I focus on the colourful spines of the books sitting on the bookshelf at the other end of the room, and try not to get impatient as I wait for the phone to be picked.
“Sorry Mr. Ladi, I was in a meeting with some clients when you called.”
“Okay Barrister Ogida. So what is the news from C.A.C?”
“The company was registered just two days ago.”
“I know that fact. Who are the directors?”
“That is something that is a little difficult to ascertain at the moment.”
“What do you mean?”
“The names appear very foreign.”
I feel my facial muscles tighten into a frown as I consider the lawyer’s words.
“Yes,” Barrister Ogida says, papers rustling in the background. “We have a Mr. Benjamin Diabe, Troare Jacques, Billami Mahmoud, Peter Dawson….and the funny one is Thomas Sankara.”
I laugh despite the seriousness of the situation.
“Thomas Sankara? Isn’t that the name of the revolutionary leader from Burkina Faso?”
“Yes. These guys, whoever they are, must be comedians. And then the address…”
More rustling. My fingers begin to drum on the table as I wait for the rustling to end.
“They left out their addresses.”
“Does the C.A.C allow directors register without leaving their addresses?”
“Under normal circumstances, no.”
“So why is this case different?”
“I don’t know, but I suspect that highly placed individuals are behind the formation of the company. That is the only way to explain the waiver given to them.”
“I am not paying you to guess Barrister. Please find answers.”
“Sir, it was difficult trying to do a search for this file. It was as if a directive had been given to keep the file locked and out of reach.”
“Still, I will keep my eyes open and let you know when I come across any new information.”
“That will be nice. Thank you Barrister.”
Dropping my blackberry to my table, I push back my chair until I am turned sideways and facing the window. The memory of leafing through the second file on my uncle’s table brings back the guilt I have been feeling since that night, but intrigue chases guilt back seconds later.
“How come he has the particulars of the company with him and he is not on that list?”
The window blinds sway lazily to the breeze from the air conditioner above it, leaving me without an answer. Leaning my elbows on the arm rests of my swivel chair, and linking my fingers over my stomach, I wonder how much my uncle knows about the mint case.
I sigh and admit the truth to myself.
“I think he knows a lot.”
I get restless in my position after a few minutes and move back my chair to the table. I pick up the television remote control of the newly installed flatscreen television sitting on the stand beside the bookshelf. CNN is covering the recent nuclear test by North Korea. The news of the pope’s resignation features shortly after. I begin to turn away from the television when the next news feature catches my eyes.
Nigerian President ends cold war with Vice, makes promises to find those involved in the mint scandal as the senate postpones hearing on the scandal.
I stare at the television for some minutes, taking the news one word at a time. In the end, I come to conclusion that the answer to my questions about the mint case is not in the file in uncle Hassan’s study in Maitama, neither is it in the file at C.A.C. It is in this ten second news feature on CNN.
Peeling back a leaf of paper from the Post-It notepad on my table, I write down the words,
President - Vice President - Mint case.
Uncle Hassan - New Company - Mint case?
My pen hovers over the paper as I consider whether to add Mr. Uchendu’s name to the list. Deciding against it, I let the pen fall from my hand as I lean back in my chair. The migraine appears on cue. I attack it with a slow massage, one hand reaching for the television remote. The screen goes blank as I press down the power button.
I get a moment’s reprieve as the boardroom falls quiet again. The loud grating laughter of the group of twelve men sitting around the oblong conference table had introduced me to the worst headache I have ever known.
“Thieves, the lot of them,” the angry looking man in green Ankara shirt says, his bushy beard quivering with barely concealed disgust. He is Doctor Ignatius Kolawole. Chairman of the board of editors and gregarious by nature. "They are all in this together."
"I agree," the softly spoken Mr. Joshua, whose office sits right next to Mr. Sunday's own, puts in.
"I won't be surprised if this is merely a tussle for power between Mr. President and the V.P."
The slim man in white Kaftan opposite Mr. Sunday nods at him. I remember him as Mr. Awwal. It is a usual sight to see him and Mr. Sunday standing in the passage of the editors' office in the morning exchanging banters or discussing politics.
"Wallahi. Those two know what they are doing."
"In my opinion," Mr. Sunday says again. "The President has a hand in the affairs of Va Rue."
"It is not enough that they directly control D.P.E," Doctor Ignatius says, half snarling. "They have to interfere with Va Rue and even go as far as playing politics with it."
"Why bother privatizing the mint in the first place when you plan to control the whole thing?" Mr. Awwal asks the entire room, a frown on his face. “These people are just something else.”
“The first company indicted....” Dr. Ignatius says, tapping his temple thoughtfully before looking around the conference table. “What is it called again?”
“Hassan and Sons,” Mr. Joshua says, making a face.
