The orange hue emanating from the holographic displays illuminated the faces of three men sitting inside a confined space, eyes transfixed on the displays, hands groping at a black plastic bag with an old newspaper page spread out inside. One of the men lifted up a morsel of meat and stuffed it into his mouth. His eyes briefly closed shut, as he savored the well-seasoned and juicy soft piece in his mouth before swallowing. By the time he looked down at the newspaper, the other men had grabbed a sizeable portion of the cut pieces of meat from the table.
“Na wa o!” He exclaimed. “You guys are too fast. For every one I take Bulus here has taken ten.”
The men burst out in raucous laughter together.
“Maybe I should slow down.” Bulus said amidst the laughter. “I have a feeling mantis will take her time with this one.”
“Mantis” The first man scoffed. “Is she worth mentioning? She is one disturbing creature?”
“And yet, one of our most effective, Dayo.” Bulus looked at Dayo. He knew why his colleague showed such disdain towards Mantis. Everyone knew Dayo was a womanizer and a good one at that. His conquests within the NIA had almost become folklore stories for new recruits. Officially there were four cardinal rules within the NIA, but everybody knew there were actually five. Ladies beware of the D. Not that it helped. Dayo was almost an unstoppable force. Almost. There was the matter of the praying mantis. She represented the one impregnable territory he could not overcome and it irked him to no end.
“Please… don’t sour the taste of my suya.” Dayo retorted. He glanced at the third man. “Sylvester. Are you spectating or are you eating?”
The one they called Sylvester burst out into laughter.
“Dayo cool down. Okay look at it this way. She’s taking out a three year menace for you and as team lead, guess who gets to bask in glory when the news eventually reaches the public. You.” Sylvester reached out and grabbed a morsel of fatty meat. He munched on it happily and then swallowed.
“You have a point.” Dayo said as his hand followed in after Sylvester’s. “Considering the delicate nature of this mission, her skills have proved invaluable. And our skins have been saved.”
They all nodded in agreement.
Bulus sighed and put on a pair of headphones.
“Time to check in on our girl.”
The explosion startled them and initiated a frenzy of activity. Dayo kicked open the van’s back doors and hopped out to look in the direction of the explosion. What he saw, drained the blood from his skin. Smoke plumes violently rose out from a motel room’s window. The motel happened to be the one mantis had taken Ibrahim to. It also happened to be the room she had taken Ibrahim to.
“Bulus!!” Dayo yelled. “Radio support unit! Tell them to move in now!!”
“What happened?!” Bulus yelled back as Dayo hopped back into the van.
“Mantis has been compromised. We need to contain this and fast or else three heads will roll over a paper of suya.” Dayo turned to Sylvester.
“Get on the wheels. We need to move to a different location quickly. We can’t be sure we haven’t been made either.”
“Yes sir.” Sylvester jumped out and made his way towards the driver’s door. The situation had changed and informalities gave way to a pre-programmed set of behaviors that kicked in when under duress. The chain of command had to be followed and these men were professionals. The van’s engine revved to life and it lurched off.
A loud ringing sound reverberated across Ibrahim’s head, swaying from ear to ear. It felt like his brain was pulsating and would burst at any moment. Ibrahim crawled around aimlessly on the floor. He could hear voices. Some of them were hushed tones, others were screams of terror and others still barked orders at the terrified voices. There was a cloud of smoke hanging precariously above the room, which made it almost impossible to see. Instinct had told him to stay down. The commanding voices kept barking orders.
Or was it a commanding voice?
“Stand up Care Packet! I need you to stand.”
That voice. He had heard it before. It was the voice that had told him to run earlier in the night. Or was it some far off moment in time right before his life lost all form of normalcy?
“W… Who are you?”
“Care Packet, do you want to live to find out? You are running out of time.”
He felt her arms slip under his armpits and yank him up to his feet. She led him out of the burning room, where he went into a series of hacking coughs and wheezes.
“Breathe… Breathe.” She said in a soothing voice. Her voice always seemed to be soothing. Ibrahim took in deep breaths of air and the wheeze began to subside. She tapped his face and his eyes which had been closed tight, opened up. Her dark chocolate skin glistened under the sweat film that oozed from her skin pores.
