01 May Thomas Sinks Deeper Into Dark Lagos Politics
“Hey, Word Man!” Jimmy greeted Thomas as the team convened in the sound-proof room, or ‘SPR’ as he now called it. “It looks like you’re back in the Chief’s good books.”
Thomas laughed. “Thanks,” he replied, “but I’m not getting too comfortable about it. I think Adekunle only tolerates me on a moment-to-moment basis. Politicians are noted for flip-flopping, you know?”
Fanni laughed from across the table. “Keep making Taylor sound that good and you’ll have plenty of nice moments with Adekunle.”
The other men laughed and reached over to high-five Thomas or slap him on the back. This was the first time Thomas actually felt like one of the guys. He had been so nervous about maintaining his cover as a journalist, and learning Kenny’s unusual strategies, that he never really felt like a legitimate player in the game. He had yet to attend a meeting without feeling like an outsider. He always sat in the seat closest to Kenny, as if he were hoping to remain under the big man’s protection. But with the success of the speech he had written, Thomas finally felt as if he had brought a special talent to the group. He had officially become the team’s Word Man.
“Okay, gentlemen, let’s get organised!” Kenny’s voice boomed off the walls as he opened the door.
Thomas sat back in his chair, ready to bask in the glory of his most recent successful assignment. The Boss approached the table and clamped his hand down on Thomas’s shoulder as he passed by, but there was something about his demeanour that suggested he was not completely pleased.
The team members focused their attention on the big man at the head of the table. Thomas waited with great anticipation.
“As you have probably heard,” Kenny began, “Tunji Taylor wowed the crowd just outside of Ajegunle with the TNP’s New Lagos Manifesto which, as we all know, was developed, crafted, and written by our own very talented Thomas Katta.”
The team burst into a round of applause.
“This verbal masterpiece has injected new life into Taylor’s campaign,” Kenny went on, “and the media are now identifying him as the frontrunner to win the governor’s office. Great work, Thomas.”
Thomas was overtaken with a sense of pride. He considered it a privilege to compose the manifesto. He had thrown his heart and soul into the process. As far as he was concerned, this was not a script designed to make Tunji Taylor look good. It was a calling to all Lagosians to demand more from their leaders and to immerse themselves in the political process. He understood why so many people had become jaded, but he felt it was imperative to bring them back into the fold. If the population did not make demands upon the government, it would continue to serve only those who supported it with money and lavish gifts. Those who were not so privileged would continue to be left out in the cold.
Kenny waved his hand in the air, squashing the team’s exhilaration. “I hate to break this to all of you,” he said, “but complications have arisen.”
Thomas looked over at Kenny. The Boss’s tone of voice caused a sense of apprehension to take over the room.
“When you reach the top,” Kenny continued, “there’s only one direction you can go and that’s down. The TNP is facing what may be an extremely damaging crisis, and Chief Adekunle has asked us to run interference before it explodes.”
For Thomas, the sense of apprehension had mutated into all-out dread. He could tell by the tension in Kenny’s jaw that things were about to get ugly.
“So, what’s happening now Boss?” one of the bodyguards was anxious to know.
Kenny drew in a deep breath. “Do any of you read a newspaper called The Eye?” he asked.
There were a few mutters around the room.
“I have,” Fanni said, not bothering to look up from his computer screen.
“I would think so, Mr. Research,” Kenny remarked. “That’s part of your job.”
“What’s The Eye?” Thomas wondered. “When I was looking for work, I trolled through every newspaper I could find in the city of Lagos. I’m not familiar with this one.”
“It’s not the kind of publication you would consult if you’re looking to browse the ‘Help Wanted’ ads,” Fanni explained. “It’s more like a watchdog report. It follows the actions of various governments in Africa and reports things that most human rights advocates would deem to be inappropriate behaviour.”
Thomas was intrigued. “That’s amazing. I’m surprised the powers-that-be haven’t made any moves to shut it down.”
Kenny interjected. “They have,” he informed him. “The Eye is not run by a registered company, and the contributors spend a great deal of their time in hiding. In the interests of safety, I wouldn’t be surprised if the name on every by-line is an alias.”
Thomas let out an uncomfortable laugh. “This sounds like a newspaper we should be publishing,” he remarked.
Kenny waved him off. “If you had said that last week, I might have agreed with you,” he said, “but as of now, The Eye is not on our side.”
The men fidgeted uncomfortably in their seats.
“This doesn’t sound good,” Jimmy said nervously.
Kenny nodded. “No, it’s not,” he conceded, “but we might be able to head off some major damage if we move quickly.”
