuts me short. “I heard you before,” she says, glaring at me. “What do you want?”
I move a few steps towards the woman and stop a few inches from her desk.
“I want to make some inquiries ma.”
I breathe in deeply to calm my frantically beating heart. “About data capture machines.”
“What about them?” The woman snaps, adjusting her bi-focals.
I am nervous and doing my best to appear confident.
“I am doing a study for my school project,” I lie smoothly, sagging my shoulders and wearing my best naive look. “We were asked to study data capture machines and to know how many each INEC office has.”
“You want to know how many data capture machines INEC has?” the woman asks with a sneer, “on whose orders?”
“It is for school proje –“
“This is the FCT branch of INEC,” the woman says, returning back to her typing. “We don’t have any information for you here.”
“You don’t have data capture machines here?”
“Go to Maitama.”
I know she is talking about the INEC headquarters but I feign ignorance. The information from Mr. Sunday says nothing about Maitama. I am in the right place. The woman is either on orders not to talk to anyone or she is just having a bad day.
This time the woman’s look is murderous. She whips her glasses off and glowers threatingly at me.
“I have finished with you. Please leave.”
Adjusting the shoulder strap of my bag, I turn away from the woman and find my way out of the office. The quartet of three women and a man who had waved me to the office of the secretary to the electoral officer before hearing what I had to say are still sitting where I left them, on the nylon covered swivel chairs leaning on the wall beside the office. Their conversation dies down at my approach. The fat woman with the ruby red lipstick asks if I have seen the secretary.
"Did she give you what you were asking for?"
I shake my head and wear a sad look.
"What exactly are you looking for?" the only man in the group asks, looking at me suspiciously.
I am still thinking of a suitable answer for the curious group over when the door opens and the stern looking secretary steps out.
"Are you still here?"
I shoot the group an apologetic look and walk away from them on fast feet, my mission frustrated by an angry woman with something to hide.
Outside, there are three security guards talking among themselves, boredom on their faces as they observe the road beside the compound. I am walking past them when I suddenly get the feeling that I am overlooking an important information source. I stop and pick the old man with dusty shoes and a clean shaved head.
“Good afternoon sir.”
The man nods at me, a grin breaking on his face. “Good afternoon.”
I walk close to the man, and only stop when the smell the stale perspiration coming from him assaults my nose. I repeat my story about being a student. He nods in understanding as I tell him about my research project.
“Ha, so university of Abuja is your school?”
“My daughter is in that school,” the man says, his voice loud with pride. “Her name is Deborah...Deborah Mathias and she is reading....” the man stops to consult the sky. “What is the name of that course again?”
I wait for him at the gate, praying that the secretary does not find any reason to leave the compound. When I look back at the man, he is still looking as if he thinks the sun might have an answer to his question. I decide to help him.
The man’s eyes return to earth and me, but he is squinting thoughtfully as he looks at me. I try again with a smile.
The man shakes his head, lowers his eyes to the ground and taps his temple with the forefinger of his right hand.
“Yes,” the old security guard says nodding in quick succession. “She is reading political science.” He cocks his head and looks at me hopefully. “So, you know her?”
I pretend to think about it and then say my first truth of the day.
“No sir. I don’t think so.”
Looking a little disappointed with my answer, the man asks about my project again. I delve deeper into my fabricated story and notice how his eyes become guarded when I mention the data capture machines. I hurriedly reassure him of the innocent nature of my quest. When he continues to look doubtful, I sigh loudly and wear a sad look. The man scratches the graying stubble on his chin and shoots his colleagues a side look before leaning in towards me.
“The matter is a serious one,” he says in a whisper. “One hundred machines disappear. Just like that.”
I open my eyes at the man in surprise while my brain works to note down this information.
“So there are no machines here?”
“Only small,” the man says, holding up a few fingers.
I shake my head as if the news saddened me and then continue my probing, “like ten?
“No. They said the machines remain just forty.”
Emboldened by what I think is a desire to talk to someone apart from his colleagues, I move on to other questions.
“Was it robbers that came to steal the machines?”
“No,” the man says whispering again. “They said it is someone inside.”
“Have they discovered the identity of the person?”
The man looks at me in confusion. “Eh?”
“I mean, have they found the person that stole the machines?”