I look down at the jotter on my thighs and see it shaking. I sigh and stop jiggling my legs. There is no need to be so wound up just because the company Ladi worked with is being mentioned with scorn.
“Thank you,” Dr. Ignatius says, nodding at Mr. Joshua. “Does anyone know anything about the owner of Hassan and Sons?”
There is a short silence as the men exchange glances. Dr. Ignatius looks at each face until he spots Mr. Joshua’s nod.
“He is a successful businessman with several investments. Apart from a steel company with headquarters in Kano and a plant in Port Harcourt, he has interests in properties, and oil. He is also a principal partner of Va Rue.”
I find myself scribbling down Mr. Joshua’s words. I look up to see Doctor Ignatius nod.
“In this country of ours, he wouldn’t have achieved all these without some measure of influence with the government.”
“Oh…he is actually said to be a good friend of the President.”
“Then there is something interesting,” Mr. Joshua says excitedly. “There are stories that the Vice President is very close to principal officers at the mint, and also has vested interests at the D.P.E.”
Voices rise up at once as the men discuss this new information among themselves. I scribble again. The noise finally dies down and all eyes turn to Mr. Joshua who smiles as if loving the attention.
“So we might be having a situation where the President and the Vice President are involved in a power tussle…like I said earlier.”
“They were basically just fighting through their men, but now that the party has reconciled them, all is well.”
Mr. Awwal shakes his head at Doctor Ignatius. “We can’t just allow the case to die like that.”
“I agree,” another of the editors chirp in. He is completely bald and young with a voice that is so deep it sounds as if it is coming from a drum.
“….even though we all know that the case is going the way of the other cases involving the goverrnment or its errand boys, we should expose the truth.”
Doctor Ignatius sighs and shakes his head.
“Except we don’t know where to find the truth.”
“If only we knew someone that is close to this man, Hassan,” Mr. Sunday says, imitating Doctor Ignatius’s sigh.
I shrink into my chair and go back to jiggling my legs.
“I believe that we can find a way to expose him and the other errand boys at the mint if we try hard enough,” Doctor Ignatius says, his jaw set in determination.
The whole boardroom agrees, and after twenty more minutes of discussing other topics, the chairman calls an end to the meeting. I follow closely on Mr. Sunday’s heels, prepared to beg off for the day. I have learned enough. It was time to share with Ladi.
I run to the bed and grab the towel there. Teeth chattering from the air condition induced cold, I find the small white remote control and point it to the air conditioner, switching it off. I dry my body in hurried motions, one eye on the blackberry on the bed. I am expecting my brother’s call. He had called twenty minutes earlier and had only promised to call back when I told him that I was about the take a shower. I am pushing my T-shirt over my head when the blackberry rings out.
“Hi, are you free now.”
“Yes. So what’s up?”
“I am good.”
“I missed you, and Ruth.”
Peter laughs and tells me that his girlfriend sends her love.
“You are done with your course now, aren’t you?”
I sit down on the bed and chew my nails.
“I still have one more assignment.”
“I see, and then after that?”
I lower my hand to the bed and prop my weight on it, feeling very much cornered.
Peter says nothing for some seconds, and then clears his throat.
“Your host…Amina’s younger brother. He sounds like a nice guy.”
I go back to chewing my nails. I know Peter is fishing. I also know I am going to fall for the bait. Peter always knew how to squeeze information from me. It came from raising me from age six after the death of our parents.
“Yes, he is.”
“If he looks anything like his elder sister, he is handsome chap.”
“I bet you guys are quite friendly now.”
“In a way.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Peter, we are friends. That is all.”
“I want you to be very honest with me, Arisha…”
I close my eyes, expecting the worst.
“Do you like him?”
Breathing out a sigh of relief, I open my eyes again.
“I don’t hate him, and we are getting along fine.”
Peter sighs. “Good. I want you to remain focused, and try not to overstay your welcome there. Amina was good enough to let you stay at her place for the duration of your course. Don’t abuse that priviledge.”
“Okay. I won’t.”
As soon as I say goodbye to my brother, I find a bright pink cuffed shorts to wear and go to the next room where I know Ladi is right now.
I hear the room door open before Arisha’s voice reaches me.
I turn off the shower, and slide the door of the shower stall open.
“In the shower.”
“Okay,” she says, her voice drawing closer. I watch the handle turn slowly until the door pulls back, and Arisha’s pops into view.
“Hi,” she says, smiling in her usual shy way.
I return her smile. “Hey.”
We stand, holding doors and smiling sheepishly at each other. I decide to invite her in.
Looking as if she might turn down my invitation, Arisha stalls at the door before taking a few tentative steps forward and shutting the door behind her.
“Give me a few minutes, I am almost done.”
Arisha nods and leans against the door. I close the shower stall and proceed to rinsing off the soap suds from my body. As soon as I am done, I step out of the shower stall. Arisha’s eyes widen momentarily before lowering in embarassment.
