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“Very well,” Toshiba’s throaty voice rolled out in strong notes to Alhaja Nnenna over the phone.
“Prepare another funeral for your son’s real baby whom Marie is carrying as we speak! And this time, Marie will go for real! Have a nice evening!”
Toshiba put an end to his phone call with a satisfied look on his face but his eyes strayed to Marie and he saw her restless expression as she rubbed her cheeks to do away with tears she had just shed.
“What is the problem now?” he asked, passing Udoka her phone. “You should be happy that we’re going to get Kiki. We’ll give them till the end of tomorrow to talk about it and probably plan a DNA test just to confirm what we just told them…”
“And then what?” Marie asked irritably. Toshiba wasn’t sure of what to make of the question.
“You didn’t have a plan before you thought of getting her?”
“No,” Marie said honestly. Toshiba was surprised.
Marie was not known to jump into anything without thorough planning. Udoka often joked that she planned even her breathing.
“Well, I just helped you out with that last part, the whole baby thing… It came to me on the spur.”
“Then what?” Marie repeated.
“Then we call Alhaja again and arrange an exchange. You for Kiki. Of course, I will remain in the shadows throughout all of this. Kiki comes to me and you go to them but you leave before the sun comes up the next morning. In-between, you act like you’ve been drugged shitless and cannot remember a thing…”
“It’s all tiring, really.” Marie rubbed her eyes and stood from her chair. “I need to go to bed. We’ll talk about this tomorrow.”
Toshiba was annoyed at her dismissive behavior but he chose not to react as he left the sitting room for fresh air outside. Ato followed Marie. He walked into a bedroom that had a mattress on the floor and a lone pillow. He stood by the door. Marie’s and Udoka’s handbags also lay on the floor beside a pair of neatly folded clothes and a pack of sanitary towels. Ato listened to the sound of running water in the bathroom as he picked at his nails. Shortly after, Marie emerged from the bathroom dressed in only her underwear as she shook wet hands to dry them. There were tears running down her eyes that amused Ato. Marie was an unusual type. She was so detached from her emotions that she never had moments when she stopped to cry. If ever she was pushed to tears, she would continue whatever she was doing while the tears flowed.
She sniffed. “Looks like I’m subjected to wearing pads for a while now. I just hope the bleeding doesn’t last as long as the one I had after Kiki. That felt like forever.” She wiped her nose and walked to the window.
“What’s happening, Chi-chi?” Ato asked. Marie glanced at him before she went back to the window. She could see Toshiba standing by a fence that separated the house from the next. He was on his phone.
“Kiki is Jimi’s,” she said to Ato. “Toshiba and I didn’t have sex but he thought we did. It was my wedding eve and he was in a mess, totally drunk. My seventh-month absence with Jimi in Jos almost drove him insane and then the news of the wedding pushed him off the edge. I went to see him in a hotel room that night. He wanted sex and I reluctantly agreed; it was not in my plans. So we got kissing and then he just dozed off. The next morning, he texted me, asking if we did anything and I said we did.”
“You didn’t answer my question, Chi. What’s eating you?”
Marie turned around. “Ba ko mi. I’m good.”
“You’re lying.” Ato took a step closer. His tone went up from nowhere. “You walked into the Bahaushes’, spent almost three years with them, had a child and came out with nothing! Then you just decided, on a whim, to expose yourself to them, letting them know you’re alive and as a result, risking everything you’ve worked hard for! Even risking getting all of us exposed! I told you not to leave Jimi if you loved him! I told you to stay for Kiki’s sake but you didn’t listen and now you cannot think straight!”
“I lost my baby!” Marie cried, squeezing the bulge that was now devoid of her pregnancy. “How can I think straight?! I feel empty! I keep waiting for him to do his normal pedaling around but…nothing! He’s gone, Ato! And he’s not coming back and you want me to let Kiki go the same way?!”
“Because you chose this path! You gave up your daughter! Deal with it and leave the Bahaushes alone!”
“Get out!” Marie pointed at the door.
“It’s him, isn’t it?” Ato asked. “You still allow him mess with your mind even at the age of thirty-one, Chimarya? That man is dead! He has no power over you! Let him go!”
Ato flung open the door and walked out, slamming it behind him.
