I should have known he was a kidnapper: it was so obvious. He was always awash with cash, not naira like the rest of us, but pound sterling, euros and dollars. You only had that kind of money if you were a ‘businessman’ of some sort, perhaps a yahoo yahoo boy, robber or politician. No honest hard working person had foreign currency in their pockets like it was loose change.
His clothes were pristine designer labels – Gucci and Armani; his shoes were handmade patent leather made in Italy, silk shirts from Portugal and he smoked Cuban cigars. He reeked of it – the good stuff – only top money can buy.
Times are hard. I had just been made redundant from my job of over twenty years: I had joined Softex8 computers straight after my youth corps service year, stayed on and worked my way up to divisional manager. But now I’ve been made redundant: my boss blames the current recession in the country and can’t afford to keep me on and to make matters worse he can’t even afford to pay me my entitlements; when he gets paid for the last government job we did I’ll get paid. When that will be neither of us knows.
The bills are beginning to pile up; a little here and a little there and soon my molehill of debt will grow to the size of a mountain. The kids’ school fees are long overdue, the rent is overdue. Everywhere I look something is overdue.
We live off my wife’s meagre earnings as a nurse and whatever I can bring in through occasional freelance work. At the end of the month when she gets paid we have to think of how we are going to feed the five thousand with just five loaves of bread, pay the rent and pay off some of our debts; finance wasn’t one of my greatest subjects at university but now I ‘m learning fast. Most of the time we rob Peter to pay Paul just to keep the ship afloat.
While I was waiting for a financial miracle from God my neighbour, Wale, was living it up.
This year alone he had gotten himself a brand new G-wagon and a Lexus SUV for his wife. All his kids studied abroad and he and his wife had just got back from a romantic getaway to Dubai.
I must admit I was envious when they got out of the taxi that brought them from the airport with matching Luis Vuitton suitcases and bags and bags of duty-free purchases – Dubai Duty Free glaring back at me. I can’t even afford to take my family on a day trip to Bar Beach! How I wish I had his wealth, the things I could do: first I’d pay off all our mountain of debt, perhaps buy myself a new car and one for my wife. I’d set-up a nest egg for our future and then treat the whole family to a trip abroad – somewhere classy like Paris or Dubai.
Wale is a businessman, so he says. The term ‘businessman’ in Nigeria is used loosely to describe anyone who’s business interests may not stand up to the scrutiny of the law: it’s a cover for illicit earnings.
It came out when I was telling him about my misfortune in life.
We were seated in the penthouse lounge of his gargantuan mansion : it stood on the fifth floor and had wrap around floor-to-ceiling glass windows and we could see the sprawling nightlife of Lagos Island, below us, it was a beautiful sight. A huge candle stick chandelier hung from the ceiling illuminating the room and a massive flat screen TV took up an entire wall. The chairs were all leather – handmade in Europe and shipped to Nigeria and oil paintings of him and family adorned another wall. A well laden bar stood in the corner next to the Bose music system. Potted plants jostled for space around the room giving the impression of being inside a winter garden. The things money can buy. Outside violent lightening lit up the sky as thunder rumbled and boomed in its wake. It was the beginning of the rainy season and huge black clouds hung in the sky blotting out the moon and the stars, ready to drench the world below.
He sat in his favourite chair: a gold-plated sort of throne with matching footstool that was located in a prominent position over looking everything like he was a king in his throne room: he liked to look down on everyone.
I sat opposite him in a club leather chair that could swivel around or even recline. The family cat, an ageing tabby, sauntered in after us. It looked around, furtively, for a few seconds before making a beeline to where I sat. It leapt up on to my lap, curled up, and raised up its head to be stroked. I stroked it and it settled back, meowing silently, kneading the dough. I’m not really a cat-lover: actually I detest cats, they make my skin crawl; but they say cats have a funny way of seeking out non feline lovers and intimidate them by jumping on to them.
We had settled for a more gentlemanly tipple of jack Daniels and took turns to fill each other’s glass tumblers up. A lit Cuban cigar – his favourite – dangled from his lips.
Perhaps it was the booze that loosened up his tongue: god knows we had drank a fair bit.
He took a leisurely drag on his cigar and stared me straight in the eye, the same way a predator would eye its prey straight in the eye with that ‘I’m-going-to-eat-you’ look.
“ Do you really want to know what I do for a living?”, his voice was flat and devoid of any emotion.
“ I kidnap people”.
If he meant to shock me, he didn’t: I had suspected all along he was up to no good.
“ Some people I hold for ransom and others I just sell on…”.
