Those Awkward Moments (Episode 23)

Those Awkward Moments (Episode 23)

When I stepped into the musical dome that was Highland Records, after minutes of deliberating whether or not to even show up to work that day, I was left feeling impressed by the new and improved beauty of the place. There were the silver mistletoes hanging from the high ceilings, the smell of happiness, laughter and great expectations, the melody of holiday jams resonating through the atmosphere through unseen speakers, and of course, the prominent pine tree situated right in the heart of the vast lobby, one which was decorated so perfectly, you couldn’t help but marvel at its sight. There was such a plethora of wrapped boxes collected in an artful disarray at the foot of the tree, and I wondered fleeting if the gifts were real or just props.

One thing was however clear to me: Christmas was in the air!

I stood there at meters away from the tree and took in the Highland scent of Christmas. It was such a en enriched smell, and I was desperate to savour it. With my kind of luck, this feeling of appreciation and contentment would probably soon get torpedoed by some disaster.

Just then, I was roused from my slight reverie by a murmur of voice and the thronging of feet. I looked in the direction of the ruckus to see a crowd of Highland staffers teeming toward a corner of the lobby. Some of them looked pleased while others seemed wary by whatever discovery they were all hurrying to make at that corner.

Curiosity flared inside me and I joined the traffic in heading the same way. After some time of pushing and forcing my way through the crush of bodies, I finally got close enough to see what the whole commotion was about.

“A Secret Santa list?” I blurted to myself as I stared at the array of papers tacked to the velveteen surface of the case walled off from touch by a glass covering. On the papers was a pairing of Highland employees, each person matched off with another who he’d be giving presents to on or before Christmas day. “Who the hell came up with this stupid idea!”

“I know, right?” said the man peering at the board next to me.

I turned to see it was Jerry, a fellow junior songwriter. He swept a sheaf of his dreadlocked hair from his face as he continued, “I mean, why call it Secret Santa if it’s here for everyone to see?”

He was right. This clearly wasn’t a well-thought-out idea.

“Do you know who the genius is that came up with this?” I asked as my fingers followed my eyes in tracing the list for my name.

“No idea,” Jerry answered before turning to shove his way away from the board.

“I bet it’s that Joshua Bassey!” I heard someone say from behind. Jerry and I turned to see a woman I’d noticed a few times traversing through the corridors of our floor adjust her glasses over her angular face to better have a look at the list. “He’s always trying to over-Americanize this place,” she said.

“All those ambitious Calabar boys sef,” Jerry joked.

The woman and I responded with a shared laugh.

And then, my amusement evaporated when my eyes settled on my name. Consternation replaced it as I muttered to myself, “Oh there’s me. I wonder who the unfortunate person they paired me with is.”

I wasn’t aware that I had spoken out loud enough for the female colleague to hear; she interjected quickly before I could find out for myself: “You’re even lucky, you got Beatz!”

Wait – WHAT!?

I couldn’t believe this. But then again, it was just my luck. Hadn’t I wondered when something would come along and ruin the day for me just a few minutes ago? I grimaced as I confirmed for myself that my colleague was right. I was indeed going to have to go ‘ho-ho-ho’ with Isaac Adedokun. I wondered if drama was what Jesus wanted for his birthday when He let some dimwit pair me with Isaac, because this was a sure way to make that happen.

I grumpily made my way to the elevator, and the door had just glided open when someone matched to my side, encircled my left upper arm in a vice-like grip and shepherded me into the lift. Startled, I turned to see Ngozi bark at the staffer who’d been about to get inside with us: “This one’s full. Take the next one!”

There was such a ferocity in her words that the staffer was surprised into immobility, watching blankly as the elevator door shut in his face. We began our journey upward and Ngozi turned to me. Her arms were crossed underneath a set expression.

“So,” she said simply.

So you’re not my type,” I snarked. “You might as well get rid of whatever elevator fantasy you seem ready to enact with me.”

“Oh eww!” She made a face. “The day you start featuring in my fantasies in the day I exchange my mind for a new one.”

“I’m glad we feel the same way,” I retorted. “It’s always so refreshing when we don’t have to interact or talk about anything!

“Nice play. But you’re not getting out of this. We have to talk about this!”

That was what I’d feared, I thought as I heaved a sigh. “What this? Look, I honestly have no idea what you’re talking about.”

But I did. Yesterday, I’d been at Mula Mike’s video shoot, and had taken a call from Detective Elohor behind a dressing room partition. When I was done and drew the curtain aside, I’d found Ngozi standing right there with her mouth agape with the shock of whatever she’d overheard. I’d only entertained a fleeting panic, before regaining my composure quickly enough to walk right past her like I hadn’t just blown my cover. I went straight home and waited for the call Joshua would surely make to me, terminating my employment with Highland.

