NATIONAL THEATER, LAGOS
The Assistant Commissioner of Police of the Lagos State police force stormed into the theater, followed by a couple of uniformed policemen. Within, they found another team of policemen discussing in low tones over the dead bodies of nine people on the floor, each with a bullet hole either on the head or chest. The policemen broke away and saluted the ACP as he walked in.
“Who is in charge, here?” a baritone voice from cigarette-stained lips demanded.
Etim, a young, roughly-dressed, eager-to-please but watchful plainclothes policeman rushed forward and saluted.
“What are these bodies still doing here?”
“Sir, you said you wanted to see for yourself–”
“Get them out!”
Etim nodded at junior officers and they began evacuating the dead bodies.
“I’m just coming from Ibadan,” the ACP revealed. “In short, I was called out of my brother’s wedding. Debrief me on the events.”
“The First Lady was to have a charity event with almost a hundred orphans this afternoon but at the last minute, she cancelled–”
Etim was cut off rudely.
“Get to the story! What happened?”
Etim looked at one of the entry doors. “Heavily armed, masked men attacked the place, killing every adult on the scene, including four of our men outside, after which, they took the children and made away with them.”
”Every single child?”
“All of them. Witnesses say they came with two pickup trucks.” He called a junior officer to him. “We were able to follow them to an abandoned building but when the pursuit team got there, sir, they opened fire on our men.”
“Yes and no.”
The ACP looked at him with mounting impatience.
“According to the team sent for backup, there were no survivors on our side but one of our men was able to gun down one of them. He is still alive.”
“Where is he?”
“In Division C.”
“Is he saying anything?”
The junior officer Etim earlier called for came to the scene. Etim took a file from him and handed it to the ACP.
“I’m not interested in reports; I want results!’ He turned to Etim. “Is there a telephone I can use in this building?”
“Yes, sir.” Etim began walking out. “This way.”
When they left the theater, another junior officer came to them and saluted.
“Sir, phone call. It’s the Commissioner.”
The ACP made a face as he entered a small office outside the theater. Etim took out a bubble gum from his pocket and began chewing, leafing through the file in his hand. The ACP returned minutes later, his expression angrier. He headed out of the theater.
“What did you get from this suspect you arrested?”
“Sir, he refused to speak.”
Short in stature, Etim doubled his strides to catch up with his boss.
“What did you people do to make him speak?”
“Sir, if I may…”
“From my own expert opinion, I think the man…he’s not just a hungry person looking to make quick money from kidnapping children. Sir, I think he is a trained war veteran.”
“What are you saying?”
“Sir, I think he’s a soldier and based on descriptions from people who had encounters with the other kidnappers, I’m inclined to believe that the others are also soldiers. I’m guessing either retired or discharged from the army, honorably or otherwise. If only I was in charge–”
“Well, too late! Soldiers stormed into Division C and took our suspect into custody.”
“Under whose orders?”
“It’s from the top.” He looked at Etim. “From oga, himself. I don’t know why they call us the police force when the military won’t give us the power we need to operate just because they are in government.”
“Well, sir…” Etim murmured as they walked out. “If he’s with the military, then I think we will get good results soon. After all, all we want is those children back…”
“My friend, quit the modest talk. I don’t want to hear it! You were put here because you are the best at what you do and that’s all I want from you.”
The ACP got to his car and the door was opened for him. “Get the best men from your team to work with a special team from the NSS. I want those children found alive!”
Etim saluted. “Sir!”
The ACP entered his car and his convoy drove away, stirring dust in Etim’s face that soon settled.
THE NSS BUILDING, CRIMINAL INVESTIGATIONS DEPARTMENT
Etim was seated beside Victor who was about his age but taller, well-dressed and more appealing in looks. He had a pale brown shirt on, tucked into what looked like an army green pair of trousers that widened at the heels. An afro, neatly combed rested on a thin head and merged with full sideburns stopping on high cheekbones. His moustache wasn’t so full and showed off lips that looked like its owner was always in a pensive mode.
It was this mode in which he was found, alongside Etim, as they sat beside each other in single chairs, facing an older man who was at the other end of a wooden table. The man, who was Victor’s boss at the NSS, was an old, tired-looking person that seemed like he wanted to be doing something other than his present job. His manner was slow but his words were short and precise.
