Esther Tabki arrived early in the evening, nine minutes after 8 o’clock, and was surprised to find the metal gate to the house locked. To check the address written on the back of a business card, she searched her handbag for the new phone. Late in November, the air was cool but dry, the darkness nearly total. There was no electricity in any of the scattered buildings and she wondered if this was because the neighbourhood was so far from the city centre or whether it was a case of the rationing she had heard so much about. Having acquired the handset only two days ago, it took a few awkward attempts at turning it on—a brief, momentary flash too fleeting to activate the sound—before she realized that the battery was dead.
Two motorbikes, speeding head-to-head, zoomed past, and close on their heel was another vehicle, a van, just as fast, whose searing headlights Esther welcomed as the much-needed illumination for checking the address. Yes, she had come to the right house. Now she recalled that the youngster who dropped her off on a motorbike, called Express in these parts, had smiled approvingly when she’d requested a ride to “the house of Mr. Kilanko, the teacher.”
“Old Teacher,” the boy had said, nodding and waving her on.
Now, as she put the phone back in her bag, more motorbikes hurtled down the road in the same direction.
She turned back to the gate and gave it a gentle knock, followed by several louder ones. From the look of the compound, with the house itself sat several meters back it was possible that anyone inside would not know of a presence at the gate if it was not signalled by a ruckus. The gate had an inner padlock, in order to open it from the outside one would have to lift a panel off an aperture, and then insert a key into the padlock through the opening. It was an elaborate and noisy affair designed to ward off an intrusion; only someone familiar with the building or a burglar out to overwhelm could confidently mess with the design for any length of time. Esther knew the teacher well enough to assume familiarity, so she banged the padlock hard against the gate, making the noise much louder than before.
Then she waited, listening for movements inside.
When they spoke over the phone earlier that day, Kilanko gave no indication that he might not be around. In any case, he was such a man of set habits that only an emergency would interfere with his daily schedule.
Hearing the sound of throat clearing across the road gave Esther a start. She turned, seeing nothing clearly, but feeling the nearness of the sound as footsteps.
A friendly voice said, “Are they not at home?”
Debating how to respond, tensing for an attack, Esther waited to put a face to the voice. It was the man who had brought her on a motorbike. She relaxed, recalling his friendly demeanour during the ride from the terminus, the ease with which he struck up a conversation, the genuine show of gratitude to her unexpectedly big tip. Now he brought something else—a whiff of marijuana, and certainly another less determinate smell.
“Oh—yes. It’s you,” she responded uneasily, in English. “I don’t think there’s anyone inside.”
“Hunh. Where must they be?” The question puzzled Esther for a moment, even as she tried to figure out why the man had chosen to lurk around after dropping her off, and what else he smelled of. Was he implying that Kilanko lived with someone, or using the collective pronoun as a sign of respect, challenged by her more impersonal language?
“Do you know him—or, I mean, does he know you?” She reverted to Yoruba.
“Ha, everybody knows Old Teacher!” he said at once, with something close to laughter. “I think I know where he could be.”
“Oh, really?” Esther did not miss the switch to the singular pronoun.
“Yes, I think so. There is a big incident going on at the king’s palace. Thieves arrested with too much money. Bags of cash. Let’s go.”
He hauled Esther’s bag onto the gas tank, between his chest and the handle-bars, waiting for her to hop on board.
“No wonder,” she said, settling on the backseat. “I noticed all these motorcycles speeding past.”
Knowing that the biker would soon launch into a narrative, she quickly added: “You must live around here, then. You weren’t far away after you dropped me.”
He paused for a few moments. “Oh, I went to answer the call of nature.”
That was the other smell, too strong to be subdued by the Indian hemp.
The palace of the king’s palace was not far away. It stood, alongside the town hall and the market, in the centre of the small town, the most dominant of the three, with Roman columns for its façade, and bright lights out of the general darkness around. Esther had not noticed it on the way from the terminus, but now it was hard to miss.
A small but rowdy crowd gathered in front of the building. Not more than thirteen people, all of them young males, all intent on invading the palace. Some carried sticks, some distended rods or wrought irons, and Esther noticed a small placard, its scripted side turned in, serving as a walking stick for the man carrying it. The biker parked on the side of the road, a short distance from the crowd, and leaving Esther behind, ran toward the furore.
She was tired. When she’d spoken to Kilanko at the Yaba motor-park in Lagos to let him know that she was on the way, his sense had been that the trip would take no longer than four hours, allowing for delays. The idea of the visit had been his, to begin with. Since her release from jail, he had plied her with suggestions about how to integrate into society on her own terms, and they had finally agreed to the compromise of a visit to the haven of the least heedless among her jailers. She had not experienced much delay during the journey, yet Esther had been on the road for more than six hours now, and was still on it, as far as she could see.
