Yesterday was my birthday. I had assumed it would just be as uneventful as the 37 others before it. Boy, was I wrong.
It started out just like every other day I can remember. I made it to work just shy of the boss docking my pay, but I still got the evil look from him anyway. It was as if by coming in one minute before 8, I had deprived him of the satisfaction he would have derived from telling me that I might as well go back home since I was not going to get paid for the day – not that I could take him up on the offer – I had bills to pay and no response yet from the several companies I had sent unsolicited job applications to.
No one at work knew it was my birthday – except maybe the boss – but I knew my secret was safe with him – the skinflint wasn’t going to risk having to give me a present or buy the office lunch by announcing it was my birthday.
I can’t really remember exactly what I did before lunch, but I had made up my mind to treat myself to a reasonable lunch. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it, the only thing that would have made it special was to share the lunch with a special someone. The person I had in mind would have joined me for lunch only in her nightmare and my daydream: I guess there was a better chance of being hit by a flying boat on the second floor of my office building.
But time passed and the alarm on my laptop announced it was lunchtime, so I got up and headed for the eatery down the street.
It was relatively quiet for a Friday, but I guessed it was maybe related to the fact that the Muslim brethren were probably still at the mosques. I took a corner seat at a table and hoped no one else would join me. I looked at the menu, called a waitress over and ordered the most expensive dish on it despite the fact that I only knew what was in it after I had asked the waitress: the name of the dish was in French.
I must have been right because shortly afterwards, the place started to fill up. I soon had a companion on my corner table. Two strangers on the table. I wondered why he hadn’t sat at any of the other vacant tables in the place. Now I was wedged against the wall and I was no longer “feeling” it. I couldn’t very well ask him to move, so I resigned myself and went on eating my food. At least he was quiet and didn’t trying to make conversation – that was something to be thankful for.
The food wasn’t bad. The sudden “company” I could have done without. We were soon joined by a third person who sat opposite the first.
They both ordered lunch and while I ate slowly, they waited for their food.
I didn’t pay them much attention until the keening sound started. I looked up to find the first fellow doing what could only be described as playing with his food. He was using his fork to drag the individual bean seeds in his food gradually from the center of the plate all the way to the edge. The sound the fork made on the plate was quite disconcerting. But who was I to complain? If I wanted first class service, I shouldn’t be hanging around in economy. Maybe the guy wasn’t hungry or had a lot on his mind. He was reasonably well dressed: shirt, trousers and a tie.
Anyway, it was more interesting to watch the face of the fellow seated across from him. He had stopped eating. And the swiftly changing expression on his face hinted at a more serious struggle going on within – I think he was trying to control himself and not say anything. Finally, he couldn’t stand it anymore. Dropping his fork on the plate, “What are you doing?” he asked.
The other fellow stopped dragging a bean seed midway to the edge of the plate. Instead, he tapped the bean repeatedly with the prongs of the fork, but he didn’t say anything.
“What are you doing?” The question was repeated.
“Mind your own business.”
Even now I still doubt whether I actually saw what happened next, because it was so fast, I wonder if it isn’t the fact that I was subsequently involved that maybe makes me think I actually saw it happen. “It” was the quickness, with which the fellow with the fork sprang up and stabbed down with the fork on the palm of the other guy, but he didn’t stop there (and the next action I definitely witnessed.)
The fork was out of the palm and in flight once again as the scream filled the room. This time it went into the side of the neck. As the blood spurted out, he sat back down again and resumed moving the bean one by one to the edge of his plate. The red on his plate was now much brighter than the red from the palm oil that the beans floated in originally. The other fellow made a tinny sound and sliding sideways, disappeared under the table.
It was obvious I needed to get out of there immediately, but the fellow had me hemmed in, and I was hesitant to ask him to excuse me unless I was ready for a “fork fight”.
I needn’t have bothered because the decision was taken out of my hand in a couple of minutes. As the place emptied out into the street, a couple of mobile policemen came in.
