“Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some are given the chance to climb, but they refuse. They cling to the realm, or the gods, or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.” – Game of Thrones
In those early days, Mary-Ann exhibited a rather insufferable measure of adolescent naivety, of unadulterated wonder and unrelenting eagerness. In her defence, she was twelve years old. She had only just arrived at Lagos, at the home of the woman she was to serve for a very long time, and she was overwhelmed by even the paltriest of things that would never have mattered to the ordinary city boy or girl – soaring skyscrapers, seemingly endless bridges … a washing machine.
Twenty-three days in, and that infamous innocence she was known for was no more. Wonder became apathy. Artlessness became duplicity. The joy that burned in her eyes smouldered to hate; hate for her mistress, Yinka, a high-ranking SSS officer who saw the world as nothing more than a receptacle of falsehoods and failures and disappointments, meant to be beaten and broken until its very last breath.
Yet, Mary-Ann’s eagerness lingered, a vestige of her old self that had burgeoned inexorably in her struggle to rid herself of Yinka.
God never seemed to listen when she prayed to him, when she begged him to whisk her away, back to the arms of Mama in the village – indeed, the longer she prayed, the harder Yinka beat her with spoons and pots and big sticks. So, a new god had waltzed into her life – Nancy – and she had accepted her with open arms. She had prayed and Nancy had answered.
Nancy would kill Yinka for her.
The night Nancy had promised to strike, Yinka discovered Mary-Ann’s dark secret. She dragged the little girl out of her room and shoved her to the centre table. Mary-Ann’s knee cracked against the edge of the table and she tumbled in a heap. She made to get up but the pain in her knee shook her and forced her back to the ground.
Yinka stared down at Mary-Ann. Her eyes were different from what Mary-Ann was used to. Usually, odium inhabited them. This time around, amid the hatred, a tinge of fear glinted.
She bore a small wooden bowl, crudely crafted, and inside it, the head of a chicken floated in blood.
‘What is this?’ Yinka held out the bowl for Mary-Ann to see, like the girl hadn’t seen it before, like it didn’t belong to her. ‘Ehn, Mary-Ann, what was this doing under your bed?’
Mary-Ann rubbed her aching knee. Her lower lip trembled. Her chest heaved.
‘In my house? You’re … you’re doing ritual in my house?’
Mary-Ann had nothing to say to that. She muttered silent words, a chant, kind of.
Yinka was furious. She stormed towards Mary-Ann.
Mary-Ann leapt to her feet.
She didn’t get far.
Yinka yanked Mary-Ann back by the collar of her dress. A stinging slap to her face, a paralysing blow to her stomach, and then the bowl came upon Mary-Ann’s head, shattering and spilling its contents on her.
Yinka wrapped her hands around Mary-Ann’s throat and squeezed.
‘You people think you can kill me, shey?!’ Her eyes bulged. ‘You won’t kill me! I won’t let you!’
Mary-Ann clawed and kicked and wriggled, but she simply lacked the strength crucial to freeing herself. Her vision dimmed at the edges.
A phone rang. Yinka’s hands grew lax. That phone never rang, not unless…
She left Mary-Ann and strolled to the table. Mary-Ann collapsed, sobbing, coughing, and spluttering with fear and indignation.
Yinka picked the phone.
‘Yes?’ she said.
‘Madam, we have confirmation,’ said the firm voice from the other end.
‘Are you absolutely sure?’
‘Boko-Haram operatives are here, in Lagos. The source was very clear on that. We know where they are. We should proceed.’
Yinka paced the sitting room, nervous. She glanced at Mary-Ann – the girl had curled herself up in a ball, at a corner, her body trembling. Loathing seared Yinka’s insides.
‘Now?’ she said.
‘The president is taking a lot of heat from the public and the press. If these criminals succeed in whatever they’re planning, it’ll be our heads on a platter.’
‘Fine. Do it.’ Yinka dropped the phone on the table. She pulled a chair towards Mary-Ann – who cowered away – and sat. ‘You’re going to tell me who sent you to destroy me. I swear, you will, or I will kill you this night.’