“There’s no time to waste. We don’t know the people who did this. The last anyone saw of them was in that abandoned building. They left their trucks and made clean their escape but they’re still in town. Lagos is big; they can be anywhere. The federal government is on my neck for this one. I want results and that is why I requested for you, Etim. No one knows the ins and outs of Lagos like you. I want to know who is behind this and I want to get those children back to their respective orphanages tonight.”
“I don’t understand, sir.” Victor shifted forward but directed his stare at Etim. “What happened to the First Lady’s security detail? Were they not supposed to be on location before all this?”
Etim answered, “The First Lady cancelled at the last minute.”
“Her security detail is none of your business,” the tired boss said. Victor was giving a reply when a lady walked in, handed the older man a file and walked out. He opened the file and studied it.
“Em…I want reports on my table very soon.” He yawned and dropped the file on the table, “You’re dismissed.”
He left both men in the office. Etim closed the door after him and turned to Victor who was already going through the file.
“I think it’s them. They are behind this,” Etim whispered.
“How do you know?”
“It’s them. I know.”
“You have proof?” Victor looked at him.
“Not really, I…my informant who is with them…”
Victor slammed the open file before him. “Is dead.”
Etim’s eyes widened. “What? Let me see…” He pulled the file to himself. “This morning?”
“He was found dead outside his house, meaning, you were careless, Etim.”
Etim went into thought mode. “Is it not strange that the only orphanage without representatives for the charity event was The Refuge?”
“Why is it strange? The Refuge belongs to the First Lady. They don’t need her charity.”
“Victor, I’m telling you, it’s them.”
The boss’ secretary made an appearance again and spoke to Victor. “Sir, you have a call. It’s Mr. Segun.”
Victor stood up and walked out.
Samuel walked down the stairs, two steps at a time. For a man who wasn’t his father’s favorite, he took after him in looks, although missing the famous Igwe eyes which somehow passed the second generation and fell upon the third. But Samuel could be described as Igwe’s spitting image – in height, complexion, tone of voice and even the little physical details like a pointed nose that looked more northern than Igbo, and lips that had a scornful appearance.
However, in fashion taste, they differed. Samuel wore his style in accordance with his moods. For instance, he was upset, and coming down the stairs of his house to answer the doorbell, he was hurriedly buttoning up a black shirt whose material danced too much and was a size too big for him. A pair of Levi’s covered the lower part of his body. His feet were bare. His mood, darker as he neared the door.
When he opened it, a pretty lady with a yellow dress, greeted him with a smile. He returned a frown but let her in. She stole a kiss.
“I have good news,” she whispered, looking away from the portrait of a more gorgeous woman on the wall beside her.
“Not now, Evelyn.”
“You’d love to hear this.”
“Eve, not now. Patricia left and I have to find her.”
Evelyn glanced at the portrait briefly. The woman in it was smiling but her eyes seemed to judge her.
“She left? When?”
“I don’t know. I got back from work at about four in the afternoon and went straight to bed. I woke up just a few minutes ago and realized that she’s gone. She took all her valuables and a few clothes and left.”
“And you’re going after her?”
Evelyn held Samuel and tried on a different smile which seemed calmer. “Sam, this is what we’ve been praying for. We’ve been waiting for her to slip up so we can finally be together and what better time than now when I am two months pregnant?”
Samuel, absentminded, was bending over to wear a pair of brogues when he caught the word ‘pregnant’. He straightened up. “You’re what?”
“Pregnant.” Evelyn grinned.
“I’m sure that’s good news but Eve, I have to find Patricia.”
“You’re sure that’s good news?” She went into a grimace. “I’m having a baby for you and all you care for is going after your crazy wife? You promised me, Sam.”
“And I still do.” He managed to stare at her. “You know I don’t care about Patricia.”
“Then why are you going after her?”
He went back to his shoes. “She has my son. She has Ishi.”
“She took Ishi?”
“Yes. And he’s just a two month old baby in the hands of a lunatic.”
Evelyn pulled her face together in thought. “You’re sure Tricia took him?”
“‘Cause there’s news that children were kidnapped this afternoon–”
“My son is not an orphan, Eve.”
He walked to the door and opened it. “Take care of Aaron till I get back.”
HIGHWAY/ COMMERCIAL BUS
Patricia wrapped her son in his blanket for warmth and leaned back on her seat with heavy eyelids. She was tired and scared. Although she was far from home, she feared for her life. Samuel was diabolical, a man who had sold his soul to evil. And even with the cover of night and miles away from him, she could still feel his presence.