She kept her gaze on the biker as he went from one person to another in the crowd. She saw him chatting with a man his age, in such a relaxed manner she suspected that they knew each other. Both men walked out of the crush and moved closer to the road.
The new fellow, with a face covered in lineage-marks, peered at Esther, shaking his head and speaking in an energetic way. “He is not here! They took him out through the back door!”
Esther turned to the biker. “What? Who?”
With a short laugh, he responded. “He’s my relative. And he’s saying that the king has been smuggled out.” Then in a confidential tone, he added. “You see, aunty, this is what is happening. The thieves were caught during the midnight, last night. There were many bags in their truck, Ghana Must Go bags, full of money. Naira. Dollar. Euro. Sterling. All kinds of money. They had stolen so much…”
“I was one of those who arrested the robbers,” the other man said, unbidden. “I am a member of the union which protects the town at night.” Under the light that burnt brashly nearby, his face was sweaty and animated, as though he wanted to get his hands on the unlucky robbers there and then.
“When we challenged them,” he continued, “because of the suspicious way they were moving, they confessed that the quantity of money found inside the house dumbfounded them. They said that they reasoned it would be unwise for them to go with such quantity, which they considered too little when compared with what was stockpiled in the house. They were too greedy, and nemesis caught up with them.”
Esther stared at her companion. “So…?”
“So, they were brought to the king’s palace for questioning, with all the money. The night watchmen wanted to be appreciated for their dedication, but the king was not responding. Nearly fifteen hours after the incident, he was still consulting. I think you understand? So, the union members, members of the watchmen union, led by their president, came here with a demand for their own share of the money. Because they wanted to force their way in, the king was smuggled out. Abi?” he said, pausing and turning to his friend for confirmation.
“And the teacher with him?” wondered Esther.
“I think so,” replied the man with the lineage-marks. “He’s like a special adviser to the king.”
The statement struck a chord in Esther. In conversations with Kilanko prior to her accepting his invitation, he had made it known that the king was the security operative, one of those responsible for her three-year ordeal in political detention.
“Where are they now?”
“They won’t tell us,” said the man with the lineage-marks, who appeared eager to re-join his comrades. “But when the inhabitants of the palace feel the heat, they will confess. In short, we want to burn down the palace!” “But the thieves are inside the palace?”
“They are robbers!” came his emphatic response. “We’re not sure, but we think they have been released.”
Her gaze steady on her interlocutor, Esther asked: “Why haven’t you called the police?”
“Haaah!” the two men blurted out at once, as if on cue.
“That’s the beginning of the problem, aunty,” said the biker. “The house of cash belongs to the brother of the man now in prison, you know, the IG. The police are the beginning and end of the problem.”
At that instant, all the pieces fell in for Esther, with the synchronic perfection of flashing lights at the successful end of a computerized puzzle game. The former Inspector-General of Police was jailed two months ago for corruption, in what one newspaper, too perplexed for grammatical felicity, termed “the unprecedentedly most monumental and largest theft of public money ever” by a law enforcement officer. He received a sentence of six years, was compelled to refund the sum of thirty-six million naira, in addition to forfeiting six houses in Lagos and Abuja, eight SUVs (three armoured), and shares in five companies, all known to have been acquired with stolen money. What made it all so amusing, bringing to Esther’s face a smile the two young men could not have seen even if they looked, was that this same man, the country’s top-cop, paid her a visit in her cell for “interrogation,” but in fact only to taunt her. In nearly an hour of verbal attacks, he’d called her names, laughed at her, wondered what made her, a “common woman,” think she should, could, would cause a revolution, when she was better off as a wife or mistress or homemaker. He was finally interrupted by a phone-call, and ending the brief exchange with the caller, announced that he was “going to bang someone more sensible!”
Apparently, thought Esther, he stole much more than the law knew about.
The unionist had obviously had enough, but just as he started moving away, another person, a much older man, walked over from the other side of the street.
“Excuse me,” he said, facing Esther. “You’re wanted over there,” he added, pointing.
Up across the street at a spot dimly lit by the light from the palace door, the outline of a white car was visible.
Her bag borne shoulder-high by the biker, Esther followed the stranger, intuitively deciding that Kilanko had come to fetch her. She was right. Seated in front of the white Volvo was her friend, easily identifiable by his signature impish grin, illuminated by the car’s inner light.
“Come in,” he said, pumping her hand in an avuncular handshake. “Make yourself comfortable in the back.”
The man she followed was the driver of the car, and he walked to the back to put Esther’s luggage in the trunk.
Standing by the car door, she fumbled in her wallet.
