Audu .. audu … audu
The Dana airlines afternoon flight from Lagos touched down on schedule at the Nnamdi Azikiwe international airport, Abuja.
When Alex walked into the arrivals hall of the domestic wing of the airport, he spotted Mr. Basil Audu right off and with him was another man who could have easily passed for the driver of the Range Rover Jeep Alex had seen parked out on the street in front of his apartment building two days before. Both men were in smart dark business suits, but the second man had on dark glasses to go. He looked like he belonged behind a gun rather than behind a desk like Mr. Audu did. The man was just above average height and powerfully built with the kind of erect bearings and spread-legged stance that spoke clearly of military training.
“Welcome, Mr. Okoye,” greeted Mr. Basil Audu enthusiastically as he came forward to meet Alex with an outstretched hand. “I hope you had a nice flight?”
“Yes, thank you,” replied Alex and shook the proffered hand.
“Please, allow me,” said Mr. Audu, reaching for the mid-sized suitcase Alex carried in one hand. It was his only luggage.
“Thank you,” said Alex.
The other man hadn’t moved an inch but kept staring fixedly at Alex. He was a dark hard-faced man with a bad scar on his left cheek that made him look ugly and mean. Alex couldn’t see the eyes behind the dark glasses to analyze him more, but generally, the man looked to be in his early to mid-forties, definitely Hausa man and definitely with some military training.
Alex’s trained eyes swiftly picked out all these details and more as he released the suitcase to Mr. Audu who then passed it over to a uniformed attendant with a few quickly murmured words.
“Please come with me, Mr. Okoye,” said Mr. Audu, turning swiftly back to Alex and waving a hand ahead in the direction of the exit doors. “We have a car waiting to take us directly to your hotel.”
Alex noted that Mr. Audu, with all his civility, made no move to introduce the military-looking man and the silent man never took his eyes off him. The man fell in behind them as they moved off towards the doors, following the uniformed attendant who carried the suitcase.
As they exited the huge air-conditioned hall into the terrible mid-afternoon heat, a sleek black Mercedes-Benz s-class car rolled up and its boot popped open.
The uniformed attendant, following Mr. Audu’s directives, went straight over to put away the suitcase in the boot of the car and to Alex’s surprise, the military guy walked quickly forward to rear door of the car, the owner’s side door, got it open and gestured politely for him to get in.
Alex gave him a cool nod as he stepped up to get in and the man returned it. The door closed firmly after him.
Alex made himself comfortable in the owner’s seat as Mr. Audu handed the uniformed attendant some naira notes, then went around the car and got in from the other side. The military man got into the front passenger seat beside the driver who was also dressed in a smart dark business suit.
The big car drove off smoothly, heading into the city.
Alex was fairly familiar with the nation’s capital city. He had been a regular visitor to it for the over two years he worked for Military Intelligence, which, like all governmental institutions, had its headquarter right there in the city. Some of his sojourns in the city had lasted quite a while even as others had been very brief. Once, his entire Special Forces team had been drafted down to provide top security for a presidential function that pulled in several high-powered VIPs from other countries including heads of state. He had spent a week in the city then, and six days of it had been work. Vacations in the highly élite Special Forces were a rare thing when the country was battling the terrorists on all fronts.
Abuja was one of the most beautiful cities in the country and indeed Africa. It ranked among the top twenty most expensive cities on earth to live in, was the fourth in Africa and had the highest concentrations of expensive luxury hotels to prove it.
The drive took twenty minutes, and then they were pulling into one of the exclusive luxury hotels. It was The Nordic Palace, one of the more private three-star luxury hotels in the city.
They had booked him a whole suite on the top floor and Alex was really pleased by the sight of it.
One of the senior hotel staff had personally followed them up and he now stood by the door with Mr. Audu, watching as Alex looked the place over. The military guy hadn’t come up with them, he had stayed put in the car with the driver. The uniformed velvet having put aside Alex’s suitcase which he had brought up, went about the business of turning on the large flat screen television and the air conditioning system.
“It’s fine,” said Alex, with the ease of a man used to high luxury on a daily basis.
“Very good, Mr. Okoye,” said Mr. Audu. “This suite is yours for as long as you require it and all your expenses will be taken care of by us. Ahmed here will always be available to provide whatever it is you may need.”
