Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Ties That Bind – Part V

Chapter 5 – Friends and Enemies or Keep Your Friends Close

In which our indomitable young heroes discover how deep Wednesday's rabbit hole goes, and must deal with betrayal as they attempt to bring Wednesday down.

    Juldeh woke up to see the grim visage of Stella looming over him. He let out an involuntary scream, and she clamped her hand around his mouth. He wrestled himself away from her.

    "Jesus Christ, don't ever scare me like that again."

    "Glad to see you're finally awake. I don't have much time for tarrying. What is your decision?"

    "Not so fast," he said forcefully we're going to have to sort out a few details first."

    "You're not really in a position to be bargaining, you know that?"

    "Just hear me out. First, you do realize what a risk I'm taking here, don't you? Before I agree to whatever you have planned I need assurances that you'll help me relocate. I don't really care where, just as long as it's not here. And I'll need you to help me track down my brothers."

    "Trust me. Everything is taken care of. I'm the girl with the plan and you just have to follow my lead."

    "That's not all," Juldeh continued. "There's someone else I'll need you to help me find. She should be easy enough for a person like you to track down. She's the only daughter of the ambassador to London. I made a promise to her, and I intend to keep it.

    "Three things: first, what do you mean a person like me? Second, I'm not a miracle worker, and third, why does there always have to be a girl involved. Forget about her. The only people you owe anything to are your brothers and yourself."

But Juldeh was adamant, "I gave her my word, and I always keep my word."

"If she really cared about you, don't you think she'd have tried to contact you already? Or maybe get you out of this hell you've been in the past few years. She's probably shagging some bloke as we speak."

Juldeh knew she was trying to wind him up, so he remained silent, but she continued.

"You can't let a blind idea of love rob you of rational thought. Ever heard of the legend of the Viking Prince? It's a cautionary tale of the dangers of passion and obsession.

In Scandinavia, early in the tenth century lived Prince John, the greatest warrior of his era. His adventures were epic as were the legends that grew around his exploits. On a frozen battlefield, Prince John, sole survivor of a bloody war, its purpose lost to time, met a valkyrie, a messenger from the Norse gods, sent to escort the souls of fallen heroes to their reward in the halls of Valhalla.

Impossibly, they fell in love, and swore their hearts to each other. But Odin, King of the Norse gods, discovered their illicit affair, and enraged, banished John from Valhalla. The Viking Prince pleaded with Odin for mercy, begging to be allowed to remain with his love. Odin agreed, saying that if John died a heroic death, he and his love would again be united for all eternity.

But Odin was a crafty god-and cruel, and before exiling John gifted him with invulnerability to harm from fire, metal, wood and water. The Viking Prince soon realized that he would never die a hero's death, because no weapon on earth could slay him. He trekked boldly across a troubled world in search of adventure and an honourable death, growing ever more distant from humanity.

Eventually, weary of the endless fight for justice, and despairing in his loneliness, he sailed North, beyond the boundaries of the known world, and passed from the knowledge of man."

Juldeh was unimpressed. "Great story, but I've made up my mind."

"Is any of this getting to you? She asked incredulously.

"No, it really isn't, but thanks for trying."

Finally she acquiesced. "I'll do it, but in return, you have to follow my every instruction. I've got all my equipment upstairs. Follow me. I'll tell you the plan when we get there."

Over the next hour, she meticulously detailed to Juldeh the proposed sequence of events. The plan was certifiably insane, and Juldeh bluntly told her so. She smiled her enigmatic smile and replied "the only way to outfox a fox is to be foxier than he. Trust me, everything will be fine. We leave for my father's office at 11:00 pm. It should be dark enough at that time. Till then, you should probably rest, and I'll be here meditating. Please do not disturb me."

Juldeh took that as his cue to leave. He closed the door softly behind him, but not before taking one last look at her. She was in the stereotypical Buddhist pose on the floor, with her hands in her lap and her eyes closed. "You're still here, why?" she asked with her eyes still closed.

Juldeh hurried downstairs. He was tense, and there was no way he could sleep or do anything except watch the minutes drag by until it was showtime. All he could do was lie on his bed and think about all the ways this could go horribly wrong, how it could all come crashing down around him. She would probably be fine. She seemed like the person who could get herself out of any situation, but knowing his luck, he'd spend an eternity doing hard labour in the worst prison Accra had to offer. Eventually, weary from his thoughts he fell asleep and when he woke up, Stella was standing at the foot of his bed, again.

"You really have to stop doing that," he said.

    She had two sets of clothes. One was a dark tracksuit and the other was a business suit.

    "It's almost time. You remember the plan, don't you?"

    "Yes, I do," he replied testily.