“Seriously…Ladi,” she says in protest as I walk to the towel bar beside to door to pick one of the towels there.
I give her an apologetic smile, but her eyes are still glued to the tiled bathroom floor.
Wrapping the towel low on my waist after drying my body, I grab the can of deodorant spray on the sink countertop, take Arisha’s hand and leave the bathroom.
“So what happened at the Compatriot?”
Arisha sits lotus style in the middle of the bed, and turns serious.
“A lot, but before I tell you, I want to know what happened at your uncle’s place.”
I turn slowly to Arisha, T-shirt in my right hand, and the other pulling out the inverted waist band of my jogging slacks. Should I tell her?
Ladi looks uncomfortable as he shrugs his shirt over his head and walks to the bed to sit at the edge.
“Is it important?” he asks, looking back at me.
“Ladi, we promised to be open with each other.”
Sighing, Ladi looks at me, his face solemn and unsmiling.
“I discovered particulars of the company that replaced our company in the mint case.”
Even though I had spent half of the day with men who thought Ladi’s uncle was complicit in the mint case, a part of me had been hoping they were wrong. At least for Ladi’s sake.
“Tell me about it.”
Ladi talks about walking into his uncle’s study to fetch a file his uncle had asked for.
“Just beside it was another file. I thought it was the said file, so I opened it.”
“And you saw the particulars of this new company.”
“It was newly registered, and my uncle’s name was missing from it….”
Ladi’s voice trails away, and I watch a frown settle on it, before clearing as he focuses on me again.
“Anyway, I asked a lawyer friend to find out who the owners of the company were, but I met a dead end.”
“Maybe your uncle is somehow connected to this Billami company.”
Ladi sighs and massages the back of his head. I watch him silently, noting the action and trying to count the number of times I have seen him perform it.
“Are you suffering from migraines?” I ask, shifting closer so that we are almost nose to nose. When he nods, I reach behind him and find his hand working over a spot above his neck. “Here, let me help you.”
“Thanks,” Ladi says, releasing a blissful sigh as I get to work on the migraine spot. “Ever since this whole thing started, I have been having these crazy migraines.”
“Thanks,” Ladi says, taking advantage of my proximity to plant a kiss on my lips. I smile bashfully at him. “So tell me about the meeting.”
“They think your uncle and some people at the mint work for the President and the Vice President….”
Relying on my near photographic memory, I relay the entire meeting to Ladi including facial expressions of all the speakers involved. Ladi listens quietly, nodding as I speak.
“Do you know if your uncle is close to the President?”
Ladi thinks about my question for some minutes.
“I have heard him talk about going to the villa once, but he talks about regular meetings with contacts at the house of reps though.”
“From what I learned today, the case is more political than economical.”
“I remember running into some men during my early days of visiting the guy at the mint…”
“Yes,” Ladi says, nodding and pulling his hand away from his lips. “He said the men were from D.P.E.”
The discussion from the small conference room of the Compatriot with its screaming antiqued air conditioner comes back to me.
…There are stories that the Vice President is very close to principal officers at the mint, and also has vested interests at the D.P.E.
“I think the editors may be right after all. This is just a political matter.”
“But that night at Jabi Park, he listened to me explain the situation to him like he was just hearing it for the first time.”
“Maybe he wanted the satisfaction of knowing you were begging him on your uncle’s behalf, and by an extension, the president too.”
“It makes no sense,” Ladi says with a puzzled expression. “My uncle was pleased by his intervention. He didn’t sound like the man was an enemy.”
“He could have sounded the way he did because he knew the desire of the President was to reconcile with the Vice President, and you helped achieved that.”
“Okay, but what role does Billami play in all of this?”
I tap my chin, I look away to the wardrobe ahead, willing my mind to solve the mystery of the new company. I turn to Ladi soon after.
“Maybe to cover their tracks if the case ever gets revisited.”
Ladi looks at me in wonder. “You really have all the answers.”
“I am just good at guessing,” I tell Ladi with modest smile.
Ladi smiles back and says,
“Maybe this case will just fizzle out now that the President and the Vice President are back on good terms.”
Another snippet from the conversation in the board room reaches me again.
…even though we all know that the case is going the way of the other cases involving the goverrnment or its errand boys, we should expose the truth….
I want to remind Ladi about this part of my boardroom story but I am suddenly overwhelmed with the need to end the conversation.
“Let’s talk about something else.”
“I agree,” Ladi says with a nod.
“I just spoke to my brother a few minutes ago…”
“He called to say hi?”
“Yes, among other things.”
Ladi stretches out his legs, lowers himself to the bed, and looks up at me.
“He wants to know about our friendship, and when I am returning back to Lagos.”
“Did you tell him the truth about us?”