“Halt. No one goes out. Stay where you are or we shoot.”
Apart from two or three waiters and waitresses, there were only about five customers left in the place: I think twice that number must have made it out before the policemen came in.
One of the policemen men prodded the man on the floor with the muzzle of his rifle: “This one is dead O.”
The other one looked around at all of us in the place: “If you have blood on you, you are coming with us.”
I checked my cloth and was glad to notice no visible blood stains.
Someone asked, “Why officer?”
“Because you have evidence on you.”
“Can’t we just give you the cloth and go”
“Are you joking? You can’t just go away with the evidence now. and if you step out of that door without your clothes, you have doubled your offence. That is indecent exposure and disturbing the peace.”
“But you have been told who is responsible already. And you can see he is not even denying it.”
“How can we be sure you are not co-conspirators? You have to assist us with our investigation.”
“Ok. Stop wasting our time. If you know you are involved or have the victim’s blood on you, move to my left. If you do not have blood on you move to my right. Welcome to your father’s kingdom. If you work here and don’t have blood on you join those on my right. If you are the manager here, join those on my left.”
“Mr. Criminal. Drop the fork and stand up.”
The man next to me finally dropped the fork and getting up, slowly joined the little group on the policeman’s left. Finally, I was able to leave the table. I gingerly stepped over what pool of blood I could see on the floor, and made for the policeman’s right and hopefully to freedom and back to work: I don’t think I have ever been that happy at the thought of going to sit behind my office desk.
“Gentleman. Where are you going?” The policeman directed his question at me.
“Respect yourself O. Is that not blood on your trousers? Join your friends on my left.”
I protested that the blood must have come from my brushing against the table as I got up.
“OK. You are trying to teach me my job now eh? So you were even sitting beside the main criminal? Just three of you? You are either a victim or a criminal. Since you are not stabbed, you are a criminal. Abeg, don’t waste my time, join your friends.”
There were now about seven of us on his left and four people on his right.
“The innocent shall not be punished unjustly. My friends, you are free to go.”
The four he addressed hot footed it out of the place in less than a minute.
“The ambulance is coming. Once it gets here, we will all leave in our vehicle.”
Soon, we were all aboard the police vehicle – a Toyota Hilux with a covered back. The “main” criminal was asked to get in first, followed by the rest of us who were “guilty by location”, lastly the policemen, who sat at the outer edge: I got the impression the policemen were trying to stay as far away from him as possible. As we pulled away, I noticed two paramedics exit the restaurant with the other man on a stretcher: I had assumed there would be a sheet over him, but there was none.
The trip to the station was hot and despite the station being only a couple of streets away, it took the better part on an hour under the relentless midday Sun and the gridlocked motor traffic.
We were matched at a rather quick pace into the station. We were soon “processed” in. One by one, we answered a few questions by the constable behind the desk, turned out our pockets, belt, shoes, declared our possessions and signed a sheet stating so. The DPO emerged from some back office at about this time, took one look at us and commented “So these are the ones eh?” And with that, he receded back to his office.
The captain or whatever his rank was who was in charge continued to harangue us.
“That is my boss. You can see he knew already that you were coming. He is the alpha and omega in this station. And he has ordered us to give you the VIP treatment. If you don’t like how we treat you, you can say so at any time. We will then upgrade you to the very VIP “V.V.I.P.” category. Very few people complain when we put them in that category. But in case we have goats among you, there is even one additional category after that one, it is by invitation only: we invite you there when we see by your action that you are deserving very special treatment.”
“Gentlemen, follow me.”
We passed through one side of the counter to where the holding cells were situated.
One man asked if he could get his one phone call (our phones were collected at the restaurant).
“Ha ha ha. Free phone call. I am sure you have DSTV in your house. Is it Crime and Investigation you watch? You want to teach me my job? I think we should upgrade you pronto.”
“Constable!” Shouting to the officer behind the desk.
“Sir! Yes Sir!” Came the disembodied response.
