Judge Melaye Umar stood ill at ease and waited for his phone to ring. He occasionally looked down the window into the street below. From the third floor, he watched the movement of the people as a god might watch those under his sway. They looked small, like rodents in an open field. Cars appeared like dots in the distance and grew bigger as they got closer, then diminished again as they passed the house. Everything went on as usual. Except the life of Judge Umar.
He walked to the big cushion chair and threw himself on it and sighed. His eyes went to the grandfather clock on the wall. It was twenty minutes past nine. The court would be open now. He was supposed to be there hearing a case, not here watching the clock – the clock which had suddenly become lazy in its movement. The anger welled up in his chest. His mind rioted as he tried to permute the outcome of his waiting. He pondered on what could have brought him into this.
Two days ago, his life was normal and bland, like the life of every judge. Everything changed yesterday. His wife who was usually home before seven had not returned by nine. Up in his study, Umar was busy drafting his judgment for the case he had just concluded. He knew he had not seen her that evening but he did not realise that the time had progressed so much into the night. She might even have returned without bothering him.
By ten, his phone rang. He did not have the number on his phonebook, so he simply silenced it and continued with what he was doing until the ringing stopped. Within some seconds, it started ringing again. Umar did not even look at the screen. It rang for the third time. He picked it and listened. He hated the ‘Hello’ ritual which accompanied every call.
‘I hope I am talking to Judge Umar?’ the voice was commanding in its question.
‘Who are you?’
‘Take it easy Judge, you will know who we are if necessary.’
Umar removed the phone from his ear and looked at the number. We? So this is a collective impudence? He said into the mouthpiece, ‘What do you want?’
‘I just want to ask you a question. Is your wife home?’
‘Are you crazy? What is your business with my wife?’
‘But she is the reason why I am calling.’
‘Then you are calling the wrong number.’
‘But your wife cannot be wrong about your number. She gave it to me.’
‘My wife gave you my number?’
‘Yes, Judge. You can ask her – oh, it’s a pity she is not home yet.’
‘She is not home yet! How do you know that she is not home yet?’
‘I know because she is with us here.’
‘She is with you! Whoever you are, you are crazy. Don’t call this number again or I will set the law at you!’ He was about to cut the call when he heard a loud cry from the background.
‘It is your wife,’ the voice said coolly. ‘Do you want to speak with her?’
Umar said nothing. A female voice came from the other end. ‘I am sorry honey, I – ’ He heard the phone being snatched. But it was enough. He recognised his wife’s voice.
Judge Umar sweated into the earpiece.
‘Are you convinced we have her?’ the voice asked.
‘Yes, yes. Who are you and what do you want?’
‘You don’t need to know who we are, but I will tell you what we want. Do you have a case to handle tomorrow?’
‘Yes, yes. But let us face my wife whom we are talking about, not my work.’
‘Your wife is your concern, but your work is our concern.’
Umar was puzzled. ‘What case are you talking about?’
‘Governor Hamza’s case. I mean, ex-governor.’
‘O – and how is my wife involved in that?’
‘Your wife is not involved; you are. We want you to decline hearing the case.’
‘What nonsense are you talking about? It is not in my power to decide which case to hear and which not to hear.’
‘Then Judge, be sure that it is not in our power to decide whether your wife lives or dies.’
The line went dead.
Umar shouted into the broken connection. ‘Hold on! Hold on!’ But his phone was already on lockscreen. He wiped his sweating palm on his cloth and dialled the number. He punched the air as he waited for it to ring. It returned with an error message: Unable to connect. He dialled it again. Call waiting. He cut it and paced in his study. His stomach churned. His temperature was rising on his forehead. He told himself to calm down but his heartbeat said otherwise.
He did not want to take chances. He did not want to debate whether these people were serious or bluffing. He did not want to make a choice that he would regret, a choice whose consequence might haunt him forever. His phone rang and he picked it without hesitation.
‘You called, Judge. What is in your mind?’
‘I – I will decline hearing the case. When am I seeing my wife?’
‘Hold on Judge. That is just an aspect of your job. You will assign the case to Judge Kurumini.’
‘What? I can decline a case but I have no power to reassign it.’
‘Very well Judge. We can release your wife alive, but we have no power to keep her from having accident on the way.’
‘Wait, wait! I will see what I can do.’
‘Good. You will see your wife when we confirm that you have assigned the case as directed.’ The line went dead.
Judge Umar stood at a spot for about three minutes before he figured out what to do about this complex case.
Judge Beniah Kurumini was in bed but not yet asleep when his phone rang. The ringtone, assigned to all the contacts on his ‘COLLEAGUES’ group list, gave him an idea who might be calling. He was expecting it. He drew the phone close. Judge Umar. He picked it. ‘Hello, my lord,’ he said, feigning drowsiness.
‘I am sorry for disturbing you at this time of the night,’ Umar said.
‘No, no, anytime. Is there any problem sir?’
‘Yes – I mean, not actually a problem unless you think it is. It is about a case that I am supposed to preside over tomorrow. Governor Hamza’s case.’
‘Yes, yes. What about it?’
‘You see, I have had some dealings with the Governor before. You can say that there is a kind of friendship between us, although not very close. You see what I am saying?’
‘Yes, but the case?’
‘I mean, handling the case will be difficult for me. I will be biased.’
‘But you are not that close?’
‘I know, but I don’t want even the likelihood of bias, you understand. I don’t want to hear the case. I want to know if you can hear it in my stead.’
‘It will be an honour.’
‘Thank you, Kurumini. I will have the registrar transfer the case to you.’
Kurumini smiled when the call ended. This was one of the reasons why he respected Umar even though he did not like him: his ability to be cool under stress. He dialled the chief to inform him of the case transfer.
When Umar called to inform his wife’s kidnappers that he had done their bidding, he was surprised to hear the voice from the other end say, ‘Yes, we know.’
‘When are you releasing her?’
‘Four o’clock tomorrow.’
So Judge Melaye Umar waited, looking at the clock whose fingers dragged slowly like messengers of eternity. He had been warned not to let anybody know of the transaction. Of course that was simply saying the obvious, for he himself was not ready to let the world know that he declined a case because his wife’s life was threatened.
What troubled him as he waited was not how slow the time moved but that the kidnappers might not release her at the specified time. The process was too simple. It was hard to imagine kidnappers whose ransom was not money but that he declined hearing a case. He wondered who the men could be and how the case was of importance to them. Could it be a political kidnap? Could this be a set up to blackmail him? It was the later question which troubled him. He had no business with politicians and the outcome of the case would make no difference to him.
His phone rang promptly by four. He picked it, waiting for bad news. ‘Hello Judge. Your wife is waiting at the gate.’
He ran to the balcony and looked at the gate. His wife was there, waiting for the gateman to open the gate. A black Prado Jeep was just gathering speed at the other end. When he met his wife and embraced her tightly with tears forming in his eyes, he wondered if this was all there was to his trouble.