The long golden fingers of the early morning sunlight filtered into the cathedral through the broken windows and open roof, but the atmosphere within the big church was still cool, even cold.
Surrounded closely by his men, El Soldat walked slowly through the big double doors into the cathedral. He stopped a short distance from the doors and took off his dark glasses, folding and putting them away in a breast pocket as he looked around the place carefully. His men formed themselves up even more protectively around him, all of them well armed and very watchful, AK-47 rifles at the ready.
Unarmed, except for the pistol in a side holster at his belt, and completely unbothered, El Soldat took his time looking the whole place over and the destruction pleased him greatly. His eyes soon fell on the four well-armed men standing across on the opposite side the big cathedral and the pleasure evaporated.
One was right in the altar area, one each by the side doors close to the altar area and the fourth man who carried the briefcase that surely had his money, stood calmly in the middle area before the altar itself. El Soldat took note of the way the man stood, the way they all stood, their military stance and well-placed positions. They didn’t look afraid at all and they were not packed up together like fools instead they were spread well out so that it was impossible to kill all at once with a single burst of gunfire. They looked sharp and ready for action in a way that screamed ‘serious military training’ particularly this one with the briefcase. The arrogance in his face and stance, yes, he was definitely the leader.
It all added up, thought El Soldat bitterly as he stared hard at the man with the briefcase. Whoever heard of negotiators coming several hours ahead of schedule, then picking a different meeting place and asking the hostage-takers to follow! The audacity of it! One way or another, by Allah’s help, he would surely redeem his reputation this very day before the sun was high in the sky else he would be the laughing-stock of the whole Islamic army long before nightfall. How in heaven’s name had they even gotten this far south without being spotted? He would surely find out and then some stupid heads would fall off their shoulders.
El Soldat looked around the upper levels of the big cathedral but saw no one, yet he was very sure that these four men putting themselves on display in plain sight so fearlessly were not the only ones here. The communications devices he was seeing attached to their ears were sure proof of that. El Soldat cursed foully in his heart, wishing he knew how many they really were, how many more were on the upper floors.
Only if he knew, he would take them on, right here and now, he’d had enough of this nonsense.
The man with the briefcase suddenly moved and El Soldat’s eyes jerked back to him at once. He saw the man throw his rifle carelessly aside on the floor and start walking forward unarmed.
Alex stopped in the middle of the church and placed the briefcase flat on the iron offering box he had carefully setup there only minutes ago, then stood and waited quietly for El Soldat to make his move.
El Soldat held up a hand for his men to stay put, as he walked forward to meet the man. He stopped ten feet away from him and the two men stared at each other for several moments.
No one in the cathedral spoke or moved, but the tension was intense as the two leaders stared at each other in the middle of the cathedral.
El Soldat gestured at the briefcase and spoke calmly in perfect English. “I take it that’s my money?”
“Not until I have the girl in my possession,” replied Alex equally calmly.
El Soldat made a mocking sound in his throat. “Is it complete?”
“One million dollars. Not a cent less.”
El Soldat jerked his head. “Open it.”
Alex shook his head firmly. “You need to have the girl with you and she has to be completely unharmed before we can proceed any further, that’s the deal.”
El Soldat stared hard at him and Alex held his eyes.
After what seemed like an eternity, El Soldat dropped his gaze down to the briefcase on the box between them, then he turned and waved a hand towards where his men stood.
“Bring her here,” he commanded.
At once, one of the terrorists emerged from behind the group at the door, dragging a hooded figure roughly along by the arm as he came forward. Alex saw at once that the figure was clearly a woman and her hands were bound together in front of her.
El Soldat received the prisoner from the man and turned back to face Alex with her. The man moved back to join the group at the door.
“Here is your girl, safe and unharmed. You may ask her yourself,” said El Soldat mockingly and tore the black hood off the head. “She was improperly dressed when we got her so I had our women cloth her up correctly and they looked after her properly too as you can see.”
Alex stared hard at the woman. It was her alright. She was even more lovely than in her picture despite being without any makeup. She was big in build, as tall as her captor who was around six feet in height, and not even the shapeless long robe she wore, despite being so loose, could hide the impressive curves of her richly endowed body. The robe and hijab were of a nice green material and they covered up all her body except her face, hands, and sandal-clad feet. It was exactly the way Muslim women dressed in this region, but … something was not right.