He didn’t call – which meant Ngozi hadn’t told him anything. But here she was, wanting to talk. The bitch! I cussed inwardly. She must want to blackmail me or something with her suspicion of what I was up to.

“Will you stop playing dumb,” she railed.

“I’m not playing dumb.”

“You’re right! It’s already in your genes. I forgot,” she sneered.

“You’re such a witch, you know that, right?” I shot back, just as the elevator door opened. Then I stalked out of the lift and started down the corridor.

“Look, we don’t like each other,” she huffed as she followed after me. “I get it. But don’t make that what this is about. I heard you on the phone yesterday at the video shoot.”

“I was on the phone a lot of times at the video shoot, Ngozi,” I replied with a flippancy I didn’t feel. “I don’t see how that’s any of your business.”

“It’s my business when it’s about a police investigation on Josh,” she replied. “You remember Josh, right? My boss, your boss – our boss!”

I scoffed. “You’re right. We don’t like each other. My dislike makes me want to never talk to you. Yours makes you spin outrageous stories about me.”

“Don’t you dare deny it,” she bridled.

I stopped then and turned to face her. She stopped too and stared back beadily.

“What is it to you whether it’s true or not?” I bit out. “I don’t have any money or something you might want, so you can forget about blackmailing me for anything!

“But it’s true, isn’t it?” she said in a tone that had significantly reduced in antagonism.

“I just said that!” I snapped. “Jeez, and I’m the dumb one?”

Ngozi eyed me for a moment, biting her lip in an evident inward battle over something. Her countenance was tense, and I arched my brows at her in incomprehension.

“Well?” I urged.

“Let me guess,” she finally said, “Detectives Elohor and Abayomi have you doing something for them, right?”

My heart skipped a beat. It wasn’t what I’d expected her to say, and I could feel my expression freeze. “How the hell do you know those names?” As the words came from me, an inundation of thoughts crowded my mind, like perhaps she was an undercover agent sent to infiltrate Highland, or perhaps she was the one committing the fraud and using Joshua as a masterful cover, or maybe she was in collusion with him. And then there was the final thought that I suspected was the right answer. That was the one I voiced. “They’ve approached you too, haven’t they?”

She let out a small sigh, moving her arms from the fold she had them under her bosom to a clasp around herself, one hand over the other. “A year ago, yes… That was when Highland first went public. I don’t know how they found out that I was Josh’s new assistant, but they did. And before I knew it, the fools were telling me how Josh was a bad man and all that shit.”

I couldn’t believe it. After all this time of mutual animosity, here Ngozi and I were, finally having something in common; we had both been used by the police for things we didn’t want to do.

How nice!

“You see,” she continued, “my grandmother had cancer and was living under my sister’s care in America as an illegal immigrant. Somehow, they knew about that and threatened me with it. So I did what I could and fed them fake information while doing it. And then, my grandmother passed on, and I could finally tell them to fuck off.”

“Wow, I’m so sorry –”

“I don’t want your ‘sorry’,” she cut across my empathy. “I just want to warn you of the kind of danger you’re getting yourself into by working with these guys! You’re opening yourself up to a lot of crap.” And she turned and began walking away.

“You think I don’t know that?” I snapped at her behind. “I don’t really have a choice.”

She continued walking away, but turned her head around to say, “Stop deceiving yourself. There’s always a choice!”

***

There’s always a choice!

Those words kept resonating in my head as I went about my day. It was almost annoying, having Ngozi’s voice playing in my head, her words placed on a loopback that just wouldn’t quit. Observing Mula Mike and his crew do their thing helped with distracting me from the self deprecation the words called up from inside me.

I soon found myself missing the days when I’d walk into the studio and see Demoniker, all excited and divalicious, ready to work on my songs, to bring magic to my lyrical contributions. Working with Mike was nothing like that. This crew didn’t need my writing expertise or any other talents I might have, except perhaps as a magistrate, when they needed me to weigh in on some of their silly contentions. Once in a while, it was fun, but most of the time, it felt just plain boring.

And it didn’t help that Isaac was always there, present, and raising my degree of discomfort through the roof. He liked to steal glances at me, as though waiting for the perfect opening to continue with trip of contrition he seemed to want to embark on with me. I didn’t give him that opportunity; I made sure to keep my expressions stony and discouraging whenever I caught him looking.

However, it seemed he had decided to damn it all, because he finally got up from his producer’s seat and walked over to me

“How far?”