Marie felt the pulsing weight of more tears but she refused to let them consume her. Everything Ato had told her was the truth. She was out of her element. The Marie she knew always laid out elaborate arrangements for every step and then she would have alternative plans in case of obstacles along the way. But first, she would never venture into anything without an escape button. How she had gotten so impulsive to call Alhaja to ask for Kiki was beyond her. It seemed some other force within waged war against her commonsense. She felt cornered by strange emotions and incorrect thinking and she needed to be set straight.
Marie dug a forefinger and thumb into the thick, rich curls of her Bohemian weave in a scratching manner and pulled out a mini SIM card. She inserted it into a phone lying on the mattress and turned it on. The moment it was alive, a text came in and she opened it.
Got the cash. You make me proud. Now, disappear.
The text was responsible for a smile that flashed in her features and disappeared before it fully creased her lips. She proceeded to dial a number and waited restlessly as it connected.
“Hello?” she whispered.
“Marie?” a man’s voice came on. “How are you?”
Marie squeezed her lips real tight but they trembled and forced her into tears.
“I’m not good, Baba. I’m not good. I think I’m having a breakdown.” She sniffed and heaved. “I should have listened to you. I should have. I should…”
“Calm down, Chimarya. Calm down, child.”
“No Baba, I want to come to you. I can’t take this again. Please, lemme come to you…”
He didn’t reply immediately but she could hear him breathing in the background. It sounded more like a snore wrought by nasal obstruction.
“No, Chimarya. You can’t come yet. I’m sorry.”
Marie felt a stab in her chest as she fell to the mattress. It would have been as well if he had wielded a knife with his own hand and stabbed her. His words were disconnected, unfeeling, icy. How could he do this to her continuously for twenty years? Who abandoned their daughter for that long?
“Baba, why can’t we follow you this time?”
Little Marie faced her father as he prepared breakfast on an ‘Abacha Stove’, a crudely made cooking stove that was fueled by sawdust. Baba didn’t know how to use it and the result was a smoky room and burnt eggs. He laid the mess on a plate before Marie and pointed at a loaf of bread beside her. But she wasn’t interested. She lay on a flat mattress on the floor of the large but mold-infested room that had been their abode for two weeks, and buried her head in her arms. Baba knew she wasn’t crying because he had taught her better. He suspected she was praying to God not to let him go away.
“Marie,” he tapped her. “Wake your brother and two of you should come and have breakfast.”
Marie rose up reluctantly and crawled to the other end of the mattress where Ato was sleeping and gave him a hard slap on his back. He shot up and bent backwards, scratching the assaulted spot with both hands. Marie crawled back to her original spot and waited for Baba who had disappeared with the stove and returned with two cups of hot chocolate that caused her mouth to water. Still, she kept her face passive and would not have her breakfast. Ato had rolled back to bed and gone into a snore with his face turned up to the ceiling.
“I don’t want you to go,” Marie said to her father.
He was taking off his trousers to change into a black kaftan that hung on an old metal chair in a corner of the room. Everything else in the room was as old as the chair, from the leaking ceiling to peeling walls, to a floor void of covering and full of holes. Marie hated the place. It did not belong to them. Not that they had any home they could call theirs since they drifted from one place to another every now and then. The only thing that could keep them in an environment long enough to make acquaintances was their education but once each academic term was over, they were off to another city. Sometimes they lived in the beautiful homes Baba told them was theirs. Other times, they were lucky enough to get a space like the one they were presently in.
Baba didn’t hide his trade from Marie and Ato. In fact, he sometimes employed them in small, quick and easy scams. But it was Marie he wanted to take over from him. She had brains and irresistible charm, plus a talent for acting. She could cry at will and fall ill by raising her temperature using a trick taught by Baba. He was a professional con artist and had been in the trade long before it was discovered nationwide. In those days, there were many hapless Nigerians and foreigners to scam and Baba enjoyed the thrill of it, travelling in and out of the country to accomplish his misdeeds. But he was a good father as far as the word could be stretched. To Marie, he was heaven and she was his little princess. She idolized him with intense passion and believed everything he told her, even when she knew he wasn’t being honest. She took his lessons to heart, unlike Ato, who would learn and unlearn just for the fun of it. Baba taught them both many things but the one thing he made part of them was the ability to control their emotions no matter how pushed they were to explode. He often poked at their feelings to see how they would react. Ato would cave in but Marie would stay strong no matter the assault, even though she sought some place later on to cry.