The girl looked terrified and a bit tired but the light in her eyes was still there, they hadn’t harmed or broken her in any way and she looked completely fine… too fine, too well taken care of. Even the green attire and sandals weren’t common, they were all high-quality materials.
The alarms in Alex’s brain were suddenly ringing and his heightened senses now noted the way El Soldat had his arm around the girl’s waist. He looked into her eyes, and suddenly, he knew.
“Open the briefcase,” said El Soldat.
Alex tore his eyes off the girl and looked at El Soldat, then turned to the briefcase. He keyed up the number lock, depressed the two buttons and the briefcase snapped open. Lifting open the lid, he turned it around to face El Soldat.
“The number key is 555,” said Alex.
El Soldat stared at the piles of hard currency in the open briefcase. They were neat but clearly used dollar bills as he had instructed. He pushed the girl roughly towards Alex as he moved forward to take the briefcase.
Alex caught the girl and pulled her several steps backward with him, pushing her protectively in behind him as he stood his grounds facing El Soldat, fixing him with a hard stare.
El Soldat checked out a few random wads of the money. Satisfied, he closed the briefcase and smiled twistedly at Alex as he picked it up to leave.
“Enjoy thy life while it still lasts, infidel,” said El Soldat in Arabic then turned on his heels and walked away, heading back towards the door and his men.
Alex stood perfectly still and watched him go, but all the alarm bells in his brain were ringing even louder now.
The armed men opened up for El Soldat to get through, closed around him again and followed as he went back out through the big doors.
The five soldiers kept careful watch from their various positions in the cathedral as the terrorists went out to their vehicles and began to get quickly in. The two jeeps started up, made swiftly U-turns and sped off back towards the gates.
The two vehicles disappeared from sight through the gates and only then did Alex move.
He turned quickly to the girl standing behind him.
“Did they harm you in any way?” he asked at once.
Her lovely dark eyes stared at him with confusion, but she shook her head.
Alex already had his commando knife out in his hand. He took her hands and carefully cut the nylon ropes binding them tightly together. She winced as her hands came free, and then started rubbing the wrists gingerly as if in some pain. The ropes had bruised her delicate skin, but it didn’t look too bad.
Alex put away the knife quickly and took her hands. He examined them carefully then reached up to lift her head by the chin with his fingers.
“Look at me,” he said, quickly but gently.
The girl looked at him, her lovely liquid dark eyes stared into his with confusion.
“Are you really alright?” he asked carefully.
Her full red lips moved slightly as she spoke in the most beautiful soft voice Alex had ever heard. “Yes, I’m fine.”
Alex saw Samuel bring up a chair to the offering box, and then Rufai was suddenly there by the girl, the folder he had been carrying around with him in one hand.
“I’ll take it from here, Mr. Okoye,” said Rufai coldly as he caught hold of the girl’s arm and dragged her roughly off towards the chair.
The girl winced in pain at the powerful grip on her arm.
“What’s going on?” demanded Alex, then he saw the girl’s pain. “Take it easy, you are hurting her.”
Rufai turned on him at once, pointing a warning finger. “You stay out of this, Mr. Okoye. Your full payment and the nice fat bonus you were promised is already guaranteed.” Rufai dragged the girl on towards the chair. “Come and sit down here, Aisha. For the first time in your life, you are going to do exactly as someone tells you.”
Rufai shoved the girl roughly down into the chair, slapped the leather folder down on the offering box before her and opened.
“Now this is a simple document and all I want you to do is sign it,” said Rufai forcefully and slapped a pen down on the paper.
The girl stared up at him. “You would never dare lay a hand on me if my father was here.”
“Your father can’t be here or anywhere else right now because he is very dead. Get that into your stupid head,” growled Rufai harshly, tapping his head emphatically. “Your uncle who cared enough to pay the heavy ransom demanded for your freedom, despite the fact that you got into this mess by disobeying him directly, is now the head of your family and you will show him due respect from now on by doing exactly as he wishes” Rufai pointed at the document. “Sign that paper and the next one under it. Do it now!”
The girl glanced at the document a moment, then looked back at him. “You can take your documents and run right back to your master,” she hissed. “I will never sign anything.”