Ahmed was a capable-looking man of about thirty, dressed in a smart dark suit with the hotel name and logo printed on the lapel of the jacket. He gave Alex a polite smile and a bow.
“We are honored to have you as a guest, sir,” he said in perfect English. “If there is ever anything you require, please ask and it will be provided at once.”
“Some fried rice and a cold bottle of excellent table wine for lunch will do for now,” said Alex right off. “I’ll leave the choice of wine to you.”
“Excellent, sir, your order will be right up shortly,” said Ahmed at once. He bowed again and hurried off with the velvet, leaving Alex alone with Mr. Audu.
Alex glanced around again. Although he had, in the past, played escort to a few political big shots who stayed in high luxury places like this on a daily basis, he himself had never stayed in one before, but he could really get used to it fast.
“I will leave you alone now to rest,” said Mr. Audu. “Later this evening, by six o’clock, I will be back to take you to meet my boss,”
“Alright, thank you,” said Alex, going over to shake hands with him.
Mr. Audu left then, closing the door behind him.
Alex went over and sat down tiredly in one of the big armchairs, took off his shoes and stretched out his aching body. He hadn’t slept much last night despite the rigorous exercise routines which drained him of much strength, he’d been too busy straightening out his affairs, bring himself up to date on relevant issues and doing a lot of thinking, all of which keyed him up in such a way that he had forgotten completely about food. He hadn’t bothered with food since lunch at the office yesterday and that was a very good thing because it showed that his special forces training which could push him for days without food was already beginning to kick in again at the thought of battle.
Alex was right in his prime, just two months over twenty-eight years old, six feet one in height with a powerful broad-shouldered athletic build that had been rippling with hard muscles six months ago, when he was still in the Army and undergoing daily vigorous training which kept him very fit. But now, the easy living of civilian life had softened his body all up and his reflexes were no longer razor-sharp. He hoped to God the hotel had a state-of-the-art gym where he could work on his body, conditioning it very quickly for action. He hoped also that he had the time to do that because the difference between full fitness and unfitness could translate into life or death in the war business and he would most likely be going really deep into enemy territory this time, to the worst of the worst places.
Alex stared at the flat screen television with sightless eyes as his mind raced with thoughts and possibilities. He soon came to a decision, got out his cell phone from his trouser pocket and dialed an unusual four-digit number from memory, an old number he hadn’t had to call since leaving the military and its location was right there in the city.
The call went straight to voicemail and Alex proceeded to leave a short message.
Once done, he put the phone aside on the side stool and sat back to wait for the food.
Soon enough a knock came at the door and it was room service. His lunch had arrived.
After washing down the wonderful meal with a bottle of wonderful table wine, Alex took off his T-shirt and, clad only in jeans trouser and white singlet, lay down on the huge cozy bed to take a quick nap.
Alex slept for two hours, and then his inbuilt alarm clock, another product of his special training, brought him awake at about three o’clock. He got hold of Ahmed right away to show him to the gym where he spent two hours working out vigorously with the state-of-the-art exercise machines there.
By five O’clock, Alex was under a cold shower, which refreshed his body completely. By six, dressed in red shirtsleeves, black trousers, and shoes, he was sitting in the hotel lounge, drinking an expensive glass of martini and reading a newspaper when Mr. Audu showed up to whisk him away for the meeting.
The military guy was absent this time, but it was the same black Mercedes s-class and the driver in a dark suit. They headed straight across the city and were soon in the extremely exclusive residential district of Jabi where powerful politicians and sitting Federal senators lived, side by side with multi-millionaire and billionaire business tycoons. The large mansions sat on spacious grounds, screened off by well-decorated, ultra-secure, high fences and huge gates. The streets here were broad, well decorated and very well-maintained.
Night had fallen completely by the time the big Mercedes pulled up in front of a pair of huge black gates and sounded its horn once. The gates were thrown open swiftly by a smart-looking, uniformed security guard and the Mercedes pulled smoothly into the spacious grounds of a sprawling white state-of-the-art mansion.
The big car came to a final halt directly in front of the house and two men in dark suits stepped up quickly to get the rear doors open.
