THE HERMIT OF CHURCH HILL STREET

 Nobody knew why they called it Church Hill Street. No church building occupied any one of the fenced plots, and the land only sloped insignificantly towards the end of the street so that a murky flood gathered about that part whenever it rained even for a few minutes. Like most of Port-Harcourt city, Church Hill Street lacked a proper drainage system. As much as the residents tried to stem the flow of the rainwater, with heaps of mud, from flooding their part of the street, it always had its way in the end.

At the flooded end, there stood a one-storey apartment building with the number ‘45’ emblazoned on a blue plaque fastened into the high, mossy perimeter fence. A tenant occupied the flat on the first floor to the right – if you had your face to the building. Nobody, not even his fellow tenants could tell much about the clean-shaven lanky young man with the receding hairline on his rather large head. Sometimes, he would disappear for days on end and whenever he sneaked back into his apartment, he would keep to himself, never seeking company and encouraging none. Most of his neighbours speculated that he was either an engineer in an offshore oil rig or a sailor – for these were the professions that kept one away for long periods and as well robbed the one of the capacity of keeping normal company. The ladies were unable to fathom a man who had no visitors, not even a girlfriend or a whore call at his place. There were some who taught the man to be a security operative working undercover; what with his clean-shaven face, his secluded lifestyle and the red Toyota Tundra he drove. The man made it a point of note to know of what people thought of him, but that was the extent of his concerns. He maintained a low profile, ensured minimal exposure and paid his bills promptly in the name of Tony Jonathan. Only one person, Colonel Zachy, knew his real identity, but then he would never address him in nothing other than his codename – Sealer.

It began to drizzle. The man called Sealer cursed under his breath as he imagined the rainwater coursing its way towards his part of the street. Very soon the streets outside would be submerged in murky waters and there would be no other way in or out of people’s homes except to waddle in the dirty pool. That was the reason he preferred trucks.

He lifted the binoculars to his eyes, adjusted the focus and did a visual sweep of the distance. Nothing. He observed the compound three streets away. No activities yet. He let down the binoculars and tossed it onto a lone table by the window. The landing impact echoed about the empty flat. He sighed deeply and made for the far end of the empty sitting room. He sat on the floor with his back to the wall, reached for a half-drunk bottle of Hennessey and then took a swig. The phone in his pocket vibrated. He could only guess who the caller would be. Without looking at the blue illuminated screen, he punched the ‘receive’ button and put the phone to his ear.

“Hello.”

“What is the situation report?” the familiar husky voice filtered through.

“No activity yet.”

The silence lingered. He could imagine the Colonel’s furrowed face distorted the more with the effort of trying to make up his mind. He knew what the man’s decision would be and he would have to cut him short before the pronouncement was made. Time and experience had taught him that once made, the Colonel’s decisions were irrefutable.

“Sir, I am positive about this.”

The man’s voice came strong and authoritative: “Sealer, I am of the opinion that we are wasting time and resources. They have gotten suspicious, they suspect somebody is watching.”

“I know so, sir.”

“So what are you still doing there? Report back for debriefing. We need to employ another tactic.”

“Sir, if I must speak, we are this close to sorting this out.”

“Sealer?”

“Colonel.”

“What happens to water that had been dammed?”

Sealer whipped his brains. “Umm.. I don’t know sir.”

“Exactly. Nothing. It heads nowhere except in the direction it is channeled to. You have been dammed. They know you are there and you will see as much as they want you to see, which I believe to be ‘nothing’. Clean up your tracks as soon as possible and fall back. Is that clear?”

“Yes Colonel.”

The line went dead. Sealer pocketed the phone and reached for the bottle of Hennessey again. He took a mouthful and swallowed down, grimacing as the burning liquor coursed its way down his chest and into his stomach. It warmed his blood, fought the sneaky cold and doused the fire in his nerves. It all felt strange and out of the ordinary to him; the Colonel was a true businessman who understood the importance of reputation. If he backed out of a job like this, then what would become of the reputation they had both worked hard to build and protect over the years? He removed his turtle-neck sweater, rolled it into a pillow and stretched on the cold floor. As he closed his eyes, his mind wandered to that time when he had coursed the waters of the creeks, vandalizing oil pipelines and selling the crude to middlemen who went on to sell to ships decked on the coasts of the Niger Delta.

