The last thing Maryann remembered was lying on a king-size platform bed with the softest sheets she had ever seen. When she woke up again, groggy and disoriented, she found herself facedown on the cold, dirt floor of a mud house. The feeling of rope cutting into her skin hauled her out of her daze and sent her pulse racing. Swallowing down vomit and a scream, she twisted around, trying to free herself. Her breathing quickened.
Ehn! What is this? God, what is this?
Her thoughts scattered in different directions when she felt the brush of something damp and furry against her legs. A shudder running through her, she whimpered, calling out for her mother.
Her voice cracked and took on a pitiful whinnying sound.
Then she remembered to pray.
“Jesus, please save me. Where am I? Save me!”
Tears fell from her eyes and formed puddles under her chin. She recalled her excitement the previous night, the loud music and the men with gleaming new cars that counted wads of money they pushed down the cleavage of every girl that attended the party in the mansion in Ikorodu. Ade had been there. Her eyes shinning with delight, she had whispered her plans for the money they would earn that night.
“I am going to computer village first thing tomorrow morning to buy iPhone X. Taiye will cry if she sees me. She thinks she is the only one that can use iPhone.
The men had treated them nicely, pouring them glass after glass of crystal white champagne and treating them to meals served by uniformed servers. She had spent the night with three of them, sandwiched between their flabby perfumed bodies as they took their turns with her. The thoughts of the money she would earn had kept her lubricated throughout the tryst. Just before they left her, she had asked for water and one of the servers had been sent to her room with a glass of water.
Maryann shook her head, trying to remember what had happened afterwards. She came up with nothing. Her breathing short and labored, she looked around the dark hut, forcing her eyes to make sense of the shadows dancing in and out of her vision. Her ears picked the distant wail of a child and the sound of muffled groaning that seemed to come from somewhere in the room. Her voice rasped through a dry throat.
“Who is there?”
There was no answer at first and then she heard a small cough and someone speaking in a strange language. The voice was that of a woman and it was closer to Maryann than she had initially thought.
There was more crying and jabbering of unintelligible words.
Maryann wriggled on her belly in the direction the voice had come. The rough ground grazed then grated her skin. Sand found its way into her eyes and bits of dry stalks chaffed her lips but she continued, determined to find answers. She bumped into something soft and warm that was immediately retracted.
“Ade, is that you?”
There was silence but Maryann heard the heavy rasping breathing only inches away from her. She stared hard, willing herself to see the other person but the darkness hindered her. Hopelessness pervading her entire being, she lowered her head back to the ground with a weary sigh. Whoever was in the hut with her wasn’t Ade. Where was her best friend?
It came over her, weighing down on her heart with a deadly pressure – she had been kidnapped. Tremors ran through her body. She was not ready to die. She was just twenty-one. Tears slipped past her lashes and ran down her ears.
“What did I do to deserve this? What God?!”
She began to regret her decision to attend the party. If only she had listened to her mother and stayed away from parties. If only she had followed Bimpe to the library instead of listening to Ade’s pleas to accompany her to Ikorodu.
Please now, come with me Maryann. I don’t want to go for the party alone.
A sudden burst of bright light broke into her consciousness. Maryann froze as voices filled the room. Men towered over her, speaking in low voices muffled by the strips of cloth that covered half their faces. They pointed at a spot beside her and Maryann quickly turned.
It was then that she saw her.
Her face was thin and haggard. Her short hair matted with blood and sand. Dark bruises marked her forehead. A hard crust of mucus trailed her nose to the dip above her upper lip. Her dress was dirty and pushed up her scrawny thighs. She clasped the hands that were bound together before her and began to speak rapidly to the men. One of the men, heavily muscled and bare-chested, grabbed her. As he dragged her out of the room, Maryann recognized her pleas for mercy even though they were said in a strange tongue. She began to cry, knowing immediately that she and this stranger shared a similar fate.
The bark had come from one of the men that had stayed behind to watch her.
“If you make any noise there, I will deal with you.”
Maryann waited, shivering in fear at every sound that reached her ears. There were loud cries and a loud thud, followed by deafening silence. There were voices that drifted near and farther away from her. She lost control of her bladder and urine soaked her panties when the men who had taken the woman returned to the hut.
“Please,” she said, weakly as they men whispered among themselves. “Please don’t kill me. Please!”
They swooped down on her, grabbing her, one on each arm. Her cries grew louder, sobs racking her body.
It was night outside. The moon stared down with an indifferent eye from dark cloudless sky, and fires burned from oil lamps that lit up a courtyard flanked by palm trees. The men dragged Maryann to a recessed area of the courtyard. There she was greeted with the gory sight of headless bodies lying on top of each other in a mass. Her stomach heaved and she collapsed forward, emptying the contents of her stomach on the ground.
