Luiz Benicio sprang up from his bed like a mad man. The loud banging he had just heard in his dream turned out to be actual loud banging on the door of his hotel suite. Someone outside was screaming for him to open the door. He guided himself in the direction of the sitting room in a dazed stagger, knocking a few things to the floor on his way. His head hung on him like a heavy bag of water, unstable and throbbing. His eyes were not his; they felt like the eyes that attacked him whenever he was drunk to stupor.
“OPEN THE DOOR!”
The banging had now turned to attempts to break into the suite and Luiz made it to the door just in time. He turned the key and a familiar man burst in, elbow first and almost falling, but he steadied himself and jerked Luiz by the collar of his t-shirt.
“Where is my sister?!”
Luiz stared back, still in his daze. His eyes could hardly bring the form of the man before him into one piece.
“You’re drunk!” The man shoved him aside and marched towards the bedroom. Luiz staggered after him and stopped at entrance to hold the doorframe for support.
“Ariya!” the man dashed to the bed, lifting up Luiz’s wife who was soaked in what seemed to be blood. “Ariya!” the man shouted again.
From where Luiz stood, he wasn’t sure if his wife was alive but the blood brought him to full queasiness.
“Look what you’re done to my sister, you Brazilian maggot!”
“Ato…” Luiz began to say to the man but he couldn’t go on. His head swirled in large and small circles and he could hardly make himself stand, but his thought process was beginning to come together.
What happened to her? Why was there so much blood? What had happened to him? What was going on?
Ato was now screaming things, laying out threats at Luiz, as he tried to get pregnant Ariya off the bed. Suddenly, three men barged into the suite. Two were in white uniforms or it could have been grey or yellow, Luiz could not tell. The third man was dressed in plain clothes and he stood tall; Luiz thought he looked like a tree.
“My sister called me not long ago and said this bastard husband of hers had beaten her!” Ato, in tears, said to the tall man. “How do you beat a pregnant woman?! She is six months pregnant for God’s sake! Is that how you do in Brazil?!”
Luiz shook his head. Had he heard well? He beat Ariya? His Ariya? The only woman he ever truly loved? No, something was wrong.
“I have to rush her to the hospital,” Ato announced.
“The police have arrived,” the tall man informed him.
“Yes, I called them before I came. Please, let them have this bastard arrested! He is going nowhere! He thinks this is Rio! This is Naija o, my guy! You go waste for prison! Idiot! Murderer!”
Then Ato ventured off in pidgin. It was one language Ariya tried teaching Luiz severally but he was poor with languages. English was still an uphill battle for him sometimes.
“Mr. Benicio, please come with us.” The tall man laid a hand on Luiz but Luiz pushed him off.
“Mr. Benicio, please do not fight me. It is my job as manager of this hotel to find out what really happened before I hand you over to the police. Please, follow me to my office.”
Luiz who had been leaning on the doorpost tried to put himself in a solid stand but he stumbled and almost came crashing down, had one of the uniformed men not held him up.
“Ari…” he whispered, looking at his wife.
Luiz felt himself being harried out of the hotel suite. He couldn’t protest. He couldn’t say a word. His head had never felt so messed up. He didn’t recall taking any serious amount of alcohol; it was only a bottle of wine after his quarrel with Ariya.
Why then was he so drunk? He was certain something was wrong somewhere.
The moment the door to the suite shut, Ato let go of his sister and got off the bed. His clothes and hands were soaked in blood and he picked a towel nearby to clean himself. His sister moaned beside him, her face a full picture of agony. Ato observed her carefully.
“Chi-chi, ya tafi,” Ato said to her in Hausa, almost laughing. “He’s gone. You can stop acting now.”
“I’m not acting!” she almost bit his head off as she went into full obscenities in Hausa.
“Calm down,” he said gently. “How’s it doing you?”
