I lounge against the lower part of the sofa, my right leg thrown over Ladi’s legs as he sits, back against his favourite sofa. He is holding up the phone against his ear with his left hand, while the other moves up and down my knee. The papers with the list of people involved in the mint case is lying between us.
"The figures quoted here are on the high side."
Shaking his head, Ladi stops stroking my knee to pick up the papers.
"The papers here say thirty million."
The rest of the conversation is full of quotes from the stack of papers in Ladi's hand as he converses with the person at the other end of the phone. When the call ends, I ask who it was.
"My uncle," Ladi says, reaching out to pull me towards him. I let him ease me down on his lap and sit facing him.
"What are his findings?"
"His contact at the senate is selling him completely different information," Ladi says, a worried frown on his face.
I let my fingers trace the lines on Ladi's face as my mind ponders the situation before us.
I hesitate for some seconds, wondering how Ladi would react at what I had to say.
"Go on," Ladi says, slipping off his glasses to rub at the bridge of his nose. I pause longer, captivated by the way his eyes narrow thoughtfully as he waits for me to continue the conversation.
"You are cute when you do that," I tell him, unable to help the bashful smile on my face.
Ladi smiles, leans in to give me a slow teasing kiss. Pulling back minutes later, he goes back to being serious.
"You were about to say something about my uncle."
I take a minute to gather my scattered thoughts.
"I was about to ask if he is...innocent of the charges against his company."
"Yes," Ladi says simply, his tone full of conviction.
"So how come he got entangled in all of this?"
Ladi shakes his head slowly.
"I don't know."
"Maybe," Ladi says with a shrug.
We fall silent and I think about my last assignment. Ladi had talked about a party organized by his friend at the mint hours earlier. The same friend whose house we visited weeks back.
"So, can I come with you to the party?"
Ladi hesitates for some seconds, and then shakes his head. I stare wordlessly at him, surprised and wounded at the same time.
Ladi says nothing and we just sit there, staring at each other. Is Ladi trying to stop me from learning too much about the mint case?
I can almost read Arisha's mind. I know she is probably thinking I am trying to sabotage her efforts at investigating the mint case.
"It is not what you are thinking."
I watch Arisha cross her arms against her chest and cock her head sideways as she studies me.
Lowering her hands to her side, Arisha let's out a long drawn out sigh.
"Fine, but I still feel...."
"Locked out?" I ask, reaching to tuck away a strand of hair falling across her face.
"Yes," Arisha says, nodding slowly.
I look at my wristwatch and I am surprised to see that it is almost six thirty in the evening. The text from Mr. Uchendu this afternoon had said the party was starting by seven.
"I have to leave to Jabi in a short while."
"Where is Jabi?" Arisha asks, beginning to shift from her position on my lap. I am almost reluctant to let her go, but I ease my hold on her and push to my feet.
"Somewhere a little farther from here."
Taking Arisha's hand, I pull her gently with me to my room. In the room, I sort through my wardrobe for something formal to wear while Arisha sits on the bed watching me. After a few minutes I pick a navy blue button up shirt and black pants.
"How long are you going to be away?"
I consider Arisha's question and realize that I don't have an answer for it.
"I don't know."
The look on Arisha's face makes me wish for a moment that I didn't have to go for Mr. Uchendu's party. I walk to the bed and sit beside her.
"I can call to cancel if you want."
Arisha purses her lips and shakes her head.
"No. I think you should go."
I smile at Arisha and attempt to pull her up with me.
“Want to shower with me?”
Arisha gives me a shy smile and pulls away from my hold.
I make a disappointed face at Arisha and reach for the hem of my sleeveless T-shirt to pull it over my head. Tossing the shirt on the bed, I smile at the wistful look on Arisha’s face.
“Sure you don’t want to join me in the shower?”
“No,” Arisha says, a small smile on her face now.
Relieved about Arisha’s change of mood, I plant a quick kiss on her lips and stroll to the bathroom. As soon as I turn the hot water faucet on, I begin to prepare myself for the odd group I am sure to meet at Jabi lake.
“I really wish I don’t have to go,” I tell the empty shower stall as hot water hits my skin. For some reason, I am nervous about this party.
