Friday, May 29th 2020, 10:17pm.
His heart rate spiked again when the elevator doors opened onto the dark lobby.
After running across the polished tile, Victor pulled open one of the heavy, mirrored doors of his employer’s building; the Independent Media House, better known as the IMH, home of the biggest and most circulated newspaper in Southern Nigeria.
Tripping on the lower corner of the door, he stumbled out onto the bustling sidewalk in the heart of downtown Lagos. Righting himself, he lifted his thick, blackframed glasses up to his sweating forehead and rubbed stinging, tired eyes. The noise and bustling of the packed city street took him by surprise. The harum-scarum of the real world stood in stark contrast to the three days and nights spent within the quiet confines of the IMH’s research rooms.
He stood there, surveying the mass of vehicles and people crowding through every available space. Taxis and buses sped by, bumper-to-bumper in each direction. Horns blaring, exhaust fumes billowing up to choke those thronging in and around each other. Victor conjured the image of a mass of tadpoles wriggling in an overcrowded pond. His mind swam in a maelstrom of information and desperation, viewing the public with pity and empathy.
None of you…My God, none of you has any idea.
Having difficulty focusing, he gave his eyes another awkward rub, sticking his fingers beneath his glasses instead of taking them off first. Unsure of where to go, playing for time, he then scratched his three-months worth of tangled, unkempt beard. What should he do? Having left the research room in such a ragged hurry, he had no plan. Looking back at the IMH building, catching his reflection in the mirrored door, he could see his hair a mess, glasses askew, clothes crumpled and disheveled.
Welcoming the distraction, he placed the overflow of papers and folders, along with his computer bag, at his feet and did his best to fix his appearance. Trying yet failing to straighten the crooked tie, he gave up. Tucking in his shirt, putting his jacket on, all while looking in both directions for a sign of where to go or what to do. He couldn’t stand in front of the building doing nothing. He needed to move, needed to make plans, needed to get someplace safe.
For months, Victor Giwa – a well-respected, twenty–four year old journalist with published articles exposing corruption in three different countries – had been obsessing over a single story. This story inspired his unexpected return to Nigeria six months ago, and yielded no proof or evidence… until tonight.
On any other day, the kind of information Victor uncovered would be reason for excitement, planning, and feverish writing. Instead, the evidence he found, after weeks of research, filled him with crippling fear and heart-pounding anxiety; more so than any story he’d ever worked on. Exposing corruption and scandals weren’t his job, but his responsibility. This means a certain level of danger, which translated to several threats on his life during his professional career.
Once in Mexico, while investigating a local manufacturer for underpaying his workers and threatening them if they told anyone, Victor asked the wrong questions at a local bar. The manufacturer sent some of his men after the nosey journalist. They attacked Victor in the cheap apartment he rented above a grocer. His escape attributed to nothing more than blind luck, he didn’t get away unscathed. He still had the scars on his head and arms from jumping through a window to evade the axes and machetes of the hit squad.
In Singapore, while at the airport after publishing a rather damning exposé on the connection between government officials and the trafficking of heroin to western Europe, three men in black suits, thin black ties, sunglasses, and tattoos on their necks, warned Victor if he ever set foot in their country again he would disappear forever. He believed them.
Tonight, however, felt vastly different from those other times he faced risks. Before, the threats made out of anger or a need for revenge came after he wrote a story. But this? For the first time, he knew his life could be in real and immediate danger because of information he uncovered. Information those involved would go to great lengths to keep from being made public. Also, for the first time, his instincts as a journalist became overrun by something greater than finding the truth. So much more than just a story hung in the balance.
Swarms of faceless people swept past him on the sidewalk as he tried making a mental list of what needed to be done. His passport and the little money he had saved sat in the tiny apartment he kept in Obanikoro. He wanted to give the money to– Chai! What did it matter now? He needed to get there and pack his bag so he could leave town. First, though, he needed to get this newfound information to his source for safekeeping. If he didn’t, he couldn’t guarantee his safety. Most important, above all else, he needed to get a message to his younger brother, Ziik. He pulled out his phone and checked the time – almost ten-thirty. Pulling up his contacts, finding his brother’s name, he hit ‘Send.’ Three rings later his impatience grew.
“Come on Ziik… answer your phone,” Victor said, but his pleading yielded no results. After being sent to voicemail – normal when he called Ziik lately – he began to leave his brother a message. A thought came to him mid-sentence. He stopped speaking after a few hurried words. Ending the call, he stuffed the phone back into his pocket. It might not be safe.
After researching and digging for weeks, what were the chances his efforts had been compromised? He berated himself for making the call. If anyone got hold of his phone records they might think he told Ziik–NO! No, he couldn’t continue thinking in such a way. A fresh wave of fear welled up from his stomach as his quickening pulse clouded his thoughts and judgment once again. He decided to start keeping a record as soon as possible. Forcing his way into the mass of moving people, he attempted to retrieve the small digital recorder out of the overflowing computer bag.