I ignored him, keeping my focus instead on Mike, who was freestyling with Tokunbo.

Unperturbed by my snub, he said, “So, I saw our names on the Secret Santa list. What are the odds, huh?”

And just then, as though the universe was finally on my side, my phone began buzzing from deep inside my skinny jeans. There really is a God, I thought as I took out the phone, and without a word at him, walked out of the studio to answer my call.

“Hello?”

“Oga Kevin,” my caller replied. “Abeg come and tell this your security guard to let us in joor!”

***

I hadn’t seen Sly and Tayo in so long, which was surprising, considering how close we all used to be. Jude’s incapacitation had changed many things about our lives, it would seem.

“Wow,” I said for what must have been the umpteenth time, as we got settled in the cafeteria.

“Surprised, are you?” Tayo said. “Well, we decided to stop being bad friends and just come over, since you have decided to remain incommunicado for what now, a month, two months?”

“But who’s counting,” Sly intoned. “Rapture could happen, and taken Tayo and I to heaven, and our last memory of you would be you acting like a hysterical housewife over Jude’s coma.”

“Wait, Rapture take you two to heaven?” I scoffed, ignoring the ‘hysterical housewife’ taunt. “Please! I believe Angel Gabriel has a standing order not to let you two through St. Peter’s gates.”

There was an outburst of shared laughter at our table.

When we sobered up, I said, “I’m really sorry, guys. I know this is not an excuse, but I’ve just been really caught up with work and taking care of my mum –”

“She’s still in Lagos?” Tayo asked.

“Yeah, and pregnant too.”

“Whoa!” the two of them exclaimed. Tayo added, “At fifty-something?”

“I didn’t even know old people still get it on at that age,” Sly said.

I chortled as I said, “What do you think sugar daddies and sugar mummies get on with their young lovers behind closed doors?”

“Well, sugar daddies, I can understand. But sugar mummies are usually not up to fifty-something.”

“That’s so sexist, Sly,” I protested, while Tayo laughed.

He shrugged, and suddenly gave a start, his eyes goggling at a party that had just entered the cafeteria. “Dear God, is that…” he gasped.

Tayo and I followed his stare to Felicitee, a female rapper signed to Highland. Clearly, she and her crew had taken a break from recording to come down for a snack. The young woman looked very alluring with her purpled-coloured Mohawk, kohl-rimmed eyes and hourglass figure poured into ripped jeans and a tank top.

“Men, that chick is blazing,” he gusted.

I chuckled, remembering another friend and his crush on another Highland artiste. “Nice to see you haven’t changed, Sylvester,” I said with an indulgent smile.

“This one, change?” Tayo chipped, gesturing at Sly, whose attention was still rapt on the star. “That’ll be the day.”

Sly turned his focus from Felicitee long enough to say, “Kev, I swear, it’s a good thing I don’t work here. I don’t know how I’d concentrate with all these hot celebrity babes swarming everywhere, giving us our daily bread of distractions. How do you do it sef?”

How do I not get distracted by their celebrity or their femininity? I thought, aware of how concealed my sexuality was to these two.

“Self control,” Tayo answered for me. “You should try it sometime.”

I laughed shortly, before saying, “Speaking of distractions, Sly, are you still seeing Jessica?”

“Nah, we’ve broken up.”

“Shocker,” I said with another laugh. “What was her problem? She couldn’t give a good enough blowjob?” Sly always had a flippant reason to give for his termination of his relationships.

“No, she got too needy,” he answered.

“He’s seeing Rebecca now,” Tayo said.

“Yea, I’m not going to bother memorizing that one, because tomorrow, it may very well be Stacey.”

The two of them guffawed at that.

“What about you, Tee?” I directed at Tayo. “How’s Tosin?”

“Oh that’s right,” Sly burst out as Tayo suddenly got self conscious. “This dude is about to take himself off the market.”

My gaze turned wide-eyed. “You proposed?”

“Yup,” Sly said. “Last night, down on one knee and everything, and she said yes. Can you believe that? Who’d say yes to this bozo?”

There was more laughter, and I reveled in this sense of camaraderie that I had missed so much from my friends. It suddenly occurred to me, as Tayo went on to regale me with the story of his proposal, that I’d let myself get so carried away with my life, that I hadn’t stopped to appreciate some of the little things that mattered, such as my friendships.

***

It was nearly an hour later that my friends decided it was time for them to leave; which was probably best, because my sides were starting to ache from so much laughter. I’d almost forgotten how hilarious these two could be when in the mood to caper.

“I can’t believe this!” Sly said as the three of us headed toward the building’s exit. “So you got to work with Demoniker.”

