The filling station
The road was very bad. In places, it was none existent, just a muddy stretch.
Efosa drove carefully, picking out the way in the darkness ahead with difficulty, but keeping up a fair speed.
It was going to five-thirty now and the sky was already lighting up on the eastern horizon.
About two miles from the town, the powerful beams of the headlamps, now switched fully on, picked out a wide cattle trail cutting across the road up ahead as it headed directly south across the open flat grassland. It was the fourth cattle trail they had passed.
Efosa slowed the bus down to a crawl as they approached, and then stopped.
Alex checked out the trail quickly with his sharp eyes then looked in the direction it went.
“Yes, this should do,” said Alex with a nod. “It will hide our tracks well enough from anyone trying to follow us. Take it.”
Efosa swung the wheels at once and the bus made the swift right turn off the road onto the trail.
The going instantly became terrible as the rains had turned the trail into a muddy wallow with large bodies of water in places. The bus soon got bogged down in a large pond-like area and refused to budge. Efosa shifted down a gear and engaged the four-wheel drive, the sound of the powerful engine deepened to a growl and, tires spinning, the bus clawed its way out of the bog.
They drove on for a long while, a lone vehicle plowing its way slowly but steadily through a muddy, waterlogged trail in the vast Savannah. The sky became lighter, the golden rays of the sun touched the eastern horizon with the promise a hot sunny day and the bus no longer needed its headlamps.
The grassy plains all around were heavily waterlogged and Alex knew the dangers of trying to drive directly across them in that condition but his greatest fear was that their tires would leave clear tracks in the ground to alert any terrorist patrol team to their presence and allow them to follow so he had the bus stay put on the swampy trail where the mud and water covered its tracks very well. It was the best opinion.
Twisting and turning, the trail took them well clear of the few villages and minor settlements dotting the countryside as it kept heading directly southward. After they had been going for about thirty minutes, Alex got out the maps provided by Mr. Danjumma and started checking it, cross-referencing with the compass on his watch as he scanned the countryside with the binoculars as well.
“The going is slow but we should be clear to the south of Bama in a few minutes,” he finally declared.
“What about the Fulani settlement you talked about?” asked Samuel from the back seat.
“We should come across it soon,” replied Alex.
“Will it be along this trail?” asked Samuel again.
“No, we’re a bit off course,” replied Alex. “It will be somewhere further to the east.”
The bus kept moving on and five minutes later, scanning the countryside through the binoculars, Alex picked out the Fulani herdsmen’s camp far in the distance to their left.
He passed the binoculars over to Samuel and pointed. “The settlement is over that way in the distance, check it out. It’s been burnt down to the ground and the smoke still rising from it indicates it was done not too long ago.”
Samuel put the binoculars to his eyes, focused and took a good look.
The Fulani settlement which used to be a cluster of a handful of mud huts and tents was now a blackened ruin from which smoke was rising gently. The place was completely desolate, there wasn’t a soul in sight either there or anywhere else in the vicinity. They hadn’t seen either man or beast since leaving Bama.
“Yes, it can’t have been done more than a day or two ago,” agreed Samuel. He moved the binoculars around and adjusted its vision to take a closer look at the immediate area of the settlement again. “Both man, beast and fowl have fled the area.”
“Yeah,” agreed Alex. “All this entire area you see used to be full of grazing animals that roam to and fro, between here, Bauchi and Adamawa states. The herdsmen had comps all around that village and complete freedom of the area. Those terrorists are definitely in firm control of this area so we should be coming across them soon. Everyone needs to keep a sharp lookout from here on, Sergeant Garko, you’ve got the got rear guard,” yelled Alex to Garko seated in the back then turned to Efosa. “Sergeant, just after that ant-hill up ahead, make a turn and head directly west. The land is higher and drier from there on so should be firmer, the tires won’t leave any tracks on the grounds.”