Across the street, less than a block away, a black SUV idled beneath one of the many broken streetlights. The occupants, Anini and Osunbor, did not enjoy following Victor Giwa off and on for the last two weeks – a boring and pointless assignment. They took turns, watching the front of the IMH for him to emerge, trading off every eight hours with two other teams of two. Each team grew to hate their quarry for making them sit in their cars for three straight days in the heat and the congestion of downtown Lagos.
Tonight, Anini and Osunbor eagerly awaited Victor’s emergence from the IMH building. Both did their best not to show their excitement because they each had to maintain their composure in the eyes of the other. Patience shows strength, impatience is weakness. They knew he would be coming out because of the phone call from their boss they received moments before. The call let them know Victor Giwa had indeed gained knowledge of heavily guarded secrets. Secrets he should have never learned; secrets with implications for every man, woman, and child in Nigeria, and most of West Africa.
Still fumbling with his belongings, Victor managed to push the red record button on the digital device in his hand. He opened his mouth to speak into it when a blaring horn and screeching tires shocked him into stillness. The headlights speeding toward him swerved as the hands of several strangers grabbed him, pulling him out of the road.
Shouts and cries of, “Careful you want to die sha?!” and the even more colloquial, “You dey crase?!” came from every direction. Victor cursed his own idiocy for being distracted. After all, him being watched or followed at his moment could be a real possibility. If he became too distracted, the chance he could get hurt grew in equal measure. He could not risk anything now he knew the truth.
Inside the SUV, Anini sat in the driver’s seat, hitting the steering wheel with his fist and letting out an exclamation of disgust when the speeding cars missed the reporter. As random strangers pulled their target out of harm’s way, he exclaimed, “Did you see that? Chai! Almost! Our problem for don solve for us right dere! Dese stupid pipo and dere busybody don tire men sef,” he said, first speaking in the way their boss insisted before falling back into his neighborhood, pidgin tongue. He reached for the gearshift and said, “Come on, let’s go and finish it. No one is going to miss this reporter.”
“Mumu,” the raspy voice of Osunbor said from the passenger seat, “they’re called ‘journalists,’ not ‘reporters.’ And, I don’t think He will spare us again if we make a scene like the last time, do you?” At the mention of Him, Anini went still. “Come, I know what to do. Drive to the end of the street and park fifty yards ahead of him.”
“Fine,” Anini said, not hiding his frustration as he slammed the SUV into gear, pulling into traffic. “And stop calling me ‘Mumu.’ I hate when you call me ‘Mumu.’”
“Then don’t fall back into the pidgin,” Osunbor said, grinning. He knew Anini’s temper carried something of mythic legend around certain circles in Lagos. He should know, he made sure to spread as many stories of Anini’s savagery as he could. Fear won more battles than strength, after all.
Fortunate for Anini (and unfortunate for the police), he knew how to get away with his impulsive, cruel inclinations. For the most part, he knew when to keep them muted. It took someone unique to get under his skin, to push him past reason. And woe be cast unto the man who pushed Anini past his threshold. He could be unpredictable and over-violent at times, Osunbor knew well. Few could match his skills, though. He loved his job and excelled at it. At times, Osunbor thought, his partner loved his job a little too much. But he had a unique way of being able to control the reckless and volatile tendencies of his companion – most of the time. Anything regarding His preferences would be enough to keep Anini in check; Osunbor knew and used this knowledge to great effect. Anini drove past their target and parked, all the while keeping his focus on Victor Giwa, the repor-, er, journalist, who learned too much.
“It’s around ten–thirty on Friday night, May twenty-ninth, twenty–twenty. The breakthrough I’ve been looking for…pardon me…what I’ve been working on…excuse me…I’ve found the evidence I need,” the words came from Victor in a rush. He struggled to keep the wealth of information fighting to get out of his head from spewing forth in fragmented testimonials. Bits of paper and loose, scribbled notes fell out of his satchel and pockets as he walked, jostled back and forth from the crowds of people, and talked into his recorder. “Where do I begin? It goes beyond anything I thought possible. The intricate networks, the organization, and the money! My God, the money! I have everything I need to bring this to light, to expose them, but it can’t be here…I’m sorry…not in Lagos…excuse me…I’m not sure I can trust anyone here to…no, no, I have what I need but it can’t be here…I’ll need to go to…Chai! Watch where you’re going…I can’t believe it…My instincts were right…The people of this country will finally have a chance to rise and… hope… I can see hope…
All I need to–UNGH!” Something powerful drove into Victor’s gut and he lurched forward. He heard a car door open and felt himself pushed toward it. He resisted. Another blow landed on the back of his head and the world blinked out of existence.
