Beast with Two Backs

The two constables watched, at war with their conscience, as the mad woman tried, in vain to cross over to the other side of the road. She was not known to be friendly on a good day, preferring to have full blown conversations with herself, or harassing nearby kiosk owners with her monologues. Ever since her pregnancy became visible, she had gotten even more aggressive in defending herself. Her home lay there, an abandoned shack. Its exterior environment was further deteriorating, a refuse dumping ground for roadside traders, emitting a stench that repulsed passers-by before they realised the source. Of this, as was the case with all else, her mind seemed unaware.
She put a dirty, bare foot out again, gearing up to run across the tarred highway, but a speeding car approached, zoomed past, sending her steps back.
“Leave her.” Constable Ụzọ looked at Imoh’s firm grip on his wrist, preventing him from what he was about to do as he half stood.

“She could get hit.” He’d attempted to mask a part of his worry with the flatness in his tone and the blankness on his face, but his colleague heard and saw it anyway. Besides, was he not right now being stopped from his impulsive action?
“She won’t. She’s been caring for herself all this while. It’s best you leave her be.”
It wouldn’t do to be associated with her at this point in time, especially with the visible belly. The community was already upset that anyone would think to copulate with her. And if at all she had sexual cravings despite her insanity and got her fix, the idiot could’ve protected himself to prevent the pregnancy. Reputations were at risk now, fragile intangibles requiring protection at all cost. Any man found with her, perceived to have some previously established familiarity, would raise suspicions about the child’s paternity and Constable Imoh wanted none of it. As if the true story wasn’t bizarre enough.
Sighing, Ụzọ sat back down. They waited – a deep silence between them despite the noisy atmosphere of the very busy beer parlour – for their usual bowl of catfish peppersoup accompanied by a few bottles of beer from Nwanyị Umuahia herself. She served them with gusto every time they came in, a smile pasted on her face, a short laugh she passed off as a giggle when they teased her or flattered her cooking. It didn’t matter which officer it was – Sergeant Justin, Sergeant Dikko, Constable Ụzọ or Constable Imoh – no one paid a dime. She didn’t ask, and they didn’t offer either. To her, in their defence, their presence in the vicinity provided an indirect protection against robbers, so her business boomed and her earnings were secure.
Several minutes later, both men, now focused on the steaming bowls before them, failed to notice the mad woman, alongside a few other pedestrians, successfully cross over to the other side.
Not a single soul could be found on the overhead bridge above them.

It was going to be a boring night, ASP Bola was certain. He nestled deeper into the reclined passenger seat of the Hilux, the four doors ajar, a bit irritated by the humidity. The rest of his five-man team patrolled the area save for Constable Imoh, who sat on a tree stump close to the vehicle. It would seem they all sought cool air, one way or another. Of course, it was impossible to run the air conditioning unit in the vehicle through the night – the police force could not afford such luxury. Swatting again and again at a defiant mosquito, he hissed aloud, cursing at his employers in his mind. In no paragraph did his employment letter mention contracting malaria on a frequent basis as a hazard of the job. For the umpteenth time, he lifted his arm to check his watch for the time. 11.15pm. He gave a frustrated sigh.
It was going to be one long night.

