- SMART ALEC ROUNDTABLE
In Conjunction With
A Story by Dike Chiedozié
NOTICE: This story is created from equal parts of fiction and real events. The characters are based on real people.
You, the reader, would have to decide for yourself what’s real, and what’s not.
Court attachment: one-half of the compulsory “externship” program undertaken by law students in the Nigerian Law School just before their infamous bar-finals; is definitely not a walk in the park. At least not for me, since I have to wake up early in the morning and commute all the way to Wuse Zone 2 from Gwarimpa, in the green-and-white jalopies everyone else calls “cab” —we have a name for those in Lagos, and it’s “kabu-kabu”; in the front seat with my long legs up to my chin, if I’m lucky, and if not, in the back sandwiched alongside three other bodies.
And then usually when I arrive the High Court at Wuse Zone 2, which is actually the boys’ quarters —a last minute appendage, probably intended originally as utility rooms —to the Magistrate Court Complex next door, it’s to find that there is no space! The entire room —for what little room it actually has —is full, crowded with litigants, witnesses, journalists from NAN (News Agency of Nigeria), counsel, soon-to-be convicts, their prison-issue chaperones, and of course, the aspirants to the bar who are easily marked out by the newness of their suits —oh, and the fact that they don’t wear wigs and gowns, yet. And then I’d go through the motions of asking around if someone can “shift small” —for which I might as well ask the ladies to reduce their body mass by force of will, and the guys to asphyxiate their nuts —but I do it anyway, and most times I find just enough room to squeeze in. If not I go around the court complex(?), looking for some rundown swivel chair that no longer has a back, or anything at all I can sit down on (doing so comfortably is not in question here) and when I find a booby-trap to perch on, I return to court and take pride of place in the only spot that might not have been taken over: the tight 90 degree spot at the very rear of the court, behind the gallery, beside the air-conditioner. By now you should think my troubles are over; well, think again.
I usually get to court by a few minutes past nine or closer to ten than nine sometimes, and my time of arrival usually determines if I get to be a part of the few minutes of routine group conversation going amongst my colleagues before court sits at ten —or so soon thereafter; spanning everything from law to the “Dorobucci” fad, memes — “Diaris God ooo!” —and what good movies are showing at the cinemas. I usually look forward to these group discussions —about stuff other than Corporate Law for a change —not only because I have warmed to these colleagues of mine, some of whom, sadly, I might never see after our run in this post-stamp of a court, but also because as a writer I like to watch people, to pick on their nuances and imagine from them what their stories are; and having pieced together my version of those stories, create alternate realities for each of them or a combination of them in my imagination where I can source texture for the characters in my stories when I need to.
On the day in question —five days ago, actually —I arrived relatively early to court at about 9:20 AM —which ordinarily should have given me thirty to forty minutes of gist time —but as Sod’s Law would have it, so did the Judge. Hardly had I sat down when suddenly there came the report of three muffled intermittent raps against wood, followed simultaneously by the Court Clerk —who always speaks like she has tonsillitis —screeching “Court!”; and in came Justice V. Okpo with his raven-black robe, wig perched on his head like a bird’s nest, spectacles nestled precariously like though they were protesting their placement and didn’t feel at home hanging off the bridge of his nose.
He did his funny, half-hearted bow, which used to crack me up in the first week of court attachment, but which like everything else with the externship program now annoys me; and we all reciprocated, lawyers and students alike, then sat. Mrs. Tonsillitis stood up and announced the first case, and with her tiny, inaudible voice began another week-long nightmare.
The first thing to know about Justice Okpo is that he was a lecturer at the Nigerian Law School, and you know what they say about teachers: once a teacher always a teacher. His courtroom is more than that, a lecture hall —he counsels counsel, directs witnesses and students alike; to the effect that proceedings are dragged out and wind too long. In a nutshell, he goes on and on, and while there are moments when he proves that behind the deadpan expression and the dead-fish eyes is a man with an acerbic sense of humour (and a short fuse that spurs hilarious outbursts) there aren’t enough of those moments to make me forget that the other courts would have wound up for the day before he gets to the second case on an eleven-case cause-list.
Justice Okpo’s court usually rises i.e closes for the day at about three in the afternoon —two, if we are lucky —and in the five-hour margin in-between are a lot of moments that can make a person question his sanity. I was having one of those moments on the day in question, five days ago, when sitting in court I was overwhelmed by the sudden urge to scream, and hurl something across the room at the Judge where he sat on The Bench. I remember wondering if the suddenness of the attack would shut him up, and decided it most likely wouldn’t. With this certitude, I figured it would be best to take the high road: a much-needed break, and so rising, I gave a cursory bow and exited the court; walking away from all the droning and harebrained advocacy, out into the bright afternoon where the sun in sharp contrast to the air-conditioned courtroom was scorching, and refreshing —jolt-me-back-to-consciousness refreshing.