“Do we still have space in the Very VIP lounge?”
“No Sir. Maybe later this evening. One prisoner has asked to be downgraded. He is waiting for his people to come and fulfill all righteousness.”
“You be lucky man O your highness. Please remind me in the evening to revisit your case.” He said to the man who had requested the phone call.
We were all perspiring, but the “phone call” man was shedding it in buckets. He was visibly shaking.
We soon came to one of the cells which appeared empty. The policeman opened it, and was about to ask us to file in when he peaked inside – there was apparently someone in there.
“You, come out here!” The policeman shouted.
A diminutive looking man came out slowly. One could immediately see why it was easy to miss him – he was a certain shade of “dark” that blended with the darkness in the far corner of the cell where he had been sitting. He was the kind of fellow you wouldn’t want as a foe on a dark moonless night.
“Constable! What is this man still doing here?!” The policeman bellowed.
“We never see his people O! E be like say dey don default O!”
“Oga move to one side! Abi you wan remain there? Wetin your crime again?”
“I steal sir.”
“Wetin you steal?”
“Ordinary goat. How long you don dey here?”
“Three months sir.”
“E be like say the witches in your hometown follow you come Lagos? You wan make we pack you ordinary thief with these murder suspects abi? Na there them come finally finish you be that O!”
“Gerrrout and stand over there.”
“You still dey wait for invitation?” He was addressing us. So we went into the cell.
“Make yourself at home. The constable will invite you one by one for a one to one meeting very soon. So we know how to handle your case.” with that he locked the door behind him and was gone.
The trouble I was in became more obvious. No one would be looking for me. And I couldn’t think of anyone to call even if I had the chance. Maybe my boss – maybe not. I suspect he will courier my sack letter to the policestation under the guise that company policy does not allow for convicts on the payroll.
After about an hour, the constable shouted a name.
No one answered. I guess no one could make out the name he called out properly or we all just missed it because we were preoccupied with our thoughts. He yelled the name again. This time someone answered. Then we heard his shoes beat a pattern to the cell door.
“Who be dat? You wan make I use megaphone call una?”
Which was ridiculous. It wasn’t as if we could leave the cell and stroll down to the frontdesk when he called. He needed to come and let out the person, so why shout the name and demand an answer first before showing up.
The hapless fellow was let out of the cell, while a few of the other inmates started begging and talking in unison – asking to be allowed to at least call someone.
“Order!” He shouted.
“One by one na so we go shave una heads. U don see fish wey dey in a hurry to swim inside peppersoup before?”
About 20minutes later, the constable returned with the fellow. The look on his face wasn’t too encouraging. It appeared none of the people he called could make it down to the station: either they were far away, didn’t want police trouble or had no money. It looked as if he would be spending at least one night there.
I wasn’t in a much better situation myself. In the meantime, I found I was somehow the one seated closest to the gentleman who landed all of us in our present situation. The other 5 guys were obviously clustered together away from the two of us. I was wondering how I came to be in the wrong group when the constable bellowed another name again. This time the response was immediate and the fellow was standing at the cell door by the time the constable showed up. Another disappearing act for about 20minutes. There was a noticeable difference in the fellow’s demeanor when he returned. His uncle was sending someone to come and bail him out in about an hour.
This went on until it was my turn. I followed the constable to the front desk.
He repeated my name for confirmation and I obliged.
“What was your purpose at the crime scene.”
“I went there to eat.”
“To eat?” He sounded incredulous.
“Do you always go there to eat?”
“No. In fact it is my birthday. I was giving myself a treat.”
“Your birthday? You don’t say.”
“You should have told us that since now. We would have given you special treatment.”
Going by the way they used the word when we got to the station, even if I had remembered it was my birthday, I probably wouldn’t have mentioned it then.
“How we go celebrate am now?” he asked me.
He picked up the list describing my personal effects and scanned it quickly with his eyes.
“Oga, there is enough money here to throw a small party o. Make I call my second make he arrange something? I can’t leave this desk but he is outside and I know say he is willing and able.”
