June 4, 2004
Marks - Chapter 4
By QBlog in
Marks is a novel that tells the story of a young married couple, two college roommates and a successful businessman whose lives ultimately intertwine as the result of a business opportunity — and a dream. Quixtar BLOG is publishing Marks as a serial, making a new installment available every Friday.
If you missed chapter three, never fear, it's still here for your reading pleasure.
Disclaimer: This book has not been through a final edit. There may be some misspelled words and grammatical errors. Please understand that as you read through the novel.
» Chapter 4
Just two days ago he touched down in Abuja, and already Jacob missed Bethany. Everything he saw – the young girls playing games with sticks and rocks, mothers cradling sleeping infants, stalls displaying bolts of brightly dyed cloth – reminded him of her. Her wished he could hear her voice and gently laugh, but Jacob couldn’t figure out how to make international calls on the hotel phone system.
Jacob kicked Marco’s bed on his way to the bathroom.
“Wake up,” he commanded. “Dr. Bean said to be in his room at eight o’clock sharp.”
Marco rubbed his eyes and yawned.
“How long does jet lag last, anyways? I feel dead.”
“It probably wouldn’t be so bad if we got to bed at a decent hour. I’m not going out tonight. I need to catch up on my sleep.”
Jacob shoved his toothbrush in his mouth and stepped over the wet towel Marco had left on the floor after his shower four hours before.
“We didn’t ‘go out,’” Marco countered. “We just hung out downstairs in the hotel lounge.”
Dr. Bean warned them about the danger of being an obvious foreigner on a Nigerian street, but it wasn’t until they witnessed an armed robbery in broad daylight, right across the street from the airport, that Jacob realized the severity of the situation. Even though Marco wanted to spend their free time exploring the city’s hot spots, he agreed not to leave the hotel except for the planned and escorted research trips with Dr. Bean.
Jacob pulled up his denim shorts and slid into a tee shirt. He kick Marco’s bed again while he retrieved his shoes from across the room.
“All right, all right.” Marco rolled out of bed. “Let’s go see what menial tasks the good doctor has in store for us today.”
Dr. Bean looked up over the edge of his thick glasses and waved enthusiastically when Jacob and Marco entered his room. The hotel was hot, despite the promise of air conditioning, but the professor seemed unaffected in his tweed jacket and gray slacks.
“What’s up, Doc?” Marco asked wryly.
Dr. Bean smirked and pointed to a towering stack of handwritten papers.
“Just going over some of the interviews from yesterday. I’m sorting and dividing them into three piles: officials who were in office during the military regime, those appointed after Nigeria returned to civilian rule and the lucky few whose term lasted through both. One of you can help me check the dates and the other can start typing up the notes that have already been sorted.”
“Are we going anywhere today?” Jacob asked while he arranged himself behind the desk and booted up the notebook computer. Marco couldn’t type, so transcriptions fell on his shoulders.
Dr. Bean nodded.
“We’re going to be talking to some of the more successful farmers in the region. We’ll try to reconcile their experiences with the official version and see why Nigeria, which was once an agricultural exporter, now needs to import food.”
“Wonderful.” Marco spoke so sarcastically that Jacob decided to curb his own excitement. His few days with Dr. Bean had opened up an entire approach to the subject that Jacob had never imagined. Before this job, economics had meant a list of definitions and equations to memorize. Now he was beginning to see the human element.
He enjoyed the work and the quietness of the morning. The only sounds were the steady slicks as he typed, the shuffle of papers across stacks and the occasional squeak of a highlighter in use. Jacob had never experienced a situation so conducive to mental labor – certainly not at the fraternity house, where the party never ended, or at his parents’ home, where the television was always on.
“Can’t we turn on the radio or something? I need some music to take my mind off the heat.” Marco slumped over the table and rested his chin on a small pile of paper. He used the bottom of his shirt to wipe the sweat from his forehead.
Dr. Bean pulled off his glasses and rubbed his eyes.
“Better get used to it. It’s going to be even hotter outside. Our escort will be here soon. Why don’t you boys take a break and order up some lunch?”
