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Joel Oputa | Night Crawlers

THE RACCOON

It had been easy.

In fact, it had been too easy. It had gone exactly like those freak situations where everything just flows in perfect harmony. No hitches, no mishaps, no snags – just an effortless loot and a glorious get away. The fact that even his feet seemed to be in perfect cooperation tonight baffled him, for his footfalls had been soundless as though the very earth beneath them were made of cotton tufts. They had made no sounds when he sprinted across the yard, sticking to the shadows and closing the distance between himself and the poultry. They had stayed mute as he vaulted through the archway above the doors that sealed the vast henhouse. It was oddly incredible; this oath of foot silence that wouldn’t betray even a dull thud as he landed squarely on the other side of the wall after the successful raid.

Even now, as he slunk off homewards, they still retained their silence against the threats of snapping twigs. These wonderful feet of his.

Sade would be proud, because tonight he was indeed a smooth operator.

Smoooooth Op-e-ra-tor…

Yet, a thought bugged him out of his reverie.

What if this was too smooth? What if this was all too good to be true?

Because… something felt off.

And that vague feeling of imminent doom that had suddenly besieged him mid-raid, began now to morph into a screaming nerve-shattering banshee that sent electrifying tremors shooting throughout his entire body. He could feel his heartbeat spike from a panic induced blood rush and he quickened his strides, his eyes darting wildly about. He was acutely aware that his notoriously vivid imaginations had been triggered because suddenly, there seemed to be a hulking vigilante molded to every shadow he saw. He shuddered and hugged himself against the night chill. The air was colder here and although he couldn’t see it, he knew his breath came out as cold white vapors. If he lingered any longer, he would catch a cold; or worse still, miss his rendezvous with the surly old fisherman with the beat down canoe. So, he trudged on, steeling himself against the jitters while focusing on his progress down the slope that led to the river banks. Tonight, memory and instinct would be his guide, for the world had been enveloped in a thick darkness that hindered visibility and hushed even the boisterous spring frogs.

There was a certain still in the air. Everything seemed to be waiting… listening. Not even daring to exhale.

This is beginning to look like a trap, Sly.

This.

Everything – The Intel, the layout and perhaps the whole operation.

Could this be fate setting him up for a cruel joke that would culminate in an absolute catastrophe? Yes, had to be. This one was rigged. Jobs that went like this was not the norm for him. Nothing ever went this smoothly for him in life! This was more the style of his dad and uncle, God rest their souls. Now, those were the real smooth operators. As a unit, those men could clear out an entire warehouse within minutes leaving no clue to betray their presence.

But not him.

Not you, Sly

No, His was a life choked with sudden unforeseen hurdles and narrow escapes for as long as he cared to remember. The mess of jagged scars running down the length of his right arm and an old bullet wound on his left shoulder were witnesses to this fact. And if those two mementos somehow failed to drive home the point, the various tiny scars that generously crisscrossed his sinewy frame did.

But somehow, tonight had been different. Tonight, he had been the master of his craft and had performed his task with impeccable finesse. It was glorious! The loot, a mass of bundles wrapped securely across his back and around his torso, were concrete evidences that it wasn’t all a dream. This was his score! His reward for the weeks of careful planning and cold wet stakeouts. He heaved to balance the weight of the bundles he carried. His footsteps were beginning to sink into the sand and he guessed he must be getting close to the river. He pressed a button on his watch and the screen flashed.

Ten more minutes.

He trudged on, allowing himself a triumphant smirk that soon grew to a wide boyish grin. This is what his father had tried to teach him with the writings and poems scribbled in his old dog-eared handbook. What was that one quote? “Careful planning begets carefree success”.

