It was an abyss.
The silent nothingness persisted. Darkness.
And then, there was the sound of a light tap on a wooden door. But it could also have been a footstep. Or even the clap of a handshake between long time buddies.
In the darkness, Olai overheard muted conversations, but didn’t quite hear the words. Just two different voices taking turns muttering from somewhere far into the dark.
He took a breather. The whiff of dust in the air. Smell of rain. And engine oil. And sweat. Weeks old sweat. The sweat was the only strong smell. Where the hell am I?
The darkness ignored Olai’s questions.
The footstep – it was a footstep – sounded again. This time only a little bit louder than the first one. The next step was even louder than the second one. And the next one after that was louder still.
The darkness persisted.
The slap on Olai’s face was hard. And cold. Chilling. Everything after the slap happened slowly. Like in a nightmare. But he witnessed every one of them.
The slapping palm melted. Became ice cold liquid. Spread all over Olai’s face. Stung every skin on his face. Obstructed his breath for a second. Forced his eyes open. His head jerking with a start.
The slap had been water. Ice cold and quick. Splashed on his face.
Olai was alert now, but the weariness in his eyes – the pain – persisted.
He opened his eyes. A headache split his skull in two. An efficient invisible carpenter pounded with fury on a blunt nail, determined to drive it into Olai’s head. And every strike came down directly on the nail’s head. Again. And again.
He squinted as the bright light flooded his eyes. And then the muttering voices exploded into roars of laughter. The smell in the place took on a new intensity.
All his senses were back in full gear. The sting in his eyes persisted. Is this how it feels just before death?
The cold water flowed down onto Olai’s shoulders. Sending chills into him. He looked down. His shirt was gone. As was his singlet.
He was seated in a wooden armchair, his hands cuffed behind the backrest of the chair. His trouser looked dirty. Did someone drag me through the floor?
Olai’s feet had lost the shoes he knew to have been on them. The floor was sandy. His feet were also somehow tied to the foot of the chair. He could barely move them.
How long was I out for? He had no way of knowing. He tried asking the question. His lips refused to go open. He raised his head, opened his eyes a little bit more.
A man stood there before him, looking over Olai, a smirk on the man’s face. In his hands was the bucket whose chilled contents he had just emptied onto Olai’s face.
Olai remembered the hard face immediately. The man had changed out of his camouflage khakis, but the broken nose bridge was now quite swollen. This man had stopped laughing, but someone else was chuckling in the room.
Olai blinked. His eye lids closed over his eyes. But it seemed to take ten hours for them to open back up. The invisible carpenter rammed a good one onto the blunt nail. Olai felt the nail break through his skull. When he opened his eyes, the broken nose still had the bucket in his hands.
Olai heard door hinges swing. Sharp pain registered in his eye socket as he followed the sound with his eyes.
The other man in the room was slipping through the open door. The door hinges began another round of tunes as the door came back shut.
“I think say you wan watch me oh.” The man with the broken nose said, turning his face to the door. The door hinges paused. The door swung open again. A head came through.
“O boy, I get work to do na.” The head said. “Take am easy oh.”
“Me go enjoy this one. Trust me.” The man with the bucket said. The head at the door disappeared. The door slammed shut.
Olai watched the man walk to a wall, where he replaced the bucket beside other identical buckets. All of them black with age. Old and broken plastic 20-liter gallons stood there as well. About half a dozen of them. There were also patches of black paints staining the brown sands on the ground. Condemned engine oil spills.
“Where am I?” Olai’s words came in a drawl.
“Shhhh.” the man said, his left hand now tying a black rag around his right hand – the palm and the back of it – his eyes focused on the black rag as if it was a chore of life and death importance.
The man’s next words were slow. “I go spoil your face, sotey you no go know yourself for inside mirror.” The black rag went between the man’s thumb and forefinger. “You hear me?” The black rag came all the way back to the palm, and the man sent it between his forefinger and middle finger.
Olai blinked that slow blink again. He slept off. A second later – or it could have been two hours – he snapped his eyes open.