    "Good," she said. "Here you go, wear the tracksuit over the business suit. It'll make you look larger than you are. It'll be harder for you to get identified that way."

    She was talking in the clipped, harsh tones of a drill sergeant, and Juldeh wondered what else about herself she wasn't telling him.

    She left him to his task and he went about it methodically. First he donned the dark tracksuit, then the business suit, and finally the black, rubber soled running shoes. He went upstairs and saw her dressed in a sheer black, body hugging dress. She had a tote bag that contained her dark army fatigue pants, a black shirt and rubber boots. She threw it at him and he expertly caught it.

    "Keep your eyes in your head, lover boy. I'll change once we get to my father's office. If we get spotted before then, we'll just be a couple out on the town." She looked at her watch. Okay, from now on, we're on the clock. Stay sharp."

    After shutting off all the lights, she threw the car keys at Juldeh.

    "Here, you drive. It'll be less suspicious that way."

    The first part of the plan involved getting past the security guard without arousing his suspicion. As they drove up to the outer gates, Stella rolled down her window and smiled sweetly at the security guard.

    "Kofi, I'm taking Juldeh for a night out on the town. Don't expect us back any time soon, if you know what I mean." She winked at him as she said that.

    Kofi smiled broadly, showing his rotted, yellowing teeth. "Yes, Madam. I'll tell Boss when he comes home." Lucky boy, he thought. I would give up my eye teeth to have a night with the boss's daughter.

    "Dirty old man," she said disgustedly when they were out of earshot. "I see how he's been looking at me. I oughta cut his nuts off."

    "You really are your father's daughter aren't you?" Juldeh replied. She shot him a look of cold fury which chilled Juldeh's heart and nerves. He tried to concentrate on his driving, but there was a quiet terror simmering in his heart. The streets seemed so foreign, so desolate, and so empty at this time of the night. Everywhere he looked, there were shadowy figures lurking. He felt like he was driving blind, but instinct told him he was on the right track.

    "OK, we're almost there," Stella said with a quiet edge in her voice. "Park a few streets away from the office. We'll walk the rest of the way."

    As Juldeh parked in an abandoned lot a few kilometres from the office, he noticed out of the corner of his eye, a police officer on foot, making his rounds. He signalled to Stella, but she had already seen him. The police officer was about a foot from them when he felt her wrap her hands around his head and pull him into a deep kiss. He saw what she was trying to do, and so he surrendered himself to her kiss.

    The officer shined a flashlight into the car, and they pretended to be startled. He saw what they were up to and ruefully shook his head. He'd been a kid himself, and he knew the allure of forbidden love. They're probably sneaking behind their parents' backs. Poor kids. He shut off his flashlight and walked away.

    When they were sure he'd left, they disengaged from their embrace.

    "Sorry about that," she said.

    "Don't be," he replied.

    "OK we're back on track. Now take off your clothes."

    He arched an eyebrow at her. "You know what I mean," she said playfully.

    "Of course." He took off his outer layer of clothes.

    "Now be a gentleman, and look the other way,"

    Juldeh looked away, and started counting to a 100. Before he reached 50, she had already completed her transformation.

    "Wow, that was fast," he said incredulously.

    "I took a few theatre classes. Trick of the trade. The game's afoot now my friend."

    They got out of the car, and slowly and methodically made their way to the high rise building that Wednesday's office was located in. They took up a reconnaissance point across from the high rise building and carefully watched. Juldeh had told her that there weren't normally any security, but she'd wanted to make sure. They waited for an hour in the cramped alley until she was sure there weren't any guards, and then they purposefully made their way to the bilding.

    She intentionally tripped the alarm while Juldeh covered her, and then they faded back into the shadows. After five minutes, the same officer they'd run into previously pulled up in his police car. He got out and looked around. After about 15 minutes, he spoke something into his communicator, and drove away.

    Stella felt elated. Her plan had worked. They'd intentionally tripped the alarm in the hope that the officers and the alarm companies would assume it was another false alarm from animals or pranksters and shut off the alarm, and just like she'd hoped, the officer had then sent word to the alarm company to shut off the alarm. It was highly irregular, but it happened more often in security services than most paying customers would care to know.

    She walked up to the security keypad at the entrance and took out a tiny device from her tote bag. It looked like a large cell phone, but it had a cord dangling from the end, which she connected to the keypad. She furiously typed on the number pad, until the red light blinked twice, turned green, and the door silently opened.

    "Where do you get all these wonderful toys?" Juldeh whispered. They walked into an expansive lobby with giant rainbow colored koi fish swimming in a pond. Juldeh walked over and stared plaintively at the Koi. Stella turned around and hissed at him, and he regretfully walked towards her.