Hence, he bet his money on her and made sure he embedded his own life and ways into her DNA. He was certain that as long as she stayed connected to him, one way or another, she would not stray from what he taught her.
“Can I follow you? I want to go with you.” Marie was now picking at the burnt egg while Ato stirred on the bed, still in his sleep.
“Chimarya…” Baba sighed as he combed his hair.
“Dogo will come and take you children to Sokoto…”
Marie pushed the plate away and crossed her arms. “I don’t like Uncle Dogo! He likes to look at me when I’m bathing.”
Baba squeezed his brows. That piece of information was not good. As much as Marie was knowledgeable in a lot of adult things and had just begun her period, she was still a child and no one was going to molest her. He frowned. That meant he had to change his plans and find someone else for the meantime. Thus Dogo was off the list. Baba marked him as someone he would never do business with. Rapists, child molesters and thieves were people Baba detested. He considered his profession more honorable, often telling Marie. ‘You can’t cheat who doesn’t want to be cheated.’
“So I can follow you? Me and Ato?” Marie had risen to a kneeling position on the mattress, hope filling her small, bright eyes.
“Come here.” Baba stretched out his hands and she walked to him. He held her in an embrace and if she had seen his face then, she would have seen the tears in his eyes.
“Uncle John would come for you, then.”
“I don’t want you to go, daddy.”
She hardly called him that. Anytime she did, it meant her heart was on edge. Baba couldn’t understand the child’s insistence. It was as though she sensed he was going to be away for a long time. But he was coming back and he promised her that.
“No,” she sniffed. The tears came. “You won’t come back.”
“I will,” he promised earnestly but Marie had broken. Her tears finally got Ato up. He was very protective of her. He adjusted his position to look at father and daughter properly before he hissed discretely and turned away. He hated Baba. He alone remembered how the man had treated their mother. He swore never to forgive or forget.
“Ato, ka tashi. Get up and eat.”
Ato grumbled and rose up but it wasn’t for breakfast. He walked outside to use the bathroom. Baba released Marie and lowered his tall frame to meet hers. He saw the fear in her eyes; she thought he was going to scold her for crying. But instead he wiped her tears.
“I’ll stay long but I’ll come back soon. Everything I have taught you, always remember, okay? don’t trust anybody, or wear your heart on your sleeve and…?”
“Good girl.” He stroked her cheek and rose up.
“Come, let’s eat and…”
The door burst open and Ato ran in.
“Baba, I saw police!” he said in panic. “They’re coming! They’re asking that kose woman for one tall man with two children!”
Marie looked at Baba and she saw in his eyes that he was calm. It was as if he was expecting the police. She held him tight with both hands.
“Baba!” Ato howled, “let’s go! Now!”
“Come here, Ato.”
“No! Let’s go!”
They had run from the law a few times. In a couple of cases, with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Ato was used to the drill and was always the fastest to make it to the door. But in recent times, they hadn’t come across the cops because Baba had found new connections in the business and was now liaising with men that had the power and means to support him. It was the men who informed him of his impending arrest. They also assured him that he was going to get out of any trouble he found himself. All he needed do was surrender to the law.
“Come,” Baba called Ato for the third time and the fourteen year old walked to him. Baba rested a hand on his shoulder. “don’t let anything happen to your sister. If you find yourself anywhere and things are too bad for you, leave that place and call that number I gave you.”
“You want to allow the police to catch you?” Ato was confused. The man before him was not acting like the father he knew.
An angry bang hit the door.
“They’ve come,” Marie whispered and held Baba tighter.
“Sani Dauda! It’s the police! Open the door or we’ll break it!”
But Baba really had no option. They broke in and advanced towards him.
“I’ll come back,” he said to Marie as he was carted away like the criminal he was. Marie watched from where she stood until the men disappeared.
“don’t cry.” She looked at Ato. “He’ll come back.”
She nodded in absolute faith.