The man was soon done with preparing his punching hand. Olai watched him flex his fingers, and then ball them into fists.
“Oluchukwu Nnam.” The man said, closing the distance to stand just before Olai, the dark ring of hatred in his eyes evident. “We’re going to have some fun together, Won’t we?”
“What is my offen-”
The first punch snatched away Olai’s jaws. Something cracked. Olai tasted blood. Every sound from the world around him went away, like someone had just tapped the mute button on some giant remote. Only that zing in his head remained.
The sound of a hard chalk crawling across an old wooden board.
That invisible carpenter slammed his finest blow yet. The cap of the nail must have broken off now from the fury now.
Olai’s eyes flew open. He balled his hands into fist. Threw a powerful kick at the man. The kick would have sent the man crashing through the door, but the ropes held Olai’s feet in their place on the floor, denying him his kick.
The second punch tore into the right side of Olai’s face, reminding him he still had a jaw. The lights went out at the back of his head. And then came on again.
Olai’s lips were on fire now. The sting spread throughout his face, registered in his brain. Pain. It exploded in his skull. He spat blood – and perhaps his entire guts. His nostrils and mouth were bloodied now.
This soldier sure knew his way with a fist.
“And that is only the second punch.” The soldier smacked. Olai squinted his eyes expecting another punch. It didn’t come. He opened his eyes. The man was now some distance away.
“No hurries now.” He said, a smirk on his face now. “Don’t worry. You’ll get what is coming to you.”
Olai had a full mouth. He spat. Blood. His teeth seemed to have lost their place on his gums. He saw the man close the distance between them, his right hand ready for another punch.
Olai closed his eyes. Finish me already. The darkness in his closed eyes was soon to go out in flames.
But it didn’t happen. He kept his eyes closed. Anytime now. Anytime. He waited for it.
But then Olai heard the sound of swinging door hinges.
“Holy Cow.” A new voice shrieked. “Jeremy, what are you doing?” A heavy footstep stomped on the small stones.
“He was going to get what-” Jeremy began.
“Shut your pie hole,” the voice said, “and get this man cleaned up. Do you want to get me in trouble?” The voice went on ranting, but the only things Olai made out of the words were the fear in them, and something about the SSS being on their way here.
“Get him cleaned up.” The voice said, and stopped. Olai relaxed, letting himself settle down. There was not going to be any trouble for now.
The footstep marched out, the door hinges began their swing again.
“You know what?” Jeremy whispered to Olai, his breath tickling Olai’s ear, drawing a sharp breath from Olai, forcing his eyes open. “You are one lucky son of a-”
The door swung back open.
Jeremy’s breath went away.
The SUV drove through the double gates that led into Patrick Ama’s compound, and stopped a little distance away from the door of the main house.
The driver killed the engine, but seated in the backseat of the car, Agent Ella didn’t move. She took a deep breather. Then she let it out slowly.
One more time. Just one more. And then I resign.
“Are you sure you don’t need me at the murder scene?” Yuri’s voice sliced through her thought. He was seated beside her in the near darkness of the car.
“You know how it often is with you at murder sc-”
“Don’t, Yuri.” She said. “Just don’t. Don’t you dare condescend to me.”
“I was not condescending.” He said. “I was only looking out for you.”
“Why not stick to the plan I laid out?” she snarled, hooked her hand in the clip on the walls of the car door, pulled it, pushed the door open. She met Yuri’s surprised gaze in the dim blackness. “You want to look out for someone? Get Olai. You said the soldiers have him here somewhere. You bring him in, and let me do my job.”
She pushed the door open. How dare he condescend to me?
“What have I done n-?” Yuri’s voice reached Ella before she slammed the car door.
As she began her walk to the entrance door of the large building, she heard Yuri shut the car door from the other side of the car. His footsteps came from behind.
Ella didn’t even know why she was pissed off at him. But she was. Oh yes, he was condescending on me. I hate that.
The door went open, and a man in black suits came through.
“Agent Ella,” he said, “thank you for coming on such short notice. My name is Captain Audu. Officer in charge here.”
“What do we have?” Ella said.