“Yeah.” I grinned.

“Tell me, is she as slutty as they say?”

“You’d like to know, wouldn’t you?” Tayo frowned as he tossed his car key at Sly. “Go and help us turn the car around jaré.”

Sly hissed, before turning to give me a firm hug. “We’ve not finished our conversation o. One of these days, soon in fact, I will come and you will give me a private tour of this place and its actions…if you know what I mean.” He punctuated his words with a wink.

I chuckled. “Even Mother Theresa would know what you mean.”

He laughed heartily, before walking away toward the parking lot.

I turned to Tayo. He had set a contemplative look on me, and as he opened his mouth, I said, “I know what you’re going to say.”

“Really, you do?” His voice was arch, and his brows were raised.

“Yes, and you’d be right. But you have to understand–”

“That’s the thing, Kevin. I don’t. After Jude’s accident, you just went completely AWOL on us. You wouldn’t pick our calls. You’d always seem so listless during our chats. You’d always never be at home when we visit. Samuel was the one who suggested Sly and I ambush you at work.”

“I know, Tee, and I’m sorry. But it’s not been as easy as you think.”

“So? That’s why we’re your friends, to make things easier for each of us. But it would seem that you’re proving to us – especially Sly and I – that Jude is the only reason we are even friends. And I don’t want to believe that’s true.”

“It’s not!” I hastily objected. “It’s really not. You guys mean much to me.”

“I hope so,” he said, moving closer to me. “Because, even without Jude, I want to believe we can still need each other, especially at a time like this.”

I held his shoulder. “Of course. Hopefully, I haven’t ruined my chances of being your groomsman.”

“Nah!” He grinned, before we drew each other into a hug.

Just then, an announcement blared through the atmosphere of the lobby. “ATTENTION! ALL OFFICIAL EMPLOYEES OF HIGHLAND ARE TO KINDLY REPORT TO THE CONFERENCE ROOM 1 WITHIN THE NEXT FIVE MINUTES FOR AN EMERGENCY MEETING. I REPEAT…”

***

As I navigated my way through Conference Room 1 aka the place where I’d blackmailed Chief Bassey, I found myself amazed at the number of official staff in there. They were definitely more than I’d imagined. That flimsy thought was subsequently knocked out by the ponderation of the reason for such an impromptu meeting. Could it be that Ngozi had turned me in and this was me attending my very public execution? Or someone had found a video of me blackmailing Chief Bassey and this was me attending my public execution? Or someone was getting fired, and that someone was me presently at my public execution?

This thinking wasn’t helping my peace of mind.

“Psst!”

I turned in the direction of the call for attention, and spotted Jerry waving me over; beside him stood the other female colleague from this morning. As I approached them, I snuck a quick look at the ID card hanging from the woman’s neck; it identified her as Emem. And then I groaned inwardly when I saw that Ngozi was standing next to them.

Ignoring her, I said with a look that encompassed Jerry and Emem, “Do you guys know who called this meeting?”

“No idea,” Jerry answered, as he raked a hand through his mane of dreadlocks. “But it can’t be Chief Bassey, seeing as he’s still in South Africa.”

“And it can’t be Josh either,” Emem said. “He hasn’t been in all day today. Right, Ngozi?”

Hearing Josh’s name had made me steal a glance at Ngozi. She caught it as she supplied a “Right, he hasn’t” to Emem’s question. Then she added, “If you’ll just excuse me for a minute…” She clamped my hand in a much reminiscent way as she did this morning, and shepherded me away from the other two.

“You really have to learn to stop bulldozing me around,” I said wrathfully as I jerked my arm away from hers once we were out of Jerry’s and Emem’s earshot.

“Perhaps I’ll stop when you stop acting so goddamn suspicious,” she hissed back. “Why did you look at me when that girl said Josh’s name?”

“Well, perhaps because she followed up her mention of Josh’s name by asking you a question?” I snapped. “Honestly, what is it with you all of a sudden?”

“Nothing. Nothing is with me. I’ve already given you my advice –”

“Yes,” I interrupted tersely, “for me to back out. Easy for you to say when you don’t have a grandmother staying illegally in the US.”

She drew back. Her eyes flashed as she said, “Oh you sonofabitch! You just had to throw that in my face!”

“Just pointing out that some of us don’t have the same luxuries to simply make a choice,” I rejoined.

“Why? It’s not like they have something against…” Her voice trailed off as her gaze sharpened on my face. “Oh wait, they do have something on you!”

I didn’t answer.

“Well,” she continued, “I’m just going to tell you this. Those men are wasting their time. And you’re wasting yours by helping them. Josh is innocent.”

