“The signs are not so good,” thought HD. As if the alignment of the stars was purposefully working against him that day, he kept having mishaps, like forgetting his cell phone halfway through bumper-to-bumper traffic, then a nasty paper cut as he tried to open an envelope. Now this, after reaching his apartment at dusk and relaxing in his skivvies. “An asset is down.” A code phrase for a recruit harmed or worse, killed. As part of the forensic team, he knew he had to get to the site, inspect it and gather evidence and if able to-make that always attempt to- collect blood specimen for analysis. Time was of the essence.
This was no ordinary asset. She worked in the Finance Ministry for many years and now was an attaché for business development at the Nigerian Embassy in Washington, DC. She was intimately involved in the negotiations of the oil leases covering a large territory. The Chinese had expressed an interest and in a high stakes geopolitical game, keeping the flow of oil open to satisfy the West’s thirst for this dark liquid was of utmost importance. Shades of the oil embargo in 1973 had taught the powers that be in Washington, DC, to be leery of relying so much on one source. Industrial espionage was a craft practiced by all parties although officially they all deny it. Black gold had always piqued the interest of private enterprises as well as governments because of the riches involved and its importance in revving the economic engine of a nation.
HD had painstakingly cultivated the source, using all the tricks of the trade, including seduction, to corral her support to join the cause of defending Uncle Sam’s interests. It all began many years ago when he was posted in Nigeria. He had gone to a Sade’s concert in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city and they met after the concert during a VIP post-concert reception. A graduate of the London School of Economics, Nyami was a very smart woman, known for her repartees and quick wit in conversation. She was petite and lacked the typical generous rump of African women but did possess a nicely shaped one and she knew how to emphasize her body proportions in bespoke colorful kente outfits. She had a special liking for turbans, each wrapped like a piece of art. She was exhibit A of understated, yet regal elegance. Something about the aura she emitted and the subtle, wispy-like cologne she was wearing attracted him toward her. He was clad in soft Irish linen and expensive loafers, with a musk of gently billowing essence and he approached her, “I had to do a double take, you are a better version of Sade in person. My name is Henri Daniel, would you mind if I offered you a drink?” The small talk thusly started. He still remembered a defining part during the exchange that first night.
“Americans are so uppity, I can’t stand it. They think the world revolves around them. They expect everybody to know about their culture, but they don’t care to learn about others’. So, are you one of these spoiled Yankees?” She lobbed these words at him in a British-cadence accent.
“Au contraire, I am cosmopolitan in outlook. I can tell by your last name that you are from the once-called Biafra section of the country. And let it be stated that I read Soyinka as well as Ngozie Adichie. And of course, since you studied in London, I want you to know that I also like Zadie Smith. Last but not least, I do know about the Ibo’s travails and the odyssey of Odumegwu Ojukwu.”
“So, we have culture, I see. I am impressed. Maybe I will take you on your offer for lunch. Remember, don’t be sassy or overbearing.” She stated this with the aplomb of a self-assured filly establishing the ground rules for an aggressive colt, yet softening the blow with a faint smile. This was a deft manner to let him know there was some interest, but he would have to earn every kernel of trust.
Over time in subsequent conversations, just to keep him on his toes, she would pepper them with local proverbs, “One who has been bitten by a snake lives in fear of a worm.” One proverb that she cited was still etched in his mind for it took him for a spin for its depth and perspective if not prescience, “Water may cover the footprint on the ground but it doesn’t cover the words of the mouth.” He wondered if she had become a victim of that maxim for she could be quite vocal and opinionated in essentially a male-dominated society with machismo as a common currency.
As wise as HD thought he was, any conversation with Nyami was always an opportunity for learning, be it about history, literature, economics, philosophy. She forever kept needling him about speaking American as opposed to English, “Since the spelling in America was so different from that of the country where the language originated from.” She enjoyed impressing a Yankee fella as much as he had self-given the fiat to lasso her into his sphere of influence. It was a pas de deux carefully orchestrated by two willing participants who ended up enjoying each other’s company because they shared the same kindred spirit.