“Oga. Oga wake up.” Red eyes, heavy with sleep, pried open. Before him stood Sergeant Dikko, looking uncomfortable. It did nothing to quell his own rising panic. He sprang up from his relaxed position, reaching for the holster by his side to confirm the presence of his faithful companion.
“Dikko what is it?”
He saluted, booted feet pressed together, chest shoved forward, head high, fingers against temple. Perhaps for some other officer, this protocol might have been appreciated, but Dikko’s belly, his knocked knees and his chin tilted way higher than required made it read for comedy. He looked awkward.
“Dikko!” ASP Bola warned. His patience tonight was slivered. Dikko went at ease.
“Sorry sir. There’s a man here. Said he wants to see you.” In the direction he pointed, on the opposite side of the road, about ten metres from the dump site was a black SUV. His heart rate increased, an omen. As a praying man, he offered silent prayers to Allah, for peace, for a smooth watch, that his life and that of his men be spared. It was an old habit. He wasn’t sure he believed it made a difference. He wasn’t sure it ever did.
Signalling Justin to join them, they walked towards the SUV, leaving the constables behind but at alert for funny play.
A solar powered street lamp a few yards behind the vehicle illuminated ASP Bola’s view better. Up close, the car seemed to him to be a shade of blue – navy or midnight. Tinted glasses. Plate number was covered with black fabric. Definitely someone in power, recognised or backed by the government. He knocked on the glass at owner’s side, and the combined fragrance of smoky wood and something exotic – Arabian oil perhaps – that infiltrated his nostrils as the glass came down relieved his unease to some extent.
“Good evening sir.” He was unable to fully make out the face of the man, especially because of the dark aviators he had on – even at that time of the night – but his affluence was evident. A shock of white beard adorned his face.
“Good evening officer.” He smiled, revealing a healthy set of teeth for his age. He had that calm demeanour Bola noticed among the nation’s big men, something they wore like badges of identity, membership card into an exclusive elite club. ASP Bola wondered if he smoked cigars too. It was the one vice he’d love to indulge in, quality brands, but his current salary couldn’t afford him that luxury, despite his rank. Of course, he had the option of doing what his colleagues did on the side to make a lot more, but there was the problem of his conscience, his biggest obstacle in a career that damned him every day.
“I’d like to speak to you alone, please.”
Bola motioned at the sergeants to fall back.
“Thank you.” His smile lingered. A silence followed, threatening the ASP’s calm. Omen number two to him, a sign that whatever this man before him wanted was of no good.
“I’ll go straight to the point.” He cleared his throat suddenly. “I’m here to visit with the woman that stays there, and I would appreciate your cooperation.” He gave a brief nod in the direction of the shack by the dump site.
Confusion flooded Bola’s mind. “But sir….visit? The woman there is a lunatic.” He blurted out.
“Is she?”
Floored, he stood there, speechless, as understanding crawled up on him, disgusting him.
The smile was still there, only, now, the he was beginning to think it eerie. It didn’t help that he couldn’t stare back into eyes he felt burning into him.
“Look, tell me what you want, and I’ll make it happen. A promotion? Transfer? Money?” He reached to his left side for what appeared to be a cheque book. The stuffed plastic bag beside him rustled. In faint light, Bola made out what looked like a PET bottle in it. Fizzy drink, he guessed.
“Sir, are you trying to bribe an officer of the law?” He was matter-of-fact, and Bola was beyond tempted. A sudden laugh erupted from the man. Short, stopping almost as soon as it started. Bola understood the threat in it.
This man could be his amen, end his wretchedness in the blink of an eye. He’d finally get both his wives to stop nagging, probably even get them two separate homes, or move away himself. He wouldn’t have to see them except when he summoned one or the other, never the both of them in the same space again. And his children, all eight of them in their neediest phase of life would be provided for. It all depended on his response to this man, his genie made manifest.
“I have cash if you’re afraid. Two hundred and fifty thousand. Dollars.”
Fresh sweat beaded the ASP’s forehead. He looked at the bespectacled man, a yes lodged at the back of his throat. He tried hard to vocalise his decision, but the harder he tried, the more his throat constricted, squeezing life out of his consent. The man in the car was beginning to lose his patience, his smile thinning by the minute.
“There’s no need for that sir. My men and I will vacate the area in five minutes, tops.” In a sudden movement, Bola clasped his hands together, taking a big step back to signal an end to the conversation. He saw a brow lift. In surprise, he supposed.
“I take it she’s in there at the moment? She hasn’t wandered out since your watch began?”
ASP Bola blinked. “Who, sir?”
The man’s dazzling smile returned. The ASP was no fool, after all.
As Bola and his men moved to pull the others off their vigil spot, putting some distance between the hypnotizing hum of the SUV’s engine and his hazy mind, it struck him that the man’s chauffeur had sat frozen through the conversation, an absent presence from it all. A strong chill ran down his spine, despite the heat of the night. Everything was wrong with what was about to happen.