She spat right on the document.
In a flash, Rufai slapped her hard across the face. It was more of a heavy blow and it knocked the girl right out of the chair, sending her sprawling on the floor.
Alex started to move forward but Samuel stepped in his way with a raised hand.
“Cool it, man. It’s his call, we were told.”
Alex forced himself to stay under control.
“We don’t have time for this, Rufai. We need to get out of here right now,” he said urgently.
Rufai didn’t seem to hear. He was a man possessed as he dragged the girl roughly back into the chair, yanked her head cruelly back by the hair and hajib and leaned down until his face was right in her upturned face.
“The time when you talk to me anyhow and get away with it is now over, you spoilt bitch,” he snarled with pure hatred. “I can kill you here right now and nothing will happen.”
The girl spat right into his face.
Rufai drew back sharply in shock and wiped a hand across his face. He let out a deep bellow of rage and in a flash, drew back his arm and slapped the girl hard across the face yet again, with a lot of strength this time. The powerful blow knocked both the girl and the chair backward of balance and they crashed to the floor.
Rufai kicked the girl viciously with his booted foot.
“Stop it!” shouted Alex angrily and started forward again.
Samuel made the mistake of stepping in his way again in a bid to stop him and in one swift movement, Alex knocked aside his outstretched arm with one hand and hit him in the throat with the curved open palm of the other hand.
Samuel staggered backward as white stars exploded in his brain and before his eyes. He clutched desperately at his throat as breathing became difficult and went down on his knees.
Rufai saw Alex coming and clawed for the big revolver in his side holster then froze as he saw that Alex already had his own gun out and pointed directly at his head. He lifted his arms out to his side and up.
Alex jerked the gun. “Move away from her.”
Rufai smiled a thin smile. “What if I don’t? Are you going to shoot me?”
“No, but I will physically restrain you.”
“Perhaps you had better think carefully now before you actually do something that will rob you of sixty million naira.”
“Having you assault and brutalize a defenseless woman was not part of the agreement.”
“The agreement was very clear,” said Rufai angrily. “I take charge of things from here and do with the girl as I please.”
“We will revisit that agreement again, but at a safer location,” said Alex firmly. “We need to get out of here right now before those terrorists return in numbers.”
“Those terrorists have taken their money and gone, they are not coming back. And we are not going anywhere until I say otherwise, and that’s when this bitch signs these papers or dies here.”
“That girl is now under my protection,” said Alex in a hard voice. “If you or anyone else touches her again, even by mistake, I will hurt that person badly.”
Rufai smiled an ugly smile. “Really? Perhaps you should look behind you first?”
“Put the gun down, sir,” came Efosa’s voice from behind him.
Alex didn’t move. He kept his gun pointed at Rufai as his brain swiftly tried to calculate Efosa’s position behind him by the sound of his voice, but then he noticed a movement upstairs and saw Garko too with his rifle aimed at him.
“I know you are capable of crazy things, but the man behind you is a sharp shot and he’s got a rapid-fire assault rifle pointed right at you,” Rufai smiled and jerked his head upstairs. “So has the one above. They won’t miss. Put down your gun.”
Alex abruptly lowered his pistol and put it back in his holster. “Seriously, Rufai, we need to get out of here right now. El Soldat will be back for this girl, look at the nice and careful way they have her dressed. He plans to keep her!”
Rufai jerked out the big revolver from his holster and pointed it at Alex. “You are a pompous fool who doesn’t know when to shut up and mind his own business even when he’s paid handsomely to do just that. You should never have crossed me”
Rufai fired fast, three times.
The first bullet took Alex full in the chest and the force of it knocked him backward several steps. The second bullet took him in the stomach and the third, following swiftly into his chest again, knocked him clean off-balance and off his feet. His body hit the floor with a heavy thud and lay still.
The girl’s high-pitched screams split the air but were cut off as Rufai kicked her viciously again with his booted foot.
Samuel struggled to his feet, breathing heavily, still with a hand to his throat. He had only been incapacitated briefly not permanently hurt, breathing was becoming easier now. He stepped over and stared down at Alex’s lifeless corpse on the floor.
