It was getting to the third hour, but there were no signs of slowing down in the way Justice R. A. Smith paced up and down his living room that late evening, with thrice the restlessness exhibited by a man whose wife was at the labour ward. For him, there was no reason to relax. No, not when he had not received any positive feedback, with respect to efforts made in securing the return of his only daughter.
Yes, it had been exactly four weeks since the last time he set eyes on Jessica, a penultimate year law student at one of the nation’s leading universities in the South-south, four weeks since she had gone out to shop for new pairs of black skirts, four weeks without the apple of his eyes. His cooks had been faced with less and less work to do over the past couple of days, as their master had seen no reason to advance towards the dining table. Being the Chief Judge of the state, Justice Smith was not particularly a man given to much emotion. He it was who had pronounced a death sentence on three suspected criminals barely two days after he miraculously came out unhurt from a bullet-riddled Kia Rio, and was it not he who, six years earlier, had gone ahead to preside over a sitting, four days after his wife had succumbed to ovarian cancer? But this was different. This state of affairs had moved him, so much that the National Judicial Council just had to grant him compassionate leave. For the first time since ascending to the Bench, Justice Smith actually exhibited signs that he was human after all, shedding quiet tears at regular intervals.
At first, he had called the bluff of the abductors when they demanded for sixty million naira, bluntly refusing to negotiate and calling on his contacts at the state police headquarters to launch a full-scale rescue operation. But after learning from his daughter’s captors of the death (by throat-slitting) of Nina, Jessica’s best friend who had been with her at the shopping mall and who had been grabbed by the abductors before she could escape, defiance gave way to fright. He had requested for assistance from the Commissioner of Police, and the latter responded by sending him the best mid-ranked badges from the state headquarters, Inspector James Olaitan and Sergeant Mark Braimah. Sgt. Braimah, renowned for his prowess at negotiations, had expressed delight at the assignment, all too happy to be of help to the man whom he worked with as an aide for six years, until departmental transfers were effected three years earlier. Braimah did not particularly enjoy working with Inspector Olaitan, often regarding the latter as “rigid” and a “goody-two-shoes who would take forever to get his next promotion”, but the Commissioner had given his orders, and besides it was Justice Smith involved. After days of negotiations, counter-offers, threats and counter-threats, sixty million had been downsized to twenty million, and the ransom was to be paid that evening. It was for this that Justice Smith was restless, and taking hold for the first time of the rosary given to him a decade earlier as a gift by his departed wife, he hoped that it wouldn’t take long before Jessica walked in through those electronic doors. He was however not unaware of Inspector Olaitan’s intentions to swoop on the abductors once their location could be deciphered, the latter having made several attempts to trace their calls.
There was excitement in the building as the clock drew closer and closer to 8pm. The generator had been powered. These young men, who were seated round a short table, busy with a game of cards, were in an extremely joyous mood. They had every reason to: it was less than thirty minutes to pay day. Weeks of hard work, diligence, precision, skill and bargaining would soon pay off in a matter of moments. It was to be their biggest pay cheque (or bundle) yet, and finally it seemed that their line of trade was profitable after all. Everyone was drowned in that orgasmic feeling……
Well, almost everyone. Austin was not particularly caught up in the excitement, and chose to sit in a (relatively) quiet corner of the abandoned warehouse which served as their “home”, preferring to be alone with his thoughts. He wasn’t exactly good at playing cards anyway, so he decided to mull over what his life had become over the past seven months. Yea, seven months since he got acquainted with Tega, Tejiri, Kparobo, and Harry, and chose to join them in the “forced accommodation for cash” trade. He didn’t have much of a choice; the reality of unemployment even after obtaining a Master’s Degree in Sociology two years earlier was maintaining a vice-grip on him, and the pressure to step up and be a man for his widowed mother and five siblings had become unbearable. His story was slightly different from those of the others; Tega and Tejiri were brothers who had seen their community suffer from the activities of Chevron Nig. Ltd without any meaningful compensation, Kparobo was an ex-militant who could no longer depend on his post-Amnesty monthly stipends and who had found it difficult re-integrating into society, while Harry was a Cambridge University dropout who had cocaine as a major part of his diet and joined the trade just for the thrill of wielding guns and torturing abductees.