*

On that night, the stars and the moon had hidden behind a curtain of thick clouds like a husband and wife keeping the malice while the children went hungry. Three youths rode an old speedboat equipped with an outboard engine in the dark night. A boy at the bow had the weak beam of a battery flashlight aimed at the waters in front. Another one, Piriye, rode the motor and Tekena sat amongst three drums of petrol, prepared to steady them in the event that the boat did a wide swerve. The roaring of the motor resonated in the dark night, as though in protest to the rough handling but its passengers cared little other than to deliver their cargo to the designated point before first light. The boy at bow had his thoughts fixed on his share of the money as sprays of salt water slapped his face and the cold bit into his exposed skin. Two more runs like this, he thought, and he would have completed the money to pay for a second-hand speedboat. There would be no more hiring of speedboats for deals like this.

Despite the potential dangers of riding in the dark, everything looked to be going on smoothly until a blinding beam of white light suddenly enveloped them. Shit! The soldiers! How come? Piriye pushed the motor to its limit. It roared in wild protest. The bow tilted into the air as the boat surged forward, leaping and bouncing on the water surface, but the powerful lights bore more intensely on them with every futile attempt to get away. One of the barrels rolled into the water, but the boys were not the ones to fret over a lost precious cargo at the moment.

“Stop there!” a loud command bellowed over a loudspeaker, but the boys were determined to get away. “This is the last warning. I say, stop and surrender!” As though in answer to the command, the boat roared yet again and did a desperate swerve to shake off the blinding beam of light. The boys shouted to each other in panic, but their voices were lost over the roar of the boat’s motor. Machine gunfire erupted from the source of the light. The speedboat shot into the air, a flaming wreck, and then capsized over the water. Flames of fire licked the surface of the water within a quarter kilometer radius of the burning speedboat. The soldiers rescued two of the unconscious boys floating in the water. They never bothered with Piriye as he never broke surface.

The one called Tekena died in hospital two days later. The other boy awoke somewhere that didn’t look remotely like a hospital. It was a spartan-looking apartment that appeared short of a dignified prison cell. Weak and disoriented, he only observed and ate whatever he was given by the only man he laid eyes on for three days. On the fourth day the man spoke to him: “I am Colonel Zachy. I like you. Do not be afraid, I am your friend.” Colonel Zachy asked him a few questions and he told him that he was an orphan, that his parents had died a decade ago in Odi when soldiers had razed the village with gunfire. Colonel Zachy had listened attentively and then he had asked him: “Why do you do oil bunkering?”

“We need money. We don’t have money,” the youth had muttered with his head bowed to hide his face.

“You want money? You want to be rich?”

The boy had raised his head only a fraction to look at him.

“I’m talking of ‘very rich’, but without the kind of risks you boys take on the waters. Do you?”

The boy had nodded weakly.

“Good. I want to be rich too. We can both be very rich if we work together.”

In the months that followed, Colonel Zacky put the boy through rigorous trainings, such that he had never known before. He taught him the art of stealth, surveillance, subterfuge and disappearance without leaving a trace of his existence. And then he taught him a lot about guns. It was he who called him Sealer.

In time the boy, Sealer, learnt of his role in the scheme of things: Colonel Zachy had sustained an injury to the hip during an overseas mission and was therefore relieved from active service. But he was a man who craved for power and relevance. Sealer was to become his tool which he used to render clandestine services for payment to his contacts in high places. If there was a business competitor to eliminate, Colonel Zachy was the man to contact. If there was some renegade politician to be whipped back on track, Colonel Zachy was the man who got the job done. If there was a job too dirty for the law enforcement agents to do, no other came to mind. And he always delivered. For his dutiful executions, Sealer received a handsome payment for as long as he kept to the simple rule; ask no questions, leave nothing and take nothing from a crime scene except when asked to do so.