I found Jabbar and Dubem —both colleagues of mine —outside with a trio of uniformed young men in branded grey tees and black trousers (whose job description at the court is still something I’m yet to figure out: housekeeping or security?) And they were talking about Nigerian celebrities —mostly musicians —when I stepped up and joined the band of fellow truants and their new-found friends. Clearly, one of the housekeeping/security men was an artiste, or at least thought he was. He was boyish and looked sixteen, but I realised he was probably a lot older; when he spoke, it was with the conviction of hope, and the misty eyes of a dreamer as he recounted an event, which he had attended, organised for ABJ youths by the First Lady Dame Patience Jonathan a.k.a Mama Peace, at which KCee “Limpopo,” Terry G a.k.a “Akpako Master” and several other Nigerian artistes had been in attendance.
I ordinarily might not have been very attentive to Mr. Aspiring Artiste’s story —of how a girl in stilettos tried to use him as a launching ramp in order to get to Mr. “Limpopo” —but I’d been treated to a particularly boring and INFURIATING dose of Judge Okpo’s court: two very confused lawyers for whom I think a commission of inquiry should be set up, to determine exactly how they graduated Law School; and in my state of mind then, even the story of a cripple watching paint dry would probably have been interesting. That was why it ticked me off that Dubem kept interrupting with his jokes that were usually only funny because they weren’t.
He managed to make a funny joke that afternoon however, about his smartphone not being “all that smart.” Ok, it wasn’t very funny but at least it made me laugh —Kumbaya! Then again, it could just have been for the same reason I was listening to a story about a youth rally like it was expo to bar finals.
Irrespective, Dubem’s constant chip-ins saw to it that we didn’t stick on one topic for too long, flitting from one to another and seeing none to a conclusive end. Surprisingly, we all seemed to be getting a kick out of it, milking all the talk for all the humour it was worth. We started out talking about celebrities and then suddenly, with all the warning of a terrorist suicide-bombing, we were talking about a dead body that another one of our colleagues, Enkay, had seen lying curbside on the way to court, and about which she informed all the students in court on her arrival. I was probably still brushing my teeth at the time.
‘…She said the girl was lying on the ground, lifeless.’ It was Jabbar talking.
‘Where was that?’ I asked, curious.
‘Where was what?’
‘Where did Enkay say she saw the body?’
‘Somewhere around Kado Estate’—
‘Kado? That’s very close to where I stay in Gwarimpa. I even passed there this morning’ I said. ‘Didn’t notice anything unusual.’
‘Oh well’ Jabbar gave out non-committally and shrugged.
‘Did Enkay say what the dead girl was wearing?’ Dubem asked, and I did a double-take, impressed. That was a very good question.
‘A very short show-back gown’ Jabbar replied suggestively.
‘Ah-han!’ chimed Dubem victoriously. ‘I talk am! If you been talk say she cover up well na there I for shock. I no know sha, but she for be all these ashi dem, or runs girl wey run jam something wey pass am…’
Someone said something in acquiescence, but I wasn’t really listening. Something was nagging at me; tugging at the periphery of my consciousness, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what it was.
‘Na wa o!’ Mr. Artiste Wannabe exclaimed, doing a good job of looking distraught at the death of a random girl he’ll never know. “E fit be ritual wey dem carry am do o.’
‘Wetin Enkay talk?’ Dubem asked, turning to Jabbar. ‘Dem been cut anything commot from the girl body?’
‘I no know o. But Enkay said the girl’s boobies were intact.’
I remember wondering how long Enkay had looked at the corpse to recall that the dead girl’s breasts hadn’t been excised, thinking also how funny Jabbar sounded when he spoke Pidgin English, and that just like me he couldn’t sustain a conversation in Pidgin for long. I was going to say something about this when it hit me, what it was I was trying to remember.
I moved away from Jabbar and the rest of them, rooting for my phone as I did, thinking to myself how I had a really wild imagination. The dead, faceless girl was to me at that point potential short story material for my blog —the very blog you’re reading now. Or at least that’s what I told myself. I wasn’t looking for trouble, not really, and I didn’t imagine as I scrolled through my BBM chat list, that I had stumbled upon something terrible, and worse than that, deadly. If anyone had told me as I searched and found the BBM contact icon for Walter —a friend, fellow writer and blogger (check his blog HERE) that I would find myself in a life and death situation as a result of the BBM broadcast message Walter had sent me that morning, the link that I was then clicking for the second time that day, standing only a few feet away from a court of law where justice and law purportedly converge; I would have told them they had an even more avid imagination than me —and that is hardly a compliment.