“Ah,” the man says, his eyes widening in understanding. “No they have not catch him, but they said it is one man like that...he is a big man. After the main oga.”
I look at my wristwatch and thank the security man for helping me out with my project. He beams at me and tells me that he understands the importance of education because you see, like Deborah, Rachel and Peter, his other children are on their way to Federal University of Technology, Minna.
“....it is because of them I work hard like this so that one day, they can become big people too,” the man tells me, hope in his eyes. “Maybe like politicians.”
I smile and nod cheerfully at the man. Waving him goodbye, I hurry to the road and past the other security guards who had been watching the exchange between me and the old security guard. I flag down the first taxi that honks at me.
The drive to the central area is over in less than fifteen minutes and I get down at the compatriot’s gates feeling very accomplished. I make my way upstairs but I find Mr. Sunday preparing to go for a meeting with the other editors. I fill him in with my discovery as quickly as I can, and he finds this information intriguing.
“Hmmm....a big man,” he says as he picks up a red folder from his desk. “I wonder who this big man is.”
“I think that was why the secretary behaved the way she did.”
Mr. Sunday nods at me. “The Garki branch is definitely trying to cover something.””
“Do you think it has anything to do with the next election?”
“Who knows?” Mr Sunday asks with a shrug. “Anything is possible.”
As he walks out of his office, Mr. Sunday tells me that I am free to go home.
“You have done well with this assignment. You can take tomorrow off too. See you on Friday.”
Leaving me trailing him, Mr. Sunday practically runs in the direction of the board room. I pause and wonder why he is in such a hurry. Unable to find any answer, I resume my journey downstairs. I am just putting my right foot on the last step when I steps behind me.
I recognize Lydia’s voice and turn towards her.
I step aside for her and we walk together to my favourite sitting spot. As we get close, I see that the bench has been taken over by two men drinking bottles of coke.
“Hmmm,” Lydia says, noting the trespass with a subtle nod. “We have been overthrown.”
I nod, keeping an eye on the men. I am relieved to see that they are downing the rest of the dark liquid and standing up from the bench, hands digging into pocket to search for money to pay the woman selling refreshments.
When they leave, Lydia and I take over the bench and stretch our legs out before us. She wants to know how my date with Andy went yesterday, so I tell her about eating noodles at a Chinese restaurant in Maitama and talking long into the evening in his car outside the apartment in Wuse.
“Wow,” Lydia says with a wide approving smile. “You guys like each other.”
I smile back, unsure how to Lydia that it is too early to assume too much about my blooming friendship with Andy. Only time can tell.
My eyes still on the computer screen, I reach for my phone and hit the last dialed number. Uncle Hassan is on the phone immediately.
“Uncle, I think there might be a problem.”
“I am listening Ladi.”
I squint at the information on my screen and read it out to my uncle.
“The Australian government is investigating allegations of bribery between some men of the Australian mint company and some Nigerian government officials. A sum of....seven hundred and fifty million dollars is said to have been paid to the Nigerian government officials to secure contracts for the printing of polymer notes. The money has been traced to fiduciary...accounts in Bahamas. Two prominent Nigerian businessmen are also fingered in this deal.”
“I see,” uncle Hassan says, no trace of emotion in his voice. “Has the news been carried by local newspapers?”
I open Google and enter my uncle’s query.
“The compatriot and Nigerian torch.”
“From what I see, compatriot broke the news first.”
“Do you think this is going to affect us?”
“Let me reach some of my contacts at DPE to find out more about this situation. I will keep you posted.”
Uncle Hassan drops the call without further ado. I lean in my chair and try to weigh in on the late afternoon news. I wonder if the recent development was going to affect our contract in any way.
“I hope not.”
I think of those newspapers that carried the news.
I remember the morning I dropped Arisha at the newspaper house. I wonder how much she knows. I make up my mind to ask her when I get back to the apartment. I take a break from the dreary news and try to focus on the gleaming new paint on my office walls and the grey rug that matches the colour of the window blinds.
The office is large enough to accommodate my desk, chair as well as a large bookcase filled with books from my favourite authors at the other end of the room. I stand up from my chair and walk to it. Running my fingers through the spines of the paperback and hardcover novels, I search out a potential boredom killer. My index finger stops at Stephen Frey's The Takeover.
