It was the subtle demand the well-shod foot placed on the sun as it appeared beneath the open car door that caught Cordelia’s attention. The quick flash of light as the sun’s rays bounced off the spitshined leather of the shoe had her wondering if the man wearing it had ever been anywhere that entire day. Last year’s Harmattan may have left the Lagos metropolis with its morning chill, but there was still dust and dryness everywhere.
And well-polished shoes such as that did not exist at two o’clock in the afternoon, Cordelia thought grumpily as she looked away from the window to eye her road-weary pumps.
“Cordelia! Cordelia Anachunam, are you still there?” her sister’s irate voice called from the other end of the phone line, rising a few decibels from the steady murmur she’d been conversing with.
Cordelia grimaced. Anyone who knew her knew that the quickest way to get under her skin was to call her full names. Cordelia – who names their innocent child that? She thought wrathfully. Her parents, that’s who! Tack on to that her middle name, and the full name – Cordelia Chinazaekpere Anachunam – had made her a target for merciless teasing in her junior secondary school days.
These days, she went by the shortened version of her name, Lea. And she’d occasionally threatened her family with a change of name, but never seemed to get around to the procedure.
“Cordelia –” her older sister started again.
“Yes, yes, Sister, I’ve heard,” she said, returning her attention to the window in time to see the owner of the well-polished shoes turn a corner out of her line of sight. The Honda he left behind stood there in the parking lot, sleek and resolutely defiant of the dusty weather.
“Are you even listening to me?” her sister heckled.
“I just told you I’ve heard you, didn’t I?”
“Oya, tell me what I last said to you.”
“You see?” her sister pounced. “You’ve not been listening to me. Not that I’m surprised. You’ve always been too headstrong for your own good.”
“Oh come on, Sister, with you, it’s usually the same thing. The things you have to say to me have become routine. It’s either you think I’m too thin…”
“But you are! Agbani Darego is looking more robust than you these days –”
“…or you think I should be taking better care of myself –”
“How many women do you see who own motorcycles and ride around Lagos with it –”
“…or you believe I should be putting more effort into finding a husband –”
“At twenty-eight, you’re not getting any younger, biko!”
“…or you have some unsolicited advice to give about my job!”
“I just don’t think you should be working for a firm that gets off criminals,” her sister sniffed.
“Kunle Ajose was innocent until proven guilty,” Cordelia said with the exasperation of one who’d had this argument before. “And everyone accused of a crime deserves counsel. It’s not my firm’s fault the prosecution failed in its job to convict our client.”
“Everyone in this Lagos knows that man killed his wife, Lea.”
“Well, lucky for Mr. Ajose, the court of public opinion has no sway in the course of justice.”
“No, but clearly, Mr. Ajose’s money does.”
Cordelia lifted her right thumb and index finger to knead her temples. “Sister, can we just go back to you trying to marry me off to one of your husband’s eligible bachelor friends.”
With the zeal of one who’d been introduced to her favorite calling, the woman on the other end of the line dived into the subject of her husband’s colleague who she met at an office party last weekend, and who she was positive was right for Cordelia. With practiced ease, Cordelia tuned her off and returned to the work on her desk, masterfully injecting the requisite ‘Mmhmm’ and ‘Really’ at different junctions of her sister’s narrative.
“You have got to be kidding me!”
The male voice, tense with the unmistakable cadence of anger, exploded into her office from the general direction of the outer office.
Her head shot upward from her desk, and her startled gaze fell on the half open door, as she tried to make out the words of the muted response the man who’d just shouted was getting.
Whatever he heard clearly wasn’t mollifying enough, because he retorted in a sharp tone that didn’t reduce in volume, “What do you take me for, mister man! That amount for a mere affidavit? This is ridiculous!” With each syllable he uttered, his voice climbed.
Cordelia got to her feet, as she felt more than a smidgen of comprehension of what was going on out there.
“Lea! My goodness! You’re ignoring me again, aren’t you?” Her sister’s wrathful voice fractured her attention on getting to the situation outside the office.
“Look, Sister, just schedule something with John –”
“Right. Find out when he’ll be free for dinner and get back to me.”
“So you’ll wimp out at the last minute and leave me with the mess of a man’s bruised ego?” Her sister’s tone revealed the fact that she had been there with Cordelia and done that.
Cordelia chuckled as she got to the door. “You know me so well, Sister. I’ve got to go now. Talk to you later.” She disconnected the call before pulling open the door.
There were two men in the outer office. Seated behind a desk was Oliver, one of the paralegals employed by the firm. Stout figured and prematurely balding, he had beady eyes that seemed to sink into his doughy face the more aggravated he got.
And the man standing before him was clearly giving him a lot of aggravation. The man was also the person wearing the familiar well-polished shoes.
Cordelia was so surprised by his presence that she hastily drew back out of sight to afford her the time to observe the man without any interruption.
He was tall, about 6 feet 2, looked to be in his thirties, and was extremely fit. His sinewy build was evident even through the dark suit he wore, which hung immaculately over his frame. His voice was deep, and he stood, his wide back to her and with one hand in his pocket; he painted the picture of a man who was always in control of his environment.
“Look, oga, I have tell you,” Oliver blustered, his eyes almost vanishing into the shiny fat of his face, “it is 2500 naira to do affidavit.”
“And I’m telling you that you must be joking!” the man shot back. “I hope you’re not a representation of how things are run here. Because if you are, I have the mind of –”
“Excuse me, sir,” Cordelia cut in, emerging from her corner.