DPO Adewale was the sort of man who possessed the uncanny ability to inspire whatever emotions he wanted out of a man or woman in the line of duty – fear, respect, loyalty … name it. He was huge, a tree of flesh and blood – vast shoulders, strong arms; and quick on his feet, too quick for a man his size. His dark eyes, stuck in a permanent squint, secreted his emotions well. One could never tell what Adewale was thinking just by looking at him, unless he expressed it, and half the time he did that, he lied.
The officers in his charge loaded weapons and other tactical assault gears into the Toyota Hilux truck outside the station. From time to time they glanced at Adewale and thought to themselves, business as usual. But they didn’t know what he knew. They didn’t perceive what he truly felt: the cold hand of terror around his heart in a tight fist, savouring every delicate thump, infecting his blood, his body, his mind with a deep sense of foreboding.
The order had come in from Yinka, and so they were off. For this kind of operation, weekend night time such as this had its advantages, like zero traffic. They moved without sirens. Stealth mode.
They veered off the road onto a cleared path through a thicket and halted at a lone shack. It looked deserted. They got off the truck, armed to the teeth, and jogged to the building.
There was no one inside – no one alive, that is. Adewale shone his high-powered torch around the bodies, five of them, all adorned with bullet holes. His source had said six.
The beam from his torch roved about, and then stopped at an open doorway that led to the thick of the forest in the backyard.
‘Someone left, probably injured. Find him,’ Adewale barked the order.
The officers leapt to action, rushing through the doorway and slipping into the forest at various entry points, their goal to converge on the suspect without giving him any room to escape.
Adewale walked around, inspecting the bodies … machine guns in stiffened hands … bullet casings strewn across the wooden floor. These men had died heavily armed. His money was on the last surviving suspect as the perpetrator. But how could one man had successfully taken on five men, and with what, an A.K? No matter the weapon of choice, the odds were firmly stacked against him. By all accounts, the suspect shouldn’t have survived the gunfight … unless he had been aided by a second shooter, and maybe a third.
Adewale stooped beside a body. He turned the head one way and examined the deep gash on the neck. It looked like something had chewed on him while he was alive.
A terrible cry carried across the air, from the backyard. Adewale stood and pointed his torch at the gaping doorway.
Staccato gunfire resonated. Flashes of light. Bullets wheezed, spearing leaves, snapping branches.
Adewale clutched his torch tighter. His free hand went for the sidearm on his belt but didn’t remove it.
More cries. More gunfire. The rustle of trees and bushes. What the hell was going on in there?
The leaves parted. Adewale aimed his torch. One of his officers stumbled out. He was covered in mud. He struggled … hopped, his left leg badly torn, trousers shredded. Blood streamed down, sketching a red trail behind him.
‘Musa…?’ Adewale called.
‘Oga!’ Musa said, whimpering. ‘Run!’
A gust of wind, the sound of a trunk splitting – Musa was hauled back into the forest, the echo of his terrified scream written across the skies, an aide-memoire of something much darker than the black night loitering behind the thick walls of the forest.
Adewale had had enough. He pulled his gun from its holster, trained it on the doorway, and retreated slowly. He knew he shouldn’t have come here. The source … the message she had left him … it all sounded too precise to be just a tip … and weird.
He had always been different from his colleagues, forever putting his obligation to his country first before anything else. Perhaps tonight, he should have been a little more selfish and looked out for himself.
A creak … light as a leaf from a tree touching the floor.
Adewale froze. He felt the breath caress his neck – it smelt of apples and blood. Something was behind him, and for the first time in a very, very long time, his eyes betrayed his emotions.
‘I said, tell me!’
‘You will die today!’ Yinka said with murderous fury. She raised the stick again.
‘I’ll tell you! Please, don’t hit me, aunty, please!’ Mary-Ann shielded her swollen, bruised face. Her dress was in tatters, her skin criss-crossed by fresh welts.
‘What is that ritual bowl for?’ Yinka spat, jabbing a fat finger at fragments of the odd bowl she had discovered under Mary-Ann’s bed.
‘It’s for Nancy…’ Mary-Ann sobbed.
‘Who is Nancy?’
‘Nancy is … She’s—’
‘My friend, answer me!’
‘She’s my god!’
Yinka paused, staring at Mary-Ann, a potent hodgepodge of disbelief and revulsion simmering in her eyes.