“I’m in serious pain here! I was telling Toshiba when he came to rub this disgusting chicken blood that I was in pain but he refused to listen to me! I need to get to a hospital, Ato! Now!”
“Haba, Chi-chi. You can’t be in labor na. You still have three months.”
His sister jerked him close and lifted her nightgown to reveal a bloody mess streaming from between her legs. Ato’s laughing face in an instant turned to one of panic and he tried to help her off the bed but she pushed him away and struggled up. She walked a few paces on her own and stumbled. Ato caught held her in his arms just as the one she had called Toshiba walked in.
He was a tall guy with the face of an angel but underneath he was Machiavellian, a ruthless con man.
“Wetin dey happen?” Toshiba asked in a guttural tone.
“Abeg help me carry her go hospital. She dey bleed.”
Toshiba’s brows came together in worry as he bent to take Ariya from Ato.
“Make I pursue dis Luiz case,” Ato said, walking out. “Abeg, keep me informed.”
Toshiba carried Ariya up in strong arms but he was gentle with her. She muttered something he couldn’t hear but he responded as he rushed her out of the suite. She kept muttering the same thing and he kept responding until they got into an elevator at the end of a long hallway. Under the yellow lights of the elevator, he looked into her face, into waning eyes that were trying hard to focus on him.
“You’ll be fine. Just hold on, Mine.”
It had been long he had called her that. Mine was his pet name for her back when it was just two of them and the world was a trouble-free place. She was his then and he loved her. He still loved her, even though she loved someone else now. Toshiba felt the ache of that betrayal upon his heart but he buried it.
He looked down into her eyes and he saw them close up.
“Mine?” He shook her in panic and she came alive again, still moving her lips. His eyes stayed on them and his ears finally caught the whisper they sent out. She was repeating a name over and over and it wasn’t hard to miss now.
She was calling the name of the man she loved…
Luiz Benicio had no idea what type of trouble he was in. His was still dizzy on his journey to the police station and he dozed off at some point. When he arrived he couldn’t comprehend a word of anything that was said or even see clearly his environment. All he wanted was a nice, warm bed to sleep in. He thought of Ariya but she would have to wait until he woke up. It was all a bad dream he told himself as he curled up on the filthy cell floor that stank of urine and teemed with all sorts of unnamed organisms. Luiz smiled as he drifted away. Yes, everything was going to be fine when he woke up.
A splash of cold water hit Luiz and he jolted up, speaking in Portuguese. He stumbled a bit but he steadied himself immediately and cleaned the water off his face to have a good look at the person who dared assault him in that manner.
Another splash of water brought out cusses from his mouth and he charged towards the policeman in front of him without thinking. This resulted in blow in his face inflicted by something wooden and hard. Luiz screamed out in pain and stumbled backwards.
“If dem born your papa well, come again! Muntulla! You think say dis na Brazil.”
Luiz felt blood gush from his nose. He tried to lift his t-shirt to his face but found that he was without one. His straight fit chinos was gone as well and he was left in his boxers alone. He couldn’t remember when all this had happened. Last he recalled, he was downing a glass of wine at the hotel to ward off the anger of fighting with Ariya and…
He turned to the policeman who was speaking in pidgin.
“My wife! Where’s my wife, Ariya? How I get here? What happened to my wife?”
The policeman laughed and shook his head before he walked out. Luiz went after him in full confusion but the cell door was slammed in his face.
“What is this going on?!” He banged at the door.
“What I do?! Tell me, policia! Hey!”
No one answered or attended to Luiz. He was left there until noon the next day. Luckily for him, he wasn’t given the full Nigerian police treatment. Upon request from the powers concerned, he was allowed stay in that one filthy cell alone, fed only Gala and sachet water. Luiz was about to learn that Warri was a long way from Rio de Janeiro.
Ariya or Chi-chi or otherwise known as Marie, left listless eyes on a fruitless mango tree before her. It was situated just outside the gates of the hospital where she had just emerged. Standing with a polythene bag of drugs in her hand, she was waiting for a cab to come by but the tree had captivated her.