I shake my head silently.
“Why not?” Ladi asks, reaching to rub the sides of my arm in gentle strokes.
“I wasn’t sure he would approve.”
Ladi nods and carries on with his stroking.
“What about you? Do you think your sister will approve if she knows what is going on?”
“Well, she is not exactly the poke nosey type and doesn’t believe in meddling with my affairs.”
The faint sound of a phone ringing reaches us and Ladi drags himself off the bed, and rises to his feet.
“My phone,” he says, walking to the door. “Give me some seconds.”
I begin to say, “Sure,” but my own phone vibrates in the pockets of my shorts. I dig into the shorts and pull out the phone. There is a text message from Raina. I open it, read it again and again. Finally I stop and turn to listen instead to the sound of Ladi talking at the other side of the door. I can barely discern what he is saying, but even the inaudible mumble is better than the vitriol contained in Raina’s message.
Mr. Uchendu’s voice is relaxed as he asks how my day went, but I can hear the undercurents of anxiety in his voice.
“It went well, thank you.”
“Great to hear.”
“Are you busy right now?”
“I am calling for personal reasons, not business.”
I wait as Mr. Uchendu pauses. Wondering if the call has been hung up, I pull my phone from my ear, and stare at it. The minutes continue to run. Mr. Uchendu’s voice comes back on, the moment I bring the phone back to my ear.
“I hope you don’t mind my intrusion…but I have always wondered about you Ladi.”
I push my free hand into the pocket of my slacks.
“You intrigue me.”
I try to find a response for Mr. Uchendu, but my brain refuses to produce one.
“Are you there?”
I clear my throat. “Yes I am.”
“It will be great to have you as a friend.”
“We are already friends.”
“No…I mean on a more personal level.”
Again, I am at loss for what to tell the man at the other end of the phone.
“Listen, I don’t expect to get an answer now. Just think about it.”
I am relieved at the beep of the phone that soon follows the end of his words. I return back to the room to find Arisha holding out her phone towards me. She says there is a text from Raina. I read it, and tell Arisha to ignore it.
“She called me a whore,” Arisha says moodily. “And says I am cheap because I am paying rent with my body.”
I lay back on the pillows, and reach out a hand to Arisha.
“Come, let me tell you what Mr. Uchendu said to me a few minutes ago.”
At first I am horrified and then I start to laugh, forgetting the scathing tone of Raina’s text message.
“You got propositioned by Mr. Uchendu.”
“You got that right,” Ladi says with a chuckle.
Ladi laughs and I join him, enjoying the sound of his laughter. Suddenly, we stop laughing and look into deep into each other’s eyes.
“What happens after this?”
Ladi sports a puzzled frown. “What happens after what?”
“When I have to go back.”
Ladi drops the frown and cups my face with his right hand, thumb caressing my chin.
“You are not going anywhere.”
“My brother….your sister….they will ask questions.”
“I am not afraid of questions.”
Ladi’s thumb inches upwards and I part my lips, moving my head slightly to let his thumb slip into my mouth. Keeping my eyes on the half smile on his face, I wrap my left hand around his wrist and guide his thumb inside my mouth, tracing circles on the pad with my tongue before moving it up and down in stroking motions. Ladi’s eyes darken for a minute and then he slowly retrieves his thumb and replaces it with his lips. Settling into a slow langorous kiss, I reach for his shirt, but he stills my hand and pulls back.
I sigh in disappointment and he laughs. Minutes later, we lie in spoon positon, the steady rise and fall of Ladi’s chest against my back telling me he is fast asleep. Leaning forward, I press my lips against his arm, drawing in a lungful of his citrus shower scent. I lean back against his chest, and begin to think of the mint case.
The events of the day replay in my head, and I realize that most of Arisha’s guesses could in fact be the truth. There was a link between Uncle Hassan, the President, the Vice President, the men I had seen at Mr. Uchendu’s office, and maybe Mr. Uchendu. I am resolving to begin my own investigation, starting from the house in Maitama, when I feel Arisha’s lips on my arm. All thoughts of the mint case disappears at the contact and I watch her bent head for some seconds.
I think about the doubts in her voice minutes ago when she asked about our future together. I know I must do more to dispel those doubts. Finally, she settles back against my chest and begins to breathe slowly. Waiting for some minutes to be sure she is asleep, I lower my head to her shoulder and place a light kiss there. The light scent of body mist does a lot to my senses, and I push away the desire to break the two weeks vow we have taken. I have shared passion with this woman. Now I want more.
Okay, he just kissed my shoulder. He has feelings for me. Whoop!
I close my eyes and begin to dream of forever. The faces of the editors, Raina, Mr. Uchendu, and Peter appear once in my perfect dream, and I chase them away. I have found something with Ladi and I am protecting it. Reality or not.