    Juldeh led the way to the 14th floor. It was quite a long walk up the stairs, but they couldn't risk using the elevator. Wednesday's office was located on the south side of the floor, and they quietly walked up to the door. Stella took out a set of lock picking tools from her tote bag, and she fiddled with the lock until it popped open.

    "Ladies first," she said as Juldeh walked through the door towards Wednesday's personal office. Finding the files was easy enough for Juldeh. He knew exactly where they were, he'd just not being foolhardy enough to ever try to read them. He did now though and what he saw betrayed Wednesday for the monster he truly was. According to the meticulous records, Wednesday had been working as a building contractor for the city of Accra, building schools, hospitals and roads. Of course, he wasn't remotely qualified for the task, but his forged papers said otherwise. The buildings were being built with not only substandard materials and workers, but with absolutely no regard for safety codes. He'd used cheap materials, and pocketed the extra money after accounting for a few bribes to get inspectors to look the other way. If what Juldeh was reading was correct, three schools and two hospitals were going to be opening within a few months. These buildings couldn't withstand a violent sneeze, and they would certainly come crumbling down on whoever was unlucky enough to be inside them.

    Wednesday was also planning on creating false geological readings that showed the presence of oil off the Ghanaian coast. After setting himself up as a middle man between the government and Western businessmen, he planned to set up a dummy corporation which had all the oil leases in Accra. When his shareholders saw the geological readings, the price of the shares would skyrocket and when the shares were at a sufficiently high value, he would cash out his shares. By the time the terrible truth came out, he'd be long gone, leaving Juldeh to take the fall. It was an ingenious ruse, bold in its simplicity and daring in its brazenness.

    He showed the documents to Stella and she gave an involuntary whoop of joy.

    "We have him now. All we have to do is photocopy these documents, mail them to the proper authorities, and he'll spend the rest of his natural life in jail."

    Juldeh had just finished photocopying all the documents detailing Wednesday's sordid plans when he heard the office door open and saw Wednesday stroll in with a Magnum .38 revolver in hand. Their best laid plans were about to be completely shredded. He must have had a personal connection to the alarm system, and this made sense giving his extremely paranoid nature.

    Juldeh crawled on his hands towards Stella's position and through a combination of gestures and hushed words, he managed to impress upon her the seriousness of their situation. Her eyes filled with fear, but soon that was replaced with steely determination. She reached into her tote bag and took out a .45 caliber handgun. Every time Juldeh thought she couldn't surprise hin anymore, she went and did something like that.

    "Plan B is in effect, my friend," she said with a small smile on her face. "We either both stay here, and get picked off, or we make our escape."

    Juldeh nodded, put the documents in the tote bag and the two of them crawled slowly towards the exit. They were maybe three steps away from freedom when they heard the click of Wednesday's revolver.

    "You two can stop crawling around like the dogs you are, and face me like the rats you want to be," he said menacingly. "And I think I'll take your gun m'dear."

    They stood up slowly and to Juldeh's great surprise, Stella walked confidently up to her father with her gun at her side.

    "This isn't what it looks like, daddy," she said. "I'm still on your side."

Juldeh was dumbfounded. He'd been double crossed, again.

    "Don't do this Stella," he said desperately. "We had a deal."

    "Shut up, boy," she said harshly to Juldeh. To her father, she said "daddy, this was all to prove to you that I'm the only one you can trust. I'm the one who should be your apprentice. Look how easily he betrayed you, and have I ever given you any reason to doubt me."

    Wednesday laughed his deep booming laugh.

    "You've always been full of many surprises, but I wasn't born yesterday, girlie. You're going to have to do better than that. Much better."

    Juldeh felt like he was trapped in a cosmic tug of war. Whatever happened, this wasn't going to end well for him. He was the only one in this Mexican standoff who wasn't armed, and he was starting to feel very vulnerable.

    "Do you want me to prove my loyalty daddy? I never turned you in after all you did to me growing up, didn't I? Wasn't that enough? You want me to do more. Well, how's this for you?"

    "Oh Crap," Juldeh said. He should never have trusted Stella, or anyone in this crazy family. He was about to die and in the most ignominious of fashions.

    "Sorry, Juldeh, blood is thicker than water."

    Stella walked to Wednesday and stood by his side. She raised her gun and pointed it at Juldeh casually. He instinctively took a step back and raised his hands in surrender. Juldeh tried to bargain his way out of it, but she was having none of it. She took out a silencer from her tote bag, screwed it on the barrel, and unlocked the safety mechanism. Wednesday also had his gun trained on Juldeh and this prevented him from being able to make a move. It had all come to this. He was staring death in the face. He said a small prayer and apologized to his brothers and Nella. He had failed to fulfill his promise. He would never see them again, but he resolved that if he had to die, he would die with his dignity intact.