“If I never see another peanut, I’ll count myself lucky.” Marco kicked off his sandals and fell face-first onto his bed.
“It wasn’t so bad,” Jacob countered. He had never been so hot. His lungs felt like furnaces, blasting out bellows of hot air. He wet a hand towel in the sink and ran the moistened cloth over his face and neck.
“Hurry up in there,” Marco called out. “I want to shower this dirt off of me before we go downstairs.”
Jacob stepped out of the bathroom.
“You don’t seriously mean that.” Jacob was physically and mentally exhausted from the hours they had spent traveling down dusty roads and interviewing farmers who offered various levels of cooperation.
“I’m sure not going to stick around in this room and watch the Abuja evening news. When are you gonna be in Africa again? Don’t you want to taste the local culture?”
“I don’t think the local culture tastes like flat, hot beer in a hotel bar.”
Marco slowly slid off the bed and trudged toward the bathroom.
“There will be some locals there,” he argued as he rooted around his suitcase for his soap and shampoo. “Think of it as a learning experience.”
The lounge was just beginning to fill up when Marco and Jacob, both freshly showered and feeling slightly revived, walked in. Middle-aged businessmen in bright white and pale khaki pants sat in small clumps with their feet up on small, upholstered benches. In a poorly lit corner, the bar’s younger and noisier clientele drank and laughed.
Marco ordered two beers from the bored-looking bartender and headed straight to the back of the room.
“Gentlemen.” Marco nodded at the men assembled around a table. The group looked at him, their eyes narrowed suspiciously.
“Americans?” A man near the center of the group asked. His voice was heavily accented. He was unshaven and in mussed clothing that set him apart from most of the other patrons.
Jacob nodded vigorously but Marco shook his head.
Too late, Jacob remembered Dr. Bean’s advice to lie about his nationality. Canadians were less despised, the professor claimed.
The smile on the unshaven face smiled and his eyes flickered between the boys.
“I am French, so we are nearly countrymen, non? A fait votre éducation inclut l'apprentissage pour parler Français?”
Marco and Jacob stared at him.
“Non. Of course. So we will speak English. I am Gabriel.”
“I’m Marco. This is Jacob.”
“Join us, Marco and Jacob.” Gabriel opened his arms and the cluster of men around him spread out to make room.
“We’re about to play some cards. Canadians enjoy poker, non? Join us for a friendly game?”
Marco smiled back.
“Why not?” he asked. He sat in one of the newly emptied chairs. Jacob grabbed his shoulder.
“Let’s go, Marco. I don’t feel good about this.”
“Relax, Jakey. It’s just a couple of friendly games. Good cultural exchange, right?”
“What.” Jonathon Brand’s voice was thick with sleep. “It’s three in the morning. This had better be important.”
“I’m sorry to bother you, Mr. Brand. This is Richard Bean. We’re had a small emergency.”
“Is Marco okay?”
“Oh, yes. The boys are fine. We’ve just ran into some financial difficulties.”
“I don’t understand. The hotel and food are covered and I set the limit on your corporate card high enough to cover any incidentals.”
“I know.” Richard cleared his throat nervously, shut his eyes and took a deep breath to calm himself before continuing. “The boys lost their return tickets.”
“In a poker game, it seems.”
“I don’t understand. The tickets were non-transferrable.”
“Yes, that’s true. Things are different here, Mr. Brand. So many people are desperate. A few hundred dollars to the right person and the name on a ticket means nothing. Those tickets have been exchanged and used by now and it’s been called a clerical error.”
“Replacements will cost about eight thousand dollars and there is only a couple of thousand on the card so — ”
“No,” Brand interrupted.
Richard paused, unable to believe what he heard.
“You’re asking for more money to bail Marco out of this mess and the answer is no.”
“Mr. Brand, I don’t think you understand.”
