“What’s the time?”
Nene sighed, the little action expressed the anxiety they were experiencing. “It’s been a minute from the last time you asked, Eka.”
Rita gripped the steering wheel of Okpara’s Toyota Corolla, or her partner’s car as she’d explained. During the planning of this weekend, she’d said she’d take his car because it was none-descript enough. Rita had wondered why she hadn’t just brought her cop friend to the bust, but having worked with Okpara this past month and knowing how men could sometimes be domineering, she’d concluded that Okpara was likely trying to prove herself a capable cop. It explained why everything pertaining to this case had been hush.
“You should’ve waited at home like I suggested.” Rita kept bending forward to stare at the three storey apartment building through the windscreen of the car. Zach owned the building and his house was on the last floor.
Nene scoffed. “There was no way we would wait at home for this. We’re married, so, this kind of excitement is a once in a life time kind of experience. I feel like I’m in an action movie, staking out the bad guy, like good cops on a...”
Eka cut into Nene’s rambling, “What Nene is simply trying to say is that we were concerned for you and wouldn’t let you do this on your own. What time is it?” she was gripping the two front seats and breathing down their necks.
“Oh, dear God.” Rita sighed, both her friends being here escalated her anxiety. She understood what Eka was feeling. Okpara had been gone less than ten minutes but it felt like eons.
The plan entailed Okpara going to Zach’s house carrying one of her phones and one-inch mini spy cameras that looked like black seasoning cubes. She’d grumbled that the video cameras belonged to her vague partner and she planned to place them on vantage points in Zach’s sitting room to catch all movements.
Rita had been designated to drive the car, carry Okpara’s other phone and call her partner the moment Okpara called from Zach’s house, which would mean the mission was successful. It was a simple plan, Rita hoped it stayed simple.
“She’s been gone for so long. Do you think she’s okay?” Eka asked, making Rita’s heart thud harder than ever, she was only voicing all their concerns.
Rita licked her lips, sucking in breath to try and assure her friend when Okpara’s second phone started ringing. Nene, who was the custodian of the phone, turned the screen to Rita with widened eyes.
“OhmyGod! Partner is calling!”
Her breath ceased for a second, Rita had to cough to start breathing again, “Why is he calling?” she asked no one in particular.
“I don’t know,” Nene replied anyway.
Eka started panting, “The plan has failed. We’ve failed, we’ve failed...oh God,” she moaned.
It was total hysteria in the car with the ladies talking over each other and holding the phone as thought it would detonate. Rita thought, anybody passing at a few minutes past seven in the evening, seeing them scared and hysterical in the car might stop out of concern. And they wouldn’t have any viable excuse.
Okpara’s phone stopped ringing and a modicum of peace settled. Her partner wasn’t supposed to call, in fact, he had no idea of this operation, Okpara had only mandated her to call him at the end of...
Rita’s phone rang, flashing Okpara’s name and she mirrored Nene’s earlier action, she showed them the screen of her phone, she was sure her face showed her fear.
“Oh God! It’s over, the plan failed...”
With shaky hands, Rita complied with Nene’s shout. “Hello,” she stammered and listened as Okpara talked calmly, telling her that Zach had answered the door with a towel round his waist, claiming he was about to take a bath, which meant he was following the MO they had on him. She told her he’d made sure to lock the door from the staircase, but left the sitting room entrance unlocked and served her juice that she suspected was drugged.
Okpara said when he’d retreated to take the bath, she’d placed some of the cameras and had unlocked the door leading to the stairs, just in case she had to run. Rita nodded at everything and told her that things were fine down in the car.
It was only after the call ended that she realized she should have told Okpara about her partner calling. Calling her back was risky and since her partner hadn’t called back either, it was okay...right? She hoped so.
Rita told them what Okpara had relayed and watched their reactions. Nene nodded beside her and when she turned to look at Eka, she found her shaking. “Eka, are you...”
“I’m pregnant!” her expression was turned between happiness and regret, probably for telling them in the anxious situation.
“What?” Both Rita and Nene exclaimed, turning fully in their seats to stare at her with widened eyes and dropped mouths.
