Excerpts from my novel, ‘An Assignment In Owerri’:
Somewhere near Owerri
LATE AUGUST, 2012.
Aniete thought he was alone in the magnificent church on the hill. It was quiet everywhere except for the gust of cool evening wind intermittently rustling the fruit trees that dotted the uneven grassy landscape of the churchyard. Whenever the wind stood still, the silence weighed heavily on Aniete’s eardrums that he felt like screaming at the top of his voice just to break the quietness that threatened his sanity.
He was just a youth, somewhere in his mid twenties, with large ears, pitch-black hair, and a face tensed and roughened with worry and lack of sleep. He appeared a little speck in his seat in the second pew on the centre column of the large, high-ceilinged church building. The stained-glass windows on either side cast a hallowed presence inside the church. He wasn’t a religious fellow; he had gone to church with his mother as a little boy, but those had occasions to celebrate a wedding or a child’s dedication, with coolers of steaming jollof rice and soft drinks to look forward to.
A glance at his cheap wristwatch deepened the worry lines on his face. The unknown informant was already five minutes behind schedule. He never liked shady meetings. Were it not a matter of life-and-death, he wouldn’t have considered coming in the first place. He only hoped the fellow would not fail to show up as he had twice repeatedly done. There was so much of the mess that had become of his life to clear up, and much more to lay to rest.
The dull echo of hurrying footsteps approached from behind, interrupting his thoughts. He turned tentatively. From the line of his peripheral vision he noticed a man hurrying in his direction. The man’s white clerical collar stood distinct against the blue of his loose-fitting short-sleeved shirt that flailed like a ship’s sail with every advancing step.
The Reverend briskly strode into the church, stretching his short legs to their limits. He was already running late for a meeting with the archdeacon; the man he inwardly despised with as much a bitter brotherly hatred a priest could be safely allowed. He hated that The Venerable Archdeacon always derived pleasure in making a scapegoat of him, and running him hard like an ass; he believed it to be some sort of calculated attempt at asserting his authority over him. A very much unnecessary trouble. Everyone knew already that the power-drunk fellow sat comfortably at the top of the clerical food chain, he was lord and king over the likes of the lesser clergymen as he. Even the bishop knew better not to cross swords with the man because of his wide connections within and outside the diocese. Every dumb priest and diocesan insider knew better than to be in the man’s bad books, but would he let it rest there? The petty bastard of an Archdeacon! Who didn’t know that the man was a weakling when it came to his own wife? It wasn’t news any longer. Such juicy information had ways of seeping through unseen crevices in the walls of the most secluded parsonages. Everybody knew it, and they would exchange knowing glances whilst the ‘venerable’ couple kept up their public appearances in the assurance that their bedroom secrets were safe behind the close doors of their bedroom. He wished the balding man didn’t preside over his fate, especially now when the news making the rounds was of some diocesan appointments to be made. He was in desperate need for one of such; at least a chaplain in some important organization or a principal in one of the diocesan seminaries or convents. It wouldn’t feel right to sit by and watch his colleagues from the Theological College surpass him that much. Only if he had a godfather higher up the clerical ladder to further his cause.
He noticed the form seated in one of the pews ahead. Even though the church was always left open, he hadn’t been expecting seeing anybody in there. In all his three years as the parish priest, he had never met anyone meditating all alone in the church. The villagers contributed towards the church building, they still did, and then gave their tithes and offerings and goaded their children abroad into making big donations, but that was as much religious as they all were. They weren’t given to prayers or meditations in the church building on any days or nights. Strange things do happen, he reasoned as he approached, not slowing his pace. He recognized the face. It was the same fellow from yesterday, and still seated at the same spot! The face was that of some stranger, he could tell, because he had never seen it on any Sunday services. He appeared a troubled young man, a city dweller perhaps, just returned to spend time with his parents in the village. But then why did he have to sit alone by himself? Was it not for the meeting, he would have stopped by to have a word with the strange fellow, to give him some spiritual guidance and hopefully win back a lost soul to the Christian flock. But he had only come to get some copies of the monthly financial report he was supposed to present to the archdeacon. He resolved to just say a ‘hello’ as he walked by the young man.
The youth had his eyes shut, he observed on coming closer. The blackened thin lips moved silently too; he was murmuring a prayer. The Reverend thought better of interrupting him; he hastened on towards the altar brilliantly lit by the sunset coming in through the huge stained altar windows. He parted one part of the heavy purple curtains besides the altar, and disappeared through a small door.
Aniete had recognized the man from the day before; he still wore the same short-sleeved shirt, with the white clerical collar, tucked into black trousers meticulously ironed so that they stood stiff with a razor-sharp line running vertically in front. He never liked priests; they made people feel belittled and vulnerable. He didn’t want to encourage any discussions with the man, and so he had feigned deep meditation. He cracked his eyes open a fraction in time to see the priest hurry in through a small door by the magnificent altar, and then he dropped his guard, but only momentarily.
He glanced again at his watch. Another twenty minutes had gone already. He sucked air into his lungs and exhaled noisily, resolving to wait for another ten minutes and no more. After then, he decided, he would have to leave and forget everything about this shadowy fellow.