Each had his function as a member of the crew; Tega and Tejiri did the grabbing and capturing, Kparobo was the voice of intimidation on the phone and equally did the ransom bargaining, Harry was the man when it came to guns (which he had a strong appetite for) and the many phones which were disposed of after each threat call, and Austin was the one who gave a human face to each operation, looking after each hostage until they were released or alternatively dealt with. Austin’s part of the job often exposed him to intense conflicts with his conscience, conflicts which came to a head three months earlier when the body of a strangled Fr. Aloysius was flung into one of the nation’s Eastern rivers even after the ransom had been received, Kparobo being the one who had applied the cable wire to fatal effect on that occasion. At such times he would seek solace in his guitar and iPhone, the latter serving him with alternative soft rock tunes. The crew’s present job was tasking for him in more ways than one, as he had to make the experience less traumatising for Jessica, while protecting her from Tejiri and his high libido. For him, the operation could end already. He just wanted to get his cut from the anticipated ransom and ditch the group. He had seen enough.
Smelly, one month-old hair. Pimple-littered face. Skin broken from quick baths with untreated water. Excessive weight loss. Clad in a Northern-style flowing gown for the past couple of days owing to an inadequate wardrobe. There was nothing from the present situation to warrant even a false smile. But a genuine one had lit up Jessica’s face for the better part of twenty minutes, and it didn’t seem to be in a hurry to go away. No, it was not because of her high chances of regaining her freedom later that evening. Even that still bore a significant level of uncertainty. It was the warmth that ran through her soul whenever she thought of the sociologist that just walked out of the room after treating her to not-so-well-prepared noodles. Like a shy lover, she caressed the part of her face which he had gently touched before returning to the crew, and as she lay on the bug-infested mattress provided for her, it was all about Austin in her mental space. Those Land law cases could go to blazes.
There was something about this guy who had catered to her for the past four weeks, something she was yet to place a finger on. Whether it was the sound of his voice whenever he said “you’ll be fine”, or the way his smiles made the crappy meals taste a lot better, or his muscles which were on show when he knocked down Tejiri for trying to have his way with her, or how he saw to it that she changed clothes at least every five days, she couldn’t quite figure out. What she had been to deduce however was the fact that Austin was more than just another cash-hungry, bloodthirsty kidnapper, if he could at all be described as a kidnapper.
It had been totally terrifying for her at first when she was brought into this abandoned warehouse that adjoined a thick dark forest, and horror took a whole new dimension when she watched Harry’s knife glide across her best friend’s throat, all for the purpose of “sending a message”. Things felt considerably different now; the place smelled less terrible, the bug bites felt less painful, damn, she felt a lot less scared. All because of this six-footer who had made her “feel at home”. They engaged in intellectual conversations relating to their disciplines, they had arguments on which artistes really made good music and whether Switchfoot was a gospel rock band, and when he treated her to acoustic renditions of John Mayer’s “Free falling” and Coldplay’s “Green Eyes” on his guitar, she knew she had lost it, gripping him and taking his lips into hers.
There was lot she felt like doing for him and with him once she regained her freedom. She knew he wanted to ditch the group, and she wanted to use her father’s influence to help him secure a job, if possible at the university where she currently pursued her law degree, so she could see him all the time. She wanted him to join her on her annual summer vacations in Amsterdam, so he could pull her heart-strings with his guitar all day long. There was also that crazy idea in her head; why couldn’t he kill the rest of the crew after the ransom had been paid (she’d love to watch Harry and Tejiri die), take the money and run away with her, like Salman Khan did in those Bollywood movies? They could start a new life someplace else. Even more strangely, she wasn’t all so eager to return home that evening, and sometimes she was tempted to sympathise with his present “career choice”. All her plans would have to wait however. Yea, like Austin often replied whenever she quizzed him about the future, she had to get out of there first.
“They messed with us! Austin, get the cheese! Tejiri, grab that b***h! We’re out of here!”
The hostage-for-cash exchange had been a bust. The crew had stipulated that two people show up with the ransom at a very remote location, however, Harry had recognised one of them as a policeman with whom he had conducted a transaction in weapons months before and raised an alarm, but not before opening fire. After Harry had made sure he put the two men to permanent sleep, they put a gagged Jessica in the boot of the car and drove off, Austin clutching that big brown envelope. They were in for a big surprise when they returned to the warehouse: the police had located them! Apparently, Kparobo had spent a little too much time on the phone when the last threat call was made, allowing whoever was at the other end to trace them.
“Damn! F*** GPS! F*** Goggle Maps!” Harry swore repeatedly. “Guys, we got this. Tejiri, get that p***y out of the boot and don’t let her go. Tega, let’s hold off these bastards. Kparobo, I nor wan see you, na you f*** us up! Austin, you know what to do.”
Kparobo was a pretty good runner, and it didn’t take long for him to lose the cops, as he sprinted through the adjoining forest. Unfortunately for him, he had reckoned without hunting practices, and when his right foot got caught in a trap meant for wild game, he just couldn’t disentangle himself from the metal, and his screams allowed the chasing officers to guess his direction and further restrict him with handcuffs.