If he thought the little amount in my purse was a goldstrike, then I am much more well off than I gave myself credit for. Buying them lunch couldn’t hurt either. I gave him the go ahead. He handed me back my purse, I fished out some notes, and handed him back both the cash and the purse. He took a second to change the amount recorded on my sheet (downwards).
“Oga. It may help to extend your goodwill to the DPO too O.”
I guess the DPO deserved “special” treatment above and beyond his subordinates. Another exchange of purse and money again and we were good.
“Thank you. You will remember today for good. Many happy returns of the day sir.”
The day had taken a decidedly sad turn several hours earlier: did he even understand the meaning of those words – in my present condition?
I mumbled an unenthusiastic “Amen.”
There was a small commotion outside and another policeman rushed in.
He stood to attention.
“Sir! Yes Sir!”
“My Lord. Here I am. Send me!”
One could see he was just fooling around pretending the first policeman was his superior.
“Can you imagine. It is my oga’s birthday today and he has decided to bless us abundantly according to his riches in glory.”
More well wishes from the second policeman after which he was dispatched to go and get the food and some drinks.
“Hmmn. Back to the issue at hand. How we go do am now? You go get someone to come and bail you? If you want, we can follow you to the ATM, then you can come back and we release you on self-recognition. As I see you so, I dey sure you are an upstanding citizen.”
The beginning of an idea. Maybe I won’t spend the night in that cell after all.
I asked him about the bail amount and he gave me what he said was a discounted figure due to my special status. Under other conditions, I would have wondered if I was at the police station or a comedy house.
I knew the amount in my bank account to the nearest Naira give or take a kobo or two. Unfortunately, it was several thousands short of the bail amount.
I told him I was short of money.
“How we go do am now? I don try for you O.”
I racked my brain for several minutes. Thinking where I may have money outside my bank account. Finally I remembered a debt owed me by a former colleague who had been promising to pay for a long time but always defaulted when the time agreed comes round. I had given up all hope and mentally written off the money as a bad loan several months back. But with nowhere else to turn, I thought I would give it a try.
I explained the situation to the constable and asked if I may use my phone.
He handed it over.
I scrolled through my contact list and pressed dial on his number.
“Hello Dele. Long time. How now.” I was surprised I got through to him. He had stopped taking my calls some time ago.
“My Oga. How is it going?”
“So so. I need your help. I am at the police station.”
I was embarrassed to even say so. I had never had any troubles with the police in all my 38 years and now in one fell sweep I have a criminal record and have seen the inside of a police cell.
“Wetin you dey do there? You don change your career?”
“No.” The joke wasn’t lost on me, but I was not in a position to find it funny.
“I am in a small trouble. Can you please bring the money you owe me to the station by the office. I need it to settle my bail.”
Brief silence. Then it sounded as if someone was raking the phone over a rough surface, followed by “Hello. The line is breaking up. Hello I can’t hear you. Let me call you back.”
“Just joking O. In fact I have the money now. Give me about 3 hours. I will be there with you.”
“Thanks Dele. God will bless you.”
“You too bro. I know you don vex long time ago. I didn’t have the money which is why I stopped taking your calls. But maybe it’s God that withheld the money for a day like this eh? See you soon.”
That was a miracle if indeed miracles happen.
I repeated the good news to the constable. He became even friendlier.
“Oga, if not for say the area commander don start to dey make surprise visit, I for ask you to perch here with me for my office O, but how I go explain say criminal dey mann frontdesk if he shows up? When your others dey inside cell? No vex O, but na so e be. But as soon as your friend shows up, you don free be dat O.”
With that, it was back to the cell for me.
I was the last person he took out of the cell. The only other person who hadn’t paid a visit to the frontdesk was the man that had wielded the fork.
And after expecting the constable to call him for about 30 minutes, I assumed they weren’t going to offer him the bail option – after all his victim was dead.
I waited for my friend to show up.
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