She shivered and forced calm on herself. Not long after, the movement of the bus and the flying scenery outside gave her heavy eyes. Patricia shut her eyes and soon fell into deep sleep, one she had craved for a long time. Hopefully, she would dream of somewhere new…
The bus jerked and she sat up, almost waking her baby from his slumber. She stared out the window beside her and saw thick darkness and more vegetation moving past. She didn’t know how far they were from Lagos or for how long they had journeyed. All she was certain of was that she was leaving her old life behind.
Forgive me, Aaron. Mommy is so sorry. I will come back for you one day.
She breathed deeply to keep from crying and closed her eyes to force the sleep back in. Seconds later, she was slipping away again, into a familiar world of nightmares. She tried to open her eyes but could not. She felt dragged into darkness and almost immediately she found herself lying on her back on a student-sized spring bed with eyes wide opened and hands tied to both sides of the bed. She lurched forward to free herself but the restraints around her wrists tugged back as if they were human hands. She fell back into the bed and passed out…
Patricia was walking down the main corridor of the home she shared with Samuel and their two sons. It was a corridor she used every day but today it seemed like it had been cut out from someone else’s home. It stretched out before her, long and dark.
She stopped. Fear wouldn’t let her keep walking.
And then a door on her right threw open as if someone had pushed it in from where she stood. Patricia turned slowly and her face took on different forms – from confusion to shock and to utter terror. She screamed at what she saw before charging into the room. But someone from behind her pulled her back, and the door slammed shut.
Patricia found herself being dragged over the floor of the dark corridor as she struggled helplessly.
Patricia was thrown into a large, empty room and the door closed in her face.
Patricia was lying on the floor of the room, in an inebriated state. Slipping off her hand was a syringe. Beside her was an empty ampoule. She blinked into the darkness and tears slid down tormented eyes.
* * * * * *
Patricia woke from her dream and clutched Ishi to herself as she discovered that the bus had just come to a halt. Next to her was a chubby teenage boy eating a snack and reading a comic. She looked out the window apprehensively and turned to the boy.
“What is going on?” The boy did not seem to hear. She tapped him. “What’s happening?”
The boy looked at her, clueless.
“We stopped,” she said. “Check why.”
The boy courteously dropped his comic and stood up to find out why they had stopped.
“What is happening?” Patricia repeated.
The boy strained his neck to see clearer. “It’s police checkpoint,”
“Are you sure it’s the police?”
“Why are they stopping us?”
“I don’t know but it’s not only us, and there are plenty police cars… Oh, a policeman is coming.”
Patricia pulled him back. “Sit down.”
The boy settled back into his seat and picked up his comic again as Patricia took a drink of water from a flask with shaky hands. The driver of the bus turned to the passengers. “Oya o! Everybody, come down!”
In response to his orders, people began to murmur.
“Oya, oya! Down, down, down!”
“Driver, what is happening?” a man from the back asked.
“Police check point! Make una come down, abeg!”
The passengers, not too enthusiastic to obey, shuffled down one after the other.
“The police no tell you wetin dey happen?” The man from the back, who was now close to where Patricia sat, asked.
“If you wan know, go ask by yourself,” the driver answered, making his way out.
Patricia waited until everyone was gone before she stepped out of the bus. There was a long line of cars parked by the wayside and people hung around the area as policemen searched every car and questioned the commuters. People from Patricia’s bus formed small groups but Patricia assessed the whole scene in apprehension and kept herself in an isolated corner, away from everyone else. The teenage boy walked further ahead to the heart of the police stop while Patricia strolled to a man who was hidden by the bushes, nervously biting on a chewing stick.
“Sorry for disturbing you.” Patricia tapped him He looked at her impatiently. “Please, what is happening?”
He held his stare longer than necessary and she almost repeated the question.
“You don’t know?” he finally spoke.
“They’re stopping us because of what happened in town.” He went back to biting his stick.
“What happened in town?”
He gave her another long look.
“Children are getting missing, disappearing! And now it seems we might not be able to travel because of this. That’s why I hate night journeys! Something always happens.”
“Children are disappearing?” Patricia asked, her full lips squeezing into a pout.
The man gave her a third suspicious look and spat into a gutter by the roadside. Patricia smelled him. He reeked of smoke and something really foul, like he had not bathed in days. Subconsciously, she smelled her armpits and her breath.
“Madam, is this your baby?”
Patricia raised her head from smelling her son’s blanket and fixed him an angry stare. “What type of stupid question is that?”