The night was dark and the sky lay moonless. Black forms jumped into her mind from the shadows. She felt as though something was watching her from the thickness of the mango tree or from the darkness around her.
But she knew it was nothing other than her reproving conscience. Sometimes she wished she could just reach in, yank it out of her, cast it into a voracious flame and walk away while it burned.
But then she would have cast her heart away too, the one that had invaded her and without her doing, nurtured itself for three years. It was sitting in the center of her soul, protected by measly shreds of all that was once simple and good in her.
Outside that core, roamed blackness and the facade that she truly was.
A certain pain tugged at her heart but she pushed it away and made plans in her head. In the next three days, she would be out of the country for good. She had succeeded in her final scam, the one that was going to put her out of the map. Everything was set. It was supposed to be perfect with the baby but now he was gone. Her hand subconsciously ventured to her tummy and she felt the emptiness of his absence. Now she was going to face her life alone. She shuddered and the pain in her heart returned. As much as she had been a loner and drifter most of her adult life, she wasn’t yet ready for solitude.
Then she felt it coming at her without warning. A full rush of memories from her recent past attacked her, bringing Jimi’s and Kiki’s faces to her mind. Like a pregnant woman experiencing timed contractions, these memories had been invading her for months and she always did away with them but now she was under their hold and there was nothing she could do but cave beneath their weight.
Tears began down her cheeks and she started a slow walk by the pavement of the half-busy street beside her. Her body racked in violent sobs but she walked on until a car pulled up by her side.
She heard Toshiba’s voice and she stopped.
Luiz Benicio couldn’t believe all he just heard. He stared in confusion into the face of the lawyer before him.
Charged for attempted murder and oil fraud?
He could go to jail for more than fifteen years here in Nigeria?
NÃO! He screamed in his head. Why wasn’t anyone listening to him? He did not hurt Ariya! There was no way in hell he could have. And he wasn’t drunk! He had only a glass of wine and went off to sleep! No, something was wrong! Someone was setting him up and it was the same person that drugged him. Was it Ato? Or…Ariya? Had it all been a scam from the beginning? He shook his head. It couldn’t have been. Ariya loved him. It was written all over her; in the way she kissed him and made love, in her eyes, her words, her touch… she was carrying his baby, for heaven’s sake. No, Ariya couldn’t have been a lie.
He shook his head again and said out loud, “NÃO!”
He was perspiring profusely and the kind-hearted lawyer with the sympathetic smile handed him a handkerchief to mop his face. He was very close to tears but he held back. There was no way he was going to cry in front of a woman. But he wished he could…just let out the steam of his present tribulations. What sort of mess had he ventured into? How was he going to get himself out?
He couldn’t call home. His father would not listen to him. No one back in Brazil would. He was a rogue son and disgrace to his family.
The lawyer yawned and leaned back on her chair. She was tired. It was dark already. She was now used to his deep thoughts that ended up in verbal proclamations made in Portuguese. She allowed him go into another as she adjusted her ash colored suit and the white chiffon blouse beneath which was held at the cleavage by a yellow and green diamond brooch given to her by her best friend. The interrogation room was hot and she sweated buckets beneath the blouse.
“Mr. Benicio?” she called as she saw Luiz staring emptily at her. But he made no response. He was gone again.
Luiz heard the lawyer call but it could have been a dove cooing outside for all he cared. The image of Ariya was still on his mind. He didn’t believe she conned him.
Eight months ago, they met on an exclusive dating site that required a thousand dollars to register. Ariya was the first to catch his eyes with her gap-tooth and sunny smile. Luiz had a thing for African women, being dark-skinned himself. From childhood he had dreams of getting married to an African who would take him back to his roots. Ariya was the perfect woman for him. They started off with harmless chats via BBM and got bolder by sharing pictures and heartfelt emails. In no time, he trusted her and couldn’t hide anything from her and it seemed she kept no secrets too. She told him she was an orphan with a brother who was an oil marketer living in the oil city of Warri. She didn’t seem like the gold-digger type looking to make money off a foreigner. Luiz felt she was perfect for him.