I listen to Ladi in the shower and let my mind slip back to the past thirty minutes. Sharing the information gathered by The Compatriot with Ladi had been as a result of our recent agreement to be more open with each other. I could see that he was worried about the mint investigation and how much it affected his uncle’s company, so giving him the papers to go through did not seem like a big deal until a few minutes ago. The fact that Ladi is willing to go alone to the party is quite unnerving.
“After the promises to be straight with each other....”
I sit down cross legged, my eyes fixed on the bathroom door and try to be more objective.
“He might have his reasons.”
The bathroom door opens and Ladi steps out with a towel on his waist. I forget about Mr. Uchendu’s party at the sight of the sight of the well toned muscles of his stomach. I give Ladi an inviting smile and he approaches the bed with his own answering smile. Extending one hand to me when he gets to the bed, he helps me to my feet and holds me against his body so that I can smell the citrus scent of his soap. I wrap my arms around him and press myself against him.
“Maybe you don’t have to go for this party after all.”
Ladi looks as if he is considering my suggestion but his phone begins to ring, andhe pulls back, a look of regret in his eyes.
“Let me get that.”
I listen to a conversation between him and Mr. Uchendu. Ladi assures the man that he still intends to come for his party. He ends the call and reaches for his clothes.
“I will be back before you know it.”
I nod and settle back to watch him get ready for the party, my regrets coming back to me again.
There is an eerie calm in Jabi lake when I get there. Apart from the scores of exotic cars parked by the side of the road, the place looks deserted. I find a parking spot at the opposite end of the road and cross over to the partially open gate where a group of men wearing black T-shirts and jeans trousers. One of them, a burly man with a clean shaves head, demands for my name in gruff voice. I give him my name and he consults the piece of paper in his hand. Finding me on the list of invited guests, he moves to one side to allow me pass through.
The field beside the lake is brightened by small halogen lamps lining the different walkways scattered around the park. The spicy aroma of barbequed meat and the loud chatter of happy humans spurs me towards the edge of the lake where there are several groups of people standing and talking among themselves. I walk towards them, one hand searching through my phone for Mr. Uchendu’s number. Within seconds, I spot him walking towards me, recognizable in a white button down shirt paired with black pants.
“Great to see you here man,” he says with a warm smile and a very enthusiastic handshake. “I was beginning to think you had changed your mind.”
I apologize for my lateness and blame it on an imaginary stack of paperwork I had to deal with at the office. Mr. Uchendu nods in sympathy, stopping a few seconds later to greet a man that taps him on the shoulder with a smile of familarity. After a short exchange of pleasantries and a somewhat affectionate shoulder squeeze, the man walks away, but not before giving me a long look of interest. I sigh inwardly, wondering how many of these looks I am going to put up with for the night. Several waiters weave through the crowd, trays of glasses filled with champagne in their hands. Mr. Uchendu picks two glasses and hands one to me.
“There are a couple of people I think you should meet,” he says, waving me along as he turns to lead me through the crowd of well dressed revellers. I steal a quick glance around. No woman in sight.
We stop somewhere at the edge of the lake where four men stand discussing in quiet tones. They give me polite nods when Mr. Uchendu introduces me. Musa is not among them.
“You work at the mint?”
I shake my head at the man with the short goatee that asks the question.
“Ladi works for Hassan and Co,” Mr. Uchendu tells the man before I can come up with that fact myself. “The company I told you about.”
“Oh,” the man says, a knowing smile appearing on his face. “You guys have the bribery issue before the senate.”
The man raises his glass to his lips, staring at me thoughtfully. I turn my attention away from him to the youngest of the group, a muscle packed man with plucked eyebrows and a thin moustache who wants to know when the senate hearing starts.
“Do you have any contact at the senate?”
“The chairman of our company does.”
“Who is the chairman?”
“His uncle,” Mr. Uchendu tells the man with the goatee.
“I think I know the man.”
I watch the man nod and realize that he looks familiar. After some seconds, I know why he does. He is the speaker of the house of representatives my uncle talked about meeting some days back. His picture had been hard to miss on the front page of the newspaper sitting on desk in my uncle’s study at home.
“I believe a lot would have been done if the papers had not found the story.”
“Bloody journalists,” the man speaker says, a sneer on his face. “They just mess everything up.”
The man next to speaker nods with a sneer of his own.
“It is all pretense. An act to sway gullible people.”