Muffled voices came through wavering blackness as Victor tried making sense of his surroundings. His head, hurting and feeling like it weighed more than it should, resisted his commands.
“I think he’s coming around,” a raspy voice said. Soon after, blinding pain exploded in Victor’s ribs where powerful legs kicked him.
I’m being mugged. Take my money but leave my bag, please. Please leave my bag…
“Wazam slap!” a different, deeper voice barked, followed by a sharp, open hand slap to Victor’s face.
“Wake up, Newsman,” the raspy voice, said.
Rolling over, away from swinging hands and kicking feet, Victor faced the cold concrete of a far-flung alley in a secluded part of the city. The smell of garbage and waste filled his nostrils, turning his stomach and threatening to heave its contents onto the pavement. He watched, helpless, as a gust of wind blew several of his notes and papers down the alley, into the hopeless dark of the night. His thoughts became strained, seeing scraps of his work swallowed up by the void. He felt his consciousness ebbing and flowing like the tide.
Hands – stronger and more hostile than those that saved him from the oncoming car – lifted him up from his prone position and threw him against a brick wall; Victor’s body cracked and splintered with the force, driving all the wind from his lungs. Crumpling to the ground, he felt an urgent need to cough, wanted to cough, but his lungs refused to operate. His body stood still in time, unable to breath.
When he started choking and convulsing for oxygen, several more kicks landed on his side and back. Another blow thudded like a sledgehammer in between his shoulder blades. More strikes landed along his back, legs, and torso. He rolled and jerked from the pain and impacts. On instinct, he kept his arms up around his head, his knees tucked into his chest. The pain throughout his body grew total and absolute.
“Wait! Stop! He is here,” shouted the deeper of the two voices. The beating ceased.
“What?!” the other voice rasped, sounding nervous. “He never comes to these things.”
Victor’s attackers backed a few steps away, stunned into silence. At first, only white noise from out–of–sight traffic filled his head. Then, as headlights filled the alley, blinding him, a car or truck neared, the brakes squealing to a stop a few feet away. The engine cut off, but the headlights remained on. A door opened, closed, followed by slow, deliberate footfalls drawing closer.
Victor wanted to look up, but found he couldn’t lift his head. He knew now this wasn’t a mugging. They knocked him unconscious and brought him somewhere no one would see anything. He possessed a better-than-decent idea of the identity of the person walking toward him, but could not manage the strength to turn his head, open his eyes, and confirm his suspicions.
“Sit him up,” the new voice said, quiet and soothing, yet heavy in authority, “I want to talk to him.” Someone kicked him in the ribs, leaving their foot in place, using it to force Victor over on his back. “Sit up now, Mr. Giwa.” When he lay motionless for several seconds, a foot came down on his stomach and he shot up to a sitting position. Coughing, he wrapped his arms around his middle and forced himself to stay sitting upright. Every part of his body throbbed in agony. The headlights too bright to look into, he strained his head back to stare up to the stars, instead. The newest member of the group walked in front of the headlight aimed at Victor’s head, casting him in shadow. He continued looking at the stars.
“I have learned of exotic cultures, right here in Africa, who believe the essence of every human being can be found in a corresponding animal,” the voice said. “Most people like to think they are something special. They think themselves a fearsome lion, a mighty cheetah, or perhaps a soaring eagle. This could not be farther from the truth. Most men around here are more akin to rats and other such vermin. They consume everything, giving nothing back but feces, waste, and disease.
“You see, rats have no instinct to move on once they have destroyed their environment. No, no, no,” he asked. “They keep multiplying on top of each other, eating each other, destroying each other, living on top of the bones and carcasses of those who came before. Their sole purpose is to preserve a crude instinct of survival.” The man’s voice held a controlled, musical tempo, saccharin sweet with every word holding the same lyrical quality. This voice frightened Victor more than any beating.
“You, on the other hand, Mr. Victor Giwa, are no rat. No, no, no. You are a cat – a cat trying to exist in a world overrun with rats. You detest the impurity of the rat’s world. And this makes it so very difficult for you to fit in. A cat may be able to deal with a few rats… but not an entire city of them, not an entire country of them.
“You see, instead of finding a place of peace, a nice tree to climb and a warm saucer of milk to drink from, you feel the need to sniff out the rats. First you chase them way over there, in all sorts of places you were never welcome. You chased them, cornered them, and tried to change their very way of being. And now you chase them here.” A shard of irritation sent his voice off key. “Your blogs, news columns, interviews, queries, and everything else you have done has been with the intention of destroying their world by exposing their weaknesses.” A hollow, metallic schink echoed in the alley, followed by several short, burning and sucking sounds as the man with the soft voice lit a cigar.