“Sorry. I’m just asking.”
She turned away from him and the teenager came to her.
“They are beginning to let cars pass but it’s like all the people with children are not traveling today,” he announced.
“No one carrying a child is to leave the state, not even to a local government,” he repeated.
“But I have to travel today.” Patricia’s eyes twitched more than a few times. “I have to go!”
“The police are coming.”
Patricia’s eye-twitches multiplied as she spotted policemen heading their way. She backed away a great distance, and when Victor who was part of the police team began towards her, she became hysterical.
“They want to take my baby! They want to take my son!” She screamed and people turned to her direction. “Don’t allow them take my son!”
She clutched Ishi with one hand and grabbed the smelling man with the other. “Please, stop them!”
Victor increased his steps, making towards her in the company of two uniformed policemen.
“You can’t take my baby! You can’t take my son! He is my son! He is my son!”
Victor seized her with strong hands as a policeman took Ishi who was now awake and yelling. Patricia screamed and struggled in Victor’s hold but found herself weakening with each motion.
“Calm down, madam. Calm down,” he spoke to her quietly but sternly.
“Leave me alone!” She bit his hand and he loosened his grip, weakening his hold and giving her room to escape. She ran after the policeman holding her son but Etim stepped in-between her and the man. He didn’t deal with her as kindly as Victor did.
* * * * * *
Patricia’s mass transit bus spurted out black smoke from its exhaust pipe and drove into the night, following a line of vehicles which had been cleared by the police to vacate the roadblock. A police vehicle carrying Patricia and Ishi turned back into town. Patricia stared out through the back window, at Victor with forlorn eyes. Victor looked away from her and walked tiredly towards Etim who was seated on the hood of a car.
“How is your hand?” Etim asked. Victor lifted a blue handkerchief off Patricia’s bite spot.
“I hope she doesn’t have rabies,” Etim teased but Victor didn’t smile.
“She refused to say where she was going.”
“That woman is mentally not okay.”
Victor sat beside him. “She’s just trying to protect her son.”
“I know. What I meant was…on her arms, she had several needle points like she’s…”
“A drug addict?”
“I don’t know…”
“Come on, Etim, be real. The only reason you and I know that people actually inject themselves with drugs is because of our line of work. Most of the people who do drugs in Nigeria only smoke marijuana but heroine or crack addicts are usually rich bastards who get intoxicated only because they can afford to. Did that woman look like she takes heroine or some other form of expensive, hard-to-find drug?”
“She’s an Igwe,” Etim pointed out. “But maybe she’s not an addict. Maybe she’s a mental case and they have to constantly sedate her because to me, she was acting abnormally even for a mother who just wants to protect her son.”
“She kept on saying that she knew…she knew this was going to happen, that was why she took her son and-and ran.” Etim looked at Victor meaningfully. “She said she saw it coming.”
“She’s crazy, as you already guessed.”
“Yes, but what if she was telling the truth?”
Victor dusted his butt for no reason. “She is crazy, Etim. Now, if I were you, I’d go and look for the real criminals and try to keep my job.”
Etim got off the car he was leaning on. “Job? Am I not a policeman? I’m allowed to laze about.” He tapped Victor’s shoulder. “But you, you can’t afford to mess up.” He looked at him thoughtfully. “Vic, are you hiding anything from me?”
“What do you know about Patricia Eresoyen that you’re not telling me?”
“Nothing. Other than she’s an Igwe wife.”
“She was looking at you like she knew you, like you were betraying her for arresting her.”
“I don’t know her,” Victor insisted.
“Vic, coming here was your idea. We’re not supposed to be here because we have more critical information we should be following up but you said we should come here. Was it about her?”
Victor looked around. “I can’t talk here. Let’s go somewhere else.”
Both men made their way to a grove of coconut trees.
Evelyn was painting her fingernails with blood-red nail polish from Patricia’s manicure kit as she attended to a phone call. Every now and then, she turned her eyes to the television screen, resting on some wooden structure.
“Yes, his name is Ishi. He’s just two months old…” She paused. “Yes, we think he’s with his mother…”
Pause again. “Yes, yes but she is not okay…she’s a mental case… Actually, we don’t know what time she left…”
Aaron, a little boy of just four-years-old, entered the sitting room with both arms bandaged from his armpit to his palms. Evelyn looked at him, then away.
