The lion is on the zebra’s trail, closing in fast on it. The zebra, very swift, meanders its way through the thick thickets, its black-striped whiteness disappearing in the sea of green. The lion, much a purlieus-travelled inhabitant as the prey, plunges headlong into the sea, its paws set to pounce. A shrill whine resonates all through the thickets. Pants, interspersed with sounds of flesh being flayed, are heard. The whine, seeing the hopelessness of its situation, begins to subside, as pants – tinier and of a different variety – substitutes it. Then suddenly, as if by dint of a miracle, a black-striped white mass with some patches of red dives out from the thickets . . . .
Innocent, soused in perspiration, rouses from his sleep. He regrets waking now and ponders how it was ever possible for the zebra to prise itself free from the lion’s grip. A violent shaking of the lodge’s criss-crossed metal gate, accompanied by the words: ‘Who are those living here? You want us to break this gate?’ stirs him from his wakeful slumber.
He gropes about his bed for his mobile phone, wondering who could be knocking in such a manner on the gate. He finds the phone and presses a button, the light from the screen and keypad dispelling the dense darkness in the room and blinding him momentarily. Blinking his eyes to accustom them to the lighted room, he reads the time on the screen and sees it is five sixteen. His fears are allayed, for he had thought at first that the ‘us’ in those stern, impatient words meant armed robbers. This was when, yet to check the time, he had thought it was still about midnight.
Though midnight seems the safest time on campus, nights are still nights and it was normal that he should be frightened, especially as the knock on the gate was not rendered civilly. Save for occasional ‘brainwork’ – the act of ‘peacefully’ getting a student who may be returning to his lodge very late at night from studying so as to catch some sleep before lectures later in the morning cornered by a handful of boys and making off with the student’s belongings, usually phone and/or laptop, which indeed is rare – late nights are usually safe at the university.
The real Sons of Natu mostly operate between seven thirty p.m. to any moment before nine p.m., when the gates of many lodges are still wide open and the last set of nocturnal swots has yet to leave for classrooms. Though these Sons of Natu go about their job with ‘stainless’, they never use them until it is of utmost importance. They attend to a job in a car or on a motorcycle, depending on their number. They would drive—or ride—quietly, with their weapons well hidden from public eyes, to their target, disembark from the vehicle, swoop on a lodge and tidy up their jobs without any scuffle, having calmed the victims down by each of the Sons bringing out his stainless and brandishing it in the taut air around him. As if to forewarn any sceptical victim of the peril of scepticism, one of the Sons, usually Kodo their head, has the barrel of his own stainless fitted with a silencer, and would, as soon as they find themselves inside a room, aim at a glass pane and shatter it with one pull of the trigger.
Having lived the first score plus one years of his life with his parents and siblings at Onitsha before gaining admission, Innocent cannot help but be awestruck at what he tags the judiciousness of enlightened robbers as against the impetuosity of their violent, garrulous Onitsha counterparts.
The gate rattles again and Innocent, not greeted by a metallic thud, knows how he had hitherto underestimated the gate’s strength. Naively optimistic as the words may seem, Innocent professes, very much against his mind, rather audibly that the knockers must be lodge-mates back from night studying. Standing up reluctantly and stretching himself by raising his hands, fingers interlocked, joints crackling, high above his head, he hopes a faster lodge-mate may go and unbolt the gate.
The gate, for the third time, shatters the early morning’s tranquillity.
‘I’m coming,’ Innocent shouts, seeing now the futility of his procrastination.
‘God burn you to ashes there!’ curses a peremptory voice, yet to see who it is cursing. ‘So you mean to tell us you are deaf, that’s why you are only answering now?’
‘Sorry, sir,’ Innocent, having just surfaced with a torch in hand from his room, the door directly facing the gate, apologizes. ‘I only heard the last—I was asleep.’
‘See his mouth!’ This is another voice. ‘A student still sleeping at five o’clock in the morning. Will you open this gate and stop wasting our time!’
Much as Innocent would have loved to give those arseholes a piece of his mind, he, making out the silhouette of a rifle in each pair of hands, holds his tongue.
‘Sorry, sir,’ he says instead, yawning to the breadth of his lips. ‘But I can’t let you in when I don’t know you.’