“You shouldn’t have done this, for Christ sake,” he said angrily to Rufai. “He was no real threat to any of us.”
“He was in my way and that’s what happens to people who get in my way,” snapped Rufai harshly.
Samuel stared at him then turned away with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Get done with your business quickly and let’s get out of here.”
“We have some new visitors, sir,” called Garko urgently from upstairs. “Two pickups full of armed men are approaching fast from the town. The Cherokee and Helix are now coming back up the road too!”
“Shit!” cursed Samuel and glanced down at Alex’s corpse again, pointed at it as he looked angrily over at Rufai. “He was right after all. He was always right and you killed him for it!” Samuel turned to his men. “Back to the bus, NOW! Move it!”
Samuel and Efosa started to move quickly away.
“Help me with the girl” yelled Rufai urgently as he gathered up the folder.
“Help yourself, you stupid fool! I wasn’t paid enough to come here and get my head chopped off by religious zealots!” shouted Samuel angrily as he snatching up his rifle quickly from the floor and starting for the door.
Garko, having rushed down the stairs from the top floor, leaped clean down from the balcony of the middle floor, landing perfectly on his hands and knees on the ground floor. He rushed over and dragged the girl up from the floor.
“Come on, run for your life,” he told her urgently.
Forgetting his rifle and the girl completely now, Rufai ran for his own life.
They all ran for the side door by the altar area which was the closest route to the bus parked out back behind the cathedral. Efosa took the lead, he was the first man out into the compound and he was expecting trouble from the front gates not from the rear gate so he wasn’t looking that way immediately.
The mounted heavy machine-gun of the Toyota Helix pickup truck, now parked outside the back gates opened up at once and its big high-powered bullets cut Efosa almost in half, scattering the bloody pieces of him in different directions. Samuel skidded to a halt just in time and scrambled back quickly into the church as high-powered bullets sprayed the doorway, tearing chunks of concrete off the walls. There was a terrible crashing sound as the powerful pickup truck smashed into locked gates with its solid steel crash bars like a battering ram but the gates held fast.
“God!” breathed Samuel as his brain fought desperately for a solution.
The four other jeeps were suddenly speeding in through the front gates, armed men were leaping off them and firing spontaneously at the cathedral with their assault rifles.
“Take cover! Take cover!” yelled Samuel and dived for a huge pillar.
Rufai did the same thing too, and in his fear, didn’t even notice when the folder he carried fell right out of his hands. Garko dragged the frightened girl down protectively against a wall with and tried as best as he could to cover her with his body, he wasn’t about to lose the one thing that would make him a millionaire so fast.
The terrible crashing sound came again accompanied by the angry roar of a powerful engine and the rear gates exploded open with another terrible crash. The dusty white pickup truck tore through into the compound and came to a halt close to the cathedral as more armed men poured out of it and spread out fast.
Heavy gunfire started coming from every direction, keeping Samuel helplessly pinned to the pillar. Rufai too and even Garko with the girl was no better off. Rufai looked openly terrified now and Samuel hated him for it. He was the cause of the whole fuck up, the fool!
The first of the insurgents started coming into the cathedral through the big double doors to the front and Samuel, seeing he was completely exposed, moved out to engage them. Firing his rifle at full automatic, he killed only two before his body was riddled with bullets from different directions. He tumbled to the floor and lay still in death.
Garko instantly went berserk at the sight of his commander’s dead body. He tore loose two grenades, tossed one through the nearest window at the exposed shooters out in the compound and hurled the other at the advancing terrorists at the big double doors across the cathedral.
The terrorists saw the bombs come and scattered for cover, but the grenades exploded too quickly and killed several of them.
Garko was instantly on his feet, screaming like a mad bull and firing his rifle spontaneously at anything that moved.
“Come and get it, you bloody bastards!” he screamed as he gunned down two men trying to get in through the doors.
A volley of automatic rifle fire from the windows and the door behind him blew Garko halfway across the cathedral. His bullet mutilated corpse hit the floor and began to bleed pools of blood.
Rufai lifted his arms high in the air as the terrorists came pouring in through the doors and windows. He never fired a shot and his big revolver never came out of its hostler. He didn’t even know where his rifle was.
To Be Continued…
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED by the author Eze King Eke (@www.kingezesblog.com)