“Is it not yet time to turn on all the lights?” asked Rufai a bit uneasily.
“Not just yet,” replied Alex, not missing the hint of fear in the man’s voice. “This deep into their territory and at a distance, the bus can easily pass as one of their own. We are safe for now.”
Samuel passed the binoculars over to Rufai to take a look too.
About five hundred yards up ahead was a large red ant-hill, the height of a man. When the bus got to that point, Efosa made the turn off the trail and headed directly west over rolling grassland.
They soon intercepted the Zangare-Kure boundary road which ran directly south out of Bama, crossed it and continued on west over flat grassland.
Alex pointed to some building in the distance far to their right. “That’s Bama, we are now directly to the south of it. This area is actually northern Mastari, a different local government area entirely.”
“There’s still no one in sight,” observed Samuel looking at a cluster of deserted low buildings about two hundred yards away to their left. “No sign of the terrorists anywhere either.”
“The people have obviously all fled, but the terrorists are just busy elsewhere for now,” said Alex and gestured through the rolled-up window at the tormented town in the distance. “They are obviously throwing all that they’ve got at the Army in a bid to capture the town, but don’t worry, once they figure out we’re down here with a million dollars, they’ll come crawling out of every corner and every hole in their numbers.”
“Shit,” cursed Samuel.
Rufai sat quietly and said nothing. His heart was beating rapidly now and there was cold sweat in his armpits. The tension was beginning to build up rapidly within him and he hated to think of it as fear.
They drove on in silence for several minutes, the bus picking its way over flat open grassland. They soon cut across the last road running south out of Bama and in a minute had the parallel Maiduguri-Bama road in sight again.
Efosa slowed the bus almost to a crawl as they approached the road and Alex, sitting up in the front seat next to him, scanned the entire countryside rapidly through the binoculars. They were all keeping a sharp lookout now.
“Turn on the lights and hit the road,” ordered Alex.
All lights blazing, the bus shot forward, covering the last fifty yards to the Maiduguri-Bama road swiftly, made the right turn onto it and drove northwards, back towards Bama.
“Slow down,” ordered Alex without taking the binoculars from his eyes.
The bus slowed almost to a crawl again.
It was just past six o’clock now and completely daylight. The rising sun wasn’t a problem and the atmosphere was still cool. The windows of the bus were all open to allow the cool air in and the men see out well.
The flat open countryside laid out all around was devoid of life and the closest structures was a burnt-out kiosk a hundred yards up ahead by the roadside. Far up in the distance, about a mile and a half up the road was the beginning of the southern outskirts of Bama. There were several buildings along both sides of the road up there and one of them was a big NNPC filling station comprising of a large low building with about a dozen pump terminals spread out front under a large red and yellow high metal roof. Most of the other buildings along the road had been destroyed by the terrorists to some extent, some had been razed to the ground, but the filling station still looked firm and fine.
Alex adjusted the settings of the binoculars and the station jumped closer into view. He saw at once that all the show glass windows and the doors of the low building had been vandalized and the place had been looted but the structure itself, the filling station as a whole, still looked in good condition.
“That’s the NNPC station up there, isn’t it?” asked Rufai.
Both he and Samuel were leaning forward in their seats to stare out ahead through the windshield. Both men had excellent vision which was a standard requirement for all Nigerian Army recruits.
“Yes, that’s it,” replied Alex without lowering the binoculars. He kept scanning the filling station and its immediate surroundings through the powerful lens for several minutes, but saw no sign of movement.
“Stop right here, Sergeant.”
About a mile from the outskirts of the town, Efosa brought the bus to a halt in the middle of the empty road.
“Sound the horn shortly three times,” ordered Alex.
“Christ Jesus!” exclaimed Samuel nervously. “We’re sitting ducks in the middle of a fucking dead flat land. We will be heard and seen for miles around!”
“Yes, we are far too exposed here,” agreed Rufai quickly.