The old geezer was right. The weeks leading up to this night had been invested in preparations for this one night. For days, he had mapped out the layout of the vast poultry compound, marking exit routes, camera angles and staff rotation timelines.  Access had been easy; he had simply put on one of his old man’s fancy garbs and played the role of ‘Prospective Investor’. It’s funny what the semblance of wealth can do. No need to be actually wealthy, just looking the part and adopting a vague air of superiority would speak volumes of your ‘immense worth’ to the gullible and greedy. This was a trick he had honed to perfection over the years under the watchful eye of his father, master of the masquerades.

Five minutes…

The Receptionist had managed to transmit her versions of subtle seduction his way before showing him to the manager, a beady-eyed ogre of a man who stole appraising glances at his shoes before making the decision to cross the hallway and pump his hand vigorously. He was a heavily potbellied man with an Adam’s apple the size of a golf ball that bounced excitedly when he spoke. Mr. Shrek then offered a tour of the facility which revealed critical loopholes in their security set-up. The surveillance cameras were sparsely situated, allowing for a lot of blind spots that Sylvester could exploit. The Security ‘department’ was comprised of an old ex-soldier with bloodshot eyes whose breath reeked of alcohol and slightly staggered when he attempted a salute, a middle-aged man who barely spoke or understood English and as reconnaissance would later prove, spent his wages on the receptionist for time in her pants every Thursday night. And lastly, a mangy mongrel too old or too weak to bark, contented to issue halfhearted growls at strangers from a safe distance instead. It was a miserable pack, the whole lot of them, and Sylvester had begun to wonder at the wisdom of whoever owned the establishment. Why spend a fortune on an investment only to employ buffoons to manage and guard? Perhaps, what he deemed a fortune was relative to some.

His confidence had grown with his findings. These people weren’t the least suspicious of him. No, they had their minds set on lofty dreams of huge sales commissions and tips. So, he fed those illusions, subtly gaining inside information while dangling the promise of a sizable investment like a carrot on a stick.

Plunk!

His foot had made contact with the river.

So lost was he in his vainglory that he failed to notice he had arrived. He paused to study his surroundings before sounding the signal that was the agreed cue for the old fisherman to show himself. A timid crescent moon now hung in the sky, casting a very weak light on the several palm trees scattered along the river banks, amongst which he hoped the fisherman was waiting. It was quiet except for the occasional splish-splash of marine life and the chirps of crickets around him. He could now vaguely make out the silhouettes of various desolate shacks that lined up the beach, their rafters ravaged by time, stuck out like macabre arms against the velvety night sky. He scanned his surroundings until he was satisfied that the coast seemed clear enough, then he slung off his burden and stretched to relieve his aching muscles. The signal was to be one shrill whistle note with a sharp drop at the end.  Air filled his diaphragm as he prepared to sound off- and that’s when he heard it.

Muffled voices, grunts and connecting body parts. Subtle, but there for any careful listener to pick up.

He dropped to a crouch instantly and cocked his head, listening. Every nerve in his body was charged up and ready. A few moments passed before he heard it again, the sounds seemed to be coming from behind the clump of dwarf palm trees a few meters up ahead.

What on earth was that? And what was that doing here?

He had chosen this place for the rendezvous because it was the most isolated part of the town at night. A place where no one wanted to be around after dark. Everyone knew about the dark history that plagued these parts. Everyone knew about the ghastly murder of the old river priestess, whose corpse had been discovered nailed to her shrine door two years ago. The viral photo of her frail body with its torso hacked open and stuffed full of little stones, suspended beneath a signboard that read: Scammer, had been ingrained in the memories of inhabitants permanently. The local tabloids and news stations had gone agog with the story for a week, before returning focus to the more lucrative nationwide electoral proceedings. The perpetrator was never caught and the story died off. The people, however, never forgot about the elusive monster who had struck so close to home.

So, what or who could be behind those palm trees at such an ungodly hour? Sylvester thought.

Had the old fisherman sold him out to the local security units that patrolled these parts? Where they right now, huddled behind the palm trees snickering in anticipation?

