Friday, March 05, 2010

Short Story: Assassin


Can you believe that there are cable channels for Africa Magic Yoruba and Africa Magic Hausa? Go Nollywood!
I don't watch Africa Magic myself, but I can tell you it's a big addiction and not only for bored housewives. Maybe the most popular channel in Nigeria right now.
I wrote this Jason-Bourne-inspired piece late last year. Enjoy.


By Tosin Otitoju

It’s 8pm and Frida is just leaving the office. As a precaution, she takes the backdoor exit, where two guards wait, robot-like, to escort her to her car. Notwithstanding the bodyguards, or her discreet bulletproof vest, Frida has reason to fear for her life: even with the President’s backing, one could not be too careful in her position as saboteur of those called untouchable in her country.

In reality, she is not afraid.

Frida’s car is a neat blue jaguar worth a hundred thousand dollars. The annual income of most people in her city? One thousand dollars.

The untouchables are people who have much more money than Frida with her jaguar. They claim to work, but the devil in hell claims to work hard too. The way to know them is perhaps their non-work; but definitely by their plenty money and by the fear people have of speaking of them.

People speak about Frida’s family; they talk about her brother the chief and her father the colonel.

Her brother was the Minister of Commerce for one year. The day he was sacked, he cleaned the coffers of the ministry. That day, he stole one million dollars, or about ten jaguars. He took his daughters, wife, and nanny to Spain within the week and never looked back.

Before Frida’s brother, their father had also been what you would call in government a petty thief. In her father’s day, you built a sunny house or two, planted colourful gardens, lay crushed granite on the floor of the car shed and driveway, and fed a gatehouse-full of armed security detail from the National Forces.

Back then, the price of the elite lifestyle was absolute submission to the will of the President. It was a high price but many strove to pay it. Then that president was killed. Then the next. Then came an interim government that handed over to civilians for the first time in twenty years.

Remember that day? O, see dancing in the streets! The civilians are hopeful; the young and able soldiers swiftly withdraw to their barracks, while the potbellied soldiers like Frida’s father choose to retire.

The retired still have to eat – have you forgotten? The retired still have to pay their children’s fees in schools in Europe and Japan. So the ex-military become specialists in disorder. They become consultants, one may say, in the field of bureaucracy that the nation has been and still is. See, whenever a redtape is cut, money gushes to the pavement like blood such that a retired colonel like Frida’s father can suck enough to last until the next feast comes around.

Soon, Frida’s elegant mother dies, then her father. For the next six years, their boy fills his father’s shoes as the man who “knows who to call.” Then comes exile for him, and a promotion to Assistant Chief of Police Intelligence for the girl, Frida.

It may seem strange that Frida has been allowed to rise so highly in the police, considering that there is nobody of clout in her family. The truth is that not everything depends on connections in this country. Her next promotion doesn’t depend on connections either: the President needs some people disgraced, the Chief of Intelligence, Frida’s boss, is not deemed competent to perform even this simple task, so the chief is transferred to head Staff Development, and Frida is named the new chief of intelligence in that capital city in which it would take a dozen people a few years of income to buy her jaguar.

Normally, the office of intelligence is not expected to do anything other than keep the status quo, keep quiet, make some money, buy something nice or whatever. But now the president needs something done about a pair of officials, from amongst those people called untouchables. The president imagines that Frida, with her fancy European degree, can investigate, where her predecessor probably couldn’t spell the word.

The issue at hand in this investigation is no petty theft. The Minister of Petroleum, who has been feuding with the Minister for Finance, tipped off the intelligence office to some of the Finance Minister’s money-laundering antics. The Central Bank Governor is also involved, since he helped the FinMin launder the money, about one thousand jaguars worth altogether. The President is particularly irritated with the Central Bank chief for being allied with a coterie of businessmen that pretends to support the President but actually hopes to field a candidate in the next presidential elections. Hence, he wants to use the police intelligence office to dissolve the wayward Banker’s power.