Both men whirled around to face her. She saw Oliver’s eyes widen with alarm and the other man’s face tighten with more grimness. She had always suspected the paralegal used his position in the firm to wield an undue influence on the firm’s walk-in clients, extorting here and demanding for kickbacks there. She’d heard talk, but hadn’t witnessed any such incident to warrant a report from her to the senior partner. Today, the paralegal, it would seem, hadn’t reckoned with the difficulty of this potential client, and hadn’t known any of the lawyers would be around. He hadn’t been at his desk when she returned to the office early from her lunch break.
“Erm, madam –” Oliver began.
“Do you work here?” the other man interjected. He had the kind of attitude that demanded forthrightness, and Cordelia barely had time to register his handsomely put-together features, before feeling the brunt of the disturbing intensity in his gaze.
“Yes, I do, sir. My name is Cordelia.” She had not introduced herself as Cordelia in a long time. Something about this man did not brook any dissemblance. “And you are?”
“A very unimpressed individual,” he snapped.
Cordelia took the salvo with her poise still intact. “What seems to be the problem, sir?”
“Erm, madam,” Oliver said hastily, “the problem is that –”
“I believe the question was meant for me,” the man cut in with a tone that iced off the remainder of Oliver’s words. Turning back to Cordelia, he began, “My name is Philip Ekezie. I was over at the High Court next door to get an affidavit sworn, but it seemed the clerk was off duty. Someone at the court referred me to this office, saying you guys offer the service of getting affidavits done when the clerks at the court are unavailable. And in spite of my aversion for back channels, here I am, only to have this – this” – he flailed mentally for a suitable word to express his disdain for Oliver, before settling on – “person try to swindle me for more money than I know is appropriate for a mere affidavit.”
“Madam, is lie!” Oliver burst out. “Is lie – is just that –”
“That’ll be enough out of you, Oliver,” Cordelia said coolly. A smile surfaced onto her face as she refocused on the man before her. “My sincerest apologies, Mister – er, I mean, Phil – may I call you Phil?”
The man’s gaze turned flinty. “The name is Philip, not Phil. And Mr. Ekezie will do just fine.”
“Okay, Mr. Ekezie,” she said easily. “Again I apologize for our staff member’s exuberance –”
“Exuberance?” Mr. Ekezie’s brows crocheted with displeasure. “You make it sound like his conduct is commendable.”
“It’s absolutely not. And after our business with you, I’ll make sure he’s disciplined accordingly. Meanwhile, if I could just have your letter indicating what it is you’d like to swear for…” Her eyes fell fractionally to his other hand which held a white envelope in it.
“It’s my access card. I work in an auditing firm. The affidavit is to get the loss on the record back at my workplace, as a matter of principle.”
“Very well. Let me just have your letter, and we can have all this sorted out without further delay.”
He handed the envelope to her, and at her polite gesture, turned to take a seat in a corner of the small lounge. Cordelia slid the sheet of paper out from inside the envelope and unfolded it to skim through the claim printed on it. The letter was brief and the wording strong and direct – yet another echo of Philip-not-Phil-Ekezie’s personality.
Handing the letter to Oliver, she said sotto voce, “Get this quickly handled. And better pray I’m in a forgiving mood by the time our senior partner gets back to the office.”
The paralegal scurried off to attend to his assignment.
Alone with Mr. Ekezie in the lounge, Cordelia drew close to him, her genial disposition apparent. “Would you like something to drink, sir?”
“No,” came his clipped response.
She settled down on a chair two seats away from him. Then she clasped her fingers together over her thighs. “So…working in an auditing firm…you must be an auditor then, yes?”
He gave a look, before answering, “Yes, I am.”
“What happened with your access card? You didn’t really state in the –”
“Anachunam. Cordelia Anachunam.”
“Right. I don’t mean to be rude, but we really don’t have to put up with the charade of small talk. As a matter of principle, I just want to get my business here over and done with. Anything other than that is just a waste of my time.”
Cordelia blinked at him. That was him not meaning to be rude? She felt stung by his brusqueness, and her hackles rose a little bit. She had the good mind of walking back to her office and leaving this miserable man here, but she suspected that her presence here would irritate him, albeit less than her small talk. So she leaned back on her seat, crossed her legs and focused on her Blackberry.
The silence ticked by with an undercurrent of tension. In spite of her affected repose, Cordelia’s insides were bunched up with an inexplicable tenseness. She suspected it had to do with the unpleasant man beside her. Every now and then, her eyes slid from her phone screen to observe him. He was also tending to his business on his phone, and Cordelia’s gaze was drawn to his fingers which held the phone in his palm. She stared at them, noting both their length and latent strength. They were beautifully formed, begging to be explored and admired, one by one.
Catching her breath at the derailment of her thoughts, she forced her eyes back to her phone screen. Just then, Oliver came bustling back into the office. Both of them got to their feet at once.
“Sir, it have done now,” he said as he returned the envelope to Mr. Ekezie.
The man studied the letter for a quick moment, nodded when he was done, paid for the service and as he slipped the envelope into the inner section of his suit jacket, he started out of the office.
“Not even a thank you, sir?” Cordelia was helpless to stop the words from escaping her lips.
Mr. Ekezie stilled as his hand enclosed the door knob. His broad shoulders stiffened before he turned that unnerving intensity in his eyes on Cordelia. The concrete slab his face had transformed to seemed like the prelude to a blistering rejoinder.
But it never came. His good manners prevailed.
“Thank you,” he said through gritted teeth, before jerking the door open and stalking out of the room, his well-shod footfalls giving off staccato exclamation marks on his determination never to have anything more to do with Cordelia Anachunam and her workplace.
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