He told her about some ten million dollars in his keeping and how previous attempts to do business with Russian oil marketers online had left him fifty thousand dollars less. Now, he wanted something done under the radar. He claimed it was money stolen from his father, a popular wealthy oil tycoon in Brazil. It had been a risk finding a way to put all the money into an offshore account but he got someone in Sao Paulo to do it for him. His next step was to invest it in oil to fetch him more money and leave no trace leading back to the original funds. Ariya told him Nigerians specialized in such underground deals and her brother could help.
But Luiz wasn’t ready yet. There was still heat around him over the missing money. He needed to throw all suspicions off him. Ariya was a good distraction. He invited her to Brazil and she readily honored his invitation. They lived together in a beautiful countryside called Santa Catarina with Luiz’s grandmother. There he popped the question and married her. Two days after their wedding they commenced on their honeymoon, beginning a tour around Asia that lasted three months and brought them back to Europe, Cyprus being their final destination, before Luiz made his first visit to Nigeria.
It was straight into business for him as he got into Warri. He was introduced to Ato, who in turn, hooked him up with the necessary people needed for a successful oil trade. Ato told Luiz that running an underground oil business in Nigeria was all about paying the right money into the right hands. Hence, Luiz paid through his teeth but didn’t mind because he was assured that his investment was secure. He was taken to see where his merchandise was loaded at the docks, ready for shipment; he also had the privileged of meeting with whom he was told was the minister of petroleum resources late one night in his office in Abuja and they spoke at length. With that, Luiz let his fears rest, paid up his balance to the marketers in millions of dollars and made plans to enjoy the last two days of a two week long break with Ariya.
He was crazy about her. She was his light, the break of dawn in his dark life, and theirs was a marriage of pure bliss filled with laughter and void of quarrels. Ariya was nothing like the sassy Brazilian girls he knew back home. She was always happy and full of positive energy, which was why he found it strange that she picked up an unnecessary fight with him on the day of his arrest. It had to do with some joke he made about Nigerian women being too loud. Ariya went off on him in a manner he had not seen before and pressed his buttons until he responded in the same vein. Afterwards, he apologized but she ignored him and went to bed. He remembered he had a bottle of wine he had popped from the morning resting in the fridge. He filled a glass, careful not to take too much. He had a past with alcohol. Any little annoying situation could get him drinking to stupor.
He gulped down the glass of wine with restraint and dozed off.
But then he woke up to a nightmare which didn’t end, that was getting more horrific by the moment.
The lawyer sighed. A long, drawn sigh that sounded like a yawn.
“Mr. Benicio, are you ready to listen to me now? I have a solution for you,” she stated and he sat up.
She had already laid out to him that the Nigerian police did business in a different way. They weren’t going to let him call his embassy because of his scrupulous oil deals with a certain group of fraudulent men that had been on their Most Wanted list. Luiz had tried to prove that his business was not so illegitimate; it was just under the radar and he had documents as proof in addition to evidence of a registered oil company in Brazil. The lawyer had waved him off and reiterated that as long as he had gotten involved with the men in question, he was done for. The police wanted a signed confession about the deal, so as to nail everything on him because his accomplices where now off the grid, leaving him alone to face the backhand of the law.
“Here’s what is on ground now,” the lawyer was presently saying as Luiz wiped pouring sweat off his face. “The police will drop all charges and let you get on the next flight to Brazil for a certain amount.”
Luiz drew closer. He didn’t care what the police were asking for. He had a good sum of money in his account and he was willing to empty it and get away from Nigeria as fast as he could, not minding the loss of the millions even though it hurt him to death. The stink of the cell and the mosquitoes and betrayal of Ariya were worst torture at that moment.