Walter, my friend, like I’ve stated already, is a writer and a blogger, and in the manner of bloggers —including myself —trying to increase the traffic on their blogs, or who simply just want their posts read by friends, contacts and twitter followers, he’s always sharing links to his posts on social media outlets. BBM is one of those outlets; to the effect that I receive an average of three hyperlink-laden broadcast messages from him on a good day, or four-to-five of such purple messages on the bad days when I have low battery.
I had received one of such messages from him only that morning, and the link was for a short, yet creepy story written by a guest writer Miguel Chude. It was the memory of that story that had snapped something in my mind while Jabbar spoke about the dead girl in the street, and it was in search of the hyperlink to that short story that I scrolled through the matrix of purple letters in my chat thread with Walter. I found the link and after a little battle with glo network —turning my mobile network on and off several times before data service came on —I clicked it open and read the post for the second time that day: a chilling story about a prostitute who was having a terrible work night when suddenly she was approached by this young man with a boyish face who seemed to be lost as he walked towards her in the way teenagers usually are on their first solicitation: “ashewo pick-up.” She was a veteran and knew when she spotted a good fortune cookie, and the young man, as he came closer, looked like a good night’s wages, and smelt like it too, she discovered as she stepped up to him —beating the other vultures on the street to it.
With only a few words between them and her flirtatious charm on hyperdrive, she had gotten the young man —despite his shyness —to say what he wanted: to trade sex for money, and pushing her fortune to its limits she had charged him ten thousand naira (N10,000). Surprisingly, he accepted her price without any haggling, and then she left with him, off to his house at Gwarimpa in a new-model Mercedes saloon car. She looked like she couldn’t believe her luck.
On arriving at the young man’s house, he got out of the car and unlocked the gate himself. The house was a palatial mansion, the kind to which she had never been taken in by a customer, and she wondered why there was no one employed at the gate post to do the gate opening. The young man only shrugged when she asked him this.
In the house, she marvelled at the high walls lined with framed photographs of the boy and his parents; the sort of photographs she had always imagined as a child that she would be in someday, with a husband and children. They looked like a very happy family.
‘Where are your parents?’ She asked him.
‘They travelled’ was his curt reply leading her up the stairs, and with their ascent she became aware of the strong fragrance of lemon grass, and a funny odour underneath it that intensified with every step. She thought to ask him about the smell, but stopped herself with the thought that she had asked too many questions already.
He led her to his bedroom and asked her to go take a shower, pointing her to the bathroom door. He was naked and supine on the king-size bed wide enough to re-enact Waterloo when she returned, and he rose from the bed and came to meet her, standing to his full-height. She was impressed, and she thought he was cute now that she could see his face clearly, but not enough to make her forget she was there on business.
‘I’ll like my money now before we do anything’ she stated, thinking about the quiz she had in school the next day, and how she couldn’t afford anymore Fs if she was going to graduate the next year.
‘It’s there’ he said, pointing to a dresser, and she noted immediately that he sounded different; less timid and more in control.
She didn’t hear him sneak up behind her as she bent to pick the money, and only saw his shadow in her peripheral vision for an instant before he slipped a wire loop over her head with the ease of long practice; tightening it around her neck before she could hook her fingers through it.
Unable to breathe, she thrashed against him, scratching him with her acrylic nails as her vision started to dim; but rather than relax, his grip became tighter, and for a second she heard him laugh in her ears, unaffected by the gashes her clawing left on his skin. She was about to die, she realised with stunning clarity as her lungs started to burst, blood rushing in her ears with the sound of a thousand oceans; and fueled by panic from that thought, she struggled still, even if weakly, even as she felt herself dying, her spirit leaving her. That was when her flailing hand came in contact with his penis, and like a drowning woman to a raft, she held on to it as if for dear life —literally; willing all the energy she had left into the fist that clamped around his balls with the grip of calipers.
The tightness around her neck relaxed and fell away all together as she squeezed. Now he was screaming, in the way girls did when they were about to be raped; she knew this for a fact. He didn’t seem so cocky now. He had tried to murder her, she thought with sudden ferocity, yanking harder at his genitals as she did. She wanted to hurt him, make him feel unbearable pain, just like he had her; but she knew she couldn’t kill him. The thought of having to take a human life filled her with fresh panic, and she let her fear get in the way; turning to run the minute he fell to his knees, crippled by pain.
She screamed as she ran. Somebody was going to hear her, she thought, oblivious to the fact that she still had the wire loop around her neck, and that she was stark naked. If only she could just get to the front door, she prayed, trying to recall if she had seen him lock it, and if so where he had kept the key.