‘Your … god?’
The front door opened.
Yinka looked up, confused.
A lithe, beautiful young lady walked in. She had enticing, full lips; soft, near-rounded cheekbones; a set of intelligent brown eyes, and short hair. She wore form-fitting blue jeans, white tanks, a red jacket, and trendy black flats.
‘Who are you?’ Yinka asked. ‘What are you doing in my house?’
The young lady closed the door. She smiled, exposing a cute gap tooth, and she kept her right hand behind her back.
Mary-Ann mustered all the strength she could and rose to her knees. She stared at the woman reverently.
‘Nancy…’ She whimpered. ‘You came!’
‘Nancy?’ Yinka said, staring from Mary-Ann to the stranger. ‘You’re the god?’
Nancy scrutinised her surroundings.
‘Well, Tunde… You either have an overly active imagination or this is very real,’ she said.
‘Who’s Tunde?’ Yinka edged away, towards the dining table.
‘Never mind that. I need Protocol five-three-six,’ Nancy said. ‘I need it now.’
‘How do you know about that?’
‘That’s none of your concern.’
Yinka was at the shelf, ahead of the dining table. She shot her hand in between two fat history books and fetched out a gun. Mary-Ann shrieked and dived for cover. Nancy, though, looked on in amusement. Yinka aimed the gun at her.
‘You’ve made a terrible mistake coming here,’ Yinka said.
‘Oh, I very much disagree.’ Nancy brought forth her right hand. In it – a bloody mass, dripping red. A heart.
Yinka swallowed. Beads of sweat collected on the furrows of her brow.
‘This belonged to DPO Adewale. He told everything.’ Nancy placed the heart on a side table. ‘Now, about that protocol.’
Yinka squeezed the trigger. Four shots. The first bullet smashed Nancy’s forehead, snapping her head backwards. The other three found her torso.
Nancy staggered to the door, bent over.
‘That wasn’t … very … nice,’ she grunted.
Yinka’s jaw dropped. How was she still alive, much less standing?
Nancy straightened. She wasn’t smiling anymore. She opened her left fist and out of it fell four compacted bullets. She had caught them all.
‘My turn,’ she said.
By the morning, Nancy had protocol five-three-six etched in memory. Yinka had been relegated to a chair at the dining table, a crimson pool beneath her feet. Her head sat next to a vase of flowers.
Nancy gave Mary-Ann all the money she could find in the house – fifty thousand naira.
‘You should leave at once.’
Mary-Ann kissed Nancy’s feet, thanked her, and fled the house.
Nancy darted off. She got the restaurant in minutes and occupied her preferred table, the one at the back that gave her a perfect view of every patron, particularly those who came in and left.
She ordered tea and cake.
The elderly cleaning lady – Patience – swept the floor. When she spotted Nancy she smiled and walked to her.
‘Thank you,’ Patience said. ‘Pastor Chris Oyatie’s people contacted me.’
‘That’s wonderful,’ Nancy said. ‘Just make sure you take Sally to him today. It has to be today.’
‘Of course,’ Patience said. ‘I’ll talk to my boss.’
‘He won’t be a problem.’
‘Did you find what you were looking for?’ Patience asked.
The main glass doors opened and he entered. Tunde. He was in the company of a woman.
Nancy’s heart would have warmed and thumped faster if it still functioned.
He looked worse for wear even though he tried to hide it behind his too perfect smile and too happy look. She could always tell what he was thinking, what he was going through. She understood his pain, and soon – very soon – she would give him respite.
‘Yes,’ Nancy said to Patience. ‘I did.’
Patience nodded and went about her business. She later disappeared into a backroom.
Nancy checked her watch: 5:36:00.
Their date was short, but effective. Tunde had certainly succeeded in beguiling the woman. She left the restaurant with that heady sensation that convoyed the initial stages of falling in love.
Once she was out of sight, Tunde dropped his mask of pretence. He stood, shoved his hand into his pocket.
That was Nancy’s cue. She quietly got up and walked. Tunde held the ring. She bumped into his shoulder and kept going.
‘Hey!’ he yelled, but he wouldn’t come after her. She knew.
She exited the restaurant, glanced at her watch: 5:36:01. She smiled and breezed off.