I blink my eyes open to look into the face of a Caucasian woman. Her thinly-lashed grey eyes are staring back at me with mild interest, the kind co-travelers give each other when they realize they are about to endure a flight next to each other and must now get acquainted. I don’t like that look. And I don’t like the small talk she will surely follow the look with.
“Are you alright?” she asks, her accent clipped and precise, like the snipping sounds of shears in the deft hands of an experienced gardener. “You seem a little tense.” Her eyelids lower so she can take in the tight grip I have on the armrests of my seat, before lifting to refocus on my face.
Hers is narrow and pallid, framed by the straight fall of her chin-length, unspectacular dark-brown hair. The only splash of colour on her face is the shade of vermilion red that is her lips, a sight which makes me think instantly about blood. I wonder only fleetingly why that is so, until I remember my objective for being aboard this flight, headed to London.
“Sir…” she urges again.
“I’m fine,” I cut in, a bit curtly. I am in no mood for small talk. Aren’t Business Class passengers supposed to be aloof, self-absorbed and disdainful of human contact during flights? I let my displeasure leak onto my face, just a little bit, enough to let this woman know that we don’t have to do this.
“Well, you seem so tense, I couldn’t help but wonder if this is your first time flying,” she continues, blithely unaware of my vexation.
“This isn’t my first time,” I say shortly.
“So, a seasoned flyer then, huh?” she queries, settling into the dialogue.
I sigh. A slight tremor ripples through the aircraft as it scythes through the bank of cottony clouds. My fingers grip the armrests tighter. The plane levitates for a bit before righting itself into a vertical suspension buoyed by the clouds. Takeoff is complete. With a small ping, the seatbelt lights off, and passengers begin to unsnap their harnesses.
“I am a seasoned flyer,” I answer the pesky woman seated beside me. “I’m just still not used to takeoffs and touchdowns.”
She makes a tsk-tsking sound that is supposed to communicate her understanding of my predicament. Then she asks, “So, are you going to London on business or pleasure?”
“A little bit of both.”
Her gaze sweeps over me, as though to gauge from my appearance how much of both I’d be getting to when I settle in the city. “So what do you do? What is your, em, business?”
“I’m a contractor.”
“Oh really?” Steadier interest sparks in her grey eyes. “Everyone in Nigeria seems to be a contractor.”
Not my kind of contractor, lady, I think to myself.
“Government contractor, or private contractor?” she asks.
“What kind of contracting do you do?”
I hesitate just a teensiest moment, wondering what level of vagueness I should aim for that will tell this nosy woman nothing, and yet, tell her enough to assuage her curiosity. “I deal with the discharge of materials people feel are no longer viable.”
Her thin brows furrow with the effort of her comprehension. “Wastes? You’re into waste disposal?”
“Wastes…I guess you could call it that.”
“And it’s this waste disposal business that takes you to London?” There’s a hint of incertitude in her voice, that superciliousness that Westerners effortlessly take on when they question the equality of their home countries and any African country. What she really wants to say is: You can’t possibly be in a contract with a British firm. I’m sure there are better-qualified people in the UK they could have hired.
I don’t mind her attitude. It is after all still subtle. I’ll have a problem with it if it becomes full blown. Then I might have to take care of her, as I have taken care of all other inconveniences in the past. I smile thinly at her as I reply, “Yes. But this isn’t a contract with any firm in London.”
“It’s not?” She sounds at once relieved and uncomprehending.
I shake my head. “It’s not. This is a private matter.”
“You have a private business to dispose of wastes in London?” Interest has sharpened in her eyes. She wants to hear more.
“Yes,” I deadpan.
She continues staring at me, her expression seeming to say, Ehen? Continue. I stare back at her, and offer nothing more.
When she realizes the futility in waiting for an elaboration on that line of conversation, she asks, “Uh, so, you reside in Lagos?”
“Well then, your job must be a lucrative one, seeing as Lagos is overcrowded and, well, overflowing…” Her voice trails off, as though the rest of her words were winnowed away on an afterthought.
“With dirt,” I finish for her. “That’s what you were going to say, isn’t it? Overflowing with dirt.” There is no censure in my tone, but the directness of my statement makes her duck her head, but not before I see a blush rise on her cheeks, a startling stain against the pallor of her skin. I shrug and continue matter-of-factly, “I’m not going to debate the spit and polish of my city with you. However, in my line of work, it helps that these undesirable elements are there, present, because then, my services are required to clean them up.”
“You speak like you have a monopoly of the industry.”
“I do,” I say simply.
She stares at me, her expression overcast with a touch of incomprehension. I can almost see her mental wheels grinding over the decision to pry further, to debate my assertion.