*

It didn’t rain the next morning but the sky looked cloudy like the face of a child about to cry in lamentation for its mother’s absence. Sealer was back again at the window, surveying the compound three streets away through the pair of binoculars. With his eyes still focused through the binoculars, he felt around for the bag of chips on the table and then stuffed his mouth with a handful. His interest was sparked – he had been noticing renewed activity in the compound since morning. The Colonel should see this and learn a lesson or two about optimism. You could dam a river but not for too long. Water, calm and steadily pressing on, will always break through any barriers in the long run. He grinned at himself as he thought of the look on the Colonel’s face when he told him that his disobedience had yielded good fruits. There was no way he could have left a job halfway, especially when he was doing something different for the first time. He had staged a celebrity’s suicide, assassinated a rogue businessman, set off a bomb and framed a terrorist group for it. He had employed many extreme measures in bending many a politician’s will. But this very one was different. Somebody in the high echelons of law enforcement needed an illegal arms dealer and drug kingpin dead because the fellow knew too much, enough to put the whole Nigerian law enforcement structure in his pocket. He believed that they had gone for the Colonel’s services so that in the event that things went messy, they wouldn’t be the ones to be begging for a chance to repair a broken trust. The problem had been that the man kept a very low profile, and he had had to start from nothing until he got himself very close to the man’s residence where he could mount a twenty-four surveillance whilst waiting for the ideal moment to strike.

A convoy of two cars drove up to the gate of the small duplex. He focused the binoculars on the plate numbers. They bore Lagos registration numbers. He committed the numbers to memory and tried to make out the occupants of the car. He couldn’t. The gates flew open and the cars quickly drove into the compound. Two men in ordinary clothing jumped out of the first car. He could tell they were guards even though they tried not to look it. The back door of the second car opened and a big man laboriously eased himself out. He carried his bulky frame with considerable effort towards the entrance of the duplex. A little girl came flying towards him from the house. He stooped on time and swept her up in his arms, raised the giggling girl in the air and then hugged her close. His daughter, Sealer thought to himself. He could only imagine what the girl would think of her father if she knew that he sold things that ruined people’s lives. The man carried the chatty little girl in his arms into the building. The two men followed some respectable distance behind. He saw none of the drivers leave the cars. This was it, Sealer muttered to himself. Action time!

Colonel Zachy was a man who had deep respects for water, but he would rather sing the sea’s praises from the safety of the shores. He believed every body of water to hold some vital lessons to the more attentive of the human race. As a little boy growing up in a poor household, placing a bucket of water under the paid borehole tap in the night and seeing a half-full bucket by morning taught him the essence of saving. He had had a fondness for the little brook that cut through his grandmother’s backyard. He had marveled at how something as light and harmless as a little stream of running water could wear out hard rock with time. That, to him was a lesson on consistency. And then he had come to wonder how water cleansed everything and gets itself cleansed. That part was a mystery, it still remained one till this day. But above all, water taught him the importance of survival – it took various forms with respect to the element. At extreme cold, it was ice. At extreme heat is was vapour and when at peace with the elements, it flowed and gave life. The elements that dictated his survival had changed and he had to adopt the form of vapour if he was to survive. And survive he must.

He knew he was sending Sealer on a suicide mission but he had no options. The Israelis were desperately searching for the terrorist who had set off the bomb that went off at the parking lot of the United Nations building in Abuja, killing an Israeli diplomat. They believed it wasn’t the handwork of a hot-headed terrorist, but that of a trained field operative. Since that day, Israeli agents had been sniffing the ground for the terrorist, and they were fast gaining grounds. Colonel Zachy knew of this but he had made it a point of duty to keep the information from Sealer. He had been hoping that in due time, an arrangement would be made to lay the matter to rest, but then something else had come up. He needed to secure an arms deal between the Israelis and a Niger-Delta militant group. What better way to win the Israelis’ respect than to give them an offering of what they desperately desired? He would miss Sealer, but the game was fast changing and with the money from the arms deal, he could afford to raise an army of assassins and agents to start up a freelance spy network as had never been known to exist in the whole of Africa.

It poured heavily on that night – a perfect setting for an operation that demanded stealth. As usual the whole neighbourhood was plunged in darkness as the power company was known to cut supply whenever it rained, to prevent accidents by electrocution.