‘Insult to injury,’ the peremptory voice, the pitch a bit raised, speaks again. ‘So you feel no remorse you already wasted our time, you want to waste it more?’
Add salt to injury, Innocent corrects, having held since after experiencing the pepper-pain of salt on a fresh wound that ‘salt’ should replace ‘insult’ in that idiom.
‘Open the gate, my friend. Or you want me to shoot you?’ Even with its entire attempt at being stony, this third voice is gentle and effeminate, a stray sheep in the midst of goats.
Innocent, in response, simply sighs, a long, deep sigh obviously intended to smite the visitors’ egos, and made for his room. He collapses onto the bed before standing the torch, still on, on its butt in the space beside him on the bed. Desperate to cordon off himself from the world outside his room, he hastens to fit his earholes with a pair of earphones plugged into the socket for it on his mobile phone, as he plays one treacly song, raising the volume to its maximum.
As he lies on his bed and lip-syncs to the song, Innocent sees one of the two rows of his glass panes tinkling into pieces, littering that corner of the room with some of the particles. No sooner has he got up to be sure his vision is not impaired than an effete man, clasping a rifle, breaks into the room from the gaping opening left by the broken glasses and, without even a word, prods him, bare-trunked, hard on the belly with the butt of the gun.
‘I guess you’d now want to fly to open the gate?’
The man steadies Innocent who is about to fall from the prod by his wrist and shoves him violently by the scruff of his neck towards the door. Innocent impulsively presses a palm onto the door to prevent hitting his head on it. He detects the voice as belonging to the stray sheep. Using the other palm, his right, he turns the knob of the door clockwise and pulls, the door creaking open. Sensing the predator is on his trail, he does the short distance, about two or three strides long, to the gate faster, turning every now and again to eye the man. Opening the gate, he is greeted by a generous slap on his left eye and temple by one of the two men that were hitherto barred by the gate. Innocent totters, his eyes making out the outlines of some vague stars in the immediate purlieus before them.
‘Don’t you know we are soldiers,’ the other of the two men offers.
‘Sorry, sir,’ Innocent manages. ‘I thought you were armed . . .’
‘It’s your papa who is the armed robber!’ the effete man intercepts, booting Innocent hard in the crook of his left knee that Innocent’s calves and feet capitulate and he lands on his knees.
‘Who is Lucky in this lodge?’ one of the other two men, the one yet to touch Innocent, asks. ‘We have authoritative information he is a cultist. Where is his room?’ He grabs Innocent on his left shoulder and yanks him to his feet.
Innocent, the man who slapped him lighting the way with a torch, plods along the corridor, stopping short before a door just by the left after the door of his own room.
‘Here’s his room.’ He can barely utter those words. ‘But he’s not in town now—he left for Enugu yesterday.’
The one who slapped Innocent peers at the door, flashing his torchlight at the same time, apparently to make sure the door is padlocked.
‘Are you sure you are not the one?’ He directs the torchlight to Innocent’s visage.
‘No—o!’ Innocent, blinking, defends himself.
‘No, now,’ the one yet to touch Innocent says meanwhile as Innocent. ‘I have Lucky’s photo.’ He brings out a photo from his breast pocket and gazes from it to Innocent’s face, the torchlight now lowered to his nose, to be sure.
‘And now to teach you rudeness . . . .’ The effete man, standing shoulder to shoulder with Innocent, swipes Innocent on the nape of his neck.
The other two men join the effete man, one leaving their helpless prey a punch on the face that makes him, the prey, fall backwards.
‘Sorry, sir. I didn’t know you were soldiers. . . . Sorry, sir. I thought you were robbers. . . .’ is all Innocent keeps alternating between as he lies there on the cool cement ground, his body a drum for the drumsticks of the men’s boots and fists.
His only resistance to the kicks and blows that rain on him is that he bends his knees, his thighs shielding his loins thereby, and presses his face to the ground and his palms to his ears. There on the ground, Innocent, having recalled he lied only last night to his father about the price of a textbook, is convulsed with fear that his body, a mere ash-trap, may crumble into elusive particles. Just a hit short of the crumbling – Innocent is sure – the men miraculously stop scratching their itchy limbs, abandoning him in a better-dead-than-alive condition.