Exhaling into the warm, humid night, he continued, “There is so much you can learn by simply observing nature. No matter the form of life – animal, plant, or other types – they all have weaknesses. Yes, even the majestic prowess of a cat is not without flaws. Fatal flaws. For a cat, the weakness lies not in prying. No, no, no.
Those are folktales. Though,” he said, now considering the words of his speech with real thoughtfulness, breaking the melody once more, “I suppose its curiosity plays a major role. But no,” returning to his song, “its flaws lie in bold pride and unswerving dedication to its cause. Curiosity brings him to the door. Something else makes him go where he isn’t wanted, where he doesn’t belong. The cat thinks it can scratch eyes and chase tails with none of the bigger rats noticing, yet-”
“Ednougfh,” Victor interrupted, finding his courage and gathering the last of his strength to look at the men. “Justh gebbit ober width,” he tried to say, but the words came out muffled and wet. Fixating on his mouth, he lifted his tongue and squeezed his cheeks together before letting a dark mass of blood flow out of his mouth into a dark puddle on the ground next to his knees. He knew what came next, knew he couldn’t avoid it, and had grown tired and annoyed at being toyed with. His last moments would not be spent begging for his life. He would rather die with dignity; the regret, however, couldn’t be avoided.
Tears pooled in Victor’s eyes, but he wouldn’t let these monsters mistake them for fear. The only power he had left – how he would spend the last few seconds of his life. And they would not be spent groveling or pleading. He guessed the man’s identity correctly, and why they brought him here to a trash-strewn alley, somewhere witnesses couldn’t be found. Hopeless inevitability turned out to be more comforting than frightening.
With the fear gone, his last thoughts would be of his beloved Mama, who encouraged every thing he ever did with pride. She loved him the way mothers should love their children. And Ziik, his highly spirited, intelligent, naïve, and stubborn brother. What would happen to them when the worst came to Lagos?
“You see, Mr. Giwa, cats are not celebrated here in Lagos and you won’t be either,” the saccharine sweet voice paused to take a slow pull from his cigar. “You know, now I think on it, we despise cats. We like our filth. We don’t need them to clean up our rats. So, Mr. Well-Respected-and-Award-Winning-Journalist-Man, it appears this country has no need for cats, therefore it has no need of you.” Victor heard the man sigh, and then another sound – metal on metal again, this time more sinister than a lighter. The sounds of a gun’s hammer being pulled back and clicking into place, ready to slam forward. “Can you stand on your own?” He asked.
Silence stretched while several gusts of wind blew down the alley. Victor made no attempt to stand. He knew he couldn’t. Trying would serve as nothing more than amusement to the man’s lackeys. He wouldn’t groan and whimper as he tried to make it to his feet, only to fall back down. Or worse, have one of the men knock him back as he tried. Staring back up to the stars, Victor ran scenes from his childhood like a home movie in his mind’s eye.
“Stand him up,” the man demanded of his subordinates in a clipped tone, as though he reserved his sickly sweet speeches for a more worthy audience. Anini and Osunbor complied, lifting the broken, bleeding repor–er, journalist to his feet.
Victor opened his eyes as much as he could, staring at the blurred silhouette of the man standing in front of him. They had never met before. Even without an introduction, Victor knew him to be the prominent figure from his research. The man behind the calamity and chaos coming to Lagos and, eventually, all of Nigeria.
Once he had control of the country, the remainder of West Africa wouldn’t be able to stop him.
Victor looked up to the stars for the last time. Knowing what happens with a gun after it’s cocked, the rest of the speaker’s words evaporated before they could reach his ears, having cast himself into a full emersion of memories.
The man speaking knew the journalist no longer listened to his well thought-out speech. But, he did have two subordinates here. For the man speaking, so eloquent with his words and proud of them, there should be a lesson taught in every situation, especially one concerning his direct involvement, a rare occurrence. Whether the journalist listened or not, he would use the time to teach his men a valuable lesson. “Some cultures, they believe of a cat’s nine lives only one holds the secret to resurrection. Not true. You see, if you want to end a cat’s cycle in this world, you don’t drown it, burn it, or throw it off a roof. No, no, no. You simply aim for its heart.” Pulling the trigger, he fired at Victor Giwa’s chest. No one came running at the sound of the shot. The booming reverberations through the still, late night air went ignored or blamed on non-existent, backfiring cars, or thunder on a clear night.
A limousine drove away, followed by a black SUV, as the body of Victor Giwa lay still, alone, and spilling out an ever-widening pool of blood into the alley. His life drained of vitality while time continued on its relentless march forward. As Victor Giwa died, his last thoughts were of he and Ziik – two little boys playing at their mother’s feet. The three of them laughing and playing and tickling. A moment of purity. The happiest he could remember being.Follow us on social media