Sylvester knew enough to not put a meter on the old grouch’s honor. He was after all, an inherited acquaintance whose loyalty laid with his father, not him.

This is a trap Sly, RUN!

He pivoted on his heels and bolted for the river, the wind whipping across his face as he ran. Creeping up on him again and causing goosebumps to break out all over his arms, was that dark sense of foreboding that had plagued him periodically through the night. Except this time, it was so intense that he could physically feel it.

Oh God, I am going to die.

Just then, a cry split the silence of the night and Sylvester came to an abrupt halt.

That was a woman’s voice!

A woman! At such ungodly hour of the night?

Something was not right and anyways, this was not his problem to deal with. A woman cried out in the dark, so what? That sounded like textbook baiting, and he was neither a novice nor foolish to fall for something like that.

It was time to leave.

He would grab the loot and slip into the water quietly and will not stop stroking until safety was assured.

Yes, that’s a plan.

He made to move but the very set of feet which moments ago he had praised for their excellence, now rebelled against him. And for lack of any clear reason, Sylvester stood rooted at a spot, his mind a mess of indecision.

Why are you standing here like a blubbering child, Sly?

Security patrols do not make clumsy sounds that would alert their intended prisoners.

Someone is in trouble, you dickhead.

Are you going to help or leave them to their fate?

For God’s sakes do something!

Do it NOW!

He blinked rapidly and scratched his head, a habit that had stayed since childhood. Yet this seemingly insignificant action became the catalyst that demystified his mind. A page from his dad’s handbook came to him from the inner vaults of his memories:

“Remember and recognize paranoia as your primary enemy of the night,

Banish it from the hallways of your mind,

Deny it access to your nerves…”

Okay Dad, whatever you say.

He turned around and began to walk towards the noise, each cautious step an assertion of the mind over senses. His muscles twitched and throbbed under his skin and the hairs on the nape of his neck stood on end. Cautiously, he approached the group of dwarf palm trees and began to circle them, maintaining a wide berth and careful to plant tentative steps that would not betray his presence. The moonlight was not enough to see clearly but as the palm trees gave way, his eyes gradually made out three humanoid shapes. One of them, smaller than the other two and most likely a female, was on her back spread eagle and held down by the ankles by another, while the third mounted her.  He needed no interpretation. This was a scene familiar to the shadows and back alleyways of the slums in which he grew, a scene cold and dispassionate and befitting of its name: rape.

He winced as this realization dawned on him.

The word. The act. The thing.

Here it was. The vilest of monsters that branded its victims with a searing scar that never heals. The demon who made zombies and ghouls of people. The evil that bullied his aged father into suicide in a federal prison. Here it was, tangible and in the flesh! His mortal enemy.

He felt a sudden rush of adrenalin and became mad with rage.

He would do something.

He turned around and sneaked back, using his hand to grope around the sands for a weapon. It was at that exact moment, that after a clean record of silence all night, his left foot broke through an old crab shell and spoke quite loudly.

“Who be that”?!

Shit!

The challenge stopped him in his tracks. They had noticed his presence and therefore had taken from him the element of surprise. He had to act fast!

“I SAY WHO GOES THERE”!

He swiveled to face them. His hand concealed a piece of rock he had hurriedly snatched up. He squeezed on its coolness, drawing courage from its firmness and prayed that he wouldn’t miss.

“Mr. Man, Identify yasef!” the one holding the woman down barked at him. “Na red machete dey challenge”

Of course, it had to be The Red Machete gang. It was just his luck to stumble upon the business of the most ruthless street gang around. Red Machete was a notorious street gang made up of violent criminals and ex-cons. Their signature weapon of choice were panga machetes, spray painted with red paint to signify the blood of their vanquished enemies. They were known for their brutality and were particularly popular with corrupt politicians because of their efficiency in the execution of electoral malpractices. This meant that not only were they dangerous, they were also protected and well-funded. He smiled bitterly; he knew that his recent good fortunes wouldn’t last.