“I’m not mad at you, Dr. Bean. It was never part of the deal that you had to watch Marco twenty four hours a day. This was his last chance. Finish your research, hire more help if you need to and come home on your flight. Marco will have to get himself out of this one. I’m only sorry that Jacob is stuck there. I’m sure his part in all this was minimal. Know what? On second thought, make Jacob sweat a little then bring him home with you. I’ll arrange a ticket. Maybe this will give him some backbone.”
“I can’t do that. Marco’s visa is not indefinite. Leaving him here penniless and illegal is the same as signing his death warrant. I won’t be a party to it.”
Richard heard a frustrated sigh.
“Fine. Let me think about this. I’ll check on a few things and call you back at a more human hour.”
Richard stared at the phone for a moment before laying it back on its cradle. Through the years he had attended colleagues’ weddings, then their children’s baptisms and graduations. Sometimes he had pangs of jealousy and wondered what it would be like to have a family of his own. Occasionally he would sarcastically claim that his students were like his children. If Jonathon Brand’s experience with Marco was typical, perhaps that statement was truer than he ever thought.
Being involved in a challenging research projects had brought a bit of fire back into the professor’s life. He felt guilty about the questionable ethics of the situation — he had, in effect, taken money in exchange for inflating a grade — but even that made him feel more dangerous and excited than remorseful.
God, he loved doing real economics again. How easy it was to get out of bed in the morning when he knew he would be facing all the bits of data, trying to see patterns, deducing causes, putting the microcosm back together in a way that made sense. He was someone of importance here; a recognized expert, someone who was granted access and boons. Brand’s money helped, but in general Africans respected academics more than Americans did.
Richard found a glass and filled it with water from the bathroom sink. He carried it to the window and looked out over the city. Abuja glistened and bustled and buzzed with the energy common to cities across the globe, but with a character all its own. The faces of the citizens, like the golden fields of the distant landscape, were wise. Even the children looked as if they had witnessed millennia. Unlike the old European capitals, there was no pretension here. Nigerians were who and what they were. The never felt the need to explain, justify or change.
Richard sipped his water and wondered what Brand would ask of him. He wondered what would happen to his career if he refused.
“Let me get this straight.” Marco leaned back in his chair and put his legs up on the desk as he spoke. “We’re going to be working for you here for the rest of our lives? No thanks. I’ll take my chances on my own.”
Dr. Bean nodded.
“You’re welcome to try and find a job in the city — instead of working for me or in addition to. Let me warn you that the unemployment rate here is about thirty percent and you apparently aren’t good enough at cards to make any money that way. Five dollars an hours is better than you will find. Since your father will provide room and board for you here at the hotel at a reduced rate, which I will deduct from your paycheck, you should be home in six months if you work a moderate amount of overtime.”
Jacob hugged his knees to his chest and stared at the wall. Mr. Brand and Dr. Bean were being fair — more than fair actually. He hated himself for listening to Marco. The thought of calling his own father and explain the situation scared him worse than the fear of being abandoned on the streets of Abuja.
He could spin it as a good thing to his dad, Jacob decided. He could say the research was going great and Dr. Bean was pleased with his work and offered him an extension. Of course, that would mean more lies, because he couldn’t admit that everything he earned would be going toward plane fare home. When he did get back to Kenton, he would be expected to bring some money with him. No big deal, he could sign up for some extra hours at the pizzeria. His dad never had to know the real story. He never had to be that disappointed in his own son.
Bethany was another story. If he told her that he wanted to stay in Nigeria, she would see it as a betrayal, as choosing something over her. She was so disappointed that he was going away for a week. She would never understand six months. He would have to tell her the truth.
“So,” Dr. Bean interrupted the long silence. “Should we set up a work schedule? I’m thinking twelve or even fourteen hours a day. It may seem excessive, but the more you work, the quicker you go home.”
Marco stood up.
“Screw this,” he announced loudly. “I don’t need my father’s handouts. Let’s go, Jacob. We’ll get home on our own terms.”
Jacob willed his eyes to stay focused on the wall. He was afraid that if he looked at Marco, he would give in like always.
“I’m staying,” he managed to mumble.
“What?” Marco sounded shocked.
“I’m not leaving,” Jacob insisted. “How about a sixteen hour day, Dr. Bean? Can you find me enough work to fill that much time up?”