    "Just make it quick, you back stabbing piece of..."

The gun barely made a sound when it went off but Juldeh looked down at the red spot slowly spreading on his chest. It didn't hurt as much as he thought it would. He slumped to the ground. It was so cold, and then there was nothing.

    Wednesday laughed again, a deeply menacing laugh that chilled Stella's blood.

    "I misunderestimated you, my little star. That was one hell of a con you just pulled. I didn't even see that coming, but like I always tell you even a pawn can checkmate a king."

    Wednesday took a last look at Juldeh's broken body, turned his back to Stella and began to walk towards his office. She walked softly behind him.

    "Remember what you used to tell me about the two man con daddy?"

    "Yeah, that it's better than any one man con ever could be."

    "No, not that, the other thing."

    "I'm not sure, why don't you refresh my memory?"

    "You told me that the best two man con is one in which the second person doesn't even know they're a part of it."

    "Of course. Poor kid never saw it coming. I had a soft spot for him, but like you said, blood is thicker than water."

    "Do you know what you are in this con, daddy?" she asked sweetly

    "The puppetmaster" he replied arrogantly.

    "No, you bastard, you're the mark."

    Wednesday turned sharply, but it was too late. The butt of the gun caught him in the base of his skull, and he crumpled into a heap on the floor.

"That's for ruining my childhood, you sadistic monster, and where you'll be going, you better hope you don't drop the soap."

She hit him a few more times, to make sure he stayed down, took out a pair of handcuffs, chained him to his desk and then she rushed worriedly to the front of the office where Juldeh was sitting up with a pained expression on his face. She smiled her enigmatic smile at him and said.

"The old rubber bullet and fake blood trick. Works like a charm every time."

"I don't know how we pulled this off, but that was some plan, although a heads up would have been nice. Oh, and remind me never to get on your bad side."

He gingerly got up and looked her squarely in the face. They were in this together now till the bitter end. After all the crimes he'd just committed, he had no choice but to continue with the rest of it.

"So what do we do now, partner-in-crime?"

"We execute the rest of my plan, our plan."

And so they did. After making sure Wednesday was still alive, they tied him up more securely, removed all traces of evidence they'd been there, and calmly, and without haste walked out of the office building and disappeared into the night.

They spent the night in a dingy motel under false names, and when morning came, Juldeh used the payphone in the lobby to report a break in at the office building, while Stella mailed the damning documents to the police, and every newspaper and TV station in Ghana.

Two weeks later, they smuggled themselves into Ivory Coast using Stella's forged documents and booked a flight for Paris. In the newspaper they were reading, they saw a picture of Wednesday looking worn and haggard in an orange prison jumpsuit and shackles. According to the article, his trial was due to begin in a month, and the general consensus among legal experts was that this was going to be one of the most sensational trials in Ghanaian history, not because the outcome was in doubt, but due to the egregiousness of the crimes. The authorities were still searching for the anonymous whistleblower that had exposed the crimes, and there was even talk of giving this person or persons unknown a key to the city in absentia. According to the editorial, "they were a shining example to the rest of the country that corruption and avarice can be defeated by the actions of only a few."

Stella smiled and looked up at Juldeh. The past two weeks had being such a whirlwind for both of them, and they were only now beginning to climb down from the adrenaline high. They'd also grown very close during this time, but they were about to part ways. She was going to France to reunite with her mother. She had begged him to join her, but he politely refused. He knew what his destiny was, and it wasn't with her. He'd come to admire her tenacity, her resourcefulness, and most of all, her fierce loyalty. But he'd made a promise to his brothers and to Nella, and he would fulfill his promise, even if it took him the rest of his life.

The boarding call for the Air France flight to Paris sounded over the PA system, and she got up reluctantly.

"That's my cue. I'm really going to miss you, you know that?"

"I know," he said softly. "I'll miss you too."

She embraced him and kissed him softly on the lips, a chaste kiss with a hint of a deeper meaning. She'd promised herself she wouldn't cry, but the tears had a life of their own as they cascaded down her cheeks. She hugged him tightly again, and then slowly walked toward the plane, towards her destiny and out of his life forever.

Juldeh walked back to the airport hotel with his hands in his pockets. In one hand was the name and address of Stella's family friend in London, Ontario who had promised to be his guardian. In the other pocket were the addresses of his brothers and Nella Owusu. It had taken him two years, and more twists and turns than a mountain road, but he was closer than ever to fulfilling his destiny. The sun was shining brilliantly as he walked through the beautiful streets of Abidjan. His flight left tomorrow, and now that he was this close, he felt a bit of apprehension. He had seen the true face of evil. He had faced it and never once given into despair. No matter what happened to him, he knew he had God on his side. He knew that destiny – would be his friend.

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