Alex and Mr. Audu get out from the back seats.
The whole compound was well-lit and Alex could see men in dark suits standing at strategic positions. All of them were well-built men and they were very much on the alert. Three of them stood close enough for Alex’s trained eyes to pick out the slight bulges in their jacket, under their left arm, a clear indication that they were all armed with shoulder holstered pistols. Alex took in the whole scene swiftly and realized that Alhaji Mustapha Usman was a billionaire of no ordinary caliber.
One of the suited men stepped in before him, indicating he spread his arms for a body search and Alex obeyed without question. He knew the routine for getting past high-level security, he had been drafted to such security detail too many times while serving in the military not to, and he knew too that this particular billionaire had good reason to be very wary given the rate at which his family members were vanishing into thin air.
The man patted him down quickly with expert hands and stepped away. Mr. Audu, standing and watching to one side, took over at once.
“Please come with me, my boss is already waiting,” he said, gesturing towards the house and leading the way.
An armed bodyguard also in a smart dark suit was standing at the large mirrored glass double doors that were the front doors of the mansion. He got it open as the two men approached and held it wide for them to go through.
Alex followed Mr. Audu into a large, lavishly furnished, high ceilinged living room that was as good as anything any five-star hotel could offer if not better. The place was empty and Alex followed as Mr. Audu continued straight on across to a wide archway, up the two wide steps and into a second large living room that was no less lavishly furnished but also empty. Two hefty bodyguards in suits stood by another set of mirrored glass double doors across the room and they eyed Alex as Mr. Audu led him over.
Mr. Audu, paying the bodyguards no attention whatever, pushed one section of the doors easily open and they went through into a third living area. This one was large too, and equally lavishly furnished but the large glossy surfaced conference table there with chairs for ten, made it look more like a conference room than anything else.
Three men sat talking at the table and Alex recognized the Alhaji right off. He was seated at the head of the table and the man seated in the chair to his right was the military-looking man from the airport. In the chair next to the military man was s third man Alex hadn’t seen before but also military looking.
The three men had stopped talking as Alex and Mr. Audu entered. The Alhaji, dressed casually in trousers and a polo shirt, sat completely relaxed in his high-backed chair, his expressionless face giving away nothing. The faces of the other men gave away nothing either.
“Welcome, Mr. Okoye,” said the Alhaji as Alex walked up with Mr. Audu.
“Thank you, sir,” said Alex.
“Please, be seated,” said the Alhaji, waving a hand at the vacant chairs to his left.
Mr. Audu took the chair closest to the Alhaji and gestured Alex at the other. They sat facing the other two men across the big table.
“Gentlemen,” began the Alhaji at once, sitting forward and placing his arms on the table, a very serious expression on his face as he glanced around at the four men seated before him. “We are now complete in number so let us get down to the issue at hand right away. First things first, introductions,” he gestured at the man seated directly to his right side. “Mr. Okoye, I believe you’ve already met my head of security, Rufai.”
“Yes, sir, we’ve met,” Alex nodded once to the hard-faced Rufai who was dressed in a gray suit and blue shirt sleeves now but without a tie this time.
Rufai returned the nod.
The man had probably been at the airport to size him up close with trained eyes, thought Alex with an inward smile. All the bodyguards he had seen so far, including this chief of theirs, couldn’t stop him from getting in or out of this place if he wanted to, he could take all of them apart in style and within a very short time. This Rufai must have figured things out because Alex saw something akin to respect in his hard eyes.
“And this is Samuel,” the Alhaji was saying, pointing at the other man sitting next to Rufai. “He is an Army Lieutenant like yourself, but still in the force. He and his team of two men will be providing support for you on this mission.”
Alex looked at the man, sizing him up quickly. He was a good-looking dark-skinned man of about thirty with a powerful build. His wide shoulders, chest, and biceps bulged with muscles that stretched out the white T-shirt he wore. The calm, dark eyes that stared back at Alex had the arrogant look of a well-trained fighter with a lot of confidence in himself, but you never really know what someone was capable of until you saw them in action.
The Alhaji was talking generally now, gesturing at Alex.