Dr. Bean nodded approvingly.
“Even if my old bones give out, between transcriptions and library research, I’ll keep your hours full,” he answered.
Marco stomped to the door.
“See you back at school,” he sneered. “I’ll tell them not to give away your room.”
He slammed the door on his way out.
“You’re better off without him. He’s a spoiled little rich boy.”
Jacob felt loyal to his friend.
“Marco’s all right. He has issues.”
“We all have issues. Ten to one he’ll show up in your hotel room tonight, order room service on his daddy’s bill and never see the hypocrisy of it.”
Jacob was surprised when Dr. Bean turned out to be right.
Jacob felt the jolt of anxiety, fear and disorientation that accompany being jerked from deep sleep to complete awareness. His heart raced and his eyes looked about the room wildly as he tried to determine whether to run or attack.
“Jakey — I’m getting some pizza sent up. Should I order enough for you?”
Jacob slowly put an identity with the voice.
“Marco. You’re back.”
“Yeah. You hungry?” Marco flipped on the overhead light and Jacob had to cover his eyes.
“No. What time is it?”
“Early, late. Not yet dawn. I am starved.”
Jacob’s eyes began to adjust to the brightness. Marco grabbed the phone and called room service.
“Where have you been?” Jacob asked when he hung up. “I was really worried.”
“Stop being such a grandmother. I’ve been around. Meeting people. Pounding the pavement. I’ve been cut off and need to find a job, remember?”
Jacob decided not to argue the details of the situation.
“Did you find anything?”
Marco pulled off his shirt and shoes and dropped onto his bed.
“Let’s say the opportunities here are limited.”
“So you didn’t. Don’t worry about it. Come and work with me tomorrow. Maybe you’ll find something else soon.”
“I’m not taking my dad’s charity,” Marco insisted. “I didn’t say I couldn’t find anything. I just said there wasn’t much to choose from.”
“Are we playing twenty questions? Just tell me, did you find a job or not?”
There was a knock on the door and Marco peeled himself up to retrieve his food. The hotel served cheap frozen pizzas, cooked in the microwave to a limp consistency. Marco settled back on his bed and ate enthusiastically.
“I didn’t find a job,” he said between bites. “But I invested in a business opportunity.”
“Invested? What did you have to invest with?”
“My watch and high school class ring. It doesn’t matter. I know where they are. I can get them back when this goes through. When it does, there will be enough money for both of us to go home.”
“What is it?” Jacob was skeptical.
“It’s an international securities thing. The only catch is that I need to send out some emails.”
“Dr. Bean’s computer has internet access. He probably wouldn’t mind if you sent a message or two.”
Marco shook his head.
“I don’t want him to know about this. What I’m thinking is that you could give me a call when he goes to the government building or to lunch or something. It doesn’t have to be tomorrow, and I only need the computer for about a half hour.”
“I don’t know. Why can’t I just ask him?”
“Look, I’m trying to be my own man, strike out on my own without Daddy’s help for once. I thought you’d want to help.”
“I do want to help. I won’t lie to him. If Dr. Bean asks I’ll have to tell him.”
“Fine. He won’t ask. You’ll call me then?”
“Yeah. Are you just going to stick around the hotel room, then?”
“I need to catch up on my sleep. Some vacation this has turned out to be, huh?”
Jacob crushed his pillow over his eyes and tried to go back to sleep despite the light and Marco’s noisy chewing.
Jacob found it hard to concentrate on the endless figures he was typing into a spreadsheet. He decided he could not work properly until he cleared his mind.
“Dr. Bean? Can I ask you a favor?”
The old professor lifted his eyes but not his head. He looked at Jacob from over his glasses for a moment, as if trying to decide how to respond.
“Of course you may, Jacob.” He finally answered in an even voice.
Jacob took a deep breath.
“It’s just… my parents will be getting worried if I’m not at school on Monday. And my girlfriend. I’d like to let them know that I’m going to be delayed for a while, but I don’t have a credit card to put phone calls on.”