“Turn right, go four doors down the hallway and take your first left towards the service staircase. Follow the crowd, blend in, and show a bit of panic alright? Everyone is frightened.”
“What about you? Aren’t you coming?”
They could hear groaning noises coming from the motel room Ibrahim had been in.
“I need to take care of loose ends. The service staircases lead to an exit on a side street. A familiar face is waiting for you there.”
“Nonso!” Ibrahim’s joy could barely be contained and the lady managed a wry smile.
“Go. Go now.”
Ibrahim nodded and melted into a group of panicked lodgers trying to escape the spreading flames. The lady watched him go before turning back around just in time to evade a gunshot aimed for her head. The lady dropped to the ground, torso first, and shot out her left leg, kicking the gun out of mantis’s hand. Mantis reached for her waist and withdrew a small knife from a harness pouch, brandishing it menacingly. The lady was back on her feet. The cold gaze of her brown eyes shifted from Mantis to her blade and back again.
“You do not realize how deep of a hole you’ve dug yourself, do you?” Mantis asked threateningly. She stepped forward with her blade. “I will slice you down to an inch of your life and then I will find out who you are, and what you know. After all this, I will kill you… like a lady dog.”
The lady smiled at mantis’s threats.
“You talk too much. Prey has no business threatening the hunter. Come at me with your best shot.”
Mantis let out a shrill scream and lunged at the lady. Her swipes were laced with deadly intent and aimed at major arteries and organs. She meant to kill with as few blows as possible. The chocolate skinned lady never panicked. Her muscles were relaxed and her movements fluid. A well timed blow to Mantis’s right elbow joint caused the assassin’s fingers to flare out involuntarily. The knife clattered on the hallway floor. Mantis shot out her left arm, her hand balled into a fist. The lady ducked under the intended blow and landed a well-placed blow to Mantis’s rib section. She then pivoted so that her back turned towards Mantis, her elbow moving upwards like a sledge hammer. There was a cracking noise as her elbow slammed into Mantis’s nose, damaging bone and cartilage. Mantis’s head jerked back and she staggered backwards, struggling to keep her footing. The lady slammed her right foot into Mantis’s solar plexus, knocking her off her feet and straight down. She fell with a thud and splayed on the floor, panting heavily. The lady stepped over her and withdrew her gun. She aimed it at Mantis’s head.
“Pathetic.” She said in a disgusting tone. She felt the searing pain in her left shoulder, just as soon as she heard the gunshot. The lady quickly whirled around, dropping to a crouching position, just as she did. She opened fire in the direction of the shooter, who promptly ducked back into an open motel room. It was agent one, the fake taxi driver. He must have regained consciousness. She wish she had killed him instead of knocking him unconscious. The lady could hear him speaking into a radio. She could also hear voices coming from the hallway corner, where a set of elevators was placed. Back-up was on the way and it spelled danger for her. Agent one had opened fire on her again and she promptly ducked into an open room for cover as well. They both exchanged a few more rounds before she heard him speak.
“Down the hall. Six doors down. Close in!” She quickly popped out and fired. Agent one’s body dropped to the ground just as the support team opened fire on her with semi-automatics. The lady dived inside the room. She quickly ran to the glass window and looked out. There was a car beneath her, three floors down. The lady stepped back and opened fire on the glass till it shattered. She could hear them closing in. They were just around the corner.
Just three floors. No biggie.
The lady took a few step backs and drew in a deep breath.
“Move! Move in!” She could hear the support team shout out commands to each other.
“Going in!” The lady dropped a black orb on the floor before racing towards the window.
“There! There!! Open fire!”
The bullets raced and whizzed by her, creating mini explosions of wood and concrete all around her. The lady braced herself and dived through the window. The support team had raced into the room after her, as they fired shots. She was falling through the cold night air, as a fusillade of bullets raced after her and subsequently, overtook her. The ground moved up to meet her with frightening speed and soon she could feel the sharp pain of her body impacting the roof of the car beneath her. There was no time to writhe in pain. The lady quickly rolled off the car, her entire body on fire. She pinned herself to the wall, denying the shooters a clear sight of her. Her left index finger tapped on the wall at a consistent rate. One tap a second.
Back on the third floor, the support team leader barked orders to his charges.
