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Whim of the Gods  (PG-13)

By Valentine Ukachukwu Umelo (Nigeria)

 

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Author’s Note: Secret cults have, in recent years, become the bane of Nigeria’s universities and other higher institutions. The pioneering cults of the 1960s were originally formed by ‘gentlemen’, with the noble ambition of forging ‘positive’ fellowship among students from various backgrounds. But the cults have since proliferated and mutated into something else: sinister, vindictive, blood curdling association of packs of hoodlums cum ‘terrorists’ who have, to use the phrase, ‘no future ambitions’. Presently, there are well over thirty different secret cults operating across Nigeria’s universities and other higher institutions. This short story, though purely hypothetical, X-rays the activities of typical campus secret cults.

(i)

Enugu: Eastern Nigeria. (8:07 a.m.)

The heavens, since the day dawned was as black as a ripe Ube (pear), arousing in one the desire for that delicious combination of Oka (maize- roast or boiled) and Ube whose season was in full swing. Unable to make up their minds whether it was day or not, the chickens chipped noisily and contentedly away in their pen.

The rain, when it came poured down, as if with vengeance, to undo everything the welcome sun of August break had put in place since it stole the show a week ago. It pounded the old, corrugated zinc roof with vehemence, punishing it for frolicking with the sun. In solidarity, and with greater ferocity, the wind, which accompanied it threatened to bring down the foundations of the old, red mud kitchen.

Ugonna paid the elements no attention. For all she cared, they could tear through the roof of the kitchen. As if challenged by her indifference, the rain pounded harder, the accompanying thunder flashing and rumbling angrily. She was seated on a low, kitchen stool, enjoying her tasty breakfast of Ede (cocoa-yam) and peppered, fresh palm oil, graciously savouring the burning tang of the fresh green pepper. One thing was certain though: her date with Zubi that morning was as good as cancelled. She knew the rain would last for at least three good hours. But she was too exhilarated to mind. After three months of wasting away at home, she would be going back to school.

Just yesterday evening, she had heard the announcement on the radio: the Federal government had finally announced the re-opening of all universities and higher institutions across the nation. She recalled the broadcaster’s low drone: "All students are to go back to school immediately and are expected to be of good behaviour." She was especially relieved that the government had promulgated a new decree, banning all forms of cult activities on campuses. It remained to be seen whether they would be able to effect the decree.

During these past three months, Ugonna had paid strict attention to her tiny World receiver, hoping not to miss the news about the re-opening of the universities. Having struck a commensal relationship with the vendor on the next street, she had read all the daily newspapers too. She dreaded a repetition of last year: then she was in 300 level. She had failed to learn of the re-opening of her school, the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, after a six-month closure due to secret cult activities.

She had ended up missing her papers during that second semester examination. It took the combined efforts of the Student Union president, Frank Alozie, and her dean, Professor Ben Ndudi, who incidentally was her Course Adviser, to get the senate to allow her a complete re-sit. Thank goodness she did not have to repeat that academic session. It would have been too painful. Already, she had spent six years for a four-year programme, due to the constant shutting down of her university.

Ugonna’s only regret as she mentally prepared to go back to her school was Zubi: she would miss him. Her chest constricted with affection, and she elicited a deep sigh. Balancing her head on her left palm, with elbow rested on a kitchen table, she closed her eyes: if not for these constant interruptions of academic work, by now she would have graduated as an Accountant and been making good money, in a position to help her mma carry the burden of raising her younger brothers.

She would also have gotten married to Zubi –that dependable, ebony-black angel who had stood by her since the time her father got buried alive in the coalmines of Enugu, years ago. A migrant worker, Ugonna’s father had come from Aba, away from the harrowing economic depression that engulfed that part of Eastern Nigeria immediately after the Nigerian-Biafran civil war in 1970.

Enugu, meaning ‘hill top’ had rich deposits of coal within its rocky hills. After the war, it had fared better than other parts of the East, attracting a large number of migrant workers from within and outside Nigeria. Like the other migrants, Ugonna’s father had come to work the bowels of the hills. There, like large earthworms, they burrowed, digging until sunset, in search of the black mineral most came to believe was rightfully coloured black by the gods, and knowingly buried deep within the earth where it rightly belonged, for it was devilish.

She had been fifteen, and in her penultimate year at Girls’ High School, Enugu, when her father died. She still remembered that day clearly, as if it were yesterday: they had done the compulsory morning devotion at the family altar, before the Holy Ugonna, ever Virgin. Each of them, including her two little brothers had, as was usual for Saturdays, recited ten ‘Hail Marys’, and five ‘Our Fathers’. After breakfast (which he normally took at the mines on week days, because he had to leave much earlier), he had set out for the mines with his lunch pack, slung over his miner’s broad and powerful shoulders. He was as fit as a fiddle. Next time she saw him was three days later when he was extracted from under the earth, dead, and in an advanced stage of decomposition.

Ugonna thought she would die then. She had been so attached to her father, a fact which engendered tension between her parents. It was Zubi who had stood by her side and helped her recover from the shock and, over the years, gradually heal.

Zubi, blacker than the deadly coal, was built like a prizefighter. He exuded energy. His gentle manners (which contrasted with his physique), when coupled with his rasping singsong voice would melt mighty chunks of Olumo rock. He lived in the neighbourhood but was always away, attending University at Zaria, a town in one of Nigeria’s northern states. He wanted to become an engineer. It was while the neighbourhood people came to pay condolences to her family that she had first set eyes on him. He too had come to commiserate with the bereaved family.