“The best way to shut them up is give them a portfolio with the government,” Mr. Muscle says with a snicker. “Media aide to the president at best.”
There is general laughter and I smile along with the men, wondering where the joke is.
A smile on his face, Mr. Uchendu leans towards Mr. Muscle with a sly look.
“Like Adati, eh?”
More laughter. I settle for a small amused smile this time, and sip slowly from my glass while waiting for the men to exhaust their mirth.
“So, how well do you know Uchendu?” Mr. Speaker asks, a playful look in his eyes even though his lips are set in a prim line. The underlying meaning of his words fail to escape me, and I shift my weight to the next foot, struggling with the best answer to give him. From the corner of my eyes, I see Mr. Uchendu fidget with the stem of the glass in his hand.
“We are friends.”
I look to Mr. Uchendu for confirmation and he gives a slight nod.
“Yes...yes...friends of course.”
“So you came alone?”
I nod at Mr. Muscle who nods back, a speculative smile on his lips now.
A rise in the chatter around us, forces the conversation to suffer a lull, and the men begin to whisper earnestly among themselves, looking towards the entrance of the park. I turn with them to see four men making their way into the party.
“He is here,” Mr. Uchendu says with a smile, exchanging excited glances with the rest of the group. I look back again to the new entrants, but they have melted into the crowd. I turn back to find Mr. Uchendu standing too close to my ear.
“I told him about you,” he says, his alcohol filled breath fanning my face. I step back discretely to avoid suffocation, but my curiousity is piqued enough to keep me at a close distance.
Mr. Uchendu’s eyes widens in surprise. “Didn’t I tell you?”
I wait patiently for Mr. Uchendu’s surprise to pass, and it does almost immediately.
“The vice...president...he is the one that just came in now.”
I take some seconds to digest this information. “I see.”
“He didn’t want to come initially,” Mr. Uchendu says, looking smug by the minute. “But I am hard to shake off when I want something.”
The latter part of Mr. Uchendu’s statement leaves me feeling uncomfortable, his nearness making things worse. Thankfully, he leans back and announces to the other men that he is going to greet the vice president.
“Get ready,” he says, turning to me as he prepares to walk away. “I have arranged a short meeting with him for you.”
Surprised by Mr. Ucendu’s announcement, I can only manage a short nod.
The speaker has many questions when Mr. Uchendu leaves and most of them attempt to unravel the nature of the friendship between me and Mr. Uchendu. I deflect most of them with polite monosyllables and soon the speaker gets the message and shifts his attention to Mr. Muscle. I turn away from the men and try to track the vice president’s movement through the crowd but he has been closed in by the sea of humans in the park. The vibrating phone in my pant pocket makes me turn away from the crowd and the men I am standing with.
“Excuse me,” I tell them politely, moving to a considerable distance where clusters of trees have formed a dark canopy. I press down the answer button before the call drops.
“Hey, how are you doing?”
“Great,” Raina says, her voice breathy and happy at the same time.
“Where are you?”
“Somewhere in Jabi.”
“Sounds like a party.”
Raina treats me to some silence and then asks if I went alone to the party.
“Hmmm, no date?”
“There was no need for one.”
I try not to get impatient with Raina’s questioning and tell her that the party is more business focused than anything else.
“I bet you are bored out of your mind there.”
I smile at Raina’s intuitiveness. “How do you know that?”
“I know you Ladi,” Raina says, a smile in her voice. “I know you well.”
Raina laughs and then makes small talk before hanging up. I walk back to the party and find Mr. Uchendu back at the group and waiting for me.
“He will see you now,” he tells me with a nod. I walk behind him, preparing an impromptu speech for the man who might just have the cure for my uncle’s recent headaches.
I am still staring at Google, my mind split between finding a keyword for my search on the other players in the mint case drama, and wondering why Raina wanted to know where Ladi went a few minutes ago when she called. My phone rings to cut short my thinking. It is Raina again.
“Hello Arisha, asleep yet?”
“I just spoke with Ladi a few minutes ago.”
I try not to feel jealous. She has a right to speak with Ladi. After all, she dated him first.
“You are not upset or anything, are you.”
Horrified at the thought that my voice managed to convey my thoughts to Raina, I hurry to assure her that I am not close to being upset over her call to Ladi.
“Great to hear that Arisha. Thank you.”
Raina tells me that Ladi is bored at the party.