“This my friend has been very helpful,” she said, indicating the biker. “But for his assistance, I would not have been able to find you.”
She handed him a sheaf of naira bills, and Kilanko added a few more, peering at the man’s face for signs of recognition.
Kilanko started speaking as soon as the car got in motion.
“Sorry for the confusion, but you came at the right time. I couldn’t say much when you called me from Lagos, because even then, I was not at home and was not sure how long I would be away. You are in one of the most interesting places on the planet earth today. Agriki may be an obscure, large village far, far north of Lagos, and things may change by daybreak, but tonight, very few places in the world are as unique as this town.”
Usually a man of few words, Kilanko sounded excited, uncharacteristically voluble. Then he paused dramatically, long enough for Esther to put in a word.
“Yes, I sensed that something was wrong.”
“Oh, no. Not one thing. Many things. But as they say, seeing is believing. You will soon see for yourself.”
“The king…your friend?”
“You heard about that? Yes, we’re going to him now, and more.”
Before long, the car pulled up in front of small house. Its frontage was lit by a storm-lantern.
Stepping out, holding a flashlight, Kilanko stood away from the car, waiting for Esther to alight. Motioning to the driver to stay back, he started toward the building, while she followed uncertainly.
“Come on, come on,” he said, beckoning and laughing.
After a gentle knock, the door opened, and the flashlight from Kilanko brightened the room.
The sight that confronted Esther also stopped her short.
The house beyond the door seemed made of cash. Here, a bag appeared gutted, its contents spilling out. There, another hung precariously, ready to topple over from sheer weight. Bales and bales of cash, banded together as if fresh from the mint, lay haphazardly all over, like stacks of disused index cards. She thought she knew the smell of dirty currencies, but a different smell now welcomed her. Through a foot-and-half opening between the outer wall and the vandalized stacks of cash out of which two-hundred-naira bills had spilled out, Kilanko made his way inside, and she followed, hugging the wall.
They emerged in a room, also piled full with bags, but with a sofa and two smaller chairs. On the sofa, directly opposite the entrance, sat a man with a vaguely familiar appearance, flanked on the left by another man. On the floor, at his feet, two young girls knelt, next to a prostrate, equally young boy. A sixth person stood back, in the posture of an assistant to the seated man. Kilanko walked right to the empty seat on the right, and pointed Esther to a chair.
Esther had been staring at the man sitting on the sofa since she came into the room, and she now realized who he was. At that moment of recognition, she resolved to say nothing again that night, even if prodded by Kilanko.
Three years ago, when she was arrested for “preaching revolution” inside Lagos public transport, operatives of the secret police had taken her to an unknown destination. After two days, they brought her before their boss for questioning. He was a highly secretive person, not surprising, given his job, and every muscle in his body seemed suited to spying. He spoke quietly, firmly. His style was desultory, she recalled; without a change in tone, he switched from eyeballing to evading her. Compared to the top policeman who was all bravado and aggression, this man was suave and inscrutable. Before he ordered her transfer to the police, he let it be known that “someone” might like to see her. That turned out to be Kilanko who, though allowed to meet her with four operatives in attendance, was not influential enough to get her out of custody. While still in police detention, she learnt of the spymaster’s retirement, upon which, the story went, he became a chief, the paramount ruler of a small town.
This was it, Esther thought.
Having resolved to say nothing, and now confronted with a scene of terrified, besieged people awaiting unclear signals, Esther would make sense of it all in retrospect during the ride back to Kilanko’s house close to midnight, after the chief’s former subordinates in the secret police had finally arrived to spirit him out of town, and during a more relaxed encounter with the fiery unionist, actually a member of the town’s militia group, who stopped by Kilanko’s house two days later to thank him for standing surety for the president of their union.
The robbers, all five of them, broke into the building located on the outskirts of the town, the opposite end of the road to Lagos, in the mid-morning on a Tuesday, late in November. Merciless, they beat up the househelp, a boy, gave the two girls found in the house sedative injections to shut them up. They tied up two little children on the premises and stuffed their mouths with cash. The kids belonged to a mobile police officer living in the compound, who was away with his wife at the time of the invasion. The robbers came in a truck, into which they began packing the Ghana Must Go bags full of naira and foreign currencies, as if they were deliverymen carrying out a duty.
They left undetected.
“While we were beating the ones we caught,” the fiery unionist told Esther later, “one implored us to spare his life and that the remaining money in the house was enough to turn all the inhabitants of the town into millionaires. He told us that their other accomplices were already on their way out of town when they, choosing to return for more of the loot, were caught. He said, “Please, don’t kill me. My colleagues were already on their way to Ibadan. If you see the remaining money in the house, all of you will faint.”