“Three dead. One suspect.” Captain Audu moved aside as Ella walked into the house. He turned and followed her. “The house cook was found in the kitchen, dead. While man and wife were killed in their bedroom upstairs. It is straightforward, really. The suspect came in, killed the cook, killed the senate president and his wife. Case closed.”
“Can you let me get to work?”
The man must have noticed Ella’s foul mood, because he went mute.
Ella got to the middle of the living room, and stopped, letting her eyes scan the place. The living room was large.
“Anything else I should know?” She asked.
“This is a completely straightforward case, agent Johnson.” Captain Audu said.
Oh? Of course that is what you think. Ella nodded at him. She buried her hands in gloves and took a deep breath.
“Can I have the entire house, please?”
“I want everyone out.” Ella said without looking at him.
“Of course.” His voice betrayed his resentment. Ella ignored it. She waited for everyone in the house to get out.
Sooner or later, the house would sing to her.
And houses and rooms sang better and louder to her when she was alone with them. She knew.
To her, it had always been some kind of secret confession from murder scenes.
And only me can be allowed into the secret.
Soon enough, the room began to sing.
Ella couldn’t have imagined what she was to find out next.
Ella walked around the living room.
Sing to me.
She took a deep breath, letting her mind do what it did best – sifting through clues, crossing them, picking out their underlying meaning. Her eyes looking around.
The smell of baking cake lingered in the large house. No. It was burnt cake.
Someone had started a cake in the oven, and had let it burn.
Or perhaps the person had died before the cake was due, she thought, remembering the officer had said the cook also died.
Ella let her eyes go from the TV hanging on a wall, to the cushioned seats. The tiled floor. The posh curtains. I could never afford this house if I put ten years of my paycheque together.
Which is why I’m going to resign. I should do something else. And not have to see deaths every single day. That is going to change immediately after this case.
Alone now, she implored the house to spill its secrets.
Sing to me. What happened? Who happened? How did it happened?
From somewhere in the house, the tick-tock of a clock came to her.
Ella turned her attention to the front door. If someone is going to kill someone in a house, they had to have gotten into the house somehow.
The front door was one of the two doors leading into this house. The door had a key inserted in its keyhole. The lock was a Bernstein product. And Bernstein only produced click-back latches. Which meant that it didn’t open from outside.
It was either the killer lived in the house, or opened the door with the help of someone who lived in this house.
Olai had been found at the scene.
She ignored that thought. I’ll deal with him later.
Besides he didn’t make sense as the killer.
The soldiers say he had come through the gate. In a cab. And had knocked. And had been allowed into the house. Why would a killer announce his entrance, if he wanted to do something like this?
It just didn’t look plausible.
Except the killer wanted to be caught. Or maybe he had planned that to be his alibi. Ella saw through it all. She was going to nail him as the killer.
But for now, I need this house to sing.
She turned to the door leading out of the living room and into the kitchen. She pushed the door open.
On the floor, a naked woman lay dead.
Ella ignored it. Not time for that yet.
Her instinct settled on the door leading from the kitchen to the back of the house.
Someone had to have gotten into this place before the body was killed.
And there was the question of whether the body was killed here or not.
Once Ella’s eyes rested on the door knob, she knew someone had picked that lock. Olai had come in through the front door – or so she had been told. Which meant this was not him.
Is someone trying to frame him? She opened a file in her mind, and shelved that thought.
She turned to the body.
The body on the floor was naked. Completely. Reminded Ella of Aisha in the bathtub. Beside it were a gown, an apron, a chef’s hat. A house cook’s entire clothing.
Captain Audu had said this woman had been the house cook. Ella looked at the clothes for a while. Why would the killer undress this woman after killing her? Except the killer had needed the clothes. So maybe the killer came into the kitchen, found this woman, and needed to use her clothes. Right?
Nope. This woman could not have been in the kitchen while the door was being picked. She would have raised alarm.
Okay. So she was not in the kitchen. Could it be that she came in after the killer had picked the lock and was already in? Seemed more plausible to Ella. She stuck with it. Her eyes moved to the body on the floor.