“You deaf bah? No problem? I go help you open ya ear”.

It was a statement of fact. The man stood up and pointed at Sylvester. The pointing hand held a machete, his choice tool for unmuting deaf ears.

“For the last time,” he growled, “Who you be and wetin you dey do for this place?”

The man was built like a tank. Despite the gloom, Sylvester could still make out the massive size of his arms and neck. Sylvester knew that the only chance he stood with this one was to somehow deliver a quick knockout. Any close tangle with this man could mean death. A thought occurred to him. He would bait him.

“I dey find your mama house, she bin tell me say today I fit knack her for free,” Sylvester replied.

The plan worked. The man let out a roar of fury and lunged at him, but Sylvester sidestepped in time. A startled cry escaped the man’s lips as he quickly realized his error but it was too late; his momentum was too great for him to stop and it sent him flying headlong right into Sylvester’s attack. The rock smashed into the man’s temple with a resounding whack that sent pieces of rock debris flying everywhere. The impact was so explosive than the man’s grip on the machete loosened and it went flying. Sylvester rushed up to him as the man slumped to his knees and dealt a finishing blow to the back of his head.

The tank had been decommissioned.

Time to take out threat number two. He spun around to face the second man.

Wrong move.

The man had moved with almost superhuman speed!

Sylvester felt a sudden jolt, his neck twisted sharply and his face instantly lost all feeling. He groped around desperately trying to gain his feet, but his assailant was ready for him. Another blow landed on his head and he slumped to the ground, his ears ringing. Something warm and thick ran down his left eye, blurring his vision.

Blood.

The man turned him over and sat on his chest pinning him under his weight. Now, the blows rained down on Sylvester in rapid torrents. His face was pounded into the sand at an impressive rate that all he could do was raise up his arms in a feeble attempt at defense. He turned his face to the side and shut his eyes tight, willing his mind to go to a happy place.

Suddenly the rain of blows stopped.

Sylvester cocked his head to listen. He could barely hear the sound of the man’s footsteps over the ringing in his ears. The footsteps moved briskly and stopped just shy of his head. He could hear the man breathing. He strained to focus through puffed up slits that once were eyes. The pain from the effort threatened to split his brain in two, but thankfully, he could still see. However, what he saw was hell. The devil was looming over him, and in his raised hand was the bloodied rock.

Oh Lord of the middle cross, is there really a heaven for thieves?

 

THE WOLF

When Deji was eleven years old, he was taken by his mother to the shrine of the river priestess after a bout of illness that plagued him for six days. Among the various gifts intended for the gods, were three large yam tubers that he had to carry on his head the entire way. The walk was long and tedious, but excitement fueled his strength. The shrine was a dilapidated shack suspended on bamboo stilts above the Lagos lagoon. He could still remember the stench of feces that permeated the air, rancid smells emanating from the vile looking blobs scattered around the river banks; The spawns of many ghetto children’s rectums. Deji knew this part of town very well; his own feces was in fact, a resident. He would occasionally come here with his ragtag posse to hunt for crabs and to fire off their slingshots at passing canoes, or to steal edible sacrifices from the shrine patio. His mother did not know this. There were a lot of things his mother did not know about him. Like the pet cobra he kept hidden in an old flax basket at the base of the giant hollow tree in his late grand-father’s compound, or the bag full of shot gun cartridges he had stolen from the scene of an interrupted gang initiation ceremony. He had always been a peculiar child, drawn to the appeal of danger and gore. They held a thrilling fascination for him that supplanted the typical cravings for action figures and other boyish excitements.

The visit to the shrine was like a day trip for him. It was his first time inside the inner chambers where the blood-stained statues of the river goddess, Osun, and other Orishas were kept. He eagerly took everything in, thrilled with the privilege of being the chosen one to regale his friends about the experience. This space was more thrilling than the rickety patio where sacrifices offered by those who sought Osun’s blessings, were displayed.