The robbers were taken to the king’s palace, along with their loot, which the fiery unionist described as “too heavy for two men to carry.” Several members of the union, actually a local chapter of a regional militia, which arose in response to widespread political persecution of recent memory, were sent to track down the rest.
The chief, the poised, discerning man with a spying career behind him, became ensnared in the plot when he telephoned the owner of the house, the younger brother of the jailed police officer, to inform him of the incident. They were not best buddies but, Kilanko explained to Esther, the chief’s pensions had had to be supplemented with handouts from his more prosperous kinsman.
The absentee-landlord had his own ideas.
“He pleaded that the issue be secretly resolved,” the outspoken militiaman told Esther. “He instructed that the robbers be “settled.” Give them some of the loot. Release them. Let them go. He pleaded that the matter should not be allowed to get to the hearing of the authorities,” Esther learnt.
The chief agreed to this deal, but the president of the people’s militia who had made the arrests, Esther was told, “was not carried along.”
“The amount was colossal, aunty,” the fiery unionist-militiaman told Esther. “Too much money was involved and news had filtered throughout the town. When we came back, we came back empty-handed. And we discovered that the robbers had been released. We therefore demanded that we be given part of the money. Or we will expose everybody involved.”
Even at this point, very few people knew of what lay behind the closed doors of the house at the edge of town.
Later that day, one of the sedated househelps became conscious enough to stagger into the streets. Crying for help, she led people back to the house, and only the militiamen were brave enough to go with her.
“They thought all the three of them, and the children, were crazy,” the militiaman told Esther. “Until they sighted the mountains of bags containing money. They telephoned our president, but before he got there, operatives acting on the chief’s orders arrested and detained him. By this time we who were in the search party had come back. Not only that the robbers had been released and even given money. We also discovered that the Ghana Must Go bags left with the king were nowhere to be found. So, we reasoned, if robbers could be released and even given money, then, we, as law-abiding sons of this town deserve a share out of our kinsman’s money.”
This was what brought the crowd to the king’s palace, Kilanko informed Esther during the ride home. Some were there to secure the release of the leader of the militiamen, but the majority only wanted a share of the recovered money.
The king had to be rescued, said Kilanko, although his preference was to confront the crowd by himself. He had become a king only two years before, and he believed he was popular. He agreed to leave through the back door on the condition that he be brought to the house of cash, to see things for himself.
In truth, he wanted a chance to humiliate the househelps.
“I’m puzzled though,” Esther finally interjected. “I agree, he was serving an oppressive system and had to demonstrate ruthlessness. But during our encounter, he also came across as someone without malice. Just doing his job.”
“You’re probably right,” Kilanko said. “All the same, it’s possible that you’re judging him against the other guy, the police boss.”
“Okay, go on.” she said.
Above the noise of the car, Kilanko said: “Anyway. Here was the scenario: one of the househelps, a girl, knew what was in the house. She was friendly with the president of the militiamen, and the king fancied her as a fifth wife or something. She might also have tipped off the robbers—that’s still not certain. The third househelp, the boy, getting a wind of the invasion, tried to call the police. That explained the robbers’ first business upon entering the building, to whip the living daylight of him. Those were the three abject souls we saw on the floor when we entered.”
“So, this was mostly a matter of assumptions?”
“Yes, but with a basis in reality,” Kilanko responded. “There is a theory, which I favor, that the king knew about the movement of the money as the net closed in on his kinsman, and didn’t want to be left out. At the same time, he wanted to steer clear of anything that smelled of “receiving stolen property.” He would have preferred that a different person, not the brother of the police boss, take custody of the money. The two girls, the househelps, played a role in all of this, and the king was not happy. In all probability, if this became another major trial, those minions would be called in as witnesses.”
Esther was silent for a while, as the car pulled up before the gate of Kilanko’s house.
“Do you see that happening?” “What? The trial or the girls become state witnesses?”
It was Kilanko’s turn to be quiet, and for much longer. They sat inside the car while the driver stepped out to open the gate. Finally, he said: “Several years ago, the wife of a former president of France visited a black American activist serving life in prison. After the visit, she addressed the press and said, “the struggle against the death penalty is the struggle of those who cannot afford a lawyer.” I kept thinking about that statement all the time we were in that building, waiting for my friend’s rescuers to arrive.”
“Oh, I see.”
“And you know what makes all of this sound like an elaborate joke?” The car rolled slowly into the compound, and they got out. Esther was no stranger to Kilanko’s studied pause. They were notoriously long, and he didn’t say a word until they entered the house. “The names of the three househelps: the girls are named Kudi and Ego, and the boy, Owoh. That’s your country writ micro, in the script of money.”
Esther’s laughter shattered the quiet of the house, the jarring sound of metal coins on concrete beneath a roof without ceiling.