After everything, when the last visitor had come and gone, Zubi remained. He had stayed with the family ever since. He quickly became her new father, playing the role to perfection. He allayed her fears, and was always there to rock her to sleep in his strong, capable arms. His smiling coalface, which announced his intense white teeth like nothing else, and his fully bearded jaw, left her giddy with confidence. She didn’t know how he managed it, but Zubi was always there, university or not.

And now, seven years after his graduation, they were going to get married. They would live in Enugu. Zubi worked in Enugu, managing one of his father’s numerous engineering outfits. Despite her poor background as the first daughter of a dead and poor immigrant coal miner, Zubi’s family, gentle souls, had approved their impending union. It was not such a difficult decision: both families were Roman Catholics.

Suddenly, the rumbling thunder clapped violently, shaking her out of her lengthy reverie. Ugonna sighed. Slowly, she opened her eyes. To accustom them to the brightening weather, she massaged them tenderly with the thumb and middle finger of her left hand, least likely to be contaminated with pepper. She watched tens of tiny black ants at work, busily dragging fragments of palm oil-stained cocoa yam in threes to their homes through numerous pin-like holes on the red earth floor and her heart glowed: graduation was only three months away. Her dreams would soon come true.

Yet, deep within her subconscious, she had this uncanny feeling which left her melancholic. It had been with her since she woke up: maybe it is because of the horrible dream I had last night, which made me wet myself, she thought. In the dream, she had gone to pick ero (mushroom) for the family soup. She had suddenly found herself in the centre of the forest, face to face with man-eating, lion-like monster. A man (she thought he looked familiar) had appeared out of nowhere to save her, just as the monster rushed to devour her. With her screams stuck in her throat, she had woken as her saviour and the monster locked horns in a do or die battle.

Ugonna couldn’t quite place the dream, and fingered the tiny, golden crucifix - Zubi’s first gift- on her slender neck. She again heard Zubi’s cooing voice as he clasped the chain: it will guide you when I am not there, though I will always be around you, never more than a breath away.

She believed him: hadn’t he proven his steadfastness all these years beyond reasonable doubt?

Still fingering the crucifix, she mouthed one Hail Mary.

** **

Two weeks later. University of Nigeria, Nsukka: Eastern Nigeria.

Ugonna arrived at campus looking as exquisite as ever. Though she didn’t own much, she used what little she had to their fullest advantage. A cheap skirt that would look drab on any other girl looked smashing on her. Having inherited a dazzling, fair complexion from her paternal lineage, she was convinced she didn’t need make-up. And never wore any.

Finely boned, she commanded a second glance from everybody. Males adored her and females envied her the attention she received from the males that mattered on campus. What made Ugonna particularly attractive was her petit nature. She looked so vulnerable in that her silky, slippery walk, which had become her very signature on campus. Every man wanted to own her, so as to keep her from harm’s way. More than anyone else, Walter wanted her.

Walter had wanted her from the first day he set eyes on her, six years ago. Walter was an enigma. He was in his fifth year in the Medical School. Nobody ever saw Walter studying -either in his room or in any lecture theatre. Students could count how many times they had seen him receiving lectures. Course mates could also count how many times they had seen him at Clinicals. But Walter had never failed a single exam. He had never missed one either, though surprisingly, he never spent more than thirty minutes for a three-hour paper. Rumours had it that what he puts down on his scripts were only his name and matriculation number, and diagrams of maybe an amputated leg, or a broken arm, or a dead man, or a disfigured child, which ever caught his fancy. No matter what diagram he chooses to draw, one thing was true: he scored something above a B minus.

Very few women could resist Walter. He was too rich and too handsome. He even had royal blood. If the money and blue blood didn’t get them -though they invariably did- his sweetness did, for if there was any sweet, handsome young man, it was Walter! He could compete with the gods …that Walter! That Ugonna failed to respond to his charms was therefore mind-boggling, especially knowing she was from a poor background.

He had bought her everything there was to buy for a woman. He wasn’t sure what she did with the expensive Yves St. Laurent clothes, Giorgio Armani perfumes and other designer wears. Perhaps she re-sold them: not that he minded. On setting eyes on her now, after these months of missing her, he tried a toasting angle he had since overlooked: who knows, he told himself.

"Look baby, I will take you anywhere, any place if only you agree to be mine." Yellow cheeks dimpled, deep enough to poke the small finger into. That soothing voice that drives him bunkers:

"Anywhere is no where."

"London, I mean London."

His heart raced.

Small, even, brilliant, white teeth sparkled against the midday sun: Ugonna was like that. It was her philosophy to shower everyone with her endearing smile, especially in a big university campus like hers where you weren’t sure who was who. The fellow you acted cool towards may have affiliations in one campus cult or another. And may some day come to extract vengeance for perceived injustices. That explained why she had been very tactful in disposing of the gifts Walter bombarded her with every now and then.

She smiled on.

Patiently, Walter waited.

Time passed.

The pressure of the waiting was punishment for Walter. At last, he could take it no more and cried:

"Baaaaaby anywhere …the moon, aaaanywhere …London!"

Ugonna’s voice rang out:

"Really…?"

For Walter, this was nothing but a ‘YES’.

** **

"I got her …I got her…" Walter exploded, no sooner than he stepped into the noisy bar where he knew he was sure to find members of his gang. They took a break from their wet bottles of Gulder and heavy wraps of billowing, crackling wee-wee (marijuana) and gaped.

"Who? …Got who?" someone asked.

"My woman …my heartthrob. That sweet angel, Uuuu…Uuuu …Uuuu..."

"Ugonna," someone completed for him.

"Yes. Ugonna!"

A deep sigh pervaded the gang.

Silence.

A snort: "I wonder how much you have thrown to the dogs this time."

"Piss off man. It’s none of your business."

"Never said it was."