Two men strolled in through the eastern arched doorway. He turned in the direction of their footfalls. They looked a very unlikely pair. Where one was short and stout, with bow legs that made him waddle like a duck, his partner was skinny and tall with sunken eyes that made him look like a man from a photograph of drought-stricken Somalia. If there was anything the newcomers shared in common, it was only their dark complexion. In their composure, they both seemed to contest for attention; the short one’s pair of white trainers appeared too large for his size. They accentuated the oddity of his bow legs and his duck-like waddle, making him look all the more like a creature meant for the circus. The tall one walked with a slight waver that made it seem like a suicide mission to walk on a windy day. They were both engaged in some heated argument with the short one appearing to be gaining the upper hand. Their argument had reduced to a low whisper as they strolled into the quiet church, but then the whispers were still magnified by the emptiness of the building. They walked on, crossing towards the western arched doorway like two travelers using the church as a shortcut. When they came abreast the altar, they fell quiet, faced the altar and then bowed deeply before continuing on their way. Their heated argument picked off from where it had been left off as soon as they had walked past the arched doorway and out into the open church yard.
Twenty minutes more had passed and the informant hadn’t yet arrived. Aniete’s patience had worn thin; the fellow must know better not to be tardy in matters as this; it made one paranoid. He got off his seat, and made towards the southern doorway. He favoured that exit because the short stairs offered a lesser view of the church building to an observer down the hill, unlike the other more conspicuous entrances. On the third rung of the wide steps, a sharp sting bit into his stomach. He doubled over instinctively, clutching his stomach in both hands. It was seconds later before the shot rang out loud and clear against the evening wind.
He had been shot! Thank God he was still alive; they said you never get to hear the bullet that killed you. An angry bee wheezed past his temple at that instant, only grazing the tip of his right ear. The accompanying shot rang out seconds later. Another shot! He made to hurry into the church, but too late. Another bullet tore into his right shoulder just as he had straightened up a fraction. He fell facedown upon the steps. All the while, he hadn’t felt a thing, but the pains came surging through his body. It appeared as though someone had poked a red-hot branding iron into his stomach and shoulder. He crawled on his belly, up the steps, determined to get into the sanctuary of the church before the unseen shooter finished him off. With every determined effort to make away, the pain seared through his body, clouding his vision. He fought to climb into the church just as he fought to stay awake, but as much as he tried, the darkness like a blanket descended over him. And then the world turned blank. Everything stood still and peacefully quiet in a strangely different way than the quietness inside the church.
Two men hurried towards the body sprawled facedown on the steps like a poisoned rat. The short, bow-legged one nudged the limp body with the sole of his big white trainers. His locally-made pistol, still smoking from the wide rusty muzzle, hung down his arm. He dared not tuck it into his belt lest the hot metal scald his skin: but for the layers of rags tied around its butt, he couldn’t have been able to hold the hot gun in his hand after firing off the first shot.
“Is he dead?”
He tilted his head to throw a sidelong look at his slim companion standing next to him. It was the kind of look a man would give his son for asking a stupid question. “Before nko? Don’t you have eyes? Or do you think he is Rambo?”
“Let me shoot him another bullet again, just to be sure.”
The short one stopped him before he could take aim. “What is wrong with you? Don’t you know that bullets are bought with money, or do you think they shit them? You just wasted some bullets and you are still not satisfied.”
“Who told you that I wasted bullets?”
“Do I need to be told? Don’t I have eyes?”
“Was I not the one who shot the bullet that finished him off?”
“The head shot.”
“You dey craze abi? Look at his head, do you see any wound?”
The tall one examined their victim’s head. “Only a small wound.”
“When did ear and head become one? Looks like on your way growing towards the skies, you forgot your brains at your knees.”
“Hey! Stop it there! Don’t try to insult me again.”
“Why then should you act like someone who never went to school?”
The tall one hissed. “So you win abi?”
“Yes na. You will be the one to give me three bottles of Gulder.” He was still grinning triumphantly as he signalled for them to leave.
Their pistols cooled down considerably, each man tucked his piece into the waist of his trousers as they began the leisurely descent downhill like two common villagers. They had begun their argument anew so that the evening wind wafted bits of their sentences over the distance. Nobody could tell that they were assassins, light-hearted at the knowledge of a job well done and the promise of payday.
The Reverend hurried out of the small office. The last-minute decision to put some careful touches to the financial report had robbed him of some valuable time. He had felt that the cost incurred on hosting the visiting foreign missionaries for one week might alarm the archdeacon. It would be unwise to give the petty bastard something to hold onto, and not especially now when the man would be looking for some excuse to deny him a place in the new diocesan appointments. The distant gunshots had come to him while he was absorbed in doctoring the figures, but he had dismissed them to be one of those crazy university cult boys at their thing again. He had only sacrificed a few seconds to ponder on why people placed little value on their lives only to cling desperately to it in those few minutes when they were about to lose it. And then he had returned his full attention to the figures again.
He rushed towards the Southern doorway, and onto the steps. He nearly would have tripped over the body lying lifelessly facedown had he not halted just in time. It probably was because he was in the hallowed premises of the church, but it had to be a miracle that he missed suffering a heart attack at that instant. He recognized the lifeless face. The sight was too strong for his senses to withstand. The young man he had seen praying only a few moments ago now lifeless and bleeding on the steps! He struggled to gain control of his quivering limbs and his frayed heart threatening to leap out from his mouth. He looked about. Thank goodness there was nobody in sight. He stepped over the lifeless body, careful that his shoes did not so much as brush against it, and then he flew down the hill, a slim file containing the printed financial reports tightly clutched under his arm.
God forbid he would be the one to bear the news of a murder in the church, he swore. Someone else would have to bear that cross……
follow this link to download the full ebook at only a hundred naira: http://www.okadabooks.com/book/about/an_assignment_in_owerri__adult_only_18/11050