“What the hell, Eka?” Rita frowned.
“And you’re telling us now, here?” Nene added.
“I’m sorry, so sorry. I was going to tell you guys after this, I found out last week and Jude and I decided to keep it to ourselves for a little while. I’m just really nervous and...”
“Oh God, it’s okay, Eka. It’s not the best time but we understand,” Rita reached to hold her hand while her gaze flicked to Nene’s to confirm that they indeed understood their friend.
“Yes, we do and we are totally, crazy happy for you. Oh my God, Eka, you’re going to have a baby!”
And their excitement eclipsed their nervousness until Rita’s phone rang, flashing Okpara’s name. With a smile, she answered the call and heard screams.
Rita’s eyes widened as she put the call on speaker, the women gasped, momentarily numb as they heard struggles, and then Rita kicked into action.
“Call her partner!” she shoved out of the car, having dressed in sneakers, yoga pants and long top, all in black, she was able to move swiftly into the compound, up the stairs and into Zach’s house with no plan of action but a determination to save Okpara.
Weekends were the worst. Ben sighed, staring at his pristine ceiling while his TV blared on the wall of his room. This was how he’d lain, on his bed and in the cocoon of silence in his mind, since discovering her deceit.
Four whole weeks now, he’d been unable to wrap his mind around her aim at pursuing him, propositioning him and then nothing.
Fine, she’d called a couple of times...more than a couple of times and his heart had leaped every time but then he would recall how foolish he’d felt to discover that she owned Ritaz Imaginations, and he’d ignore the call.
He should’ve made the connection; Kate’s guilt had been obvious the whole time. He’d been played and it made him feel not just foolish but inadequate. He’d never have believed it if someone had hinted that she was that deceitful. She’d always been so honest it was shocking...she’d been lying the whole time.
Ben growled his frustration. He wanted to stop thinking about her. He hated that she had this hold on him where he’d refused to even think her name because of the pain it brought.
During the week, he got to work before seven and left after everyone else. He pushed himself to an inch of his strength, he hung out with James, drank more than he should just so he’d pass out when he got home. It had worked for a time, but since he wasn’t really a drinker and the results from so much alcohol dulled his brain at work, he’d stopped and decided to stay overnight with the printing guys whenever they had lots of orders.
He was only trying to forget her. Yes, he loved her. Ben had never felt the way he felt about her before, which was why he was this furious and he had no idea how to go about forgiving her. He hadn’t hurt this much when he been wrongfully accused at the Lagos branch of rape. But seeing her cousin everyday made forgetting her impossible. He’d even asked the teenager if she’d come to work and the girl had given him a very adult, knowing look before replying that Kate handled everything. Ben had wondered what her knowing look had meant and still had no answers, so he’d concluded she was probably part of the deceit. Women!
Thoughts of her cousin took his mind off her for a moment and led him to another disturbing thought; he’d seen how his uncle was with the girl and it worried him. Ben might have tried to ignore the dark gut feeling, but then he recalled his uncle’s reaction when he’d been accused of rape. His assuring smile and comment that he was truly a piece of the family block escalated his worry.
Sighing and rubbing his eyes, feeling fatigued from all the thinking, he was glad that her cousin’s internship was over. Ben didn’t want anything happening to Oge, it would mean hurting ‘she who must not be named’ and his loyalties would be divided if such a thing happened. Who would he believe; his uncle or her?
Besides, he was surprised his uncle hadn’t spoken about the Lagos branch incident since his return. Gbenga had called to tell him how the rape accusations had all been falsified because his assistant marketing manager, Tunde, had wanted his position. So, he’d planned with Nneka from accounting that he’d been sleeping with at the time and they’d decided to set him up at the party, going as far as drugging his drink.
It was why Ben had no memory of what transpired at that party. And the truth was revealed when Tunde cheated on Nneka with an intern, a younger woman, leading to a confrontation at the office where everybody heard their nefarious deeds.