“Move out. Radio to ground unit and ask to cut off target at north side of the building…”
As he walked, his foot hit the black orb the lady had dropped before leaping out. He bent down to observe the orb. There were three red lights on it, then two, then one.”
The second explosion startled Dayo. Suddenly there was static on all feeds.
“What just happened?” Bulus asked.
Dayo ignored the largely rhetoric question and began speaking into the radio.
“Support team lead, do you copy?” He waited for a response and only got static.
“Support team lead… do… you… copy?” The result was the same. Dayo frantically worked the controls of the communication system.
“Agent one do you copy?” The increasingly familiar static is all that could be heard. Dayo took a deep breath and worked the controls one more time.
“Mantis… do you copy?” Static.
Dayo heaved a sigh of relief.
“What’s your status?”
“Alive…” Came the terse response followed by a brief silence.
“Luckily.” Mantis continued as if realizing the initial response was not enough.
“What is the status of the support team?”
Mantis looked around her and took in the information the chaos had to offer.
“All dead sir.”
“Did you get eyes on the squad that attacked you?”
“There was no squad sir.” Mantis staggered to her feet. A nasty blotch of blood stain rested on her shirt near her cleavage. It ran down from her nostrils. It was then she realized how badly her nose throbbed in pain.
“Mantis!” Dayo’s sharp voice startled her back to reality.
“What do you mean ‘there was no squad?’”
“It was one person sir. One girl… Just like me.”
Sylvester, who was in the driver’s seat, leaned back in his chair and whistled.
“Nsogbu.” He exclaimed.
“Mantis report back to the van.” Dayo ordered. He turned to Bulus.
“Recall your ground unit, Bulus.”
“Sir last report says they are closing in on the tar…”
“Bulus recall your men.” Dayo interrupted. “One girl just took out one of our best assassins, killed a field agent and decimated an entire highly trained and specialized support team. Do you think your ground unit would fare better?”
Bulus sighed deeply.
“We are in a bit of a mess. How can one woman do this? If she had described a man, then only two men I know come to mind. One is red eagle, and we both know the other.”
Dayo stared at nothing in particular for a little while.
“A huntress.” He finally said.
“A few years ago rumors surfaced about the resistance putting a deadly asset into play. A woman who could sniff out and extinguish just about any target the resistance placed a bulls-eye on except the most classified and ultra-protected.”
“How come I’ve never heard of this?” Sylvester asked, speaking into his radio.
“Above your pay-grade. And none of you shall speak of this. Information about her was never disseminated down the ranks of the NIA because her existence was never fully confirmed. But rumors determined she was one who loved to stalk her targets like prey, striking the blackest of terror into their hearts before taking them out. Stories about her begun to inspire a codename in the underworld. Artemis they called her, after the Greek goddess of the hunt. If she indeed was the one in there, it would explain everything.”
“So what do we do now?” Sylvester asked
“We retreat.” “Dayo responded. “We retreat before we become the next group of dead bodies she leaves behind in her wake.”
Ibrahim had run out with the panicked group of lodgers and had kept running with them until each dispersed. He darted from one dark blotch of shade to the next, shivering more in fear than from the chilly night wind. He scanned the streets for any sign of Simisola, the other lady or any strange person that might pose a threat to him. There was none that he could see. He shuddered again and decided it was time to move. As he turned, he was startled by a hand covering his lips. He realized it was Nonso before he could scream.
“Nonso walahi you will kill me before my time.” He panted deeply. “Kai…”
“This is no time to collapse.” Nonso said as he propped Ibrahim up. “We need to get to the car.”
“No… no more cars. Let’s get out of here some other way. There are crazy people after me.”
“There are no crazy people after you.” The voice came from a dark area behind Nonso. Ibrahim immediately recognized it.
“But you do have me after you. Now shall we go before we run into anymore misadventures tonight?”
The chocolate skinned lady slowly faded into the light before fading back. Ibrahim nodded his head slowly in agreement. He was slightly troubled. Her voice sounded a bit weaker than it was when he’d last heard her in the motel. Nevertheless he followed them as they disappeared into the night. In the distance, police and fire sirens could be heard racing towards the burning motel. The Nigerian Police Force had always been notoriously slow at responding to emergencies. For once, it was a welcome thing.