“This is Mr. Alexander Okoye, ex-Lieutenant of the Special Forces. He was Special Forces too, and he fought the insurgents in the northeastern territories for nearly three years until he left the force six months ago. Because of his invaluable experience and knowledge of both the terrorists and territory, he will be the negotiator and tactical leader of this mission. Rufai will be going in with you people as a liaison for me, he will have administrative charge but will not interfere with Mr. Okoye’s decisions in any manner. As a former Army officer, himself, he can take care of himself out there and the objectives of this mission, as I precisely wish it, are well-known to him. Every equipment that may be required for this mission is already in place at a safe house in Maiduguri and in a minute my assistant will outline your travel arrangements directly from here to the safe house,” he said gesturing at Mr. Audu. “Rufai will access a safe there at the safe house to obtain valid military documents to cover the mission. In the safe also is a briefcase containing the full amount of money required for the ransom payment and this, Rufai will hand directly over to Mr. Okoye,” the Alhaji looked directly at Alex. “The last four digits of your military identification number is the key to the combination lock on the briefcase and inside, along with the money, you will find an envelope with transcript records of all the conversations I have had, hitherto, with the terrorists as well as a phone that has their contact number already imputed, several pictures of the girl are also present on the phone to get you personally familiar with your objective but Rufai knows her perfectly well having watched her grow from childhood. You will take up communications with the terrorists from there on and the responsibility of arranging a secure meeting place will be yours entirely,”
Alex nodded. “What sort of vehicles and weapons will we be getting?”
The Alhaji waved a hand at Rufai.
“There will be two powerful four-wheel drive vehicles of different calibers parked within the compound of the safe house. The final decision of which one to be used will be yours since you are already familiar with the terrain of the area we are heading into,” said Rufus. “As for weapons, there are different kinds, automatic pistols, revolvers and Ak-47s rifles, lots of ammo, some grenades too, and even top-grade radio communication devices, you get a pair of powerful binoculars. We are going in fully prepared for a fight if there’s one.”
“Are there adequate tactical maps of the area?” asked Samuel.
“Very adequate ones,” replied Rufai “Everything you may need from brand new Army camouflage uniforms and boots to your specific sizes to knives and digital watches. The only things that are not there are dark glasses for the sun, those you will have to bring if you need them.”
“When did you people get the maps?” asked Alex.
“A week ago,” replied Rufai. “We haven’t been able to get updated versions since but that shouldn’t matter too much.”
Alex said nothing further. He would get his hands on better maps soon enough.
“Basil?” prompted the Alhaji.
Mr. Audu spoke. “You have all been booked on the same morning flight to Keno airport tomorrow. A trusted employee of ours will be arranging separate pick up setups for each of you at the airport, and then convey you all on across the state border to the secure house in Maiduguri.”
“Why not just fly us directly to Maiduguri airport and save the unnecessary land journey?” asked Samuel.
“That airport has been shut down for over two years now due to the incessant bombing activities of the insurgents,” said Rufai.
“Where were you stationed, Lieutenant?” asked Alex dryly.
“The 23rd based in Warri” replied Samuel. “My men and I have done several tours of duty in the worst parts of the Niger-delta”
“Rampaging cultists, pipeline vandals, illegal oil bunkers and trigger-happy youths who enjoy blowing up things now and then,” Alex smiled at him. “What you’ve got down there is basically part-time mayhem. Up there in the northeast where the sun often gets so hot it peels the skin off your face, you’ll meet a full-fledged war with a real war front, only no one is really sure where that war front is because the bloody insurgents always come pouring out of every direction, north, south, east and, unbelievably, the west as well. They are incredibly dedicated, incredibly motivated, well-armed, well-organized and fully mobilized at a time the Nigerian Armed Forces are struggling to reach a reasonable level of mobilization courtesy of the stupidity of politicians. The soldiers are outgunned and outnumbered on all fronts, they have to give ground constantly and fall back to avoid having their lines overrun, and just when everyone begins to think the situation is under some control, the terrorists come crawling out of the woodwork in cities and towns that are supposed to be secure, and start blowing things up, only they’re not using conventional weapons this time, just harmless looking women and girls in voluminous robes and hijabs that cover the bombs strapped to their bodies as they walk right up to their targets and blow themselves away along with every other person in the vicinity. Crowded market places, mosques, and churches are usually their prime targets now but when it all began it was the motor-parks and the airport mainly. The government had to shut them all down very quickly to save a lot of lives and expensive infrastructure.”
