WHAT DOESN’T KILL YOU.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Kelly Clarkson’s silvery voice rings out the lyrics of her 2011 hit song. In the past, her next line would have brought me back from slumberland. Not today. Today, this line does the trick. I move my right arm to put off the alarm and recollection – as stinging pain radiating from my elbow down to my jagged wrist – greets me. I had been bleeding. A trickle rolls lazily on my bruised elbow – I am still bleeding.
I reach for my phone with my left hand. As the patterned phone case settles into my palm, I squint through its light – amplified by the contrasting, pitch-darkness of the car – to the alarm on the screen – 3:00 AM: PRAY.
A first-time viewer of my cracked phone screen would read it as 8:00 AM: PRAY. Such is the dent made by the S-like crack. But it is 3 in the morning, alright. If it was 8, I’d be waking up in jail, not in a brand-new sports car.
Two minutes go by before I finally put off the alarm. Before then, as I jabbed at it with my left thumb, my mind wandered to a world where every human was ambidextrous: right-handed men with bleeding right arms could easily put off alarms and one-handed humans could be tennis stars.
Pain, like an oscillating pendulum, has begun to alternate between heavy and light intensity. I am experiencing a heavy episode, trying to suppress a wince, when I involuntarily take a deep breath. With that, the smell of leather floods my nostrils. New leather. I love the smell of new things and this is even more special. The Mercedes-AMG GT R. The sports car!
I gingerly put on my phone torch and study, with regret, the serrated edges of the uneven hole my elbow made in the car window two hours ago. Time away from the business has made me forget things: things like getting into a car easily.
If this was years ago, there would have been no bleeding elbows or shards of glass on new leather seats. Years ago, I was the best hitman in the business; a young man with an insatiable appetite for bloodshed and no care in the world. Till care met me at a long deposit line at First Bank. Nneka was her name. Beautiful Nneka. Love of my life Nneka.
Three hours before waking up to Kelly Clarkson, I was pacing my corridor, cold tiles under my bare feet as Nneka’s voice trailed off my phone.
Her voice was devoid of the characteristic high timbre I had grown to love. She was crying. My sweet lady was crying.
“If you wish to hear from her again, you’ll do it.”
Alhaji’s gruff voice was knife through the butter of the still night air.
“You’re a smart man. I’m sure you understand.” He delivered every word with his characteristic care.
So, off I went into the night.
HOW DO YOU BECOME A HITMAN?
Deji was taller than me till I turned twenty. Then, two things happened: he stopped growing, and I shot up like a cotyledon in manure-rich soil. When I overtook him in 2006, I milked it for a while.
“I’m older.” I’d lie to anyone who asked, a smirk skirting along my lips. He’d play along, sometimes ruining the joke with his inability to keep a straight face.
We weren’t always like that. In 1996, a joke like that would have earned me a barrage of fists. Then, we were always at each other’s throats. Still I had considered the fighting phase of our relationship an improvement on the one before it: the Deji is irritated to have a sibling phase.
During that phase, the best I got as interactions were grunts in response to my enthusiastic greetings. To him, I was like the family album; we never remembered we owned it until we ran into it.
He finally took notice of me when I turned thirteen. I had scored the winning goal in the SS1 vs SS3 football final. Later that day, I yelled in excitement at my beaming parents while Deji, back from the university for the holidays, ate lunch.
In my joy, I missed his question and thought I had imagined it. Until he asked again,
“What was the final score?” his face, elevated from his squishy yam porridge.
That was the day he started calling me “Boy Wonder”, after Robin in the Batman comics. It was also the start of a friendship. I grew up looking up to him, even mirroring his taste in women at some point.
That was a time when our bodies were rife with the gift of youth.
Nearly two decades later, I rubbed my hands, fighting a losing battle with cold, as I congratulated Deji on his appointment.
“Boy Wonder, you’ll get used to the cold.”
He took in the framed picture of the Nigerian president that stood in the centre of his new office.
“We’re big men now. We have no choice,” he said.
Then, he chuckled. A chuckle only a man that had achieved his life’s dream could give. He was finally a politician, his natural magnetism and oratory finally proving useful.
“Naturally, you’ll leave that security agency and join my detail. The pay is more, and the risk is less. I mean, who would want to kill a senator?”
He asked, then burst into laughter.
“As long as that Boy Wonder nonsense stops when my colleagues are around. I need to be taken seriously.”
He waved. “Fine, fine.”
“The Robin jokes will remain a private affair.”
We knew it wouldn’t.
The following week, I was introduced to Alhaji, the head of Deji’s security detail. Alhaji was black and stocky.
“Na the same papa and mama born una?”
He asked, his broken incisor flashing for an instant. Everybody in the State Government House knew that the new senator had a brother. But this was the first man to ask me.