The Priestess made him stand naked in a crudely drawn circle of white chalk, while she gazed into a basin of river water, eyes glazed and lost in a trance. Stifling smoke from various half-covered clay pots stung his eyes and made him dizzy but he refused to cough, determined to retain some semblance of manliness in light of his emasculating position. Three prophecies were realized that day. First, the priestess proclaimed an end to his ailment, declaring that he would never again face the misfortune of sickness. However, his life would not endure, but will be cut short at The Fullness of Manhood. And lastly, that his death would be at the hands of a woman.

She didn’t tell him who the woman would be. The old skank. She also didn’t tell him that she was a liar. That they all were. The gods and their servants alike. Mere remnants of a fading age rendered impotent by modern technology and industrial fumes, desperately grasping for relevance in a fast-evolving society. These people were the sleaziest of swindlers and would say anything to scare up a buck. Howbeit so, he knew it wasn’t a boy’s place to defy old traditions, so he held his tongue and looked on as his mother bewailed the fate of her only son. The priestess made three incisions in his chest with a sharp obsidian knife, into which she inserted three smooth pebbles for ‘protection’. She sealed the cuts with a red-hot iron that she had pre-heated in a mud hearth. This was singularly the most painful experience Deji had ever known, and all he could do was wince in excruciating pain as the smell of his own singed skin filled his nostrils.

It was at this precise moment that Deji decided that he loathed the river priestess, and vowed to pay her a visit in the future to strip her of dignity as she had done to him. He also hated his mother for believing the lies of a glassy-eyed witch who had nothing better to do other than drawing white circles in stuffy little rooms. He despised her for standing by, as her only child was mutilated before her. Women were such weak creatures. Weak willed and stupid!

But his mother knew nothing of this as well. Indeed, there were a lot of things his mother did not know about him. Like how her son later became an initiate of the most notorious street gang in the town, rising rapidly through ranks to become a lieutenant at the age of fifteen. Or the fact that he had acquired a shot gun for his bag of bullets and that he habitually coated those bullets with his pet snake’s venom. Her obsession with the prophesized fate of her only child had taken complete control of her sensibilities that she failed to notice the dark undertones to his nature. Instead, she belabored the boy’s life with stringent rules and restrictions, hounding him at each turn. He was constantly forbidden from any form of association with females, young and old. Such was her dedication to ‘saving her son’ that Deji remained a virgin through to his twenties. Not that it mattered to him. He had discovered that he felt nothing for those species called females. They were at the most, a nuisance. And when his mother died at the age of forty-nine, an anorexic, because another charlatan had instructed her to fast for forty days and forty nights, Deji buried her beside his grandfather in the family burial plot. In his arms, she had weighed lesser than a newborn kitten. It had happened on his birthday. The day he turned twenty-five and realized he hadn’t yet been killed by a woman. The same day he paid a visit to the lying priestess, and showed her that the sniveling little boy she had mutilated had become a man who never forgot.

All that was in the past now. He believed that the morbid circumstances of his life forged him into the man that he was. A hard-boiled, efficient enforcer in charge of the red light districts in Red Machete territories. Impervious as he was to feminine charms, he had been deemed the right fit for the job by the bosses. Who better to prudently handle a treasure box than one averse to the seduction of its contents? It was a job that paid handsomely. Two years of ‘herding’ the street whores had rewarded him enough to afford a nice pad in the upscale part of town, in addition to the sleek black Lexus he only drove on Sundays. Having now known a measure of luxury, Deji was dedicated to preserving this lifestyle.  So, when the boss called him about the high-end escort, who had soiled the gang’s reputation by stealing from a big shot client, Deji was eager to prove his worth. His orders were distinct: Capture, torture and rape the thieving whore until she made restitutions. She was still considered a valuable asset on account of her pretty face, so he was not allowed to mark it. But if it was rape that was required, then he would become the king of rape. He would devise ways to violate her body until her will came apart at the seams.