“I believe so too. But those men, they –”

“Kevin, I don’t believe so. I know so!”

My brow furrowed, as I picked on the correction.

She saw my incomprehension and said, “You know how I said I gave Elohor and Abayomi false reports? Well, I still had to go through some documents to be sure those men weren’t right. And I found something.”

“What?”

“They are right! Someone was definitely committing a crime. And it all points to Josh.”

“Okay, I’m confused. I thought you just said that Josh is innocent.”

“Ahan! Have I finished talking?”

“Oya, sorry! Continue!”

She eyed me for a moment before saying, “When I saw the records, I didn’t want to believe it. I respect Josh very much, and as my boss, I owed him a benefit of doubt. So I investigated some more, and that was when I discovered someone else was doing what Josh was getting suspected of, and using Josh’s name as a cover.”

“So he’s being framed, by who?”

Before Ngozi could answer, the conference room door was pulled open and suddenly the din in the room gradually died down. I turned to the front of the room to see three well-built men walk in. And then, she walked in behind them. Her slender, well-toned legs moved with an attitude beneath the slim skirt of her cerise-coloured, impeccably tailored suit. And her hair was pulled back into a sleek chignon that accentuated impressive features that placed her at an indeterminate age.

Even if I didn’t know this woman’s name, I would recognize from her media presence as evidenced by the magazine covers she graced and her past scandalous relationships that were served as tasty morsels in the tabloids. Even if I didn’t know her still, I’d know her by the identity she went by these days, as Mrs. Ryan Bassey.

“Hello, people,” she said in a husky voice, “it is such a delight to be here, at Highland, a dream brought to life by a man who knew what he wanted and went for it. A dream that has now become the second best record company in Africa, soon to be number one, thanks to its signing of new and international acts from all over the world. I’m sure some of you are wondering what I’m all about this afternoon. Well, in the absence of my husband and stepson, I am stepping in to ensure that Highland stops being number two and starts being number one.”

The entire room instantly erupted into a hubbub of astonishment and speculation.

In the absence of her husband and stepson? I thought, wondering what on earth was going on.

“Silence please,” Maureen Bassey said. The volume of her voice didn’t increase, but the command in it carried. And the room began to quieten again. “Look, I know this announcement confuses all of you, and you must wonder whether this woman has come to spoil show” – her lipsticked mouth curved upward in a small smile – “Well, all in good time, you will see how necessary I am to this company. And even though it’s temporary, I intend to play a very active role as CEO. And it will give me an opportunity to focus on what really matters in this company. You guys – this establishment’s workforce. Above all things, I believe you guys do just as much work as the stars themselves and deserve some commendation.”

Someone started to clap, and that soon graduated into an applause from nearly everyone in the room.

She waited until the clapping died down, before continuing, “With your cooperation, I know that by the end of this year, Highland’s position as the number one record label in Africa will be a sure thing! And that’s why this year, we will be hosting our first ever Highland New Year’s Eve Extravaganza! Right here, not just to celebrate our artistes, but you all as well!”

The ovation resounded, this time with some cheers.

I stood in my corner, stoically observing what was going on, as questions roiled in my head. Where was Josh? How long was Chief Bassey staying away for? Why was a temporary CEO even needed? Again, where was Josh? And wasn’t he capable of being at the helm? And why did Maureen Bassey seem like a woman with an agenda underneath all this her positive gusto?

I turned to face Ngozi to see her also contemplating the woman commanding Highland’s attention. A storm was brewing on her face, a storm that mixed horror and anger.

And then something clicked in my head, and I gasped, “Oh hell no!”

Written by Reverend Hot

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8 Comments

  1. Tobi Macaulay
    December 15, 07:46 Reply

    “All those ambitious calabar boy self”. Dat did d justice for me, I mean calabar pple can over do die, like kilode!

  2. Jamie
    December 15, 09:49 Reply

    Aww… I’m so much getting more in love with the drama inherent in the episodes of this story… I need to hear about Kev’s bae’s health!!

  3. Mandy
    December 15, 11:50 Reply

    Oh wait, Kevin is only out to Samuel? Not Tayo and Sly? Why am I anticipating the drama that’ll follow that incidence? I mean, come on. One of those two have got to be antigay. My money’s on Sly.

  4. kaytee
    December 15, 17:02 Reply

    wow…. can’t wait for the next episode

  5. Brian Collins
    December 15, 19:31 Reply

    And we know who the crime boss it. Beautifully written as always. I feel like I’m looking through a Pensieve #HarryPotter, whenever I read TAM.

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