The woman had no wound on her body except for a neat cut into her neck, which went all the way round the neck.
The cut itself was hidden from Ella’s view, covered by swollen skin on each side of the cut line. The picture of bloodied rubber band around a power wrestler’s biceps.
There was trickles of blood around that rubber band line, but that was all the blood there was.
Could that have been a knife cut? No. It would have taken a very good sculptor to put a cut this clean round a neck with a knife. And besides, it would have taken forever to carve.
The fingers of the dead woman were curved, like she had been struggling before she had died. This had happened in an instant. It had been a surprise cut. That cut couldn’t have happened in more than ten seconds. But Ella still could not figure out what exactly had made the cut.
She bent down now, her eyes focused on the cut round the neck of the dead woman. She pushed with an index finger into the skin around the cut. Ella’s eyes widened in shock as she realized what exactly had happened here.
This was no knife cut. It had to have been a string.
The movie started in Ella’s mind before she could stop it. The killer had picked the lock. Come in through this door. Strangled this woman. Fibre wire. Ella bet the place had been silent and dark. She jumped over the dead body, her index finger fusing with the light click on the wall, bringing the kitchen to darkness.
There had to have been darkness here. If not, the house cook would definitely have seen the intruder and made an alarm. But it was also possible for the lights to have been on.
Ella switched on the lights again. It wouldn’t have been difficult for the killer to hide from someone walking through the door from the living room. The door would have closed in and hidden someone who has his back to the wall just beside the door hinges.
Why door hinges? Because that is where I would have hidden if I was the killer.
Ella clicked off the lights again.
She was blinded in an instant as her eyes struggled to adjust to the blackness. She preferred the darkness theory better. She shut the door leading out to the living room.
Okay. So the killer had picked the lock. Had come into a dark kitchen. The house cook had come in from the living room. Ella turned the door knob, opening the door leading out to the living room. She slammed her back to the wall beside the hinges, as the door came open.
The movie continued in her mind. Footsteps. The cook’s footsteps. A gentle breath. The house cook smelling for the cake. The light from the living room sipping through the door as it went open.
Ella had the door open now. Okay. The cook had come in. What else? Ella’s subconscious took over the movie. Did the cook put on the lights?
No. the attack had to have been faster than that. Or maybe she did put on the light before the attack. It wouldn’t matter either way.
Fibre wire. Strong fingers. Wire on the cook’s neck. Pull. I bet the intruder would have turned her back to make the cut go deeper and more powerful. Ella turned her back, both of her hands together in motion, as if she was holding the fibre wire.
The assassin fused her back to that of the victim. Ella bent a little from the waist.
She took a step away. The cook in Ella’s movie was dead on the floor, unable to choke out her screams. Ella felt her mouth go dry.
She turned her attention the clothes beside the dead body. There was no blood visible to her. Why would the killer need the clothes?
Ella let her eyes go round the kitchen. The sink. The beautiful kitchen interior. The movie paused. The kitchen was done speaking.
She pulled the door open, walked back into the living room. The staircase stood to her right. She turned to it, placed her left hand on the rail, and her right leg on the first step.
She took one step up the stairs. Her foot on the step sounded like a light clap. Hard leather on tile. Ella looked back. No. The killer probably didn’t look back.
If the killer was as professional as she had proven to be in her methods so far, then she had run up this stairs. Ella ran up the stairs. Her heart quickened following the run.
When she reached the top of the staircase, her eyes fell on the open bedroom door.
She took a scan of the small living room before her. There was a small wooden table in the middle of the arrangement of seats, standing in the middle of a square shaped rug, a black and a white remote controllers on the table.
To the foot of the white wall was a sound system, and an arrangement of CDs. Hanging on the wall above the CDs was a small flat screen.
Ella’s eyes rested on the cushioned seats. And her eyes were drawn to the first seat from the staircase. Something about that seat.
Ella moved to it, her eyes running up and down this particular chair. It wasn’t the arms of the chair. Neither was it the backrest. Nor the headrest.
It was the main seat of the chair. There was a slight dent curved into the seat. It was just slight, but it was there. Ella moved to it, her eyes running up and down the chair for some other clues.
