"Onitsha-Onitsha,” the conductor announced.
The Landjet stopped behind another bus that was parked by the roadside. Within minutes two more buses arrived and pulled up on the opposite side of the road. Beyond them a motor park—devoid of vehicles—bustled with the trade of a night market. Flames flickered atop the wicks of oil lamps and illuminated the faces of patrons seated at tables in makeshift restaurants. Along the outer perimeter of the low wall encircling the park, women sat behind large pans balanced over glowing coals, tending to balls of akara bobbing in hot oil. The aroma of the frying bean cakes permeated the bus as windows opened and passengers called down to make purchases. Here and there, between the akara sellers, children were visible, hovering over grills to tend roast corn and ube. Uloma’s mouth watered. Roast ube, with its soft, buttery green flesh, was one of her favorite foods.
Fifteen minutes later engines revved and the convoy moved off. It crossed the Niger Bridge in a slow procession. In Asaba a twisted line of backed-up traffic blocked the road. The head-on collision of two vehicles obstructed one lane. A lorry lay on its side, baskets of tomatoes scattered around it, and the wooden frame of its carriage perched precariously over a small car.
The Landjet driver maneuvered around the accident site, half the bus’s wheels on the road and half on the shoulder. The bus tilted, wheels grinding in the sandy soil. It circumvented broken glass on the bloodstained tarmac, and a hush fell over the passengers. Two bodies covered with wrappas lay in the road. An upturned palm stuck out from one, a twisted foot from the other.
Away from the obstruction the driver accelerated. Uloma stared into the night sky. She gazed at her reflection, took her rosary from her handbag, and fingered its beads. She draped her second wrappa around her shoulders and settled back in her seat.
The snores of sleeping passengers and an occasional whispered conversation rippled in the dark cabin as the bus sped through a desolate landscape on its way to Benin City. Uloma feared this part of the journey most. From now until the Umunede rest stop, only bush and the silhouettes of roadside buildings would be visible.
Monye slipped his hand under her inner wrappa. He lifted the armrest between them and placed Uloma’s hand on his crotch. She leaned her head on his shoulder, and her fingers worked as he demanded. The heat of Monye’s arousal excited her, and she felt herself swelling. But after she satisfied him, Monye turned away and fell asleep.
Uloma woke to the sound of gunshots. She reached for Monye, but he shrugged her off. Explosions rent the air. The driver stepped on the brake, and the Landjet swayed from side to side. When the bus swerved off the road and stopped, panicked cries of “Wetin happen?” and “A beg oh!” came from all over.
“Make all of una remain in your seats,” the officer demanded. He opened the window beside him and fired shots into the bush.
Incoherent prayers rolled through the bus. Sobs broke from several women; they wailed and called on God to protect them. No one knew for sure what had happened, but they all suspected armed robbers.
Someone banged on the front of the bus. The driver cowered in his seat.
“Stop or I shoot,” the officer said, and aimed his gun at the door.
“No shoot. Na Sergeant Okoye from first bus,” a voice replied.
On hearing this the driver opened the door, and the security detail from the convoy’s lead bus entered.
The aisle lights came on.
Blinking at the faces before him, the man said, “Armed robber dey for operation. First bus tire don blow. Driver say make I bring two strong men, make dem help remove barrier for road.” The staccato beat of his voice reverberated through the bus.
A breathy silence fell over the Landjet. No male passengers stirred from their seats. The security officer stepped up to the rows nearest him and hustled two men down the steps.
Uloma crossed herself, thankful that Monye had not been chosen. She looked out the window. From all sides the bush closed in on them. Night noises were magnified, echoing strangely. A branch cracked; another answered. Leaves swished in the wind, chattering to one another.
Goosebumps rose on Uloma’s arms, and she shivered.
When several minutes had passed without any sign of the men who’d left the bus, the security officer and the driver disembarked. The beams of their flashlights flitted across the road and disappeared.
Monye grabbed the duffel strap and pulled the bag from under Uloma’s feet. He pushed her things aside and pried the bottom of the bag loose. A pistol lay among the packets of money. Uloma’s eyes widened. Monye put a finger to his lips and slipped the gun into his pocket.
Gunshots broke out around the bus. Monye stood, and Uloma clawed at him. He shoved her back into her seat and rushed toward the front of the bus. As he left, shots rang out.
“Monye, oh,” Uloma wailed in a hoarse whisper.