Meanwhile, the Petroleum Minister is safe in his job because he is the President’s personal fool. This leaves him free to stash some money for himself, fifteen jaguars worth in the past year. He is not a very smart man and his method of operation is fittingly crude: two conspicuously vanished consignments of crude oil, twenty thousand barrels in all, precede two deposits of about 700 grand each in his personal current account in the bank run by his childhood friend.

When Frida was a child living in a nice military house with a fine garden and small orchard, these new untouchables were known to her as lively youths and family friends. Now she knows them as cold, with blue steel in their veins, not blood. They don’t go around torturing people – no. Torture died away, thank God, along with military rule. The new flavor of evil consists in being utterly useless to society. Useless as a boil on your bum.

Where their parents reigned as mere bureaucrats, the new breed of kleptocrats possesses more charm, refinement, and knowledge of the klepto-arts. Round-off error accumulation, extra-zero insertion, goods diversion, public offer vapourization, currency perambulation – these are some essential klepto-arts. Along with cronyism and bold-faced lying, these skills help the upper class suck the lifeblood of the country and keep the other class subdued.

Within one week, Frida’s office has the documents to show that a large extent of money laundering has taken place. Some of the documents were found by bank clerks and civil servants in the investigation, while some were designed by ‘artists’ in the intelligence office.

The president is pleased to think how devastating for those two crooks when they find the law caught up with them. He is eager to see them out of play for the foreseeable future. In fact, he has replacements ready for their positions, a pair of unemployed associates sure to be full of gratitude at being named to Finance and the Central Bank, and consequently eager to please the President.

Suddenly, the Central Bank chief is found dead, of poison apparently, on the marble floor of the thirteenth floor toilets at the apex bank. The newspapers are overfilled with reports of his unfortunate “cardiac arrest.” The Times, The Crier, The Post, The Nation, The Union, The Punch, The Barrel – all the newspapers are bursting with obituaries. In them, bank chiefs and party chiefs, men on the rise and those waiting in the wings, young and old, seize the opportunity to be seen bidding adieu to such a high-ranking official. They eulogize a ‘man of timber and caliber’ who died too soon, leaving his loving wife and adoring sons.

The President instructs Frida to close the money laundering investigation. The death of his comrade banker has left him shaken; he had been plotting his downfall, but never his death.

However, the Petroleum Minister, still angry with the Finance Minister, tips off a newspaper to the investigation. The FinMin reads the unpalatable rumours accusing him of massive corruption. Guessing their source, he decides to put up a fight once and for all. First, he secures more of his money in foreign banks.

Satisfied about his financial safety, the FinMin releases a tip of his own: the PetMin, although married to the President’s beautiful goddaughter Tara, regularly visits seedy bars abroad for sex.

As you can imagine, this creates headaches in the PetMin’s home. The President even becomes irritated with him. In frustration, the PetMin leaks to the press that the FinMin in his early days killed two former schoolmates while jostling for position in his state. The newspapers, of course, fail to print such a scandalous accusation without evidence. Still, the rumour spreads among the rich and the poor people. They shrug alike, too busy with their lives to do any more about the murders.

Things are not going well for the PetMin. He has stashed enough money to retire and nothing else of importance remains to be done at work. He is bored but can’t travel for fear of the FinMin’s mean machinations against him. His wife starts a fight with him every day at home, since she is still sore about the disgraceful rumours of his philandering.

Then a new rumour starts around town that the two bickering Ministers are lovers. The papers do not fail to print this, and the people do not fail to buy, read, and snicker. Here is comic relief to help them cope with their busy lives.

Frida has been Chief of Police Intelligence for five action-filled weeks now. It’s 6pm and she is already home from work. After a quick snack, she packs her automatic, pulls on her hooded raincoat and goes out for a walk in the evening drizzle.

She treks through golden fields of cereal stump and stalk and soon reaches the smooth, tree-lined asphalt road where the Finance Minister will soon take his daily jog. In two minutes, the FinMin is dead. Frida turns her back on his body and discreetly hurries home.


Alexander said...

hmmmnn.. some of these stories later become prophesies...

t said...

Published. In Jungle Jim Issue #7. Now available online.