The man took a step back. Eyes unwavering, he slowly extended the fingers of his right hand until they hardened, and then he used it like a knife to pretend-slash his own throat…
She had a grocery bag in the crook of each arm. It had taken some juggling to stuff and carry the overflowing brown bags. As Zara worked her way across the interlocking stone floor, weaving between cars and foot traffic, she felt like a broken measurement scale trying to rediscover balance. Her arms ached. If she sweated a little more, her make-up would be ruined.
Zara’s lips moved in prayer as she walked. Lately, she had been spending every spare moment in prayer. She had literal mountains that needed to be moved.
Arriving at the rear of her car, Zara stood there for a moment, wondering how to reach the keys in a handbag slung across her neck. There was no escaping it; one of the grocery bags had to go on the ground.
“Make I help you, madam?” a voice said beside her. A pair of ashy hands plucked the bag out of her right arm as if it weighed nothing.
Zara swung around to look at a man towering over her. He was huge, and he had a badly healed scar across his left cheek. His thick hands looked like they were made to crush bones. When he held the grocery bag to his chest, a small sheaf of hand-cut paper poked out of his breast pocket.
“I’m so grateful,” Zara stammered, trying not to stare at that face. She quickly pulled out the keys and unlocked the boot of her car. “In there please. Thank you.”
“No worries,” the big man said.
The man did not leave after the bags were locked away. He stood by the boot, watching as she opened the driver’s side door. Zara hesitated, unsure what to do. Was her helper expecting a tip? She didn’t want to insult him by misinterpreting the situation, but the well-worn grey shirt hanging loosely above overwashed black trousers were a clear sign of limited income. Abuja was a horrendously expensive city. She decided to offer him some money.
Zara slipped behind the wheel and opened her bag again. She grabbed two thousand naira notes and looked up. The big man was walking up to the passenger side window. Suddenly apprehensive, Zara resisted the temptation to start the car and drive away quickly. If the man wanted to hurt her in broad daylight, in the parking lot of a highbrow shopping complex with people going about their business all around them, a better time would have been when she was helpless with both arms heavy with grocery.
She readied the money.
The man doubled over to look in the window. His huge hands fell on the sill, rocking the car gently. “Madam,” he said, “Abeg, if you get somebody you wan kill, I fit do am for 10,000 naira.”
It took a moment for what he’d said to register in Zara’s mind.
She had no idea the word had popped out of her mouth.
“What did you say?” Zara asked.
The man took a step back. Eyes unwavering, he slowly extended the fingers of his right hand until they hardened, and then he used it like a knife to pretend-slash his own throat.
Zara gaped at him, unable to speak or move.
The man returned her gaze, his face expressionless. He could have passed at that instant for a statue, immobile, dead.
Zara realized she believed him. The man could take a life and it would mean nothing. With a whimper, she fired up the engine and drove out of the lot, her tyres screeching.
Out on the main road, Zara glued her eyes to the mirror, fearful the man would follow her. What if he chased the car, wielding a blood-stained machete, begging her to please let him kill someone for her?
He was gone.
She sighed. Relief washed over her, but it was not enough to deflate the bags suddenly more pronounced under her eyes. There was just too much going on in her life right now. This craziness was the last thing she needed in her exhausted state. Her left hand was shaking. She took it off the wheel and stared at it. A tiny spider, confused, crawled on a strand of cobweb between her fingers. Zara pulled off the road, opened the car door and gently shook the bug on to the grass. She shut the door but did not get back on the road immediately. She needed a minute. To mutter a quick prayer.
Murder for a price? It sounded like crime fiction. A total stranger had just offered to commit murder on her behalf, at less than 5% of what she had spent to fill the bags in her boot – grocery that was still going to be declared incomplete by the invading judge and jury in her house. Shopping for which she was still going to be scolded like a child by the executioner she hosted against her will…
When did human life become so cheap?
Or was it some sort of prank and she’d missed the joke?
Why her? Why had the man singled her out to ask? Was it something about her face? Her appearance? She pulled down the visor above her head and examined her reflection in the mirror. The exhaustion temporarily displaced by panic was rushing back. Could it be the red lipstick? She’d chosen it today because she wanted a bit of colour to offset her state of mind. Maybe it was her comportment that had triggered him into thinking she was open to murder…
She wanted no one dead!