“Just charge them to the room,” Dr. Bean said with a shrug. “As long as you aren’t calling every night, Mr. Brand won’t get mad. I’m sure he expects you to let your loved ones know your whereabouts.”
“I can’t figure out how to.” Jacob was embarrassed. “I follow the directions on the phone and I keep getting a weird dial tone at the end.”
“That’s probably the ringing. I’m going to meet with a colleague from the University of Abuja for a late lunch. I’ll help you get connected then leave so you have some privacy to talk.”
Dr. Bean guided him through the process. When he heard a voice pick up on the other end of the line, he waved and left.
Jacob’s father took the news surprising well. Anything that would lighten the cost of keeping his son in college while filling out his resume was fine with him.
“Write your mother and take care of yourself,” his dad said before hanging up. Even half a world apart they didn’t say they loved each other. They didn’t have to.
Jacob carefully worked out the time difference. It was only eight in the morning at home, late enough for his father to be on his second cup of coffee, but Bethany probably wouldn’t wake up for five or six more hours. His fingers caressed the telephone’s keypad while he tried to decide whether or not to call her.
Although he ached to hear her voice, Jacob decided not to place the call. He knew Bethany would be furious at him when she heard the news. Better to put the scene off for a few days, he decided, and pray for a miracle.
Instead, he called the hotel room just down the hall. Marco arrived within minutes.
“If this works, we’ll both be heading home,” he said as he settled into the chair in front of the computer. “Maybe even as early as next week.”
“What is this anyways?” Jacob watched him load an unlabeled disk into the laptop’s CD drive.
“Wait a minute.” Marco opened a file and turned the screen so Jacob could read it. “Check this out.”
“‘Dear Sir,’” Jacob read outloud. “‘I am Mr. Bala Reyima, accountant in the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation and I head a seven-man tenders committee in charge of – ’ Marco, what the hell is this?”
“Keep reading,” Marco urged.
“It’s like seven pages long.”
“Okay, basically what’s going on is, I send this letter to a ton of people. That’s no problem since the kit came with a mailing list of a few thousand email addresses. If even one of them responds and sends me twenty grand, we’re flying first class back to Cincinnati.”
“I don’t understand. Why would anyone send you that much money?”
“Because I’m promising them six million dollars.”
“Well, not me,” Marco conceded. “Bala Reyima, accountant in the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Okay, the letter says there was this guy who has twelve million dollars worth of stock in the company Mr. Reyima works for. He died without leaving a will or any beneficiaries. So we need someone to claim to be this dead guy’s heir to take control of the stock and cash them out. In exchange for doing this, he gets half the value. That’s what the letter says.”
“So where does the twenty thousand dollars come in?” Jacob’s head was spinning in confusion.
“Well, there are lawyers to pay, palms to grease, fees for paperwork that must be paid, that sort of thing.”
“So who is going to get the other six million?”
Marco rolled his eyes.
“There is no other six million. The entire thing is made up.”
“So you’re just trying to steal someone’s money?”
“Hey, the only people who will send anything aren’t above stealing themselves. They’re not related to the dead guy. They don’t deserve the money. What the saying – ‘you can’t cheat an honest man?”
Jacob sat down heavily and stared at his hands.
“I don’t know. It feels wrong.”
“Okay, look. Would you really rather be doing grunt work for Dr. Bean for the next six months instead of taking Bethany out to dinner? What did Bethany say when you told her you weren’t coming back for a while, anyway?”
“I haven’t told her yet,” Jacob admitted. “I was hoping something would come up.”
“Well something has,” Marco insisted. “Anyone who falls for this doesn’t deserve to have that much money. And we’re doing it by email, so it’s not like there will be little old grandma types falling for it.”
“Okay,” Jacob said. He suddenly felt very cold. “Send it, just don’t take any money from someone who needs it more than you do.”
“You’re a real Robin Hood.” Marco turned back to the computer gleefully.
© Copyright 2003-04, Janet Marie Mills - (The Creative Commons License on this site does not apply to this Copyrighted work which is published with the permission of the author)