But something about the stranger seated next to her gives her pause. I stare at her, my eyes flat, my face a wooden mask. That is all I need to do, really, to stare at her with my patented deadpan expression, enough to dissuade her from further enquiries in a way that no verbal dissension from me can achieve. It is going to be a seven-hour flight, and I will much rather spend all of it in my own company.
Just then, two air hostesses wheel the snack trolley down toward us, their plastic lipsticked smiles wide and beaming. And in the next few moments, while they fuss over the nosy stranger beside me, I settle deeper into my seat; I’d already declined something to eat or drink at the moment. I close my eyes and proceed to sleep – that light, catlike nap I usually take before every assignment, the one that relaxes my mind, sharpens my reflexes and firms my purpose.
I do have business to take care of after all upon disembarkment, and a well-rested businessman always gets the job done.
“Well, here we are,” the white woman says over my shoulder as she peers at the window. I follow her gaze to the miniature structures, interspersed by expanses of vegetation here and there, spread out below. “London – my home,” she says with a sigh. “Oh, I can’t wait to join my family. I’ve missed my boys so much.”
I say nothing in response as I busy myself with my safety belt. The aeroplane touches down exactly on time at Heathrow Airport. The woman reaches up to collect a camera and an overnight bag.
“So how long will you be in town?” she asks. Other passengers have begun to rouse themselves from their various states of semi-inertia.
“Just for the day,” I reply. Hopefully, I mentally add. As long as no extenuating circumstances come up to drive a wedge into my schedule.
“Oh? That brief, huh?”
“Yes, I’m on a return trip back to Lagos this evening.”
“Very well then,” she says as we get to our feet. “Hopefully, I’ll see you around, mister – er…”
“Hopefully, we will,” I reply, very deliberately ignoring her encouragement for me to give my name. “Have a good day now, ma’am.” I nod at her, and join the throng of passengers on the aisle. The usual polite pushing and shoving go on for a while before I make it to the exit.
Once down the metal steps, I stride briskly to the baggage area. The carousel brings my lone suitcase almost immediately. I skim my glance over the crowd of faces gathered outside the Customs area, cleaving my way through bodies and exuberant shouts of welcome to the airport exit.
“Sir – taxi, sir…?”
I turn around to see a squat Indian man moving toward me with purpose. His complexion is dusky and the shock of dark hair on his head is thinning. He is middle-aged and not at all pleasant looking, certainly not like the pumice-skinned, glossy-faced thespians I glimpse every now and then in Bollywood movies on DSTV. Those Indians, the ones you see on television, are beautiful; once upon a time, they made me think India was a nation teeming with good genes and graceful bodies. Then I grew up and started meeting the others like this taxi driver, those you don’t see on television.
“Yes, I’d like a taxi. Consort Road, Southwark,” I say.
“This way, sir… Come, come this way,” he says, his coloured accent making it almost difficult for me to catch his words, as he gestures me to the bank of vehicles lined up on the sidewalk.
Soon, I am sliding into the interior of his taxi, reclining on the worn leather of the seat as he guns his engine and steers the car into the traffic eddying about the airport. He soon moves away from the airport’s cluster, and merges with the more streamlined flow of vehicular traffic cutting in different directions all over the city. I stare sightlessly at the passing scenery of buildings and pedestrians as the cab driver overtakes here and drops back there, infrequently offering items of information conversationally over his shoulder. I ignore him, but that doesn’t stop his chatter. I shake my head, slightly bemused, as I wonder at the perception of British people as a cold and uncommunicative lot. The two I have met today make me seem British.
It is a less-than-an-hour of driving later before the cab driver is pulling up before the address I earlier gave him. I sweep a quick look around at the immediate environs of Consort Road, missing nothing, approving of everything. Then I take out my wallet and produce my fare. As I hand it through the glass partition to the driver, I say, “I’ll pay you double this amount if you’ll wait for me. I have a very brief business to attend to in there” – I jerk my head in the direction of the nearby building – “and then I’ll be out and you can take me back to the airport.”
“Of course, of course, sir… Me, I’ll wait until you finish business.”
I don’t doubt that. I slip out of the vehicle, and walk into the building. I move across the narrow lobby, occupied by one or two persons, to the stairwell. It is deserted. This is a risk, I know that. But I don’t have another choice. Or much time, for that matter. I quickly unlock my valise, pick up the black gloves and pull them on over my hands. Then I begin to pick out the individual parts of the armament inside the case, assembling them deftly, my movements hurried but precise. The stairwell remains empty until I am done with my task, then I shut the valise again, take it up with one hand while tucking the piece into my suit jacket with the other.