A low gravelly voice spoke from somewhere in the shadows.
“Is this the last one?”
One of the men that held her answered.
A thin man emerged from the groove of palm fronds beside the bodies. His skin sagged over his bones and his head hung low. He wore nothing but black trousers and a string of red beads on his neck. Cold empty eyes travelled over her body as he studied her. Chill settled over Maryann and she felt the fight leave her body. Claw-like fingers lifted to point at her.
The men released her. Numb with fright and something beyond her control, Maryann felt the fight drain out of her. Pulled by the force radiating from the old man, she took small steps forward until she stood before him. The tremors returned, this time stronger than the last when her head was lowered to a block of wood inside the grove. She did not see the man that stepped out from behind her, his face dark and grim. The man lifted the cutlass in his hand and brought it down, severing her head from her body in a clean stroke. The last face Maryann saw was her mothers’ and she reached for her before the darkness enveloped her.
I am sorry Mummy. I am very sorry.
Aliyu stood at the doorway of the bathroom and watched her wiggle into her jeans. The brilliance in his eyes dimmed, and he reflected on the memories of the previous night. She had been different this time, surprising him with unbridled lust that earned him a piece of damaged furniture. He turned his attention to the bed. It drooped from one side now, its broken frame hanging loosely from their hooks and the mattress threatening to slide to the floor. His cousins had heard the loud crack of the bedframe and everything else. He had read the message from Abu afterwards.
Dude WTH?!? Keep your shit down you freak. The whole Lekki can hear you. You want the woman in the next compound to report to Alhaji when he returns?
He was pulled back on the present by the clatter of lipsticks and cosmetics in the red leather purse she was bent over. Time had taken care of the initial awkwardness between them. He found himself becoming attached to her with every night she spent in his bed. She laughed more now and answered his questions about her life with an open frankness that won him over. Only one thing stood between them. His hands in his pockets, he walked towards her. Their eyes met and she smiled as she brought the lip-gloss to her lips.
“Hi,” she said as he stopped before her.
Aliyu’s lips turned at the corners as she made sensual swipes over her lips with the gloss. Heat flared inside him at the daring look in her eyes. Suppressing the urge to take her in his arms, he stepped away from her and marched through the door.
“Come downstairs when you are done.”
Silence greeted Sylvia when she walked into the living room. Aliyu was nowhere to be found but something else caught her attention and held it – a pile of money on the round glass table with a golden sculptural base in the center of the living room.
“Sorry, I stepped out,” Aliyu said, appearing again beside her. “I had to check if the driver was ready.”
They exchanged a smile and he walked to the table to divide the pile, handing over thirty thousand naira to her. She thanked him and pushed the money into her bag. He was dashing up the stairs when she turned back.
“Hold on, I will be right back.”
She waited longer the second time than she had waited the first time, her eyes falling on the money in the middle of her wait. She pondered its position and finally finding no answer, turned away from it.
He returned minutes later, apologizing and giving her a sheepish smile.
“Sorry for wasting your time.”
He kissed her goodbye and walked her to the door. He watched his driver disappear through the gate with her and made a U-turn back to the living room. Under the sparkling lusters of the white and cream crystal chandelier above the table, he counted the money, the smile on his face growing as the wad thinned. She passed the test.
Daniel was standing in the cafeteria, discussing with the firm’s director when Mercy tapped him gently on the shoulder. There was a set obstinate expression on her face. Her lips barely moved when she addressed him.
“Can I speak to you for a moment?”
They stepped out into the corridor and she motioned sideways with her head.
“Let’s talk in my office.”
Her heels clicked loudly on the office tiles as she led the way. Daniel’s lips turned as he detected the swing in her hips. In the cool interior of her office, they faced each other like adversaries. She stood, arms crossed against her chest and looked him up and down.
“What was that for?”
Hands deep inside his pockets, Daniel shook his head.
“What was what for?”
“That nonsense you did in the conference room this morning?”
Daniel’s eyes hardened. “Mercy, I am not talking about this again. A decision has been taken on the matter. There is no point going over old ground.”
Mercy’s eyes glittered with rage. She took a step forward until their faces were only inches apart.
“That brief was mine. You had no right giving it away.”
“And I did,” Daniel said, his shoulders dropping in a careless shrug. “You couldn’t work with the creative team. All that arguing was slowing down work.”
“I don’t care,” Mercy spat as her hands clenched to fists beside her. “I worked my ass off on that brief. I deserve to be the team lead.”
“Mercy, you are the client services manager. This isn’t your responsibility.”
Mercy scoffed and rolled her eyes.
“Since when did that begin to matter in this firm?”
Daniel’s tone was clipped, impatient. “Since I took over from Jude.”
Muted sounds from the street below flitted through the windows.
“So it’s true?”
