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The offices of the Nigerian Energy Ministry were not as opulent as, say, their Arab counterparts in the Persian Gulf Emirates. Though no longer number one on the list of the most corrupt nations on earth, Nigeria definitely hadn't fallen off the charts. And that put them in a no-win position. Too sumptuous and everyone would be shaking their heads knowingly. Too Spartan and they'd be wondering whose Swiss bank account the ministry decorating budget got siphoned into. Unlike other colonial subjects the Nigerians couldn't even blame it on the British, since they'd built their capital, Abuja, out of the empty savannah beginning in the 1970s.
Abuja had supposedly been situated in the center of the country as a symbol of religious and ethnic neutrality between the Muslim north and Christian south, but most thought there were two real reasons. From the Roman aqueducts to the American interstate highway system, there was no surer source of graft than big public works projects. Build a capital city from scratch and the opportunities to skim were endless. Coupled with that was the popular Nigerian belief that their politicians had up and decided to build themselves a whole new city because the old capital of Lagos had become just too squalid and dangerous for them.
All that oil wealth still had to be displayed, however, so there were the tropical hardwoods and traditional artwork contrasting with the usual worshipful representations of that source of all good things: oil derricks and offshore platforms. Just like the Persian Gulf, there was that same nagging element of insecurity, as if the Nigerians felt they had to show the people they did business with that they weren't just a bunch of spear-carrying natives.
And they might not be wrong, Peter Avakian thought. At least based on the way his own client talked about them. He was about to return to the paperback on his lap when one of the Nigerian members of his detail caught his eye.
In the security business most of your day was spent waiting around for the principal you were protecting to do his or her business. Some people took to this better than others.
Avakian was consulting with Safoil, the South African Energy Corporation, on ways to streamline their security procedures for executive travel outside the country. One of their vice presidents was negotiating far-offshore drilling leases with the Nigerians, and Avakian had taken this trip to get a ground-floor view of what was required. It was a long time since he'd been on an actual detail, but it hadn't taken long to recall why he'd never liked doing them. It wasn't only traveling with a snotty South African who didn't like Americans.
Because most countries frowned upon armed foreigners running around on their soil, it was customary in these cases to hire local security licensed to carry firearms. Avakian had a pair with him there on the fourth floor of the Federal Secretariat complex, and another two driving the brace of armored SUVs outside.
And Sani had been looking nervous all morning. Avakian had a near-religious belief in taking heed of your instincts. And his were telling him not to return to his book just yet.
Sani continued to fidget, and finally bounded up from his chair. "Coffee, Pete?"
Avakian always had his guys call him by his first name. He'd just as soon not get involved in boss or sir between white and black in Africa, and he had no trouble being friendly without inviting the intimacy that would undermine his authority. If everyone knew you were in charge, you didn't have to make an issue of it. "Sure, Sani."
Sani's partner Edmund, a man of less than few words, merely shook his head.
After Sani left the anteroom, Avakian stood up himself.
Edmund's eyes followed him.
"Better visit the restroom before I start drinking coffee," Avakian told him. "Be back in a minute."
Edmund nodded. It was why you always had more than one on a detail. Someone could run an errand, someone could visit the bathroom, and someone was still on duty.
Avakian went out the door and down the hall of the corner suite past closed office doors and then the reception area, ducking a head inside the secretaries' coffee mess. No Sani. He smiled at the secretaries, but he didn't ask any of them. Inevitably, one would say to Sani, "Oh, your boss was looking for you."
Leaving the office suite and into the main fourth-floor hallway. No Sani. This was getting interesting. Imagining what a short stocky white guy with a shaven head looked like walking down a hallway exclusively populated by much taller black Nigerians put a smile on Avakian's face. As was his habit, he greeted everyone he passed, eliciting surprised but warm replies. Something along the lines of: a white businessman actually said hello to me. He peeked into open office doorways, but no Sani.
At the end of the hall Avakian paused before the entrance to the stairwell, putting his ear to the fireproof door. Sani's voice, carrying on a conversation. But only pauses—no reply from another party. So he was on his cell phone.