She heard his grunts of pain behind her but neither stopped nor turned. She had to get away. She had to live.
The paperweight caught her in the small of the back right at the top of the stairs, the force of the surprise impact throwing her forward, sending her tumbling down the stairs; her hands flailing, in search of anything on which to hold purchase. It was a long fall, and she felt the bones of some of her fingers snap as she rolled gracelessly down the stairs to a dull, bone-jarring thud at the landing.
She tried to stand but she was in so much pain. ‘Help me!’ She screamed, crawling towards the door as she heard his footfalls down the stairs. ‘Help me!’
His kick caught her in the solar plexus. She sensed it coming but moved to shield herself a second too late. She fell flat on her stomach and he was upon her in an instant, sitting astride her, tightening the loop once more around her neck.
She couldn’t move, couldn’t struggle, and just before she died she realised what that funny smell was that she had noted earlier, the odour the fragrance of lemon grass had failed to mask. His parents hadn’t travelled after all. They were right there in the house…
Her last clear thought was how ironic it was that in the end she got to be like the people in the framed photographs.
I finished reading the post, standing there outside the courtroom, but rather than feel impressed like I had in the morning when first I read it, what I felt now was a growing sense of unease, the hairs on my neck standing on end.
I scrolled through the post again, and certain words and phrases jumped out at me: “light-skinned,” “short, blue dress,” “box-braids.”
Could this really just be a coincidence? I wondered; the lady in the short blue dress dead on the roadside, and the lady in the short blue dress dead in a post on my friend’s blog.
Now I know the writer of that post, Miguel Chude. He, Walter, and myself are members of a virtual group, THE SMART ALEC ROUNDTABLE —SART for short; a closed group of…well, very clever people from all walks of life, each of whom have a very devious sense of humour, and can be very annoying when they want to be. However, it’s the sort of group in which misfits —like me —feel at home, a good sounding board for ideas, and a platform to share those ideas. SART hosts the meanest critics too, which keeps members constantly on their toes, and I’ve come to think of this group of online friends —most of whom I have never met —as my closest circle.
Miguel Chude, the writer of the troubling story on Walter’s blog, is known by the pseudonym Cicero in the group, and I wondered about this then. Cicero was one of the greatest philosophers, and arguably the most influential prose writer of all times. He was also a lawyer, who in antithesis to his sworn devotion to the cause of justice, had killed five alleged conspirators in the Second Catilinarian Conspiracy to overthrow the Roman Goverment —for which he was a consul —without any form of hearing or due process.
‘Dozie, they’ve finished o! Come and sign attendance.’ Enkay’s voice cut into my thoughts.
‘Enkay!’ Just the person I wanted to see, I thought going to meet her where she stood in front of the courtroom. Enkay and I have a long history: we both attended the same university, were posted to the same Law School campus in Kano, and now to the same court. She was the one who came to court with the story of the dead girl on the road.
‘Ehen, Enkay how far? Dubem told me about the dead girl you said you saw on your way to court…’
‘Nna, it was horrible o. Someone’s child was just lying on the road and people were walking past.’
‘What did she wear?’
‘One short blue and black dress like that’—
‘What about her hair?’
‘Hian!’ She watched me quizzically through her thick coke-bottle lenses, incredulous. ‘What sort of question are you asking me? What about her hair?’
‘Was she wearing weaves?’
‘No. She wore her hair in braids, box braids. Why are you aski’—
‘Was she light-skinned?’ I pressed.
‘Yes, lighter than me. It’s like she was bleaching sef. Dozie, what’s with all these questions?’ She asked.
‘Do you know her?’
‘No’ I replied a bit too forcefully, thinking to myself: but I know someone who might…
I hurried into the courtroom and snapped up my bag.
‘Dee, come and sign your name o!’ It was Shirley, our student leader for the attachment program. And not knowing what to say, how to tell her that putting my name down on some attendance sheet was the farthest thing on my mind in that instant, I just waved and dashed out of the courtroom. I didn’t open my mouth for fear that if I did I would scream.
‘Dozie come and escort me to buy food…’ Enkay was saying as I walked past her where she still stood in front of the courtroom. ‘Dozie! Dozie!!’
I didn’t stop, didn’t turn; I just kept moving as if by so doing I could put enough distance between myself and my thoughts.
The tagline for the SART facebook page is: “A Dominion of Wits and Crazies,” and as I hurried off to Heritage bus stop where I would get a cab to Wuse market, I found myself wondering if this tagline wasn’t a tad too apt…
To be Continued…
NEXT: DiStUrBiA Episode II: The Lair