“Quanto?” he asked the lawyer. “How much?”
“Fifty thousand dollars.”
Luiz shut his eyes. It was all he had in his account.
“They take thirty?” he asked. “I give thirty.”
The lawyer shook her head as she stood up.
“Forty!” he was desperate.
She thought about it. “Okay, I’ll make them collect forty but you pay me five.”
Luiz held her hand in his. “Obrigado muito. Thank you very much. Thank you.”
She nodded and walked to the door but he called her back. She turned.
“Ariya? I see Ariya, please?”
“Não. Go home,” the lawyer said and walked out.
Marie was all cried out and done with her emotions. Now she sat in Ato’s hideout—a completed house in a yet-to-be inhabited estate—consuming a bowl of goat peppersoup as Ato and Toshiba drank to the success of their scam. It was a big risk venturing into a long con but Ato trusted Marie’s abilities to rope in any mark she dug her claws into. Being a big time handler, connected to a wider cartel with connections extending outside Nigeria, Ato played his part by involving the necessary people that made the scam all come together. The success of it all was going to take him to a level amongst the big boys in the business and to Marie, he was grateful.
“Udo, you don finish?” Marie turned a lazy eye towards her best friend who was hunched over her laptop in a serious face. Her discarded grey suit and yellow and green diamond brooch lay on the floor beside her. A white chifon blouse was cast on the arm rest of the plastic chair she was sitting on, leaving her with just a bra covering ample breasts that jiggled with each movement of her hands. Udoka was responsible for all their online scams, transactions and creation of fake government and oil company websites. She had a first degree in computer programming but dropped off the job market to follow her boyfriend, Ato into fraud.
“Done!” she raised her hands off the laptop. All payouts were completed, from the tithes paid to the bosses at the top, to the other small men involved, down to Marie herself who was the roper. Ato nodded in pride and winked at his sister but she stared back vacantly, tearing at a piece of goat meat. He saw the look of dissatisfaction in her eyes but before he could ask her why, she sat up.
“I’ll be leaving in three days but I need your help for one last job.”
Toshiba frowned. He felt Marie was pushing her luck too far.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Well, now that I have no baby again, I want to get Kiki back and take her with me.”
The room went silent.
“For what na?” Toshiba asked. “Kidnap? Me I nor fit do dat one o.”
“Not really kidnapping.” Marie stood up and stretched. “I have a plan…”
“What plan?” Toshiba was incensed.
Marie smiled. “Just trust me. Udo, block your number and give me your phone.”
“Chi-chi, mai’n kuma?” Ato asked.
“Relax, big brother. Everything will be fine. I just want my baby back.”
“You don’t see the risk you’re putting all of us into, Mine?” Toshiba said in annoyance.
Marie took Udoka’s phone from her. “I do see it, yes, but wouldn’t you do everything to have your child in your arms?”
“I don’t a give a fu…”
“Kiki’s yours, Toshi. She’s not Jimi’s,” Marie revealed casually, dialing Alhaja.
“What…did you say?” Toshiba’s expression was one of a stunned man.
“You can get shocked later. Now, let’s get our daughter back.”
They were quiet as she put the phone on speaker. But Marie had not expected what she heard next. The first thing to hit her ears was Kiki’s cry and she drew back, almost dropping the phone.
“Hello?” Alhaja Nnenna’s voice came on. Marie lost her nerves. “Hello? Hello? Who is on the line?”
Unable to trust her voice, Marie cleared her throat before she spoke.
The response was silence and then they heard a distortion like Alhaja’s phone hitting hard surface. Marie fell into her chair as tears pooled into her eyes.
“I can’t…” she whispered, unable to breathe well.
“I can’t do this.”
mai’n kuma? (Hausa): what is it again? Or what again?
ya tafi (Hausa): he’s gone