"Already read that," I say to myself, changing my mind and moving to the next novel. Another Stephen Frey novel. Attracted to the red spine with gold letters, I place my fingers at the top of the pull, leaving my thumb on the spine and pull the book out. Turning it over, I read the title out.
"The vulture fund."
The blurb at the back of the novel is attention grabbing enough. I walk to my desk, reading it aloud.
Mace McLain is the hottest young gun at Wall Street's last great independent banking firm. Now he's just been named co-manager of a multibillion-dollar "vulture fund," an ultra-risky real estate scheme preying on naive investors....
I stop reading as my blackberry rings out, causing me to close the remaining gap between me and my desk. I pick up the phone to see Raina's name on my screen.
"Yeah...Raina. What's up?"
"How are you doing?"
"I am great too."
"Are you at home?"
I stop myself from adding a curious why on time.
“Okay. I guess we will talk later then.”
As soon as Raina hangs up, I return to my chair and pick up the novel on my table. I can’t help the nagging feeling that my decision to be friends with my former fiancee is a bad one. My feelings for her have grown less intense over weeks.
“Until I find out about the thing with Aminu, I can’t trust her.”
I stand in the kitchen, watching the bubbling stew from the glass cover of the pot when the doorbell chimes loudly. Wiping my hand on the table napkin on the counter top I walk past the sofas in the living room to the door. The woman who attacked me weeks ago stands in a pale pink scoop neck top, blue jeans and black ballet flats, an uncomfortable smile on her face.
“Can I come in?”
I decide to trust the friendly expression on her face. “Sure,” I tell her, stepping back to let her walk into the apartment.
The woman sits on the sofa facing the television. “I won’t be here for long,” she says, her voice light and musical now that she wasn't screaming in my face.
I am surprised that she is not planning to wait for Ladi, but I keep my thoughts to myself.
“I just came to talk to you.”
“Oh okay,” I say, moving to the sofa next to her own.
“My name is Raina by the way.”
“Arisha,” I tell her, introducing myself.
“Okay Arisha,” Raina says with a nod. “Sorry about the other night.”
“No, I understand completely.”
Raina’s lovely face crumbles a little. “I thought..I thought that maybe there was something going on between you and Ladi.”
I tell Raina that I am just staying in the apartment for my two month course. She listens with rapt attention, her face going more open and friendly by the minute.
“So...there is nothing between you two.”
I shake my head emphatically. “No.”
Raina becomes more chatty and I learn that she is staying at her cousin’s place in Wuse zone 5. I don’t know where that is, and I tell Raina this.
“It is not too far from this place.”
Raina leaves not long after. She talks about a meeting with her cousin. I stand up and walk her to the door.
“I hope we are friends now,” Raina says, turning to me when she steps into the stairwell.
“Yes we are.”
“Cool,” Raina says happily, and then a dark cloud falls over her face. “But can you please keep my visit to the house from Ladi?”
Raina must have seen the questions in my eyes because she hurriedly adds that Ladi might get upset over her visit to the house.
“Thank you Arisha,” Raina says, reaching to touch my arm in a friendly gesture. “I really appreciate this.”
I am pleased with myself when I close the apartment door. I have won another friend over. My life is good.
I smile at Arisha’s enthusiastic welcome.
“You closed pretty late,” Arisha says, still beaming at me.
“I got carried away with a book I was reading.”
Arisha’s smile grows dangerously wider in her open honest face. “You like books too?”
“Yep,” I tell her, showing her the novel in my hand as I round past the sofa she is sitting on. Reaching out her hand, Arisha collects the novel. I wait as she looks it over.
“I have not read this,” she says, handing the novel back to me. “I am not even sure I have read any of the author’s works.”
Leaning on the dining table, I talk about Stephen Frey’s other works. Arisha hangs on to my every word and I find myself enjoying this discussion. It is interesting to see that we share a common passion for books. It is a first for me. Raina never shared my love for books. She had preferred going to the movies.
“I will like to read that when you are done.”
My hand is on the door handle when Arisha asks if I want dinner. I consider her question for some minutes, thinking of my late lunch at the office.
“Don’t worry,” Arisha says with a smile. “Today’s stew is different from the last one.”