“That’s the idea,” said Alex unworriedly, keeping his eyes fixed on the filling station through the binoculars. “It’s time to show ourselves plainly and see who’s home. We’re well out of weapons range, so we’re safe.”
In the dead silence prevailing over the entire area, the loud horn of the bus was like the sound of a huge trumpet, reaching far and out all around, three short blasts of it.
Several silent minutes followed while they all kept a close watch on the filling station and its immediate vicinity far up ahead in the distance.
Nothing moved anywhere.
“I don’t think anyone is at that filling station or anywhere around here,” said Efosa, staring fixed ahead at the object in question.
“I don’t think so either,” said Samuel. He ran his eyes carefully over the flat open countryside spread-out in every direction around them, looked to their rear where Garko, seated in the back seat, kept a sharp lookout.
“There isn’t,” said Alex simply. He already had the binoculars focused on another building beyond the filling station.
“Well, you had it all planned out just right,” said Samuel with grudging respect and glanced at his digital wristwatch. “The place is clearly just a meeting point and we are a clean three and half hours ahead of schedule. I doubt El Soldat has even taken his breakfast or morning bath yet much less started thinking of coming down here.”
“Yes, about El Soldat,” said Rufai. “Isn’t it time to call him yet?”
“In a minute,” said Alex, wishing they would shut up and let his mind work. He kept looking through the binoculars at the buildings up ahead, working things out fast in his mind.
There was silence in the bus for a few minutes as they all kept watch all around.
“I don’t like the look of that filling station,” said Samuel finally, uneasily. “It’s too open, not much by way of solid cover anywhere. If any shooting starts, we’re cooked goose.”
“I don’t like it either” agreed Alex and passed him the binoculars. “Check out the large burnt-out building about five hundred yards further up and across the road from the station.”
Samuel put the binoculars to his eyes and checked the building out.
“It’s a cathedral,” he said.
“Yeah,” agreed Alex. “It’s a Catholic church actually, lots of cover and an alternative exit route out back into the street behind. That’s where we’ll meet them.”
“El Soldat specifically chose the filling station,” said Rufai at once. “Such an audacious change of venue will most likely anger him.”
“Perhaps, but not that much, not with one million dollars waiting for him to pick up. In a way, our early arrival is also to our advantage there.” Alex got out the phone. “Time to tell them we’re here.”
Alex speed dialed and put the phone to his ear.
The call was answered almost at once.
“Who iz zis?” came the heavily accented male Fulani voice.
“It’s me again for the girl,” replied Alex. “I want to talk to El Soldat.”
There was a moment’s silence, and then El Soldat came on.
“What’s the problem?” asked El Soldat gruffly.
“Absolutely none,” replied Alex. “I just called to tell you that I’m already at the NNPC filling station and there’s no sign of you or anyone anywhere.”
El Soldat uttered a foul curse in a foreign language Alex didn’t understand.
“I said ten o’clock and I made myself very clear!” he said angrily. “Are you deaf or what?”
“You have something of great importance to me, so naturally I came as quickly as I could to collect it,” Alex kept his voice down and his manner calm. “I have your one million dollars right here with me and I will wait patiently until you get here with the girl to collect it.”
“Twenty minutes,” came the curt reply.
The line went dead.
Alex lowed the phone from his ear and half-glanced back at the other two men. “That was El Soldat again. He wasn’t even aware of our presence here in their territory and he’s not in the vicinity either, but he says he will be here in twenty minutes. Twenty minutes is exactly the kind of time it will take a fast car to get from Sambisa forest to this place over bad road.”
“You were right after all,” said Samuel with respect. “This is his neighborhood.”
“Let’s hope he doesn’t bring all his tenants and neighbors when he comes calling,” said Alex. He snapped his fingers at Efosa and pointed ahead. “Move it, Sergeant. Get us in that cathedral.”
Efosa shifted gears swiftly and drove forward purposefully