"You might as well know that she didn’t take a dime from me," Walter announced proudly. "Not a dime, you hear me, nosy bastards. She is not one of those if you must know. She is my woman, very well brought up."

Lifted Gulder bottles found their ways back to the tables, banging; while inhaled puffs of bluish-white smoke were quickly exhaled, followed by the eruption of deep, racking coughs, soon suppressed with generous swigs from beer bottles. Why, no girl on campus ever, ever said a ‘yes’ without, like the IMF and World Bank, laying down rigorous provisos. Their motto was: ‘money for hand, back for ground’.

Walter knew he had his friends seething with envy, and basked and trotted in the spine-tingling feeling and strength the knowledge gave him.

"You must have promised her something, at least," one pal said as the bunch recovered from their shock.

"I did promise her something, though."

A smile, suddenly breaking out here, like the sun, peeking out of the cloudy sky on a wet unpromising morning. A slight cough there. Curious glances everywhere.

Another pal: "Tell us, what exactly did you promise your woman?"

"What I promised her is my business."

"Eh, come on, man. Be a dude and come clean. After all, we will eventually know."

"Let’s say it’s a secret."

"All her friends already know about the damned secret by now, don’t you think?" someone suggested cleverly.

The bunch waited patiently while Walter chewed the idea with his mind’s teeth, turning the paste around carefully with his mind’s tongue. They knew it must be something substantial: whatever had made that pretty, stubborn ‘home grown babe’ change her mind without demanding compensation. It had been centuries since the duo began playing their hide and seek game.

"I promised to take her to London."

Dead silence!

The former faint squeaking of the ceiling fan as it circled lazily now became overpoweringly loud, like a faulty helicopter’s propeller. And then, without warning, the bar erupted as shrill whistling rent the air, drowning the fan’s squeaky noise. Some of Walter’s pals held their heads, shaking it vigorously, while others closed their eyes and taxed their brains in attempts to meditate on the piece of wondrous news: high concentration of alcohol, nicotine and cannabinol made the task impracticable.

"You did what?" It was a troubled, small voice. Someone had miraculously recovered from the trauma the information wrecked. His recovery set the pace, as the others around the long table gradually came to, each scrutinizing Walter more closely.

"Yes, I did. I promised her."

"A mere bitch?"

"Don’t call her a bitch, man," Walter thundered. "She is my shit. You hear me, my shit!"

And the matter was closed.

** **

To fulfil his promise, Walter sent a photographer pal after Ugonna. The clandestine job was a piece of cake: thanks to digital technology. With the passport picture the photographer handed over, Walter obtained Ugonna an international passport, after forging her simple signature. He then had a genuine multiple entry British visa issued into the passport. All these accomplishments took him less than a month …That Walter, there was simply nothing beyond him, except maybe assuming the title, ‘Pope John Paul’. Even that…

He had once boasted to his inner caucus that if he wanted, he could un-sit the vice-chancellor! Very few doubted him. Such was the degree of muscles he wielded. What left members of his gang confounded, however, was why he had failed to win the approval of that petit broad, Ugonna.

Now that too was settled.

Another feather to his cap.

** **

The parcel came as Ugonna was exiting Auditorium II, having just ended STAT 412, a course she didn’t particularly like. But she wasn’t expecting any thing from Zubi... Suspicious, she bid the courier wait as she rushed to the ladies. As soon as the door clicked shut, she ripped open the brown envelope, and the green passport fell out.

Tentatively, she picked it up:

Perhaps Zubi had… Why not make sure? Here was a note… Not Zubi’s writing...

She turned over the envelope: Of course, not Zubi’s writing... Who could this be?

Her hands shook as she opened the note and read:

‘The passport, my sweetheart…’

WHAT?

‘…Your visa…’

WHAT?

‘…London…’

Her throat went dry as her hands vibrated. The passport flapped. And dropped. She recalled that exchange weeks back. And suddenly, anger seized her:

What guts? How dare he snap her photograph without her consent? Her signature …forged, he probably went to Admin to rape her file… Who did he think he was?

Ugonna grabbed the passport. And with all the strength her slender hands could muster, she yanked off the picture and signature page: This more than anything else would tell him …no, she needed to put it in black and white.

Opening her handbag, she drew out a jotter. And found a red pen.

** **

Ugonna had no regrets as she watched the courier’s receding back. She told herself: philosophy or not, there comes a time when one MUST take a firm stand. Suddenly the whole thing seemed comical, and in spite of herself, she shook so hard with laughter that her eyes watered: oh, he was such a baby, that Walter.

** **

Within minutes, Walter had his envelope back. Oh, you should have seen him. Imagine stepping on a rattler’s sore tail. Or poking a hungry man with fire. What broke his heart, and shattered his ego the most was not the destroyed passport itself, but Ugonna’s accompanying note, in neat handwriting, which read:

‘Prince Walter Ezeh,

"Please cease worrying yourself with thoughts of me. You will never have a place in my heart. I belong to another."

Ugonna Anaeke.’

Walter’s pals were most sympathetic.

"Women," someone hissed after reading the note and leafing through the destroyed passport. "With them, you never know."

Before the end of that day, more than twenty able-bodied, young men had trooped from all corners of the campus to read and re-read the note, and inspect and re-inspect the destroyed passport, as Walter lay comatose on his custom-built spring bed. For acknowledgement of lipped, but heartfelt sympathy from members of his gang, he merely nodded his head slowly, several times, not unlike a male agama in glorious colours. You would think he had suffered a severe stroke.

And exams were only a matter of weeks away. Ugonna would graduate and go unconquered. She wanted to make him, Walter, a laughing stock. That would be setting a bad example. It would not happen. He would hit her.