But Baba never came back. Twenty years went by and he was still gone. During the time, Ato and Marie lived their lives in the cover of the same umbrella Baba did. They worked with professional scammers, trained under them and made a living by scamming people around the country.In times when things got hairy and they sought an escape, Ato would try the phone number given to him but he would always meet a dead tone. It drove him into more hatred for Baba and gave him solid reason to walk the same path, only to prove he was better. To him, Baba was weak and a big hoax. But Marie held on strong. As she became a woman, her charm and intelligence began to mark her out as someone to watch out for. Her driving force was the remorseless desire to see Baba again. She was told he was dead, told to forget about him; not even the police trusted he was alive but she held on to her devotion. Her heart had space for only him. He was her strength and also her Achilles’ heel.
Her devotion paid off when on her birthday in 2006 she got a parcel. From the writing she knew it was Baba. She opened the parcel and all she saw was a SIM card and a phone number scribbled on a piece of paper. She dialed the number and got Baba on the phone.
He sounded old, tired, sick but his voice carried some bitterness in it. She didn’t recognize the man speaking to her. He told her the men that asked him to surrender to the law abandoned him. He told of how he was left for dead had it not been for God. He was out of jail but was in hiding and needed her help to get him back into the real world. He needed a certain amount of cash and he knew she alone could get it for him.
The money was to come in batches from different sources, one long con after another. Marie had no objections. She would do anything he asked. Through the course of two years, she worked with some of the more notorious fraud handlers in the country, men whose names were on the Interpol Most Wanted list. But Marie did not care, even against Ato’s objections. She had protection. The law could not touch her. She became respected with each completed job and earned her stripes by her ruthless and unsympathetic manner. Where men could not venture, she walked in fearlessly and succeeded. She was untouchable.
But there was one last scam.
After this, Baba assured, they would meet again and live clean lives.
She was given a name…
The family dealt in diamonds. The scam was simple: to use Alhaja Nnenna’s shop as a front to sell diamonds to a certain mark for millions much more than the real worth. But the job had come with a double face, the other side being a diamond heist after the initial work was completed. Marie was to give a drop on where Alhaja Nnenna kept her most expensive diamonds to a certain group of guys who were going to rob them.
Marie was not comfortable with the arrangement.
Wasn’t it her father who always held that thieves were the lowest scum of the earth? Had jail changed him so much? Baba explained that he had no choice; he was forced into it from the powers that were. Marie was his only hope. And with much cajoling, he had her agreeing to the take the job.
Marie walked into the lives of the Bahaushes, unsure about herself, which was new for her. But it got worse when she discovered she was falling for the maternal charisma of Nnenna. Though she couldn’t see her face, she felt connected to the woman in a gripping manner. There was comfort each time she sat with her; wisdom in her company. Marie had a strong urge time and again to reveal her secrets to her but she held her heart against all compulsion, until Jimi got thrown into the mix without prior warning.
That day, as his eyes held hers, she was arrested by something she couldn’t understand. Udoka would laugh about it later and tell her someone somewhere was either praying well for her or cooking up some strong jazz to destroy her business prowess. Whichever it was, Marie didn’t take well to it and yet, oddly, she couldn’t stop herself from accepting Nnenna’s deal. It was something she didn’t discuss with anyone. She made the choice all on her own and kept mum about it. Weeks later, she got invited by Jimi to a getaway in Jos where they stayed for seven months and kept off radar. For the first time in Marie’s entire life, she rebelled against Baba without even a single thought.
Baba was enraged. She had embarrassed him and cost him a lot. Furthermore she was going to hurt herself by allowing her feelings come before every other thing in her life. Marie apologized but she was settled on her actions. Nothing could sway her heart from Jimi. So Baba let her be for a while and it seemed she had been free from him but he came back strong again after the birth of Kiki. One last job, he begged. He was desperate, he was sick, his life was in danger if he didn’t pay up the money they wanted from him. They were also threatening to expose Marie.
She was torn. She couldn’t betray Baba but she couldn’t let Jimi know who she really was. It was better for her to leave, to go away. She didn’t want to stay and hurt him, not with Baba as a permanent fixture in her life.
Ergo, she agreed to Baba’s wish and he sent a name. Luiz Benicio. The rogue son of an oil magnate in Brazil. He possessed stolen money that he didn’t want traced back to him. It was Marie’s job to show him the way.
But first, she had to die…
Translations:Ba ko mi (Hausa): Nothingka tashi (Hausa): get upKose (Hausa): Akara, bean cake