Daniel continued to stare at her without a word.
“You were sleeping with me so you could get this position.”
“Mercy I – “
“Deny it Daniel. Tell me I am wrong.” Mercy paused to catch her breath. Her eyes reddened with unshed tears. “Tell me you were not using me Daniel.”
Suddenly engulfed by waves of guilt and remorse, Daniel pulled his hands out of his pockets and rubbed the back of his neck.
“You are assuming things Mercy.”
Mercy’s voice rose to a hysterical screech.
“Then tell me I am wrong!”
Daniel walked past her towards the door. “We are not having this conversation while you are like this.”
“You will not get away with this Daniel.”
The icy, vengeful tone in her voice crystalized within Daniel’s mind and forced his hand to still on the door handle. He turned to look at her. The tears were gone now. The look in her eyes was wild so that they almost appeared crossed.
“You will pay Daniel.”
The threat hung between them for several minutes. In the end, he gave her a curt nod.
“Take care Mercy.”
He saw the guilty faces of his colleagues when he stepped into the corridor. They scattered before him like children caught in mischief. Politely acknowledging the profuse greetings they threw his way, he marched to his office and prepared to close for the day.
Nafwan heard the shuffle behind her and turned in her chair. It was the mad man. He was cleaner than she remembered. His hair had been cut close to his scalp and his beard was neatly trimmed. The limp shirts with holes and dirty low hanging trousers were gone. He wore black slacks and a white T-shirt with roll up sleeves. His eyes no longer darted but pinned her down with an intense stare. Nafwan found herself struggling to breathe.
The word slipped past the lump in her throat and broke the uncomfortable silence that settled over the living room. He stopped before her, his dark eyes appraising her coldly.
“Who are you?”
Surprised by his lucidity and the directness of the question, Nafwan looked to Ore for help but the big man looked back at her with a blank expression, hands tucked firmly behind him.
“I, err, my name is Nafwan.”
His attention slid to her protruding belly and stayed there.
“Are you my dad’s girlfriend?”
Nafwan’s hand lifted reflexively over her bump as she shook her head.
A quizzical frown on his face, he turned to Ore.
“Where is dad?”
The deadpan expression on the face of the big man evolved to a near smile.
“He went out with doctor. You remember him, don’t you?”
The softness in Ore’s voice caught Nafwan by surprise. She stared at him as he stepped forward, one hand pointing to the chair across her own.
“Sit down Olumide. Rest.”
For the next hour, Nafwan sat under the scrutiny of the mad man’s gaze. He watched her, the questions never leaving his eyes. They were together when the doctor arrived with his father. Nafwan watched the interaction between doctor and patient as chief asked about her delivery date.
“Well congrats,” the doctor said, coming to stand before her and chief. “I believe the worst is over now.”
The men exchanged a hearty handshake and Nafwan looked into the eyes of the man whose baby she carried. He was far from the raving lunatic who had forced himself on her. He was now a handsome chiseled stranger with intrusive dark eyes that made her uncomfortable. As she considered the turn in events, Nafwan felt a mixture of relief and panic. What would chief do to her now that she was no longer needed?
Her pulse raced and she felt herself grow uncomfortable with heat. His illness, however terrifying, had given her a sense of stability. Now that it had abated, she was uncertain of the fate that awaited her. Things were about to get complicated and she had no back up plan.
The crowd on the corridor swirled and surged around Ejiro and Alero, forcing them into an uncomfortable embrace. The girls who had been fighting now stood separated by the sea of humans, hurling invectives at each other.
“Cheap girl! Ashewo kobo kobo! You think you can insult me because of hot plate. Cheap idiot like you that sleeps with campus boys for chicken and chips.”
Her opponent clapped at her from the other side of the crowd.
“At least I am better than you that borrows money and does not pay. Useless thing. Nothing on your body is your own. Borrow borrow. Borrow pose!”
A heavily made up girl wearing a short black dress materialized beside Ejiro, squeezing herself into the limited space the girls had been cornered into.
The greeting was a shout. It drew the attention of some in the crowd and a few heads turned their way.
“I have been looking for you since.”
Ejiro backed away in time to dodge the flecks of saliva that escaped the girl’s crimson stained lips.
“Hi Mabel. What’s up?”
“I have an ushering job on the mainland, Ojodu, this evening. Thirty-k per day and it’s for three days. Are you interested?”
Ejiro considered the offer but remembered her date with Daniel. She shook her head.
“I am not sure.”
There was an earnest pleading look in Mabel’s dark lined eyes when she turned them on Tobi.
“Come with us now. I need one more person.”
Ejiro watched her friend mull over Mabel’s words.
“Make it forty and I will come.”