Avakian always banned cell phone use on security details. Otherwise everyone would be yakking and texting all day long. And bodyguards focused on their phones didn't see what was going on around them, and didn't hear what was going on around them.
But his guys could certainly use their phones during breaks, so there was no reason for Sani to be hiding out in the stairwell. Avakian pressed his ear tighter against the door, but he couldn't make out what Sani was saying.
The bad vibes were just coming in waves now. Avakian headed back. Passing through the office suite on the way to the anteroom, he stopped at the reception desk. Everyone treated secretaries like furniture, but they knew everything that went on in an office the same way nurses knew everything about hospitals. Always make friends with the secretaries. "Sarah, can I ask you for a favor?"
She was in her late twenties, big and bubbly. "You can ask, Peter."
Avakian thought Nigerians had the most mellifluous speaking voices of anyone on earth. "In about fifteen minutes, would you come in and whisper in my ear, as if you're telling me something. I want to play a little joke on the guys." Sensing resistance, he added, "I'm buying lunch."
"But are you taking me to lunch?" she asked.
"Darlin', I'd love to. But you know I've got to work. Why don't you treat your girlfriends," he said, involving them all in the conspiracy. He pulled his hand from his pocket and pressed a wad of bills into her palm as he took her hand, then gently turned it over and kissed it.
The other secretaries began tittering. "What should I say?" she asked.
"Anything you like," Avakian replied. He held a finger up to his lips. "Just don't tell the guys."
"Fifteen minutes?" she said.
"Fifteen minutes," said Avakian.
When Sani returned with the two coffees Avakian stood up to take his, moving around so Edmund was in his sight line. "Where were you?"
Sani jumped a little. "Getting coffee."
"I had to step out for a second," Avakian said evenly. "You weren't at the coffee mess."
The truth always slid right out, but a lie took a moment. "I had to make a call…my mom is bad sick, and I had to check on her."
A lie always contained too much information. "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that," said Avakian. "What's wrong with her?"
"Ah, she's poorly, but the doctors don't know what it is yet."
Avakian took a step closer and looked up. He was barely five-seven, a half foot shorter, but Sani was the one who was intimidated. Sani's pupils were also dilated, giving him those "beady eyes," as the apt expression went. Involuntarily touching his mouth to hold the lie in. Unless you worked hard to master your body, it was hard to avoid giving away those nonverbal cues.
"Do you want to go to her?" Avakian asked, blowing on his coffee to cool it. "I can spare you."
At that, Edmund, whom Avakian wouldn't have expected to care less, started looking very concerned.
"No, no," Sani exclaimed. "I don't want to leave you shorthanded. She be fine."
"You sure?" said Avakian, taking a sip of coffee.
"Sure, sure," said Sani.
"Okay. If you change your mind, let me know," said Avakian, sitting back down. Not good. Not good at all.
A few minutes later Sarah came in, bent over, and whispered in Avakian's ear. "Is this what you wanted?"
Avakian nodded. "Perfect," he whispered back.
"What do we talk about?" she whispered.
"Anything you like."
"Do you like girls who wear garter belts?"
"Men always appreciate the extra effort," Avakian whispered, after a pause to work through the most appropriate responses—and not the first one he'd thought of.
"Someday I show you mine."
"My girlfriend would kill you. And then she'd kill me."
"I'm worth it," Sarah whispered, pulling away and sashaying across the room. All the bodyguards' eyes followed her.
Avakian had started shaving his head after losing the battle with male pattern baldness. His Armenian ancestors had bequeathed him a powerfully prominent nose, and the gravitational forces of age fifty-two accented the cragginess of his features. Like most members of the nonbeautiful people set he was perfectly aware of the limits of his own attractiveness, and didn't doubt that being a well-to-do American had everything to do with the flirtation.
"Change in plans," he announced. "They're going to be in there longer than expected, and they're having lunch brought in. So you guys can go to lunch. Tell them downstairs, and take both cars. If there's another change I'll give you a call. Otherwise be back here at two o'clock."
"You don't want one of us to stay?" said Edmund.
"No need," said Avakian. "First rule in this business. If you get a decent chance to eat, take it. Because the last thing the principal cares about is your mealtimes."
"We bring you back something," said Sani.
