The Cellar(8)By: Minette Walters
‘You and the elderly couple who employ him on Thursdays. You say Abiola left this house at eight fifteen last Thursday morning – the day he went missing – and the couple say the gardener was with them, some twelve miles away, from seven thirty until four in the afternoon.’
There was a long pause before Ebuka sank into a chair with a groan, clapping his hands to his head as if he were in pain. ‘Is this why I’ve been interviewed so harshly today? And why my car has been impounded? Do you think Abiola was here when I came home from work that day? Do you think I lost my temper with him when I learned he’d been truanting?’
‘You waited a long time to contact us, Mr Songoli. Your wife says she phoned you at your office at six when she came home and discovered Abiola wasn’t here … yet your emergency call to us wasn’t made until eight twenty-three. That’s almost two and a half hours unaccounted for.’
Muna listened to Ebuka huff and puff about being caught in traffic and taking time to search the house himself, claiming it would have been foolish to summon the police if Abiola had been hiding under a bed. He made no mention of clearing the cellar of Muna’s mattress and possessions or having to wait while Yetunde unpacked trunks of her old clothes, looking for a kaba small enough to fit the girl. Even then the yellow garment had been too big, and the woman had hissed with fury at having to sacrifice one of her scarves to create a sash about Muna’s waist. All these things had taken time.
Inspector Jordan stayed silent until Ebuka drew breath. ‘Are you saying you knew before you called us that Olubayo hadn’t taken Abiola to school?’ she asked.
Ebuka looked confused. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘Why bother to look under beds if you believed what Olubayo told you? The first thing you said to us was that a stranger must have abducted your son – and you’ve continued to repeat that accusation all week – yet now you want me to believe you wasted over two hours looking for Abiola here. Why, Mr Songoli?’
Ebuka didn’t answer.
‘You’d do better to tell us the truth, sir.’
Ebuka looked to his wife for help, and Yetunde pointed a trembling finger at Muna. ‘This girl can tell you if Abiola was here when Ebuka came back.’
‘She says he wasn’t.’
‘Then why do you doubt my husband?’
The Inspector glanced at Muna’s bent head. ‘Your daughter’s word isn’t good enough, Mrs Songoli. We need provable facts, not hesitant responses from a child with learning difficulties. At the moment, we don’t even know if Abiola was alive on Thursday morning. The last sighting of him by anyone other than this family was at three thirty the previous afternoon, the Wednesday … some twenty-nine hours before your husband reported him missing.’
Muna thought Ebuka very foolish to lose his temper again. Perhaps he felt free to do it because the Hausa speaker had left, but he should have learned by now that the white was cleverer than he was. While he shouted angrily that his word could be believed, Inspector Jordan took some papers from a case on the table and showed them to him. She said they were copies of the witness statements he and his wife had signed after their interviews at the police station.
‘The highlighted paragraphs show where your stories differ. You couldn’t even agree on the events of Wednesday evening, Mr Songoli. You described prayers, followed by a formal family dinner and bedtime at eight o’clock. Mrs Songoli said Olubayo and Abiola ate supper in front of the television before going upstairs when their father came home. Which is true?’
Yetunde answered. ‘My husband confused Wednesday with Tuesday. The explanation I gave is the correct one.’
Inspector Jordan selected another paper from her case. ‘My team is studying footage from every CCTV camera in the roads around this house, your sons’ school and Mr Songoli’s office. This is a photograph of Abiola crossing the High Street at three thirteen on Wednesday afternoon. Shortly afterwards one of your neighbours claims to have seen him turn into your gate. She says it was around three thirty which supports the time stamp on this still.’