Like Walter feared, he was becoming a laughing stock. His friends now snickered behind his back. That evening, he overheard a rather disturbing discussion as he went to use the loo.

"I think I need something for my woman."

"Something like what?"

"Something special, you know…"

"Like what?"

"Like an International Passport, complete with a Shengen visa. …who knows, me and my babe might be needing to do a bit of globetrotting after our exams."

And the loo shook on its foundations as great rumbling sounds bounced back and forth against tiled walls and ceramic cisterns.

"Ha, ha, ha, hi, hi."

"Ho, ho, ho, ha, ha."

It was Willy and Josy.

Walter ground his teeth savagely and stumped back to his room, nature’s call forgotten! Day in, day out, as he lay condemning his liver with his Reme Martin, roasting his lungs with his wee-wee, and contemplating events, he would re-affirm his vow of, I will hit her!

In between his fury, his brain would creak: who is this another that she belongs to? Well, he will have her corpse.

** **

A week later.

Standard cult procedure dictated that, irrespective of who moved it, all motions for hits be fully debated. An uncontested hit was null and void. That was how the Mongoose Confraternity operated.

And so, Walter hissed his motion:

"I want that bitch hit."

He was menacing. For the first time in a long, long while he was sober, and as serious as a church. All watching and listening knew that he was in full control of his faculties.

To Walter’s advantage, Josy came in furiously.

"Let her be. She is too pretty to die."

And the debate was in full swing.

Mighty, hairy chests rose and fell rhythmically, as if to the beating of the Igbo traditional drum, Udu. Faces distorted with scars of different tints and lengths twitched. Broad nostrils flared, blasting hot air. Giant biceps contracted and relaxed as damp fists were clenched, unclenched and re-clenched.

"She should not be allowed to set a bad example on campus," somebody snarled, siding with Walter.

"She doesn’t know what he is. So she is innocent," came another defense.

It was Willy.

Walter took a deep breath and smiled sardonically: Nobody crosses Walter and lives to tell the tale. Like a lion, I will stalk and maul these two pigs when all this is over.

"Why doesn’t the bitch want to be fucked by a real man?" came a hiss from somewhere in the now smoke filled room. "She is only a piece of pussy, isn’t she, guys? Common, let’s stick with our King Crown."

Walter knew this was the time to exercise his powers.

"Let’s ballot. That’s what the constitution says."

Walter had single-handedly written that constitution. That was three years ago when he was elected King Crown (national leader of the Mongoose Confraternity) at a Congress in the Ekenwan Campus of the University of Benin, Mid-western Nigeria. Used to the backstabbing and deadly hypocrisy in his father’s royal court, he had made sure the constitution read, ‘Open ballot’. Though when it suited him, ‘Open ballot’ translated to ‘Secret ballot’. He always knew what arguments to submit.

‘Clemento?’ --Let’s hit her.

‘Angelo?’ --She goes down.

‘Ogadinma?’ --Down with her.

‘Nwaokorie?’ --Let’s fuck her.

‘Brazil?’ –Let her die.

‘Aso Rock?’ --She must fall.

‘Son of Man?’ -- The Last Supper …Feed her and she will never hunger again!

…And the balloting went on.

Final count: twenty for, none against!

No one voted against the King Crown. Not in an Open ballot anyway. As soon as the decision was safely in the bag, words were rushed out to a unanimous, but carefully selected sister university. A chosen few made this selection: to avoid any danger of leakage.

Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Western Nigeria was chosen.

They would provide Ugonna’s nemesis!

(ii)

Next day. Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife: Western Nigeria. (3.23 p.m.)

Like a tightly compressed spring, Lekan sprang as soon as the large, calloused hands, rougher than sandpaper, alighted softly on his wide shoulder. The intruder’s heart hopped frantically to his mouth as he took a hasty step back.

Lekan had stolen to Agric Lecture room 203 in an attempt to catch up with his coursework, left unattended since school reopened. He had dozed into a troubled sleep in the process. As his eyes cleared, he found himself staring into Johnny’s hard, sneaky eyes, made bloodshot by the cheap, illicit gin, ‘Push me I push you’.

Lekan, face clouded with resentment, wrinkled his nose in disgust and waited, every muscle in his athletic body tautly attentive. In answer to the question, scribbled on his firmly knotted brow, Johnny issued forth a controlled, gruffly grunt:

"You have been chosen as the faithful for another hit. You are to report to headquarters for briefing. He says to tell you time is running out."

Smiling sheepishly and baring nicotine-stained, shovel-like teeth, Johnny punched his clenched right fist into the palm of his left hand (the Mongoose code!) after casting quick glances left and right to make sure he wasn’t being spied.

"See ya later."

And Johnny disappeared into thin air like a whiff of smoke, leaving behind a sickening stench. Lekan dragged in a bag of air, and then exhaled deeply. Shutting his eyes tightly, he shook his head vigorously for long seconds, as if doing so would convince him that he had been dreaming, or make the reality of what he had just heard go quietly away.

When nothing happened, he emitted a deep, deep sigh: why him, so soon again?

But he didn’t make the decisions. He was committed to the cause …had been for the past five years. In that time, he had thought of abandoning the Mongoose secret cult and running away. But more than anyone else, he knew it was hopeless to try. The very idea itself was laughable, for the Mongoose secret cult was no ‘Boys’ Scout’ or ‘Man-o-war’. Nobody joined and left when he or she felt like it. Plus, that would mean forfeiting his university education.

Angry with himself, Lekan straightened up, revealing his full six and half feet, which boasted a well shaped head seated deftly atop a solid, solid neck. He would probably have been much shorter if not for the neck endowment. As he began to put his books away, he allowed his mind to drift back to that time when it all started.