Gbenga had been mandated by the office to call him and apologize. They’d hoped that he would return as production at the Lagos branch had reduced when he’d left. Ben had told Gbenga he’d think about it just to get off the phone so he could rush to...her.
Ben shook his head to clear the memory of their first night. “Jesus,” he muttered, swinging his legs to the floor, the images were so clear his dick was hardening as always, every freaking time he remembered.
He shook his head and got up. This was the perfect time to go ask his uncle why he’d not felt it necessary to tell him that the rape accusations were false. He knew the man had an early flight to Abuja the next day, he didn’t think it’d be nice to discuss it on the way to the airport; he’d rather they parted amiably.
Ben would always be grateful that his uncle had decided to adopt him from his sister-in-law, Ben’s mom, just before her death as his siblings wouldn’t have been able to provide for him at the time, but, sometimes, he couldn’t avoid the uncomfortable vibe he got from Uncle Zach.
After pulling on a sky-blue t-shirt over his faded jeans; he shoved his feet into leather flip-flops and stepped out of his apartment. His nose twitched and he raised his head to suck in breath and confirm that he’d perceived her scent. Ben acknowledged that he was going crazy or the universe must be taunting him; he sighed over the pain in his heart and headed up the stairs. He knew his uncle was home because he’d seen his car in the parking lot.
In a bid to distract himself from the scent hovering in the staircase, Ben thought, as he reached the landing, that maybe the man had genuinely forgotten to tell him or probably didn’t think it was important.
He approached the door frowning at it being left ajar. On getting close, he registered shouts from within. His frown deepened as the second voice reaching him was female. Uncle Zach had been known to have these types of shouting bouts with women of low repute. Except, Ben’s breath hitched as he widened the door, the female sounded like...Rita?
Rita had been sucking air through her mouth when she’d gotten to the landing, but she’d not waited to catch her breath, she’d shoved the door open and raced head long to find Zach Inyang over Okpara’s supine form one the couch, with his arse in the air and his wrinkled balls in clear sight between his legs.
He was trying to pull off Okpara’s tight jeans trouser while shouting over her sobs, probably why he hadn’t heard her come in. Rita made her presence known by belching a war cry while running towards him, hands fisted.
Zach looked over his shoulder with widened eyes and wasn’t fast enough to dodge when Rita flung her weight on his back, sending him forward to smack his face on the couch’s backrest.
“Get off her, you piece of old shit!” Rita struggled, wrapping her chubby arms around his neck, trying to choke him while Okpara shunted from beneath him; her arms were over her face to avoid his swinging genitals.
When Okpara got to her feet, she rushed in with a punch to his face, her petite form barely carrying any force. He flung his right arm, catching her on her jaw and the force sent her paces away. When she fell, she smashed her head on the marble fall and went still.
A cry erupted from Rita’s throat, fear for the small woman distracting her and slacking her hold on Zach. The sixty-four year old man was pretty strong, he grabbed her left arm and pulled her forward, shocking a panicked squeal out of her and slammed her on the couch.
“You stupid woman! You think you can frame me? I am going to destroy your lives. Consider your company dead, nobody will do business with you in this country ever again!” he spat, looking down at her, not worried at all that he was naked.
“You will pay for this and all you’ve...” Rita interrupted herself by shoving her foot into his belly, sending him backwards. “You will pay for all you’ve done!” she concluded when she struggled to her feet.
Apparently, Zach was spry too; the man looked fit for someone his age. Rita’s shove didn’t send his arse to the floor as she’d hoped, he staggered and stalked towards her without pause.
Rita shifted, dodging his slap but she’d forgotten Okpara’s unmoving form, moving backwards, she hit her extended legs and stumbled, causing Zach to advance and grab her neck when she straightened.
How fucking strong was this man? His hold on her neck was like a vise. She choked, scratching his hand to try and loosen the hold. Her head felt light, her heartbeat heavy and slow, and her eyes drooped as her tongue swelled, filling her mouth and further blocking air.
Rita had no idea if she was dreaming or perhaps she was dead already and hearing things that weren’t there, because it sounded like Ben was there, chastising his uncle and pulling his vise-like hand from her neck.