That had happened eight months ago. None of the officers on duty that night had dared to share the story with anyone else. Desperation to forget what had transpired that fateful night drove the ASP into submitting a transfer request application the following week. In regaling the conversation that’d transpired between him and the man, he consciously skipped the part of cash offering, for fear of triggering a dangerous greed in his men that would lure them into the proposed evil. He was apprised of the approval four months later, and he’d been none the happier to up and leave with his family to Kano, where life easier and food was relatively cheap when compared to Lagos. He didn’t have to worry much about feeding his children. His wives had no excuse whatsoever preventing them from getting involved in local trade. Competition was less.
His vigil unit back in Lagos has been reassigned to a newly promoted inspector who retained the old pair of constables and sergeants, as they were familiar with the neighbourhood. No one kept in touch with him and vice versa, an unstated agreement, to put the tragedy of that night at the back of their minds, even though futile for the squad, as the swollen belly of the victim served a daily reminder. She was due any day. No one kept tabs, but she looked ready to pop. Even more difficult a thought to spare was the unknown fate of her child.

The face looked familiar. He squinted to see better against the blinding brightness. Something about the smile. And that beard, well groomed, silvery white.
It was him.
He shook hands with his announcer, then walked over to the microphone mounted atop the lectern, facing the camera to give his speech. For the first time ever, Bola saw his eyes. Grey, uncommon this side of the world. Cold, despite the smile. Again, it bore into him, seeing it now as he’d felt it then, making him shudder in dread.
A word of it and you’re done for, he felt the unsaid words aimed at him.
Gripped by a growing fear that caused a prickling on his scalp, ASP Bola switched off the television.
“Oga, why now? We were watching too.” One of the officers there, a constable, queried, fighting hard to not appear too rude, even though his face reflected his irritation at the sporadic act. It brought a part of Bola back to the present. His office was a shared space, containing two of his colleagues alongside him. Often enough, junior officers strolled in now and then for some informal rapport with them, or an update on a case, or for important briefing, promoting an air of familiarity, a relationship of sorts among them. Bola never seemed to mind it, even though he made sure to avoid overindulgence, as it bred disrespect. Now, at their lunch break, was one of such times, a constable daring to question his action within the parameter of his own office. In the presence of other juniors. And in a moment where his nerves were on the verge of giving him away in disgrace.
“Get out of here, my friend!” He snapped. Is this your duty post? Out, before I query you!”
The constable, embarrassed by his unexpected outburst, retreated, muttering under his breath about the insolence of superior officers. Others, confused by the exchange and sensing the awkward tension in the air, disappeared one after the other, leaving him with the one colleague who had just returned from lunch and had no idea what had happened.
If there was one thing he was glad about before, it was that the man from that night remained unknown to him, a mystery he had no interest in resolving. It had helped him sleep well on some nights. Now, against his wish, he had a name to the face. The man had just been sworn in to office, a much contested title. Same man who had made the beast with two backs with a mentally challenged woman he had no ties to. Or now he did.
It was an omen, he thought, heralding the many nightmares to come. What if they were destined to meet again?
His anxiety escalated, revealing itself in the perspiration that sprang out on his bald head.
Pulling out his mobile phone, he dialled the number he knew by heart, from years on the job. At the prompt of the operator, he sighed, heavy and burdened.
A wince escaped from his lips as he contemplated uttering the words that would forever change his life.
“Hello? Hello?” A voice the other end of the line inquired.
The lane he stood on was narrow, solitary and sprinkled with thorns, but he’d always regarded himself a man of high morals, a deeply religious man. Urged on now by his conscience, he readied his mind for the challenge ahead.

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