Sealer scaled the high perimeter fence. He laid flat on the top of the wall like a basking black lizard, he listened hard and scanned the compound for any movements. Nothing stirred, only the splatter of rain water intent on drenching the night. No lights burned in the duplex. The two cars he had earlier noticed were parked in the compound as they had been all afternoon and evening. He dropped down carefully onto the wet grounds of the compound and crouched low. His grey balaclava was fast soaking in the rain water so that he felt cold in the head as in other parts of his drenched body. He withdrew the silenced pistol from the holster in his hip. Still crouching low, he scampered towards one of the parked cars. A dim blue light blinked in one of the cars. Cautiously, he peered through the rolled-up window, gun at the ready. It was only an anti-theft device. He wiped the water from his eyes, hurried across the compound to the side of the house and pressed himself flat against the wall. He listened. Nothing. The furious torrents were on his side. It could also be against him. Satisfied that he had come thus far unnoticed, he holstered his pistol and began to climb up the plumbing towards a small toilet window he had noticed to be always left open. It was a small window, but it proved not much of a hassle to squeeze his slim frame through. The toilet was narrow but long. A bolt of lightning flashed, momentarily lighting up the sparkling-white rectangular toilet. He drew out his pistol again and with his finger to the trigger, he approached the shut door carefully. Grateful to find it unlocked, he stepped onto a dark hallway, feeling his way along and careful not to announce his presence by bumping into any flower vases or article of décor.

The corridor came to an abrupt end. He felt his way blindly in the air but his hands caught nothing. Maybe this was a large sitting room, he thought. Time to trust your instincts. He crouched low and began to advance. His muscles were tensed and his ears alert for the slightest indication of hostility. He tried to see through the darkness but the attempt hurt his eyes so badly that he gave up the idea. He must have advanced only a few paces when he stepped onto something that crunched very loudly that his heart nearly skipped. As though in answer to the crunching sounds, the whole place came alive in a flood of bright yellow lights. Instinctively, he used his arms to shield his eyes against the blinding brightness. A boisterous laughter rang out.

“Welcome.” The voice sounded bloated. There was no arguing that it was the bulky man – his target.

He let down his arms and looked about the room. He wasn’t alone. Four mean-looking men had sub-machine guns trained on him. Another man, the bulky one, stood in the middle of the room. The business suit he sported looked very much out of place with the domestic surrounding.

“Welcome. Welcome,” the bulky man bellowed, clapping a pair of big hands and beaming genuinely like a man who just scored a small jackpot. “We were afraid you might not show up tonight.”

Sealer knew when he was in a tight spot. He threw his hands in the air, letting the gun hang limply between his fingers.

“You can get rid of that lethal tool and come sit down over here. And the balaclava too. We have business to discuss.”

Sealer stooped low inch-by-inch, careful that he didn’t make any sudden movements to warrant a spray of bullets from any one of the sub-machine guns. He dropped the pistol to the floor and slid it with his foot towards the bulky man. At that instant, he saw the reason for the crunchy sound that had given him away – fragments of broken bulbs scattered about the floor at his feet. One of the men, with his gun and eyes still trained on him, picked the gun and shoved it into the waistband of his trousers. He could see clearly that the man didn’t look Nigerian. For good measure, the man came to him and frisked him. A dagger at his ankle and three extra magazines were stripped off him in an instant. The man resumed his position.

“Okay. You can come sit down. I’m not one for this sort of cold pleasantries.” The bulky man gestured to a white leather settee. With his heart pounding hard against his chest, Sealer slowly made for the settee and sat down, mindful that he kept his hands in clear sight of the gunmen. The man settled his bulky frame into a cozy armchair opposite from Sealer. The chair squealed in protest to his weight.

“I would have offered you some drinks, but my friends here,” he swept his arms to indicate the gunmen. “They strongly advise against it. They say you are a very dangerous man and that even a glass of drink could prove to be a lethal weapon in your hand. Could you please remove that creepy thing from your face? It makes me feel like I’m having a discussion with an undertaker.”