Later that day, as I shared cold Heineken with him in a downtown bar; cigarette smoke from other tables drifting into our nostrils, I discovered Alhaji was direct in pidgin and English.
“There’s a group of us that do things. Special acts for politicians.”
He sipped from his glass. With time, I would get used to Alhaji’s controlled way of speaking. No matter the subject, there was no rush.
“Someone needs to feel pressure, we apply it. Someone needs to disappear, we become magicians.”
He looked behind me. He had been eyeing a wide-hipped waiter since we came into the bar.
“We’re hitmen for the elite. Admission is by choice, of course.”
He burped. Then his slit-like eyes studied me.
HOW DO YOU STOP BEING A HITMAN?
I counted those in front of me for the third time – nine. The same number it was thirty minutes ago.
I let out a sigh and told myself to stop counting; the line was not getting shorter. But I knew that I’d be back at it again, stretching my neck to make sure I didn’t miss anyone.
The Bulk Room of First Bank was characteristically small and uncharacteristically hot: the air conditioning was getting fixed.
I held on to the slacking handles of a medium-sized Ghana Must Go bag that burst at its seams. Five million naira would do that to most bags.
The latest hit had been on an ex-governor. Alhaji and I did the honors, making it look like a robbery. For our troubles, we got five million naira each from our contractors. Contractors whose identities only Alhaji knew.
The line was down to seven people when a short, black lady joined; sliding in front of me with the glee of a child in an amusement park. She had been on the line before and had returned to take her place. I let out a groan and she turned to look at me, contentment brimming in her large, beautiful eyes.
“I hope you’re happy,”
“But of course, I’ll soon be attended to.” she quipped, a grin on her face.
We kept talking, and even after the bank tellers attended to her, she stayed.
Her name, Nneka, rolled off my tongue with ease. With her, everything was easy. Talking, crying, loving – all the things I couldn’t do with women. We spoke about everything and anything.
By the second week of talking with her, she already knew what I did for a living. What I really did. She was the first woman I told and her reaction, or lack of one, surprised me.
“Everyone in Nigerian politics is dirty. It’s the only way to survive.” she said.
One month later, I proposed. Five years after our private wedding, a colleague in the secondary school she taught in shared a flyer. FINDING REAL JOY IN CHRIST, the multi-colored fonts on the flyer read. She found the title amusing, and it drove her to go.
“I’m going to find ‘real joy’,” she said, on the day of the program, her eyes glinting with mischief.
I had not gone with her. Maybe if I did, I’d have understood the change that came over her. A change so sudden that the next day, she set the three a.m. alarm to Kelly Clarkson’s Stronger on my phone.
“For our quiet time with God.”
With time, her enthusiasm rubbed off on me, and soon, I was humming Christian tunes as I took my bath. I had also stopped dozing off during our short three a.m. prayers. Our enthusiasm turned to passion as time went on and four months later, I joined the Ushering and Protocol department.
It was not long before I told a disappointed Alhaji, over sweating drinks, just like the day it started:
“COULDN’T BEAR TO WATCH YOU STRUGGLE.”
The silk curtains in the room give a gentle rustle as cool July breeze passes through.
The room would have been deathly silent but for the guttural snores of the man in the bed. Snores I knew would greet me. Snores I tried to snuff out with a pillow three minutes ago. I had not gotten around to it, my trembling hands dropping the pillow at the last minute. Retirement takes its toll on you; takes the edge off.
My right arm is still bleeding and my head is beginning to feel faint. Blood loss? I muse as I tried to get up. The sooner I get to Nneka, the better. I have already wasted enough time.
So up I go, this time with my .45 drawn. In my prime, guns, not pillows, were my weapon of choice.
I adjust the silencer with my aching right hand and move into the light. The occupant sleeps with his lights off, but white light from his verandah bathes a portion of his room. It is this portion I step into.
I feel cold sweat on my temple as I try to focus, Alhaji’s gruff voice ringing in my ears.
“You’re hurt,” the voice from the bed says, startling me, and making me jerk the gun into my pocket. It is obvious from his concern that he did not see my formerly drawn .45.
“Your sports car did that to me,”
“My sports car? Eh, Boy Wonder?” his voice is pregnant with disbelief.
“I want to throw the police off the scent.”
I slip my hand into my pocket where the cold metal of the .45 greets my fingers.
“I want them to think it was a stranger that did it; someone with a grudge, someone in search of something valuable.”
Now, my hand is out of my pocket and points at my prey, a .45 held in place.
If he is surprised, the man in the bed doesn’t show it. He just stares at the silencer gleaming in the corridor light.
“They have Nneka,” I say, my voice close to tears.
“I tried to use a pillow, but I couldn’t. Couldn’t bear to watch you struggle.”
Image: Max Kleinen on Unsplash remixed