Maybe she was seeing things that weren’t there. But it was either someone had been sitting here, or something had been dropped here.
Could the killer have come up and sat down here? Ella bent down, her eyes coming level with the seat of the chair.
On the seat was a thin film of dust. But in the dent, from Ella’s position, it looked like someone had cleaned out the dust. Someone definitely sat here.
Ella sat in the seat.
This doesn’t make any sense. Why would a killer come in here, and get down on a seat first. Waiting for something? Someone? Some kind of sign?
A thought occurred to her. What if someone who lives in this house sat there and not the killer. Does that even help the case?
She shrugged, turning her attention to the open door.
Ella got to her feet, walked to the open door of the masters’s bedroom. One look at the door told her that this lock had been picked as well.
Okay. The assassin had run up the staircase, sat in the cushion. Waited for whatever it was he waited for. And then when the time was right, he picked this lock. And walked into the master’s bedroom.
Ella’s stomach became an iceball when the first thing she saw was the blood smear on the bathroom door. That had to have come from a gunshot.
The bathroom door was shut, but just slightly open, and from that little slit between the door and the doorframe, she caught sight of white tile inside the bathroom walls.
The bedroom had the slight smell of body fluid. Just a tint of it. But Ella knew that smell.
It was unmistakable. Someone – or people – had had sex here not long ago. She took another puff of the air, and decided it could not have been more than an hour ago.
She turned to the bathroom door and pushed it open. The first stimulus to hit Ella’s senses was the smell of the place. Fresh shampoo. Like someone had just had a bath. But that was not what held her interest right now. Her skin jumped when she beheld the sight before her.
The bathtub stood to the left of the bathroom. White. Sparkling. The curtain separating the tub from the rest of the bathroom had been pulled to one side.
The main basin of the tub where most people sat, the head of the tub where there was a faucet and a wet soap, the other end of the tub where most people would put their foot, the rimmed length connecting the head of the tub to the foot where most people would hold onto with their hands when using the tub.
The one fused to the wall, and the one on this side close to Ella.
Except for five red marks crossing the centre of the rimmed length like Adidas’s three stripes against white leather shoes. Blood. Congealed.
The five lines continued down the side of the bathtub, and trailed off halfway down. Ella brought her eyes down to the bloodied hand on the bathroom floor, fingers stretched just a distance away from the bathtub.
The woman had tried holding onto something – anything – on her way down. The bloodied fingers were connected to naked arms.
There was a dot on the dead woman’s forehead, and a dried irregular line of blood meandering from the bullet hole down the side of her nose bridge, down her cheeks and to the floor, meeting a pool, red against white tiles.
A hole on one of her breasts. Body covered in blood. The sight slashed through Ella’s heart, giving it a bump, like a bullet hole just made a replica on her chest. Instinctively, her right hand came up to her chest in defence. There was the sudden urge to vomit.
Ella looked away for a while, and remembered that she had been holding her breath. She took in a deep breath. Hated the smell filtering through her nostrils.
Her mind was on overdrive though. Okay, so the killer came into the room, walked into the bathroom, put a hole in the woman’s head, and another shot on her breast.
Or was it the breast first before the head? Ella liked the head first.
No. Her mind recoiled. Head-first didn’t make sense. If the woman had been shot on the head first, how did she get blood onto her fingers and onto the bathtub?
She would already be dead shortly afterwards.
The killer had to have shot her breast first. Instinctively, anybody would raise their hands to the chest in that instance, therefore staining her fingers in her own blood.
Okay. It was her chest first.
Ella turned away, walked – more like hurried – out of the bathroom. As she walked out, something caught her eyes. She looked down at it.
It was the second line of arranged tiles on the floor just outside the bathroom door. The dried water made an irregular map on the floor.
Ella took a look and knew it for what it was. A footstep. A bare foot. Her mind connected the dots.
The wet soap, the fresh smell of shampoo in the bathroom. The dead woman in the bathroom must have just had her bath.