"The secretaries are going to take care of me," Avakian said with a wink.
Forced chuckles from the other two.
Avakian would have expected a stampede out the door, but Sani didn't move until Edmund cocked his head at him. "Two o'clock," said Avakian, holding up two fingers. "No later."
"Two o'clock," they echoed.
As soon as the door shut behind them, the smile fell off Avakian's face. He pulled out a cell phone, a local prepaid one, and dialed. "Avakian," he said, once the connection was established. "I'm going to need you. Outside the Federal Secretariat, back gate. Within the hour. Yeah, I need that, too. Call me when you get there."
Avakian snapped the phone shut and thought for a minute. Then he returned to his paperback.
At eleven-thirty the opposite door opened and the negotiating group filed out, Avakian's client the sole white face among a group of Nigerians. Avakian had a bet with himself that the jerk wouldn't even notice that his detail was gone. He'd already had to explain to the guy that bodyguards were there to protect his life, not be his personal valet service.
Admittedly painting with a broad brush, there were two main varieties of South African whites. Those who spoke Afrikaans, the Dutch dialect of the original settlers, as their primary language. And those who spoke English, the language of the British imperialists. Most spoke both, but Afrikaner and Englishman was how they tended to categorize themselves.
And Anthony Spencer was certainly an Englishman. A Brit once told Avakian that no one put on upper-class snob better than a colonial who'd gone to Oxford. That was definitely the case here, from the Savile Row pinstripes, school tie and pocket square to the signet ring and the Piaget watch that cost as much as the typical family car. Another warning Avakian had issued that had fallen on deaf ears. It was the kind of watch someone would follow you across town and chop your hand off to get hold of. The personal package was nondescript: sandy hair, watery eyes and a nose like a pistol sight for looking down on people. Avakian hadn't been called "my good man" yet, but that was only because Spencer didn't believe in speaking to the help any more than necessary. All of which, Avakian had no doubt, were going to combine to make what he had to do next even harder.
Soon the handshakes were completed, and Avakian led the way out the door. Going through the outer office all the secretaries trilled, "Goodbye, Peter." Avakian gave them a wave.
When the elevator door opened up on the ground floor, Avakian took Spencer's arm and made an unexpected turn. "We're going out the back door."
Predictably, the first sentence was a complaint. " Why isn't the car out front?"
"We're not taking the car," said Avakian.
Halfway through the door. "Look, I don't know what—"
That statement was halted when Avakian grabbed him just above the elbow. "I'm going to need you to listen to me. Are you listening?"
"Release my arm…"
Instead, Avakian tightened his grip to hard enough to leave fingerprints on human skin. "You're still not listening. Are you listening now?"
In pain, it came out, "Yes, yes."
"Good. We're leaving the country right now."
"But I am supposed to leave tomorrow—" Cut off when his bicep was squeezed hard enough to bring tears to his eyes. "My arm."
"You really need to give me your complete attention. You're leaving the country now because I'm pretty sure someone is planning on kidnapping you today."
"Kidnap? Me? What about the guards?" For the first time, Spencer looked back over his shoulder. "Where are the guards?"
Avakian put on his sunglasses with his free hand, and mentally paid himself off on his bet. "Your bodyguards were either going to do it themselves, or sit back and watch while it happened."
"But we always use that firm."
"Yeah, we're going to have to talk about that back in Johannesburg. I'm thinking someone made the guys a better offer. The worst trouble always comes from inside your own team."
The upper-crust cool was gone, and Spencer was now stammering and off balance. "What?"
"Didn't you ever see The Godfather?"
"Why would anyone want to kidnap you? You mean, besides this being Nigeria and you being an executive of one of the richest companies in South Africa?"
"Yeah, I know. A nice guy like you, and all. Let's just say, for the sake of argument, that one of the Nigerian officials you're negotiating with happened to accept a larger suitcase of cash from one of your competitors than the one you offered him. You get kidnapped, the competition gets the lease, and he gets to keep both suitcases plus a piece of your ransom. Sounds like a big win for him. They must have a term for that in business school, don't they?"
Spencer was beginning to focus. "How do you know I'm about to be kidnapped?"