“The father is not in. He’s gone looking for them… We’ve sent a photo already. Thank you, officer. If you hear anything, call us with the number I gave you earlier. Thank you.”
She placed the phone receiver back over its cradle and looked at Aaron with a smile. “How are you, Aaron?”
“Where is my mommy?”
“She went out. She will be back soon.”
Aaron walked to the television and sat before it, watching fixedly, the evening news. Pictures and names of the missing orphans were displayed on the screen. Evelyn spoke to him in a gentle voice. “You shouldn’t sit so close to the TV; it will spoil your eyes.”
His eyes remained on the screen. “They won’t find them.”
Evelyn was confused by his statement. “Wh-what did you say?”
The four-year-old looked at her strangely. “I din’t say anything. I’m hungry.”
“Okay, let’s go to the kitchen and find some food.” She stretched her hand to him and then remembered she had just painted her nails. She dropped them. “Follow me.”
“You’re my mommy’s friend.”
“Yes, I am. I am your mommy’s friend.”
“And you’re daddy’s friend. Mommy say you are not her friend again.”
Evelyn looked at him uneasily. He gave a disturbing grin displaying two missing teeth that made her quiver.
NSS BUILDING [VICTOR’S OFFICE]
Victor was attending to a phone call, pacing about his small office as much as the telephone cord allowed him.
“Is that all?” he asked gruffly the person he was on the phone with. His secretary came in and he stopped pacing to lean on the nearest window as she began arranging his desk.
“Good. It’s done,” he spoke into the phone. “You do what you have to do.”
He moved to the desk, gently dropped the receiver, cracked his knuckles and rubbed his hand over his head in a circular motion that was restless. His secretary turned from arranging the desk to him. “Sir, are you okay?”
“Yes, yes, I just…” he pointed at the phone. “I just got off the phone with…” He knocked his knuckles hard on the desk. “This is rubbish. Total bull–”
“Sir, the file you asked for.” The secretary, who carried an expression that showed she was quite used to his mannerisms, handed him a green file.
“Thank you, Helen.” He took the file and stormed out, walked down a short hallway and into an interrogation room. Patricia was within, seated before a table breastfeeding her son. He watched them quietly for a while.
“Don’t worry, Mommy will take you far away from here, from all the bad, bad people,” Patricia whispered to Ishi as he stopped feeding and started to cry.
“I’m beginning to think that baby is not yours.” Victor got away from the door and walked to her.
She gave him a side glance. “To hell with you and what you think.”
“Fortunately for you,” he dropped the file in his hand on the table, “this file thinks you’re innocent.”
She stared at the file while he pulled a seat to her.
“Why are you running from your husband, Mrs. Eresoyen?”
She totally ignored him as she tried to burp Ishi.
“You took your second son and left without his knowledge. Why?”
She continued to ignore him.
“What do you know about the Cabal or whatever they call themselves?”
She kissed her son, turning away.
Victor took the file and stood up. “Children are going to die, Mrs. Eresoyen, children like your son! Aren’t you a mother? Don’t you have a heart? If you know anything that can help us catch these people… Anything…!”
Patricia looked up at him fearfully and he calmed down.
“Mrs. Eresoyen if you don’t talk, I’ll have to call your husband to inform him of your whereabouts. He’ll very much like that.”
Patricia said hastily. “My husband…he cheats on me. I’m tired of all the lies and late nights. I couldn’t stand it anymore; I had to leave.” She looked at Ishi, “I also had to take him. He’s just a baby–”
Victor slammed the file back on the table. “Lies!”
“It’s the truth.”
“I wasn’t born yesterday, Patricia!”
Victor turned to the door, closed it and went back to her. He stared at her for a few seconds before he spoke firmly into her ear.
“I can’t afford to lose my job because of you.”
Patricia looked into his eyes and whispered. “Then tell them you know nothing because I said nothing.”
“This is the NSS, Tricia. There are no children here. You knew something but you kept it from me. You were supposed to tell me everything. Everything.”
“He was watching my every move and he had me locked up.”
“You knew what was going to happen…”
In tears, through grit teeth she begged, “I can’t go back there…”
“And you stood there and you watched it happen…”
“Victor, I can’t go back there!”
“Do you realize that you are equally responsible for the abduction of all the children today?”
Her eyes twitched. “There was nothing I could do…”
“How about telling me?”
She looked at the door. “Get me out of here and we can talk.”
“I can’t,” Victor shook his head.
Victor stared at her hard.