Again he paused to gauge my reaction to his revelation. He received none . I was as cool as cucumber, the alcohol also helped to numb my senses. I’m a Man of the World and I’ve heard worse stories in the seedier bar parlours of Mushin: I’ve robbed shoulders with armed robbers, drug dealers and smugglers and worse; the pitiful state of the economy has brought out the worse in people and many have turned to crime to make ends meet. It’s a common thing and nobody bats an eyelid unless you’re caught in the act. Caught, you can expect to face the full wrath of a lynch mob rather than a court of law.
“ And the ones you sell on?”, I asked nonchalantly as if I was asking him to top up my glass.
He shrugged his shoulders,” I don’t know. Maybe they kill them for body parts, I don’t know. I am a businessman and the end market is not my concern”.
Body parts. There’s a long list of people who are prepared to buy one part of the human anatomy or the other. Mostly it’s for fetish rituals; politicians who want to win elections, people seeking spiritual protection and those who want to make money out of thin air. And like a chapter straight out of a Stephen King novel there are people out there who ply this trade.
“ Have you ever killed anybody?”, I had to ask eventhough I already knew the answer.
He looked away, confirming my fears.
When he looked back there was confusion in his eyes: it was like he was debating in his mind how best to justify what he did for a living.
He switched to pidgin English:
“ You know how country be….man go chop!”.
I know, first hand, what it’s like to live in the country now with no source of income, but that’s not an excuse to go out there kidnapping and killing people.” You’ve got a degree in Business management…”, I asked,”….why not get a job?”.
He looked at me like I’d just stepped out of Aro mental hospital.” Where is the job? Every year thousands graduate in Business Management and can’t get a job what are chance do I have? And if I get a job what are the chances I’m going to get paid on time?”.
He had a point. Unemployment in the country is at the highest level since records began. And from personal experience chances are if you have a job you won’t be paid on time – or at all.
“But kidnapping and killing people?”, I let the question linger.
He took a swig from his glass, sucked on his cigar and exhaled the thick acrid smoke through his nose, watching it rise towards the ceiling, dissipating.
The arrogant smugness returned,” I don’t expect you to understand ol’ boy…”, he began,”….I’m not doing anything our politicians are not doing to us everyday…”.
I raised an eyebrow, silently asking him to explain himself.
He did, “ so I kill a few people? Politicians do that everyday with their policies…”.
“ By de facto maybe…”, I interjected, “…but not directly with a gun or machete”>
“Same thing…”, he retorted,”… and besides I’m helping to keep the population down”, he chuckled, obviously pleased with himself.
In my mind I could see him as one of the mad characters in a ‘Saw’ or ‘Hostel’ movie, hacking, bludgeoning or shooting their hapless victims to death whilst laughing manically, enjoying every bit of it.
I shuddered. Also in my mind I was scared. Now that he had told me his big secret would I be next? Considering the fact that I’m poorer than a church rat I don’t see him kidnapping me for ransom. So I’ll be killed, probably trussed up and decapitated like chicken with the rest of my anatomy carved out and sold to the highest bidder.
He seemed to read my mind.” Don’t worry bro…”, he said filling up my glass,”…I won’t take you, I don’t shit on my own doorstep…you keep my business quiet and you’re safe”. He raised his glass in a toast.
I raised my glass to meet his: out of fear my hand shook slightly but I don’t think he noticed.
And then, suddenly, he burst out laughing.
I was confused.
He topped up his glass and toasted me,” I was only joking bro…I no be kidnapper or killer. I was only playing with your head. I’m in the import and export business”.
I smiled slightly: had he been having me on all along?; an expensive joke at my expense?
For the next half hour he rambled on about his import and export business and how well he was doing.
He exported local produce to the Far East and Europe and used the proceeds to import luxury second hand cars and luxury goods. This was how he really made his money he told me. From inside the confines of his agbada he produced a business card and handed it to me.
It bore his details: a contact number, website and showroom address somewhere along Allen Avenue.
It was convincing, but I had my doubts. I handed the card back.
It was getting late: my wife and the kids would have long gone to bed, my evening meal still, probably, on the dining table underneath a fly mesh. I hadn’t taken my mobile phone so nobody would know I was just next door.
I stood up, swaying slightly, tipsy due to our marathon drinking session, took leave of my host and made my way home. Thank god he had installed a lift in to the building.
Barely a month later his whole import and export business came crashing down: he and his gang had tried to abduct the daughter of a prominent politician when they ran into an ambush. Somebody had ratted him out to the authorities and armed police had lain in wait.
Caught by surprise it was soon over: his bullet-ridden corpse was shown on the 9 O’clock news – it wasn’t a pretty sight. They said it took thirty bullets to finally export him from this world.