At the time, he was using the cover of a computer network salesman. He offered-and she accepted-to set up her high-speed internet network with state-of-the-art router, firewall and provided her with sophisticated software and apps. She was a bit wary about technology, but he skillfully made her come around by carefully selecting user-friendly apps and being a very coach. Ever the great conversationalist, after a while he was able to coax her to talk effortlessly about her classified work and to even share some interesting dossiers with him. His tolerance of her feminist stances weighed heavily in the balance. He cleverly took advantage of the inner conflict she was having between tribal traditions and the demands of modern life for a professional woman. He leaned quite a bit on his reading of Adichie and Zadie to assuage her. Quite naturally mixing guile, flattery, and persuasion they seamlessly learned to play with each other and satisfy their carnal needs and inclinations.
The friendship had picked up where they had left off a few years earlier when she had come to Washington, DC to begin her assignment at the embassy. However, she was now dating a Nigerian fella, a Yoruba. That suited HD fine because he was lately becoming more and more emotionally attached to an old flame on the West Coast. She was just as feisty as before.
“We both rub elbows with people with power. Don’t fool me, I know you work for the government. We can help each other. I am very much into monogamy, and I am dating someone. We can help each other, so let’s remain friends.”
That was during the tail end of his tenure with the agency. That plum asset added a halo of derring-do to his resume if you will. Hence, he had a vested interest to get to the bottom line of this imbroglio. He wanted to fire on all cylinders to help resolve this monumental loss and contretemps. To start, he would need to cash in on an IOU with the Chief of Detectives to allow him access to the crime scene unimpeded. The ride from his apartment to Nyami’s flat was barely 15 minutes. He was part of a forensic team not by accident. He had a special talent with his olfactory sense to detect all different scents that most persons would miss. They call this ability “The nose.” Such people are used primarily in the perfume industry to distinguish the slightest deviation in fragrance or to detect subtlest aroma. He did arrive and the police had already cordoned off the area with a crowd of onlookers gawking.
He reached out to the Chief, who waved at him. “You just missed her. She is on her way to the hospital by ambulance and she is seriously wounded, hanging to life by a thread. Go take a quick look at the scene and then see you at the hospital.”
When HD entered the room, he was taken aback. Blood spattered over the wall leaving its characteristic scent when curdled. He made sure he checked for even the whiff of telling odors such as alcohol, spices, any illicit drug, or any other chemical against the background of the overwhelming odor of powdered sulfur from the gun blast. In no time he collected some spilled blood. He did his inspection in as stealthy a manner as possible. Then he headed for the hospital. From this location, Georgetown Medical Center was the closest trauma unit.
“GMC Trauma Unit?” HD asked the Chief just in case there was a diversion of cases from the ER.
“Sure thing,” answered the Chief. “Some case we have on our hands.” He added this with a sigh knowing the Feds would be intrusive in his investigation.
“No worry. We will have your back covered. I will be on this with you.” In this center of power, trading favors was a very common currency. It avoided internecine turf disputes and unnecessary red tape. It always pays to have friends at the right place to make everything move seamlessly. HD and the Chief have such a working relationship and on occasions would go to a ballgame or just shoot breeze. They had similar backgrounds.
At the hospital, he met the Chief. “They took her right to the OR. She sustained damage to a large artery. She is lucky she didn’t die immediately. A neighbor called 911 and here we are.”
“No point me staying around. Anything you found, you care to share with me?”
“Let me send you a pic of a note she left and of her body as we found it.” HD took a cursory look at the pics and felt nauseated. Nyami was indeed badly injured; she had a gun in her hand. Suicide versus homicide versus a make-believe suicide. Try hard as he may have, he needed to take time out to clear his head. He wanted to step back before delving anew into the investigation. He did like her as a person and the gruesome sight had shaken him up. He uploaded the pictures into his computer and took a bath listening to a string of mournful tunes such as Billie Holiday’s “Strange fruits,” followed by Oscar Brown, Jr’s “World of Grey,” Ray Charles’s/Betty Carter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” and of course Sade’s “King of Sorrow,” as well as her “Kiss of Life” as a swan song. He wanted to let out the pent-up bluesy feelings through his pores, clean them and cleanse his soul along the way. He was in the most unenviable position of between and betwixt or the awkward situation of hurrying for feeling harried.