“What the fuck is going on here?” his tone was hysterical.
Rita couldn’t answer, she was busy sucking in air into her bruised throat, silently grateful that he’d showed up before his uncle strangled her to death; his eyes when he’d been squeezing her neck had expressed his aim to kill.
Her knees were weak and though, she would’ve loved to crumble to the floor, she bent over instead, hands on her knees while she tried to recover. Her eyes though narrowed, scanned Okpara, glad there was no blood and her lean chest moved. Rita sighed in relief, the small woman had only fainted.
“They are trying to set me up! That fat cow sent this...this...it was a set up all along, Ben. She even told me there were cameras and that fat fool got to me through you. They used you to get to me! How could you be so careless, Ben, I keep telling you, people are always searching for ways to destroy wealthy people. You caused this, Ben, you cause this. Now, I must end it.”
The man was good. His lies dripped with indignation and rang true since some of what he was saying was true. Okpara must have told him when she thought she’d had him, not expecting he would fight. It sounded like Zach left the sitting room because he’d not just stopped talking but Rita couldn’t hear him pacing anymore.
She risked a glance up and her heart bounced in trepidation at Ben’s mien; he believed his uncle and he looked really hurt, which made her hurt too, bringing tears to her eyes.
“I’ve been hoping, these past weeks, that your lies were just pranks women regularly indulge in, that it was something forgivable. But this...” he shook his head, looking away as though he couldn’t comprehend the situation; as though the sight of her disgusted him.
“Ben...” she sniffled, her heart breaking into a million sharp shards, wanting to go to him so badly but knowing from his stance he would reject her. “I can explain...”
“You can explain, meaning this is true?” he looked shocked, like he’d still been harbouring some form of hope for her.
Rita licked her lips, her voice coming out hoarse, “Please...not all of it is...” her eyes widened, looking over Ben’s shoulder. Zach appeared at the door behind his couch, having pulled on a short, carrying a gun that was strained at her. A whimper of terror trickled from her mouth, her knees knocked as she stood there like a deer caught in headlights.
“Where are the cameras?” he barked, his eyes flashed like a man high on hard drugs...a desperate man.
“Whoa, uncle!” Ben shifted to cover her with his hands raised to supplicate the mad man. “Jesus, Uncle Zach, it hasn’t gotten to this...”
“I will shoot you boy, if you don’t stand aside...”
“No, uncle, this isn’t right, I can’t let you do this!”
“You stupid boy...” he sneered, “You’re as weak as your father...”
Rita saw in his eyes when he made his decision. Zach stared at Ben as he spoke, like his nephew had ceased to matter. Her breath caught as she vaguely wondered why Ben hadn’t noticed the obvious change in his uncle’s demeanour. The man was desperate and was prepared to do anything to get out of this. He was a cornered man, and as he spoke depreciatingly about Ben’s parents, his thumb surreptitiously pulled back the hammer on the small gun.
Her fear for Ben’s life spiked her adrenaline. Her breathing was laboured and came in pants; it felt as though her chest struggled to rise under a pile of cement bags. With her heart in her throat and not much thought, seeing as Zach’s forefinger caressed the trigger and Ben seemed numb, she shoved Ben with all her might, glad that he stumbled forward when the gun went off.
She stumbled backward, shaking her head to clear the light film that flickered over her sight, everything suddenly looked dusty and unsteady. Rita could hear the echo of her heartbeat, why was it so loud? Why had Ben shouted her name; was he still angry?
The world tipped and she found herself looking at the elaborate design of the ceiling.
“DSS! Drop your weapon, Sir, drop your weapon!”
Why was everybody shouting in echoes? Ben loomed over her, she thought he called her name but she couldn’t be sure. She had no idea why he appeared faint, but she could recognise his form even in the dark, plus he had a distinctive man scent that was solely his. I’m sorry, Ben. She worried she was thinking it or had she vocalised it? The thought passed, everything was fleeting. She aimed to reach for his bearded jaw but she felt so weak her eyes drooped. I love you was her last thought before everything went black.