Sealer peeled off the dripping-wet balaclava from his face. The man studied his face for a moment. “You don’t look much different from the picture.”

What is he talking about? Is that a way of distracting him? As if in answer, the thunder rumbled outside. The man exhaled, and smoothed the creases on his black trousers. “Okay, let’s get down to business. To your man, Colonel Zachy, you are as good as dead at this moment.” He paused to gauge the effect of his words. Sealer stared blankly back at him, his countenance registering no emotion. “You see, you have caused a whole lot of ripples within many organizations. Unfortunately for you, that includes the Israeli Intelligence. To put it lightly, you are a desperately wanted man. I hope I’m communicating?”

No change came over Sealer’s blank expression. He hadn’t so much as moved a muscle, not with the gunmen still focused hard on him.

“The fireworks you set off at the UN building cost one Israeli diplomat his life, and you know how seriously they take a death in the family over there…”

“Why am I here?”

The man looked at him in exaggerated surprise. He turned to the gunmen and then let out a long laugh. None of the gunmen shared in his amusement. “Okay,” he said, collecting himself. “I see you are not one for foreplay. Colonel Zachy has sold you away for obvious reasons. Like I said earlier, he will be surprised to know that you are still breathing, sitting opposite from me in my house and listening to me try to convince you to work for the Israelis in exchange for your life.”

“You lie.”

“I understand your sentiments at this point. But you will be a fool to think that there is a code of honour in this game we play. Okay, what was it Colonel Zachy said when we last spoke?” he wracked his memory. “He said something like, “when water is dammed, it flows only in the direction it is willed to”. I think he was right. You have been dammed and he has willed for you to be here. Such an intelligent man.”

Sealer felt numb all over, but he tried not to show it. He could make do with that glass of drink now.

“I wouldn’t want you to get consumed with emotion at this point. Just look at it this way; a wise man once said that when two rivers meet, a perfect bond of peace and harmony is formed, but then they must take their different paths into the ocean.”

Sealer adjusted in his seat. The gunmen tensed.

“Like I said earlier, the Israelis are willing to let things go away if only you will work for them.”

“If you are not Israeli Intelligence, then who are you?”

“Who did say you are to kill? A drug baron? The leader of an internet scam ring? A lobbyist?”

Sealer didn’t answer.

“Well, I am a businessman and I grant favours to certain people who watch my back in return.”

“So why will they want me?”

“Maybe you should ask Mr. Avshalom here.”

One of the gunmen dropped his aim. The others followed suit. He put his gun in safe mode and settled into the settee on the far side from Sealer. Sealer studied the man. He looked Europena, a little bit shorter than he was, with flabby cheeks that told of a life accustomed to comfort. Not the standard field operative, maybe a desk officer. He offered his hand for a handshake and Sealer took it gingerly, watchful that the man wasn’t about to spring a trick.

“My name is Avshalom.” His English had a foreign edge to it, perhaps Spanish. Sealer could bet his life that it wasn’t the man’s real name but there was no point in fretting over it. “I am Israeli Intelligence. We need a man who can go in and out of places in this part of the globe without getting noticed. We are willing to let everything go if you co-operate with us.”

“And if I don’t?”

In answer, the man called Avshalom weighed the submachine gun in his hand like he was gauging the weight. Sealer got the message.

“So how do you cover up my existence? You just told me that I am presumed dead at this moment. Won’t Colonel Zachy be hoping for a confirmation of my death?”

“We will take care of that.”

“How exactly?”

Avshalom studied him for a while as though making up his mind whether to speak or not. “A dead body will be found in the river. Most of its body parts will be nibbled by fishes beyond recognition. Satisfied?”

The bulky man cut in: “You know that this is the best trick. Water knows and holds untold secrets.”

Everyone in the room ignored the man. Sealer weighed Avshalom’s words. He was satisfied. He nodded his assent. “So what next?”

“We take you to base.”

Sealer resisted the urge to ask for a drink. As he followed the men out of the house, his mind was set on Colonel Zachy. The man had dammed him. True. But dammed water breaks out disastrously when it perceives a weak spot in the structure. He would bring the man down in due time. In due time, he definitely would.

End.

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