Fists banged on the front door. An armed man entered the bus; within seconds another joined him. Both wore masks, leaving only their eyes and mouths visible. They waved their weapons in the air and called out, “All rise.” They went down the aisle, moving swiftly, stopping at each row to demand cash and valuables. Uloma watched her fellow passengers mutely remove watches and jewelry.
One of the robbers stood before Uloma. Urine trickled down her leg. He held his hand out. She loosened her watch and slid the rings off her fingers. She gave up her handbag. The robber pointed to the duffel. She reached for it. The muzzle of his gun rested at her temple; the raised veins on his hand and trigger finger pulsed beside her face. She rose in a panic, lost her balance, and fell back against the seat.
In the row across from her the other robber turned. Uloma’s eyes locked with his. “Monye,” she whispered in disbelief at what she saw—the scar over the man’s left eyebrow.
The man ignored her, but his companion pulled him back. “Okoro, you know dis woman?”
The robber Okoro shook his head.
Looking from Okoro back to Uloma, the robber beside her said, “E be say like she reconize you.”
Okoro turned away. “No be me wey im call, na Monye. You fit hear the woman.”
“I fit, botu we no fit take chance,” the other robber replied. He turned to Uloma. “Oya, madam, out!”
“Please, sir,” Uloma stammered. She stared at the man’s face, mesmerized by his red eyes. Her feet refused to carry her, and the robber pulled her into the aisle.
Okoro spoke: “Jaja, stop now, make we continue operation. Time for enjoyment still dey.”
Jaja spat and said, “You talk true.” He drew Uloma to him, ground against her, and announced, “Jaja go poke tonite.” He released her, cupped a palm over his crotch, and hitched his trousers up.
Okoro grinned, slapped Jaja on the back, and whispered something. The two of them continued their work down the bus.
Uloma sat down. Doubts filled her. That man—he sounded nothing like Monye. There was no way he could be Monye. She had heard the shots when they killed him. A sob rose in her throat.
On their way back to the front of the bus the robbers pulled Uloma from her seat and shoved her ahead of them. All down the aisle her fellow passengers averted their eyes. She descended the steps and stumbled to the ground, pushed by the robber Jaja.
Moonlight illuminated the road. The bodies of the driver and the security officer lay to one side. Uloma rose to her feet and gravitated toward a third, facedown in the dirt. Jaja grabbed her and pushed her across the road. Okoro followed.
The night’s silence amplified bursts of gunfire from the operations going on behind them. With each shot and cry Uloma’s chest felt close to bursting. They trekked on; the tarmac stretched far beyond them. Some distance past the last bus in the convoy, swaths of overgrown elephant grass leaned over the road. Uloma waited fearfully for the order to stop. It never came.
At a small clearing laughter broke out. Uloma started. A man emerged from behind a tree and stuffed his penis back into his trousers. The robber Jaja cackled and circled Uloma’s waist with his arm. He pulled her to him and humped against her.
“Space dey there?” Jaja asked.
“Eh, but Moses dey for am now,” the man in the clearing replied. He noticed Uloma’s gaze on his open zipper and pushed his hips at her.
Uloma struggled in Jaja’s arms, and the men laughed.
A muffled moan came from the bushes. It was followed by a shot.
“E don tire,” the man standing before them said, by way of explanation.
Uloma’s bowels churned. Please, God, she prayed to herself, let them kill me. She jerked her elbows into Jaja’s ribs, twisted out of his grasp, and turned to run. Okoro grabbed her.
Jaja came up to Uloma and slapped her face. He spat, wiped his mouth, and said, “I go show you today.”
Hustling her to a tree beyond the clearing, he pushed Uloma to the ground and stripped her. He inspected the money in her apron and bra. When he wrenched off her panties, Uloma tried to cover herself, and Jaja giggled uncontrollably. He shoved himself into her and collapsed. He rose and pumped into her again. At the end, when he squeezed her breasts and pinched her nipples, she groaned.
As he stood up, Jaja kicked her and said, “Okoro, finish am, I go return small time.”
Okoro bent over Uloma, peered into her face, and whispered, “Ulo.”
Uloma flinched. Only Monye called her that. She gazed into the eyes that met hers, confused now. “Monye,” she murmured.
The man hesitated. A branch snapped. Figures converged. They egged Okoro on, telling him to hurry so they could take their turns.