“How do you know?”
“Oh, he told me. We spoke for a while.”
“Great,” I blurt out, trying to drown out the drone of jealous voices crying out their indignation in my head.
“He says he was dying for company and all, you know he is there without a date.”
Anger swiftly replaces jealousy as I consider the fact that Ladi turned down my request to go with him to the party, only to turn around and complain about his lack of date.
“He asked me to join him...”
“As friends of course.”
“It was late, so I said no.”
When Raina finally ends the call, I lower myself to the bed, feeling betrayed in every possible way. My stomach clenched into a tight uncomfortable ball, I dial Hannah’s number, feeling a need to confide in her about Raina, but the call rings to an end without being picked. Lydia’s number is switched off, leaving me alone with my fears. I think of Andy in that moment and decide to call him. He is cold when he comes on the phone.
“Are you free to talk?”
I give up at the unfriendly note in Andy’s voice.
“I am actually in Wuse two now. So I can stop over if you want.”
“Okay, call me when you get here.”
“Good, see you in thirty then.”
I drop the phone to the bed and head to the bathroom. After brushing my teeth, I spend fifteen minutes under a very warm shower, my last conversation with Raina playing on repeat in my head.
He asked me to join him..
As friends of course
It was late, so I said no
Pulling myself from the lulling warmth of the water falling in cascades over my skin, I leave the shower and walk back to the room. I am just in time to hear my phone ring again. I walk to it, hoping that Hannah had seen my call but it is Andy on the phone again.
“I might come a little later. I am caught up in a meeting now.”
“See you soon.”
I slip out of my towel and apply cream all over my body, choosing my stripped pink pyjamas shorts and the matching chemise top for bed, laying out a cream coloured knee length baby doll dress for Andy’s visit. I am climbing into bed when I hear the front door open. I turn away from the door and face the wall. Ladi is home.
I open my room door, expecting to see Arisha curled up in bed, but the room is in darkness and very empty. I step back, shut the door and take three steps to the guest room. I am surprised to see Arisha in bed. I call her name but there is no answer.
“She is asleep,” I tell myself, feeling disappointed, but I continue the journey to her bed. I round past the empty side of the bed to the othe side. My steps slow down when I see that she is awake. She watches my approach with a pensive look.
“You are back,” she tells me simply, in a somewhat frosty tone.
“Yeah, I am.”
“Nothing,” Arisha says, flipping from her side to her back. I take advantage of the space left by her change in position and get into bed beside her.
“What’s wrong?” I ask, pulling her close. Her body is cool to the touch and I can tell she just had a shower. I let my hands skim over her sides, and hear her sharp intake of breath, but she continues watching me with a guarded look.
“How was the party?”
I shrug and lay down on my side, slipping my hand under her body to turn her to her side too. Arisha reaches out a hand as if to stop herself from getting too close to me, but the hand ends up flat against my stomach. I pick up the hand and lace my fingers with her own.
“Boring, but guess who I saw?”
Arisha’s face is expressionless but she manages a quiet,
“The vice president.”
The flat tone of Arisha’s voice makes me stop to look at her closely.
“Is something on your mind?”
Arisha looks away from me, her eyes finding refuge somewhere between my jaw and collarbone. I follow her eyes and meet her halfway before I lose her completely. Something is definitely on her mind.
I feel my brows knit an elaborate frown above my eyes and I can’t do anything to wipe it away.
There are questions in Ladi’s eyes as he watches me closely.
“You have something on your mind. What is it?”
I want to tell Ladi about Raina’s call, but I swallow back the urge and look away from him.
I feel Ladi’s fingers under my chin, urging me to look at him. I sigh and reluctantly meet his eyes again.
“Talk to me.”
“Leave me alone,” I tell Ladi, the edge in my voice as I pull away from him. Ladi stares at me, eyes narrowed in a contemplative frown.
“Did you just yell at me?”
Still staring at him, my shoulders rise of their own accord and shrug carelessly.
“Fine,” Ladi says, standing up from the bed. “I will leave you alone now. I am in my room if you want to talk.”
Pushing out of bed, I beat Ladi to the door and form a barricade to stop him from leaving the room.
His face an unreadable mask now, Ladi stares down at me, his blinks far between and almost mechanical.
I cross my arms against my chest. “I don’t know.”