** **

He had spent only three months at the Obafemi Awolowo University, full of zest and high hopes. He was determined to succeed, if only to prove his mum wrong. It was during a belated welcome party organized for fresh law students that they had first made contact with him. He had been on his way to his hostel, deep in thought about an impending philosophy test, which, according to the lecturer, ‘would be tougher than steel’.

Suddenly, the lanky guy had stopped him and smiled amiably:

"Hello, my name is St. Iyke. I saw you at the orientation. Had fun?"

Without waiting for a reply, this St. Iyke carried on: "It’s not easy here, you know. But you will get along fine. Just as long as you belong to the right group, that is."

Watching St. Iyke keenly, Lekan said nothing.

"I am in my third year, studying law too. Should you need anything, feel free to check me out. I will be very glad to help."

St. Iyke smiled his amiable smile again, setting Lekan at ease.

"I reside at Fajuyi Hall, room 303," St. Iyke revealed.

Before taking his leave, he extended an invitation to Lekan for a little get-together his guys were stringing together for new friends.

"It will be fun," he assured. "Next week Friday, why not pop in?"

For the first time, Lekan smiled.

"The party will help you unwind. You will meet a lot of jambites like you from other faculties. And you will make new pals who will help you watch your back."

That little get-together was what ended up as an introduction to the Mongoose Confraternity, the most potent secret cult in Obafemi Awolowo University, with affiliations in all other campuses across Nigeria.

Once you were introduced, there was no going back. Initiation, which involved blood rituals and hunting down live cobras, was only a matter of weeks from the date of the first introductory meeting. Before extending an invitation for anyone to come meet new friends cum back watchers, that person had been followed for several weeks, even months, his background studied and carefully documented.

The mandate of the ‘Brotherhood,as members preferred to call it, was to protect one another from intimidation, harassment, and the so-called injustices from so-called sadist lecturers. Their motto, ‘an arm for an arm’ meant that like the mongoose, they extracted vengeance for any wrong done to them by any cobra (person), and would go to any length to ensure this.

For security reasons, it was standard procedure for an individual, or a troop from one university (on invitation only) to travel thousands of kilometres to another to extract a particular payback or ‘hit’. But once in a while, under the most astringent checks, quick reprisals on offenders were deftly planned and executed internally, especially if the offenders were members of other campus cults, who should have known better than cross members of the deadly Mongoose. This often led to bloody clashes where innocent students were maimed or killed.

It was on account of one of these killings that high institutions across the country were shut down for nearly five months, and had only recently resumed. A final year Literature student at the Northern Bayero State University had had his eyes gouged out with a hot prong, and his genitalia severed. An autopsy had revealed where the severed genitalia was: in his stomach. It had been diced and cooked medium-rare.

** **

The last five years had seen Lekan traversing nearly all universities in Nigeria, extracting vengeance on behalf of his Brotherhood. What he had to show for these clandestine missions were several meetings with his Faculty Officer. The last one, at the beginning of the semester, was terse and straight to the point. He recalled walking into the FO’s well-furnished office on jelly legs:

"Mr. Lekan Aremu?"

A slow nod.

"Well, I am calling you for the same reason I have called you severally, remember?"

Another nod. Slower than the first.

"Five years you have been in this faculty, and still in part two. Well, this is your last warning. If you don’t meet the minimum GPA at the end of this semester to move you to part three, the faculty would have no other option but to kindly advise you to withdraw. Do you understand me?"

Several nods. Each as slow as painful death.

"It shouldn’t be a difficult task. From your first year result before me here, I am of the impression that if you disciplined yourself, you will yet make it."

Lekan knew this was true! But could he ever settle down? What with all these assignments from the Brotherhood.

"Here is a letter from this office with regard to our discussion today."

Lekan accepted the letter with his right hand. The FO failed to notice the tremor, which rattled the paper, ever so slightly.

If only the shame of imminent rustication was where his pains ended. But it wasn’t. Three years ago, during a hit that went sour at the Imo State University, Eastern Nigeria, he had come out scarred. That particular experience still haunts him.

True, the wound had healed, but he was now a marked man, with his left hand permanently sheltered in his pocket or under his shirt. What was more? His high hopes of becoming a renowned lawyer had since slipped away. His mum would say she was right: he would end up a bum, like his father.

Lekan had never known his father!

And he had always wanted to prove himself. The Mongoose Confraternity had shown instant appreciation of his stature, assuaging his self-esteem. He felt needed and useful, unlike the scumbag, his mother, forever comparing him with his father, always made him believe he was.

How time had changed all that. He should have known better than allow the sly, smooth talking St. Iyke to hoodwink him years ago. But how could he have known?

Like a millstone around his neck, he felt the burden of his naivety daily.

** **

As Lekan’s sweat splattered on his open notebooks, and the blue ink began to run, reminding him of a chromatography experiment in secondary school when he attempted chemistry, he was hauled back from his disturbing reverie. Wiping the sweat from his face, forearm and books, he packed up with lightning speed. Hurriedly, he walked out of the empty lecture room: nobody kept a Crown (the name by which local Mongoose leaders were known) waiting.

The Crown wasted no time with pleasantries.

"You are going to Nsukka now."

An imperceptible twitch, and Lekan’s eyes narrowed into slits. His clammy left hand, safely out of sight, fisted and un-fisted. His Adam’s apple bobbed and danced, like a plastic can tossed about by angry waves.

"You know how to get there, don’t you?"

Without waiting for answer, the Crown continued in his sombre voice, like the Campus Priest he was:

"You will receive further instructions at Nsukka."

A thick, brown envelope exchanged hands.

"Your transport allowance. I would have briefed you fully, but I have confessions to attend to. My parishioners are waiting. Good luck."