As distasteful as it was to him, he could not delegate this task to a subordinate. It had to be him, virgin or no. A direct order from the boss left no wriggle room for misinterpretation. The fact that Black Blade had been sent to supervise this assignment, hinted that he was being observed for a possible promotion. And nothing, Deji vowed, would jeopardize his elevation. Not his status as a virgin, nor the strange man who had suddenly materialized from the shadows.

Orders are orders.

He brought the rock down, hard.

 

THE FOX

The woman was the first to notice the dark shadow creeping along the sands. She would have missed it if she hadn’t turned her face to the side, away from her captor and his foul breath. She had hoped that the skulking thing was a monster, some hideous fiend from hell who would kill them all and release her from her agony. But the shadow was just a man. A petty thief she was sure; the slums were infested with them. However, to her surprise, this petty thief had come to her aid! And in the wonderful turn of events, had even succeeded in disarming Black Blade, sending his weapon hurtling from his hand to land beside her on the ground. This, surely, was a sign from providence. The time had come for her to roar in the faces of all the men who thought they could own her. It was finally time for her to take back her power! She gripped the machete and began to walk towards the men, each step bolder as her determination grew to a fever pitch.

Something primal within her had suddenly erupted and in her eyes was a wild, almost manic expression.

Her petite frame, ravaged only a few moments ago, was now charged up with vitality. For her anchors had snapped and the force of the released tension was so strong that it sent her spirit hurtling towards her captor for a final epic showdown.

 

THE OWL

From behind a group of palm trees in the shallow part of the river, the old man watched, his gaze unflinching. He did not look away when the man’s head fell from the swing of the girl’s blade. He held his gaze as the headless body tilted and fell to the ground with barely a sound. Being a night crawler had made him accustomed to such sights as these. And each time, he had seen the people for what they were – or rather what they had been made; the by-products of a dystopian society. Stark souls amongst thousands, stuck in an endless loop in the symbiotic struggle for survival. These were the fungi of society, mushrooms in the shadows, whose survival depended squarely on whatever fickle climate of morality that upper-class society adopted, or imposed upon them. They weren’t born for this world; they were bred to it. They were the poor. The rejects. The victims of a brutal society, exiled to scavenge the night.

Soon, the dawn would arrive and they would scurry back into their burrows, eager to switch on televisions and listen with rapt attention as the vampires they placed in positions of power fill their ears with weightless promises and blind their eyes with smokescreen projects. They would swallow up these lies and be filled with false hope that someday, they too, can be elevated to a life beyond the very edge of subsistence.

To the old man, the scene before him meant nothing. The deaths held no meaning. They had only become filler for the news. This was the way of the new world and it would never change.

However, the events of the night had given him much to think on… and perhaps write about. For a brief moment, his thoughts went to the little dog-eared handbook he had lost a long time ago; a treasured trove of his most cherished thoughts and poems. Writing, he had found, brought him comfort for the harsh realities of life and aided his aging mind to remember the important lessons.

Maybe, he ought to start writing again.

He leaned on his long oar and pushed. The canoe cut through the still waters silently, spreading lazy ripples in its wake.

The old fisherman kept rowing, the show was over and he had to get to all of his fish traps before the sun came up.

—————

Image: Screengrab Pixabay video remixed

Uchechukwu J. Oputa
Uchechukwu J. Oputa
Joel Oputa is a writer who resides in southern Nigeria. He is a father, a husband and a content creator. When he isn't busy with family and business, he is churning out streams of short stories inspired by his very animated mind. He is currently working on his debut Novel.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Yow!
    I felt everything that needed to be felt 🤯

    And here I am, wondering if the Raccoon died.

    Come to think of it, the Raccoon, the Wolf and the Fox had to put up a show to get the Owl to think about his forgotten dream?

    I enjoyed every bit of it and can’t wait to get a sequel 😇

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