I chuckle and try to convince her that I was not judging her culinary skills at that moment.
“I believe you,” she says, contradicting her words with disbelief on her face. I laugh and tell her to serve a small portion of the food she has prepared. In the room, I get rid of my clothes, my thoughts on my improved relationship with Arisha.
“I bet Amina would be surprised.”
The words barely leave my mouth when my phone rings with my eldest sister’s call.
“You sound better than the last time we spoke.”
“Yes dear. So how are things with your flatmate?”
“We are getting to know each other.”
Amina’s merry laughter greets my ears. “Don’t mind me. It is just something I like to say these days.”
“Her brother says he will like to talk to you.”
“I don’t know young man,” Amina says, leaving the phone for a second and then coming back. “Maybe to thank you.”
“Well, I am sure he knows the apartment is yours, so there is no need for him to thank me.”
“Just expect his call,” Amina says and then she hangs up the call with the announcement that she is on her way to work. Arisha’s brother calls five minutes after my sister. His name is Peter and he sounds like a great guy.
“I should have called earlier. Sorry about that.”
“It is fine.”
“I hope her stay has not been an inconvenience in any way.”
I think of the early days and decide that only the recent days matter now.
Peter explains that the initial option of his friend’s place was still not feasible at the moment. I assure him that putting up with his sister for an additional five weeks will not be too demanding. Peter is relieved to hear this.
“I will call you some other time. All the best.”
“Same to you.”
I switch off my phone for the day and prepare to join Arisha in the living room.
I watch like a hawk as Ladi eats on the dining table. After days of studying his eating habits, I made sure to serve the small mound of rice on a round flat plate today. I also chose to serve the meal with a fork instead of spoon this time because it is all I have seen him use at meals, and so far all has been well. The rice is well leveled now, but I can’t help watching as he continues with the rest of the meal. I almost release a loud cheer when he finishes with the meal and reaches for the glass of water he had fetched from the kitchen himself.
He raises his eyes to look at me. “Thanks.”
“You are welcome.”
Standing up from the table, Ladi lifts the plate and glass with him and walks into the kitchen. I am returning my attention to the television when I get distracted by the sight of the empty plastic bottle on the table. I leave my seat and walk to the table to pick up the bottle.
As soon as I pick it up, I move to the kitchen where Ladi is washing at the sink. Dropping the bottle on the counter top, I begin to turn back, but just then, Ladi is also turning from the sink. Confused at seeing me at such close quarters, Ladi tries to sidestep me and then falters. I mirror his steps until we both appear to be doing some kind of bizarre dance. I see an opening and take it, but in my flustered state, I make contact with Ladi, chest on arm.
“Sorry,” I mutter, feeling embarrassed and horrified at the same time. I don’t wait to hear Ladi’s response. I escape to the living room immediately.
I try to forget the soft feel of her breasts against my arm, but it is hard to. I stand in the kitchen for a few moments and try to regain some equilibrium. Her voice floats to me from the living room. She is on the phone with someone.
I am back at Wuse....really?
Sure...if you want to.
I hear the door of the guest room open and close. It is then that I decide to leave the kitchen. I resort to flipping through stations in the living room. Arisha steps into the living room minutes later, looking pretty in a long dress that clings to her body.
“I am going to meet a friend downstairs,” she tells me, her smile too bright to be real.
I watch the door close and abandon my seat. At the window, I part the curtains open and see Arisha walk into the Audi I had seen her alight from a few days ago. The car stays at the curb opposite the house for a short while before reversing smoothly and driving in the opposite direction. I drop the curtains and walk back to my seat, but I have lost interest in television.
My thoughts are many and conflicting. I pick up my blackberry and toy with my phone book. I find Rita’s number where I saved it. I ignore reason and listen to libido.
I wince at her loud voice. “How are you doing?”
Rita tells me she is fine and wants to know why I have not been coming to the mint.
“Work,” I tell her simply.
“Do you want to see me?” She asks, her voice becoming sultry and inviting.
I ask myself the same question and shake my head.
“No. I was just calling to say hi. I will talk to you soon.”
Rita expresses disappointment but tells me she looks forward to hearing from me again. I end the call and rest my head back on the sofa. Why am I feeling so restless?