There was a sudden cut in the movie playing in Ella’s head. The assassin had not gone into the bathroom. The woman had just finished having a bath, and had come out to meet the assassin.
She looked down at the drying shape of footprints. Her eyes went back to the dead woman’s feet.
Yup. Same size.
Ella imagined the surprise on the woman’s face when she might have seen the killer.
Okay, so the killer had come in, seen the woman come out of the bathroom. Shot a hole in her chest and then her head. Or maybe the killer had had two guns. Two of them going off simultaneously.
I bet it had been silent. Ella looked around for the spent cartridge of the gun. She found none.
Of course. The killer was a professional. Why would he leave that kind of clue?
Ella turned to the bed now, and froze.
Senate President Patrick Ama laid in the bed, his head – his left side – on the pillow, his eyes closed, facing Ella. A duvet covered the man’s lower body, from his feet to just underneath his armpit, his arms at ease, sprawled on the bed towards Ella.
The weight the arms sank into the soft bed, the bed making a groove around the arms. Slight groove. Filled with blood. Congealed blood.
On the face of the man, there was a kind of gentleness. Like he was at peace. Finally.
A lone fly sang its requiem as it flew all over the body on the bed. It landed on the handle of the dagger sticking out of the head, pulling Ella’s attention to the weapon. A ball of hatred for the fly exploded in Ella’s guts.
How dare this creature.
The hatred was replaced with a burning in her chest. The room grew smaller, and there was that sudden compulsion to flee. She took a step backwards from the bed, a feeling of uncleanliness washing over her. A choking sensation in her throat. Disgust.
Ella heard the slam of a door from downstairs. The bang gave her a start, but she calmed herself. I hope that is Essien and his team.
When she brought her eyes back to the dead man on the bed, the fly was now on the man’s skin, at the angle between the knife and the man’s temple.
The man’s temple.
Pete’s words came through to Ella. Sisera. A tent peg was hammered into his temple, pinning him to the ground.
Ella turned, walking away from the bed, and out of the bedroom. It was only when she got to the small living room outside the bedroom that she began to feel the cool of the air conditioner. Her arms had a thin film of sweat on them, amidst the standing hairs.
And then something else occurred to her. Sisera had been killed by a woman. Why else would someone have killed the house cook, and then undressed her? He needed her clothes. He had come up dressed as a woman. Was that what he meant by the Sisera clue? A woman nailing Sisera to the bed?
What a psycho.
Ella heard the footsteps climb the staircase. She turned her head to the staircase, and saw Essien’s head come up on the staircase. And then those of his team. Two men carried cameras – a video camera and a still pix cam. Of course. This was not a story to keep away from the media.
Ella met Essien’s gaze, and a concerned look crept into Essien’s face. He walked up to her. Essien’s team crowded the place, and after muttered acknowledgments to Ella’s presence, moved into the bedroom. The photojournalist was already taking shots, his camera shutter making its signature snap sounds.
“Have you seen the bodies?” Essien asked.
“How are you doing?”
“I’m fine.” She said.
“Are you sure?”
No I’m not. As a matter of fact, I want to leave this place. I want to leave this place and never see another murder scene again. And I want to resign. Aarrggh.
But Ella just nodded again. And then she remembered the note she had seen in the hotel with Aisha. She turned her head towards the bedroom, meaning to walk in, but caught herself.
“What is it?” Essien had reached her by now, placing his hand on her shoulder, eliciting a sudden little shudder from her.
“The note.” She said, and then sighed. “Maybe – I don’t know – if it’s the same killer, perhaps he – or she – left a note. I was wondering…” she trailed off.
“I’ll be sure to get it to you, if I find something like that.”
The guy with the video camera stepped forward.
“Agent Gabriella Johnson,” he said. Ella turned to him. “Good afternoon.”
“Not now James.” Essien pushed the camera away. “She needs some time.”
“But for the report, I will need-”
“Do the report without an interview from the investigating officer, then.” Essien said. It was final. The media guy turned, his face a mask of disappointment, walking away.
“Thanks.” She nodded.
Essien walked into the bedroom, fitting his hands into a pair of white gloves.