“I am not sure what to do about your mood swing.”
“I am not having a mood swing.”
“So what is it?”
The earnest look in Ladi’s eyes almost forces the confession out of me, but I lose my heart just when it reaches my tongue and force it down again.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
Ladi shakes his head and then turns to walk past me, but I unwittingly step into his path, needing to keep him close for a reason.
“What do you want Arisha?”
I want him to explain why he wanted Raina at the party instead of me. I want him to assure me that he is going to be open with me about his uncle’s involvement in the mint case. I want him to take me in his arms and help me escape reality. I settle for the last need.
I stare at Arisha, my confusion heightened by her latest request.
I push my hand into my pants, willing myself to deny her that single request, but my willpower has waned cosiderably from being too close to her. I begin to shake my head, but change my mind. I need to hold her too.
Pulling my hands from my pants, I reach for her. She steps forward and wraps her arms around me. We spend minutes kissing and things soon spiral out of control. Fingers working deftly over my buttons, Arisha helps me out of my shirt, and then throws her hands up when I reach for her top. We edge towards the bed and collapse into it, taking care of the last items of our clothes as we do. I am taking Arisha back into my arms when her phone begins to ring somewhere on the bed. Arisha stills and looks at me with wide eyes.
Nodding wordlessly, Arisha holds a hand over her breasts, and seeks out the phone at the foot of the bed.
“Hi...you are here?”
I settle comfortable against the pillows as she looks back at me. I try to interprete the look in her eyes now. Guilt?
I clutch the phone a little too tight, feeling bad for Andy and even worse as Ladi watches me from the other side of the bed.
“Are you sleeping or something?”
“I was,” I lie, keeping my eyes on Ladi.
“Well, that’s too bad. I am downstairs already.”
I end the call and remain where I am, unable to meet Ladi at the top of the bed.
I nod slowly at Ladi. “Yes.”
“You still talk to him?”
I nod again. “Yes.”
"You had a date with him?"
"That explains the dress then," Ladi says, inclining his head towards my dress now sitting on the top of bedstand beside his phone. I can't remember leaving the dress there and come to the conclusion that Ladi had been responsible for changing its position. I look back to Ladi who is shaking his head now.
“I am not sure how I feel about that.”
“I wanted someone to talk to.”
“I was upset.”
“Maybe we should talk about what got you upset in the first place.”
Ladi’s eyes narrow at me in surprise. “Really?”
“Come,” Ladi says, one hand held out to me in invitation. “Let’s talk about it.”
I meet Ladi where he is in seconds. He pulls me over him so that I straddle him. The feel of his hands caressing my waist as he waits is disconcerting, but I focus on our problem with determination.
“You talk to Raina.”
Ladi says nothing, his hands slowing at my waist.
“A lot too.”
No reply from Ladi.
“You spoke to her this evening too.”
One hand steadying me at the waist, Ladi reaches for the phone he placed on the bedstand when I helped him out of his shirt minutes ago. When he straightens, he leaves my waist and focuses on his phone, but one hand returns when he holds the phone to his ear.
“Hello Raina...yes...can you do me a favour? I need you to stop talking to Arisha....I am sure you know better than to pretend you don’t know her....whatever Raina.....yes...I am dating her now. Bye.”
The phone still in his hand, Ladi pins me down with a no nonsense stare and says,
Feeling a delicious thrill at Ladi’s conversation with Raina, I pick his hand and place it over my left breast, but he shakes his head slowly, and returns the hand back to my waist.
“That is not going to work Arisha. I want to know when you and Raina started talking.”
I sigh and begin to talk. I tell Ladi about my first meeting with Raina and the subsequent ones. In the end, Ladi sighs and says,
“I need you to trust me.”
I lean closer to him until my breasts brush against his chest, trying not to think of my last assignment at The Compatriot.
Satisfied with my answer, Ladi continues from where we left and thirty minutes later, I am sated, content and very sleepy.
“You said you loved me.”
I stiffen and turn to stare at Ladi.
“I did not.”
“Hmm, okay,” Ladi says, settling back to the pillows. I twist around and face him.
“Yes. You said that and a lot of things.”
“I am embarrassed now.”
Ladi says nothing, choosing instead to silence me with a soul searing kiss, but later that night, I can’t help questioning his own feelings for me. Does he love me?