They haggled over the price until they finally settled at thirty five thousand. Back in their room, Ejiro expressed her concern for Tobi’s safety. There had been an increase in the reports of missing girls who had gone outside school for runs, like the Maryann girl whose body had been tossed out of a speeding vehicle in Ogun state. She attempted to talk Tobi out of her decision as the latter perused the contents of her cupboard with a frown of concentration.
“Are you sure it is safe?”
Tobi waved her away.
“Everything is a risk Ejiro. Even that your Daniel cannot be trusted.”
Ejiro sat with Tobi’s words ringing in her ears long after she had gone. Her relationship with Daniel had progressed into easy friendship and long conversations she looked forward to. Yet in spite of this, in spite of the fact that she laughed easily with him now and suffered none of the awkwardness of their earlier encounters, she was aware of how quickly their friendship had turned platonic. The smouldering appraisals and sexual overtures were gone. Now all they did was take long walks on campus when he came to see his niece. Ejiro found herself beset by debilitating anxiety attacks.
Had he stopped liking her?
Did he no longer find her attractive?
He called her that evening just as she was preparing to go to the library. Tossing her books aside, she fixed her make up and went to meet him downstairs. On his face was the same devastating smile that always melted her insides. She accepted his friendly hug and smiled shyly when he complimented her look.
“Nice hair. Going out?”
She told him about her evening plans, including John in the picture even though she had not spoken to him in a week. She watched for signs of jealousy on his face but was disappointed when he smiled instead.
“Sounds good. Preparing for a test?”
“No. I just want a quiet place to read. The room gets crowded sometimes.”
He turned to his car.
“I should be going now so you can prepare for the library.”
Ejiro reached for his arm before she could stop herself.
There was a flash in his eyes that disappeared before Ejiro could make sense of it.
The intensity in his eyes burned her courage to ashes. Her hand dropped to her side and she wrapped it around her midriff.
“Go on, say it.”
Do you still like me?
Ejiro ignored the voice in her head.
“Do you want to hang out this weekend?”
The lines on his forehead deepened and the corner of his lips curled.
He hugged her for the second time that evening and she lingered a second in his arms, drawing in a lungful of his cologne. The smile was still on his face when he pulled out of the hostel car park. Ejiro watched his tail lights disappear into the night, her insides still in a tight knot. She was spinning out of control, falling head first into a dark abyss of lust and there was no one to stop her.
Daniel chuckled to himself as he pulled out of the campus gates. His plan had worked. She was breaking down just as he knew she would. Dark satisfaction filled him and he nodded to the beat of the music coming from his car speakers. He had won again as he always did. He was enjoying the music when his phone rang. It was Ebitimi.
“Show at my place. Shope wants to talk to you.”
“Is it serious?”
Daniel swung the car in the direction of Ebitimi’s house, wondering what the emergency was. He met a somber mood in the apartment when he arrived. The friends sat, heads hanging low and cradling their drinks.
“What the hell happened? Who die?”
Ebitimi looked at Shope and back at him.
“No,” Shope said, raising bleary eyes to him. “I need your help with her.”
Relief mingled with incredulity and Daniel doubled over in laughter. He realized he was laughing alone when he came up for air.
“Dude, what the hell?! I thought it was something serious.”
“It is serious Daniel.”
Daniel shook his head. “No, it is not.” He looked around the living room, a scowl on his face. “And you guys are crazy for looking the way you are all looking. You all scared me for a bit.”
Smiles began to form on Maxwell and Ebitimi’s faces but disappeared when Shope spoke again.
“It is serious Daniel.”
Daniel waved him aside, collapsing into the nearest chair.
“Guy abeg, it’s not. If you want Folake, talk to her. Don’t be having Ebitimi call me as if the world is about to end.”
Shope shook his head and took a long swig of his drink. Daniel exchanged looks with his other friends.
“But I don’t get this. Why do you want someone we have all fucked?”
There was a loud clang as Shope slammed his glass on the stool beside his chair.
“Fuck you! Fucking idiot! Why the hell do you have to be so fucking cold and insensitive?”
Daniel’s eyes narrowed as he looked at his friend. Glaring at him one last time, Shope reached for his keys.
“I am done here.”
He said goodnight to everyone else except Daniel, slamming the door on his way out so that it rattled on its hinges. No one spoke until five minutes later.
“You have to do something for him.”
Daniel scoffed. “He can kiss my ass.”
“No seriously Daniel. Do something for him. He is almost losing it.”
“Because of Folake?”
“Yes. Look, we know we have a history with her. He likes her. Be nice.”
“Not everyone is as ruthless as you,” Maxwell added, giving him a sly wink.
Daniel shrugged but he thought about what had happened with Shope. Was he really cold and ruthless, like Maxwell had said? He shook his head in the end and reached for an empty glass. No, he was fine. It was the world and everyone around him that had gone mad.