I proceed up the stairs to the third floor. I meet no one along the way, and the third floor is deserted. I stride toward the door as sure-footed as though I have been here before. I haven’t. I just have done my homework properly.
I knock on the door.
I knock twice, and then a third time, before the familiar voice yells from inside. He’s coming, the voice says.
I wait, taking a deep breath and steeling myself for what I must do in a matter of seconds.
The door is pulled open, and he appears on the threshold. Shock registers first on his face, then surprise, and then pleasure as his face wreathes into a smile. “Wallie!” he says in a shout, calling my name with that inflection that is unique to him. “What are you doing in London?”
He is smiling. He is laughing. The radiance of his pleasure hits me. I feel the warmth creeping in. I feel my resolve weakening.
Remember what he did to you, a cold voice whispers inside me.
And just like that, my insides crystallize again, and I say icily, “I told you not to mess with me, Mayowa. And you did.” I slip my hand inside my jacket. “I’m sorry, but this has to be done.” And then, I pull my hand out.
He blinks at the gun he sees sweeping an arch through the air, toward his face. That is all the motion he can pull off before I center the barrel and pull the trigger. The gun recoils in my hand as it lets out a shot muffled by the silencer attached to the muzzle. The bullet smashes into his face and he jackknifes backward, sprawling out on the ground, brain matter and blood sprayed out in a fine but grotesque arch on the floor around his head.
I walk into the apartment, shut the door behind me and step over his body in the direction of the living room. I can hear the murmur of voices coming from an electronic device. I see soon enough that it is a laptop placed on a coffee table, and from the histrionics palpable in what I can hear, I presume it is a movie. He had been watching a movie when I knocked.
I step in front of the laptop and my eyes fall on Chiwetel Ejiofor arguing with Genevieve Nnaji.
Half Of A Yellow Sun – that is the movie the man I’d just killed was watching.
“Is it not your own people who are killing the Igbos in Lagos?” Chiwetel is yelling, his tone heavily coloured with that affected Nigerian accent. “Didn’t your chiefs go north to thank the emir for sparing the Yoruba people? So what are you saying, huh? How is your opinion relevant?”
Genevieve glares at him, outrage stamped on every line on her face. I watch the screen, admiring her loveliness as she says sharply, “You insult me, Odenigbo?!”
“Then the truth has become an insult,” Chiwetel retorts.
I lean forward and tap a button on the laptop. The VLC player dissolves from the screen. I navigate the cursor till I get to the folder where the software copy of the movie is stored. I slip a flash-drive into a USB port on the laptop and copy the file into it. Then I straighten from the coffee table, and make my way back toward the door. I stop beside Mayowa, staring down at his ruined face, and his eyes which are looking unseeingly sideways.
I get down on my haunches, and say softly, “I’m sorry, buddy. Sorry I had to do this. But you really shouldn’t have done this. Taunting me with a Chimamanda movie, one that has Genevieve in it, just because you’ve downloaded it here and I don’t have the patience to go see it in a cinema in Lagos?” I tsk-tsk, while shaking my head. “Not very wise, bro. not wise at all. Anyway, take comfort in the fact that you’re in a better place now, and that the last good deed you did was” – I brandish my flash-drive – “providing me with my own copy of the film. Fare well, Mayo.” And I reach a hand forward to shut his eyes against the horror that is still in there.
Then I stand and walk out of the room. I walk swiftly down the stairs, and then out to the waiting taxi. I get inside. “You may take me back to the airport now,” I instruct the driver.
He guns his engine, engages the gear and swerves away from the sidewalk. “So, business go good, sir?” he enquires, peering at my reflection on his rearview mirror.
“Yes,” I sigh, reclining on the seat. “Business go very good.” And this time, I let my mind relax, and my eyes drift shut on the return drive to Heathrow.
The pinging sound jangled. It jangled again. And again. I blinked, and awareness rushed in on me like a tide. I opened my eyes blearily to find that I’m lying back – not in a taxi in London, but – on my bed. The rapid-fire Yoruba filtering in through my window reassured me that I was well and truly in Lagos.
And the pinging sound jangling through the atmosphere was coming from my phone. Someone was rapidly dropping messages, one after the other, on my Blackberry Messenger. I clicked open the chat window to see my ongoing chatversation with Mayowa.
– You have no idea how good this movie is…
– Seriously, Genevieve would have been perfect for Olanna’s role…
– Men, Biyi Bandele tried in this film o.
– And you need to see Onyeka Onwenu in action…
I felt an icy reserve descend on me as I began to type my response to his endless digital chatter. My fingers danced over the keypad of my Blackberry as the words came together.
I had a dream. And in it, I killed you.
Then I clicked on the send button.
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