There was silence as the men all stared at Alex.
“You make things sound much worse than I’ve heard,” said Samuel.
“It’s much worse,” said Alex.
“It’s been nearly six months you left the Army and the north entirely,” said Rufai. “Things can’t be the same till now. The newspapers say the military is beginning to make much progress up there,”
Alex shook his head firmly. “The newspapers will say what politicians secretly pay them to say, presidential elections are just around the corner and the politicians know they need to look good to get a shot at reelection. With the number of fraudulent arms procurement deals coming to light now, if anything has changed up there, it’s for the worse. That war has gone off the scales and there is almost nothing the military can effectively do about it right now. You’ll see what I’m talking about soon enough, just be ready.”
There was another long moment of silence as they all stared fixed at Alex.
Mr. Audu cleared his throat uneasily and glanced at his silent boss “Gentlemen, let’s keep in mind here that this is just a simple ransom exchange mission, which will only take one to three days and then be over very quickly. I don’t think it’s a good idea to scare ourselves before going to work, eh?”
Samuel actually laughed and Alex found himself feeling more comfortable with him. When going into action it was good to know that the person trusted to protect your back could do the job very well.
“If those bastards come looking for trouble from me, by God, they will find it.” said Samuel.
They were all quiet for another moment, and then Mr. Audu began to talk again, directing his words at Alex, Rufai, and Samuel.
“Although you are all going on the same flight, each of you will be traveling separately to avoid any suspicion from security operatives who are now at hyper-alert levels up here in the north due to the terrorist problems. The cars that brought you here this evening will take you straight back to your hotels and the drivers will hand each of you a small suitcase in which you will find your airline tickets and some spare cash. Mr., Samuel, you men should be getting delivery of theirs right about now. The suitcase can only take two changes of clothes and a few other personal items, these should be enough for the estimated three-day duration of the mission. You will be traveling light and fast through security conscious territory, gentlemen, leave most of your things behind in your hotel suites and carry absolutely no weapons on you. The cars will be back at your hotels precisely at eight o’clock tomorrow morning to take you to the airport to board your flight. Once you arrive at the Keno airport, you will be identified by the bags you carry and picked up separately by very ordinary taxi drivers who will take you to a central location within the city to meet up with our man. It is he who will be responsible for transporting you all together to Maiduguri and the safe house. Whatever you need from there on, Rufai will provide as explained.”
Mr. Audu glanced at the Alhaji as if to say he was done.
“Gentlemen,” said the Alhaji, taking over again. He glanced at Alex and then Samuel. “I need not stress to you the importance of keeping all information about this mission completely secret from beginning to end. As far as anyone is concerned, this meeting never took place and we never met. All contacts with me from here on will be restricted to my assistants, Basil and Rufai” he gestured at the two men. “I want that girl back at all costs and once you have her in your possession, Rufai will take over at once. He knows exactly what to do with her from that point on and I expect you two to follow his instructions closely from there in order to accomplish the rest of this mission to my satisfaction, and thereby, earn yourself the bonuses I promised each of you. When all is done and you return back safely to your hotels here in Abuja, all payments will be made to your bank accounts within twenty-four hours,” the Alhaji was looking from Alex to Samuel and back but more at Alex. “Do we have an understanding?”
A deep-set instinct for taking orders before a mission had Alex nodding his head and Samuel was doing the same too.
“Yes, sir, we do.” said Samuel.
“We have an understanding, sir,” said Alex, and then glanced across the table at Rufai.
Alhaji Usman sat back in his chair “There are only five days left to the deadline given to me for the ransom payment. Before that deadline comes, I expect to have the good news from you people that my troubles are over. Good luck, gentlemen.”
The Alhaji picked up the glass of water on the table before him, sat back in his high-backed chair and took a long drink.
The meeting was clearly over.
Rufai and Basil stayed put with their boss while the bodyguards at the double doors escorted Alex and Samuel from the room, out into the compound where the Mercedes and a Lexus car waited to take them back to their separate hotels.
Both cars left the mansion together but split up on the highway as they headed in different directions.