The truth was that the Priest felt uneasy, alone with his formidable hit man. A seminarian who gained admission to study Philosophy and Religious Studies at Ile-Ife, Fr. Badmus Adeniran had been at his duty post as the Crown of Obafemi Awolowo University since graduation ten years ago.

** **

An hour later, Lekan boarded a luxurious bus at the motor park in town; it would be an all night trip. Immediately after, a special call was made from Ile-Ife, using a public booth. The idea of tailing Lekan from the campus had not been palatable, for nobody had the know how to stick successfully to his tail. So the caller had been at the motor park a full hour before Lekan’s arrival, stowed away in a squalid bar, with an uninterrupted view of the motor park.

The call, arriving at the telecom switchboard at Nsukka, was spontaneously rooted to its recipient at the university. The recipient, grunting and coughing short, dry coughs after a sustained drag on a heavy wrap of wee-wee, recognized the incoming code on his Nokia handset and sprang from his bed as if doused with ice water.

He composed his voice, as befitted a king.

"Talk to me!" he snapped.

"The good has been dispatched."

"Ughhh? …"

"Reporting that the good is on its way."

"When will I take delivery?"

"First thing tomorrow morning."

"No fuck ups…"

Silence.

"I said no fuck ups…"

The silence, transmitted across 600km by radio waves deepened.

"I said no fucking fuck ups…"

The voice had lost its composure now.

"Mighty-Ife-does-not-f-u-c-k-u-p King Crown," was reverently spat at him.

Tugging furiously at his moustache, usually well groomed with intense care, but terribly dishevelled these days, Walter’s eyes radiated thermal energy: Mighty Ife did not fuck up, yes, but what the heck? Who was this prick on the other end anyway? Didn’t he know who he was speaking to?

His hands trembled.

He cast his red eyes about.

His pack was out: just as well!

And he began to sweat: fuck!

The caller at the other end waited patiently.

Again the King Crown composed his voice: it bore no iota of remorse.

"How do I know him?"

With grinding accuracy, the caller relayed Lekan’s brute description.

And the phone died …in his ear, just as he ended his description. Hurt, Johnny made a mental note to include both insults in his report to his Priest.

** **

Next day: University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Eastern Nigeria (6.01 am)

It was a chilly morning. Rough, whistling wind ruffled Lekan’s brown gabardine trousers angrily, blowing dust into his face. He tasted grit and cursed. As he bent down to re-lace his black boots, which he had loosened in the crowded, luxurious bus, the aroma of akara (bean cakes) frying nearby caught his broad, strong nostrils. Maybe he should have breakfast. He had eaten nothing for nearly eighteen. It was always like this. Then his trained instincts bade him that he had company: They were there. Breakfast was shelved until further notice.

Since five o’clock his cousins had been at the motor park, just outside the university’s main gate, painstakingly scrutinizing every arriving passenger amid the cacophony of noise. The description fitted. Yet they waited for the diagnostic sign. Several seconds rushed by. And in a flash, Lekan’s left hand zapped out of the pocket of his grey moccasin windbreaker to scratch his left ear lobe.

The ring and middle fingers were missing!

** **

This was going to be Lekan’s first job at the University of Nigeria. Careful reading had taught him all there was to know about the campus except the topography. But no need to worry. His cousins would teach him all there was to know. They would also educate him about his quarry, on whom they already had a large dossier. After their exposÚ, they would let him tail her for several days.

Finally, they would cut him loose.

This of course, was after the loosening-up ritual.

This ritual involved catching three full-grown cobras with bare hands. He would then de-venom and parade them for inspection before skinning and dumping them, whole, into a steaming pot of wee-wee pepper soup! The ritual would climax when he ate the three cobras heads (his share), and picked his teeth with their fangs!

It was all in the book.

Lekan didn’t mind!

He was a skilled Naja catcher. Like Ile-Ife, Nsukka had plenty of them and more to spare. All his cousins had to do was point him in the right direction. He preferred ‘fighting Najas’ to ‘running Najas’. You never knew where a running Naja would lead you. He still shudders at a certain memory: once, while chasing an old and tired Naja which could hardly spit, he had found himself right in a Naja den, confronted by five-angry cobras! Only his dexterity had saved him.

When in a new territory, Lekan listened carefully to instructions, absorbing every detail, like a sponge. His survival on the field, he knew, depended on the degree of finer details he was able to store. For lack of this foresight, several of his colleagues had been nailed on missions.

Against popular opinion, alcohol and marijuana were potent killers on the job. Lekan knew this and avoided them like the plague. And he left no trail, making him the most sought for Mongoose hit man on campus.

Il-Ife was very proud to have him.

 

(iii)

Two weeks later. Thursday.

7.05pm

Ugonna was a conscientious student, and was already at her corner at Education Lecture Room 2. She wanted to better her fiancÚ, Zubi, who had graduated with a second-class lower. She sometimes wondered why he hadn’t done better. As far as she knew, he was quite brilliant. And so she burnt her candles on both ends as she prepared for her final exams. It was her usual manner to leave class late, trudging the dark sidewalks alone. You could call her a loner. Though she sometimes felt better if fellow students were around on the way back to the hostel.

9.37 pm

A flickering candlelight cast coarse, grotesque images of five hooded men in boots on the whitewashed wall of a one-room, apartment. Located off campus, the room was small, with one tiny, gauzed window. Damp, it had the characteristic cold smell of cassava mould. A six-spring bed sat in the centre. A windbreaker hung on a rusted six-inch nail stabbed into one wall. Business began after the foot shuffling ceased, and heartbeats could be clearly heard.

"Doing the job tonight…?"

A slow nod. Silence.

"No mistakes..."

Pressurized silence.

"I said, no mistakes...."