He went to bed that night all forlorn and woke up with the foreboding feel that the evidence he had gathered would give him the proper cue to latch onto the appropriate clues to solve the mystery. He started by reading her note. At face value, it would seem to indicate the reason why she committed suicide. He took the time to read it. It was her handwriting alright, in nice cursive letters. It said:
My wit has reached its end. I see nothing but dark colors. I have lost any zest for life, and I no longer sense my place in its organizational structure. I came to that realization when I couldn’t any longer enjoy a soccer game in the Premiere League. I want to end it all. Et tu?
HD read the note and quickly discovered a trove of clues as he intuitively had suspected. At once, he quickly concluded that Nyami was under duress when she wrote it because of its egregious infraction against her pet peeve: the use of American English spelling and commission of spelling errors. The text was laced with American spelling, “colors instead of colours, organization instead of organisation, realization instead of realisation”. Last not least, “Premiere instead of Premier.” The last two words of the paragraph were very telling. A history buff, she was for certain referring to Julius Caesar’s famous last words when he saw his murderer friend.
“Of my free will, I won’t engage in this type of faulty syntax,” she enjoyed telling him. Ergo, the first obvious conclusion was the presence of a close person who made her scribble the note. She not only did but she sent an obvious message about a search for the surveillance video because her apartment was wired for such. He did help with the installation of such a sophisticated surveillance system. He knew she would instinctively activate it under such circumstances. Still HD was intrigued. Her choice of words was somewhat peculiar. What was the subterranean message buried? She was part of a government, aka an organization. Did she come up against some malfeasance she wanted no part of and for which she may pay for dearly with her life? Just as important the word “soccer” instead of football was a no-brainer. He distinctly remembers a saying she used to repeat to emphasize the influence of customs and choice of words, “The mouth that eats pepper is the one that pepper influences.”
Hence no self-respecting British-influenced subject outside of North America would use the word soccer to describe the most popular sport in the world. This was the type of heresy that could reveal one’s hidden identity in a heartbeat. In short order, HD was able to establish that this was no suicide but a murder with the table being turned against the aggressor in a possibly posthumous reading of a clever memo. The puzzle’s pieces were coming together. The next step was to look at the surveillance video to search for the aggressor. Since this is someone with diplomatic immunity, he would again go through the proper channel to pursue the investigation. A formality really since a no wouldn’t be the answer.
The police had already preceded HD. It already looked at the video and it was already on the news as HD turned on the TV to watch the execution-style murder at the hand of a young man wearing dark glasses. His picture as a most-wanted criminal was now circulating all over. Within hours, the suspect was identified. He was barely twenty with a long rap sheet. An African American and not an African. However, it didn’t add up. “Et tu” meant the mastermind behind this whole operation, and not the one pulling the trigger, was the one HD ought to focus on. HD knew from experience that things are not always what they seemed. Further search needed to take place.
In the first briefing of his investigation, he shared the available evidence.
“So, what do we have? A poorly designed simulacrum of a suicide. What is behind all of this?” His immediate supervisor in his Texas-laden accent egged him on.
“As you can see, she left a road map for us to follow if we know how to read it. The first step is the meaning of the end of the note. “Et tu” is Latin and this is a deft reference to deception, treason by a close one. More than likely another employee is involved in shenanigans she wanted no part of. We then must go to the usual sources, phone records and access to the video for past few weeks. We should guide our friends to obtain all the legal documents for wiretaps since this will likely involve someone with diplomatic immunity.
HD was able to review her phone records, the video for up to the past few weeks in order to establish a pattern of visitors, contacts and so on. Two names kept coming up most often. One was that of the First Secretary of the embassy. He was her senior by 10 years and also an Ibo. The other was a young businessman but a Yoruba, her boyfriend. He was about her age.
The question that HD had that needed an answer was quite simple. Whom was “Et tu” referring to? A jealous lover, a superior committing fraud? Or somebody else altogether? HD did have an interesting case on his hand. He had the determination to solve it.
(To be continued.)
Reynald Altéma, MD.