No! No one!
Well, maybe one person.
Not dead. Just gone. Out of the way. Preferably out of the way.
If she objectively considered it, being dead was out of the way, right?
As a matter of fact, being dead could be better than just being out of the way. It was a permanent solution. Wasn’t the permanent solution the better solution?
Zara’s mind was in knots.
The shopping was another silly errand that the housemaid was perfectly equipped to handle. That was part of the responsibilities that came with being the help; a key reason why she paid premium to have a live-in, dedicated maid in the capital where demand for such services outrun supply. But since her sister-in-law relocated to live with them, whatever rules she had set to guide the household had been bare-boned and upturned. Her family was no longer her family as it had been for the past ten years of marriage. A stronger force had invaded and hijacked her home…
“When you let other women shop and cook for your husband,” sister Labake had needled on another of her unending rants, “how long will it be before they snatch him away from you?”
Ladi had almost dissolved their plans to get married a decade earlier. Their four-year engagement had been kept a secret and it had taken him one moment of rebellion driven by love to defy his sister and get married to Zara. After the wedding, Zara thought a kind God had intervened when his company transferred them to Abuja, away from sister Labake’s possessive influence in Lagos. Her sister-in-law’s occasional visits over the years had been torturous, but bearable in small doses…
Now she slept in the room next to theirs…
Sister Labake wasn’t able to conceive. After years of waiting, her husband had impregnated and married a younger woman. Unable to accept the betrayal, she’d vacated her marital home and moved to theirs in Abuja.
It was now six months later, and sister Labake had reclaimed her position as Ladi’s personal god. Zara’s husband had mentally and emotionally reverted back to when as orphans, she mostly raised and ran him. There was no competing or negotiating with that. He took her word over hers. He heeded her counsel above all.
“Stop resisting my brother,” sister Labake would say on mornings after Ladi had mauled her in bed in expression of some unspoken aggression. “Let him pour life into you. You must be good for something…” To her, the squeaking sounds the bed made were a clear indication that Zara was terrible at sex. She didn’t think two children were enough for a man of Ladi’s social standing, and now he was pushing to have more. Sister Labake thought a husband who worked so hard and made so much money ought to have a wife dedicated to his needs round-the-clock; and now Ladi was asking Zara to stop working and become a housewife…
There was no limit to sister Labake’s influence. Zara knew Ladi would never evict his sister. In his head, he owed her his life for taking care of him as a child. And for some inexplicable reason, the older woman’s driving impulse seemed to be a gradual erosion of Zara’s status and identity. Could she be trying to end her brother’s marriage?
It had not occurred to Zara to see a doctor yet, but she had read enough to realise she was depressed. Her days were tormented. Her nights were sleepless. She felt like something that was fading away…
If the woman could have such a devastating impact on the family in six months, how far would she have gone in a year? Two?
It had crossed Zara’s mind that life would go back to normal if sister Labake returned to her husband in Lagos. She had prayed to God to make that happen. God could do that. He could make the company transfer her family again. To the UK or US office. Farther away.
But while waiting on God, Zara needed a quicker solution to her problems before it drove her insane.
“Abeg, if you get somebody you wan kill, I fit do am for 10,000 naira.”
The money was nothing. It was an insignificant amount.
She had never considered such an extreme action.
Well, except for that one time she’d wished a freak accident would take her sister-in-law out of the equation. A lightning strike? A bridge collapsing? A helicopter blade breaking off in the air and impaling? A mini volcano erupting under her feet?
It was just that one time…
If she didn’t count the other times she had been grossed out by the wet, squelchy, chewing noise sister Labake made when she ate and had silently called upon the sour spirit of suffocation to obstruct her air passage…
Yes, that time too.
She was in a fight for her life! Her family! Would her thoughts be considered proportional to the threat her sister-in-law posed? Or was she subconsciously sledge-hammering a bug? Was she an evil person now and bound for hell fire?
Her first impression of the man’s hands… that they could crush a man’s skull… Was that how he did it? Did he crush his victim’s head with his bare hands?
She had been praying…
When the man leaned in the window, he’d dropped that strip of paper with his number on the front passenger seat…
It was a sign.
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