A deep, deep swallow: "I-don’t-make-mistakes."

Chests rose and fell.

Time passed.

"Good luck then."

"I-don’t-need-luck."

Few men shook Walter’s liver. Lekan belonged to that regal group. His body shook with a slight tremor. He hoped nobody noticed.

Lekan missed nothing.

"Very well, then," Walter said, and walked out of apartment, his three bodyguards on his heels. Outside, a flash of light on the solid gold chronometer, resting on his hairy, light-skinned hand as someone lit a cigarette, told him the time: 9.45pm.

Lekan detested Walter: Why, the fellow was too arrogant. And the girl didn’t deserve to die. Not for him. The fart! He recalled Walter’s instruction when he first arrived: you must make her suffer. And totally unrecognisable?

Lekan would have loved it to be a neat job. Suffocation by poison gas. But his policy was to obey instruction to the letter. He would make her unrecognisable. It would be easy. Girls were always easy. And then he would ask that he be left alone, at least for a while. He could recommend others. He knew more than a dozen, equally competent guys. They would understand if he told them about the threat of expulsion.

10.09pm

Ever so suspicious of fate’s funny hand in shaping events, Lekan would not give in to suppositions. It bred error. He strolled into campus: just to make sure the girl was where he knew she would be. He felt sorry for her. She was very beautiful. They said she was pompous. She didn’t act pompous, in his candid opinion. Why was he getting involved? Christ! It was unhealthy to get involved with one’s victims. Shit! He didn’t understand himself anymore.

Muttering obscenities, he licked his dry lips, glancing over his shoulders. He hoped he was not being followed. He walked into the night, his head tilted to a sloppy angle. He now represented misery and death. He didn’t plan it this way. Through him, numerous individuals had been sent to early graves. Through me, families have suffered untold agonies. Because of inconsequential misunderstandings and bickering bred by peer pressures. It was costing him his education. And his life. The relatives of those victims… how were they faring? He was sure they were terribly distraught- by his own hands! Bringing out his left hand, he surveyed the scars and the three remaining fingers briefly. They looked forlorn. He rushed them back to safety: Nooooooo!

** **

10.16pm

A new visitor arrived to join Ugonna’s appointed nemesis, Lekan. This visitor was a killer’s killer. He had his ears very close to the ground. He had ruled the entire Buccaneer confraternity in Nigeria for three good years from his base in Northern Nigeria. He was suave. But despite his politeness and simplicity, like a 4 x 4, he exuded solid power. He was a shiny black all over. You could walk straight into him in the dark without knowing. Or he could steal up on you in the night and stand by your side for several minutes. If you were lucky, he let you go. Otherwise, you died!

Where Lekan was careful, precision was his hallmark. Being a precise killer, he had researched his adversary before setting foot on the campus. His research had yielded nothing, except that his adversary was a snake catcher, which wasn’t much by way of bio data. The Mongoose were in their hundreds, and each, he knew from past experience, was a ‘deadly nightshade’.

‘Never underestimate your enemy,’ was his killer’s slogan. Though he found out nothing personal and specific about his adversary’s physical composition and attributes, at least he had taken the necessary precaution towards being alive. It was about doing the right thing. So instead of feeling despair, his spirit soared.

On arrival at Nsukka, he had registered with a false name at an out of the way motel. After making sure his BMW 7 Series was properly covered with tarpaulin, he had immediately made a call from the pay phone outside the motel premises. The people at the other end had been waiting for this call for nearly five hours, and relayed vital information. They were the same people who had invited him to this rendezvous. Only yesterday, they had sent him a DHL package. It read:

"Tracker,

‘Target sinks tomorrow at anytime from midnight. A one-man party expected. Join the rendezvous. Call 9966543209 on arrival to confirm.

The Moles.

These contacts owed him their lives and were happy to supply this information freely. For six years now, he had oiled them to watch his back - just for a time like this. It had paid off: his instinct was always right. If his instincts were right again, the snake catcher wouldn’t do the job the way he had pencilled it, for snake catchers never really revealed their modus operandi. Not even to their Crown Mongoose. They wouldn’t ensnare themselves in their own trap. He wasted no time in identifying where the girl read.

Had he known his adversary, the retired Buccaneer would have breathed easier. Being a master killer, however, he knew ways to make amends for this major drawback, plus he had an overwhelming advantage: his presence was unknown.

Careful not to expose himself to peril, he selected a strategic position with an unobstructed view of the sidewalks. And lying down on the damp grass, he watched and waited patiently. He was a trained guerrilla fighter. Not even the deadliest bite of the buzzing mosquitoes could make him swat.

12.11am

He saw what he had been watching out for. A tiny light ray piercing through a hibiscus flower on his far right was momentarily blocked for a split second as his adversary identified himself, assuming a crouching position, like a feline creature waiting to pounce. His heart missed several beats, as the muscles of his arms and legs flexed involuntarily. He gauged distances and estimated angles, like an engineer: baaa… He was a long way off. But he wasn’t going to do anything about it for now. He wouldn’t blow his delicate cover. Both killers had been trained to perceive and interpret, with precision, the tiniest night sounds and faintest smells, eliminating the obvious and zeroing in on the out of place. Ear lobes ached now as both listened intently, their nostrils flaring, tasting the cold, night air.

1.05am

Ugonna was completely alone. As always, the owls and bats frightened her as they flew from one tree to another, shrieking. This night they flapped violently, as if in protest of the impending rain. The nocturnal, torrential rain that signalled the end of the long rainy season had been threatening for the past three days. It looked likely this night. If she could only see the outline of the bats and owls and be sure they were the real things. One often heard stories of men flying at night. But her wish was never to be gratified, for the night was pitch dark and the sky devoid of stars.