Dragging excess human baggage along while trying to evade the police was never going to be easy for Tejiri. Then again, Jessica was not an exactly co-operative hostage, kicking and trying to scream through her gag at intervals. This slowed him down, much to his frustration, and in time, he found himself face to face with Inspector Olaitan. He did a very poor job of trying to make a human shield out of Jessica, and once the bullet left Olaitan’s pistol, Jessica was left with a stained dress, stains caused by fragments of Tejiri’s brain tissues.
Harry gave a good account of himself in the lower bunker of the warehouse, shooting down as many officers as possible. There is something about numbers though, and he ultimately ran out of ammunition, meaning he had to face them with bare hands…..or did he? He successfully dodged an array of bullets, got to a silver box at a secluded corner of the room, and drew out a long machine gun, which he often told the crew “will come in handy on one such night”. This was his Scarface moment, and he would not be denied. He loaded the gun, waited for the policemen to come closer, and screamed:
“Oya na, make una take greeting from this my small paddy for here!”
The gun worked like a grenade launcher to devastating effect, taking down six of the onrushing cops at once, and destroying a part of the wall. Four more shots multiplied the damage, but his bullets weren’t unlimited. All he was left with were words, taunting the officers and their weapons, but words could never have the effect of sticks and stones, and a shower of bullets brought down the man who had tried to voice Tony Montana. As if on purpose, Harry was left unrecognisable.
In spite of his torch, Inspector Olaitan was having a hard time finding his way round the outer walls of the warehouse. The thick darkness put him at a visual disadvantage, and before he could react, Tega had lunged at his abdomen with a point-edge knife. Olaitan wouldn’t go down easily though, and the two men engaged in a fierce struggle, the former buying enough time for his colleagues to come to his aid and knock Tega down with strikes from batons and gun butts. They left him conscious enough to feel the pain from a bullet in his left leg, while they tried to patch up Olaitan and reduce the bleeding.
Austin, revolver and envelope in hand, had better luck than Kparobo negotiating through the thick vegetation, and his legs got him to what could be termed the end of the forest, as he spotted a fast-flowing stream where he stopped to lap up some water and take a breather. He probably underestimated the stamina of the policemen who were hot on his heels, as he sat down for a really long time, and was jolted back to reality when his eyes caught the beam of several flashlights, with voices ordering him to raise his hands. That part of the forest got lit up enough for him to see a rescued Jessica from the distance, and when she got close enough, he gave her something of a Korede Bello wink, threw the envelope in the stream, put the nuzzle of the revolver in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
“Why, Austin? Why? Why?”Jessica screamed, as she broke free from her rescuers and held Austin’s motionless body in her arms, sobbing uncontrollably. “We discussed a lot of ideas and made plans! I was going to get you a job! I was even going to get my Dad to use his influence to get you state pardon if things got so bad. You didn’t have to do this to me. First Nina, how I lose the most intelligent and honest person I’ve ever met! You never killed anyone, and the first person you use a gun on had to be yourself! How do I live, Austin? How?”
She was eventually pulled away by the impatient policemen, and in time they got to where vehicles had been parked, some bearing the effects of gunfire. As they drove back, a small discussion ensued between two constables who had been part of the rescue mission.
“Eyaah! That girl really loved that guy o”, said one to the other.
“Whish kain love?” replied the second. “It’s just a case of Stockholm’s Syndrome, a situation in which a kidnap victim tends to form an emotional bond with his (or her) captor. Sometimes the hostage starts seeing us as an enemy rather than the kidnapper, developing positive feelings towards the kidnapper. This was probably an extreme case of that.”
“O boy, you na scholar o! How you take know this thing?”
“E clear say you been dey sleep for class when dem teach us Psychology for police college”.
The police had reasons of their own to mourn by the time they returned to headquarters. Inspector Olaitan had given up the ghost in the car, apparently losing too much blood. His last words had however directed them to the Secret Files’ drawer of the State Criminal Investigation Department, where they recovered the file marked “Jessie” and found a detailed investigative report on the circumstances surrounding the abduction. The report linked Sgt. Braimah and Edet Nsa (chief cook to Justice Smith) to the crime, and the two, alongside Tega and Kparobo, were charged with conspiracy, kidnapping, extortion and murder.
Jessica was never the same after that night. Her hair was left undone for weeks, she went for days without meals or even a bath, her reading table was filled with papers which had Austin’s portraits on them, she sulked continually, and when she was called to give evidence as first prosecution witness months later, she wore the look of an emotionally damaged young woman whose healing would require divine intervention.
“Adore You” – Miley Cyrus
“Closer To Me” – The Fray