As the trees, standing black waved and swayed to the violent urging of the wind, with braches taking the shape of demons’ talons, she snuggled deeper and deeper into her sweater and clutched the tiny golden crucifix on her neck, invoking its protective powers as she began to chant: ‘Hail Mary, full of grace …the Lord is with you…’

And diligently, she walked on towards her hostel …and to her death.

1.07am

From their positions, both butchers saw her approach. One had seen her earlier as she stepped out of the lecture room. He had moved with her. While she moved northwards, he came in from his position in the west. He would have to intersect her at the exact point where the Mongoose awaited. It had to be with the speed of greased lightning. He strained his eyes, scanning for obstructions. Any along his path, slowing him for even a split second, would mean disaster, his mission irrevocably foiled. He could not bear to think what it would mean to his life.

And she was moving too fast! He had not anticipated the bad weather, which was hastening her, for this was not her usual pace. He knew that too well. Hadn’t he studied her until there was nothing left to study? Were he not a master of the jungle and a child of the night, he probably would have panicked. But like the killer leopard he was, he marched stealthily forward. He knew how to step lightly, like breeze, on dry twigs without snapping them. It was a deadly game of death …of winners take all. The other was going to pay dearly.

In his position, Lekan’s heart ached for what he was about to do. He told himself he had no rights. He told himself they had no rights …that it was all wrong …the destruction, the pain, the hearts he was helping them ache. He would sooner take leave of them than go on this way. It had destroyed his life. But he was under oath. Oath he couldn’t change because he didn’t make the rules: if he didn’t do it, somebody else would. And then several people would be dead because they would come after him. He wouldn’t let them get him for nothing. But how many of them could he fight off? And for how long? But this girl ought not to die. No! His facial muscles twitched, and his left ear lobe itched. He scratched involuntarily, grinding his teeth, moaning over and over and over again, under heavy, warm breath, confused like a man with brain fever: But he must do it …to buy his freedom! After this, no more. He can’t do it …he can’t stop her death …only a miracle would save her now…her fate, his destiny…

This sudden dawn of fatalism gripped him with a cold hand, and he shivered violently. For the first time since he became a Mongoose hit man, Lekan felt his spirit dissolve, like salt in hot water.

1.09am

Did she hear something, like a heart beat? ‘…Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now…’ …It must be one of those dreadful owls. Or bats. ‘…Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death…’ Ugonna increased her pace, not glancing back. Not that she could have seen anything if she did. The wind was howling wickedly now, and the whole place was in Stygian darkness, like the Gates of Hades.

1.11am

By the time he heard the gentle, gentle thin snap of a dry twig by his side, it was way too late. At first he didn’t see anything, but then, still stooping and adjusting his black facial mask, he saw….and he was terribly, terribly terrified! Intently, both men peered into each other’s eyes simultaneously. Despite the darkness, the Mongoose straining upwards from his stooping position immediately recognized the Buccaneer bearing menacingly down on him. The outline of his shoulders, like the gates of a massive warehouse, was an unmistakable identity. Bile, bitter as brown ale, filled his mouth. He felt faint and hollow. Blood rushed to his brain and pounded away. He was too disadvantaged to do anything. He did not even try. For he knew what he knew: he had no chance in hell. As the razor sharp sickle sliced into his throat, like hot knife into butter, Lekan recalled vividly how he had encountered this man once and had two missing fingers as testimony. Everyone called him ‘Darkness’, for he was black all over, like the devil he was. But didn’t he hear somewhere that the man was a practicing---? He couldn’t recall what profession, as he humbly accepted his fate with a smile: he had won after all. This ‘Darkness’, killing him now, would have the girl’s innocent blood on his hands, rather than he, Olalekan Aremu.

1.13am

As his quarry walked hurriedly past him, not a single hair on her light skin ruffled, Lekan died like a dog, without throwing a single punch. The last thing he noticed before sinking into oblivion was the splattering of what he knew would be a heavy rain. Dry season was here!

** **

Next day. 10.00 am.

It seemed for her, the day was filled with endless promises. Ugonna didn’t know why or how, but thought the sun shone extra bright. It was warm and inviting. She felt light-headed too, nearly euphoric. Last night, the kind man in her dreams finally slaughtered the man-eating lion-like monster that had been terrorizing her nightly for weeks. She still couldn’t make out his face. Could there be a connection with the charred body she heard students talking about? The idea shocked her: she didn’t think so.

The entire student body had woken up, shocked, to find the unrecognisable corpse of a man lying on the grass, along one of the sidewalks. His face and chest and stomach were totally unrecognisable, the bones charred and the flesh completely eaten away. Curious looking oily liquid oozed out of the carcass. Students of analytical chemistry were quick to identify this curious liquid as a mixture of concentrated Sulphuric acid and Nitric acid. It was not long after that the authorities at the Department of Chemistry reported a break in at one of their laboratories.

"And you know," she had told one of her roommates when the news first broke out, "that was the very route I took on my way back from class last night. I wonder why that poor, innocent soul was murdered."

And she thought: I must never stay up so late anymore. I could have been the unfortunate victim of that acid attack. But again, Ugonna dismissed this silly thought emphatically: that wasn’t her fate.

**

Enugu: Eastern Nigeria (8.00 am).

Zubi was in a bright, warm mood. He was impeccably dressed in a brilliant-white three-piece suit. He enjoyed beginning his days at the engineering outfit his father had bequeathed to him by 7.00 a.m. Today, however, he had come in a little late. He had had a late rendezvous at the university in Nsukka, an hour and forty-five minute drive away in his powerful BMW 7 Series. The success of that rendezvous far compensated for this morning’s lateness.

The End

 

 

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