“What kind of damage?” another man wanted to know.
Kenny started pacing back and forth at the head of the table, a sign that everyone on the team took to mean trouble. They all sat back and waited for the bad news.
“We have received word that a reporter from The Eye is preparing a story on Tunji Taylor,” Kenny announced, “and to put it mildly, it doesn’t sound very flattering.”
Some of the men grumbled. Thomas glanced around, trying to get a full understanding of the situation.
Jimmy narrowed his eyes. “What could The Eye possibly have against Tunji Taylor?” he wondered. “He just gave this incredible speech about seriously addressing poverty in the impoverished areas of the city and supporting local business owners. The Eye usually goes after the politicians who are on the take. Besides, from a personal standpoint, Taylor isn’t exactly the most thrilling or controversial specimen. In fact, his biggest problem throughout the campaign, at least leading up to his deliverance of the manifesto, was that he bored people to tears.”
“I admit this is very ironic,” Kenny responded, “but according to one particular woman, Taylor was not as mild-mannered and boring as we have all assumed.”
The room suddenly became very quiet. Thomas braced himself, waiting for the hammer to fall.
Jimmy didn’t appear nearly as concerned. “So, he has a mistress,” he sneered. “Big deal. Find a politician who doesn’t.”
Kenny reached over and gave Jimmy a hard jab to the shoulder. “Do you really think I’d be calling a meeting to discuss the fact that a politician has a side dish? Do you think The Eye would waste its space publishing something like that? Wake up, smell some coffee Jimmy! You were the team’s reporter before the Word Man joined us.”
Jimmy rubbed his sore shoulder. “What’s so notorious about this particular woman?” he asked.
Kenny resumed his pacing. “This woman claims Tunji Taylor raped her in a hotel room in Abuja five years ago,” he announced.
Thomas felt a shiver run down his spine. “Is there any proof of this?” he wondered.
Kenny shrugged. “I don’t know how there could possibly be any definitive proof,” he answered. “If it actually happened — and I’m not saying that it did or it didn’t — it was five years ago. No complaint was made to the police back then, and unless she’s still got the panties with his stains on them, there probably isn’t any physical evidence.”
“Why would she bring this up now?” Thomas asked.
The other men chuckled, although there was no sense of sincere amusement.
“This may be her claim to fame,” Kenny explained. “It is also her chance for some financial gain. The Eye paid her a fee for the exclusive rights to her story.”
Fanni smiled. “What an amateur,” he scoffed. “She probably could’ve pulled in twenty times more cash if she had gone to a major news outlet instead of this underground paper.”
“When is the story supposed to run?” Thomas asked.
“If all goes well, never,” Kenny blurted. “That, gentlemen, is our next assignment.” Sadoki’s mouth curled into a menacing grin. Some of the other men nodded in agreement. Thomas, however, had lost the sense of euphoria he had so greatly enjoyed when he first arrived for the meeting.
“Is this about to get violent?” he asked nervously.
Kenny finally stopped pacing and took a seat at the head of the table. “Maybe,” he replied, “and maybe not.” He turned to Thomas. “That all depends on how well your meeting goes with the woman in question.”
Thomas just stared back at Kenny with his mouth agape, as if he were frozen in time.
“Don’t be so shocked, Thomas,” Kenny said with a wry grin. “You’re the one with the talent for saying all the right things, remember?”
Jimmy let out a laugh. “Welcome to the big time, Word Man!”
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Thomas lingered outside the apartment building in Maryland with a new set of counterfeit credentials dangling from the chain around his neck. He had a staff identification card for almost every major political party, so he was ready to flash whichever one proved to be the most advantageous in this situation.
He had spent most of the previous night back in the SPR reviewing the data Fanni had collected for him.
“Her name is Susan Edeh,” Fanni informed him. “Sources tell us that she had a job as a file clerk with the law firm Tunji Taylor practised with five years ago. There’s nothing in her background that suggests she had a very good education, so she must have scored the gig for other reasons.”
“Such as?” Thomas wondered.
Fanni shrugged. “She may have been very hard-working, ambitious, and determined to learn on the job,” he suggested. “More likely, the men in the office thought she looked mighty fine strutting back and forth to file cabinets.”
Thomas rolled his eyes. “Are there no people of true integrity anywhere in the city of Lagos?” he groaned.
“Before you get too holier-than-thou, think about what we do for a living.”
Thomas felt as if he had just been sucker-punched in the stomach. He had said the exact same thing to Nancy the other night.
“My informants tell me that The Eye is only paying Susan a minimal sum for her story,” Fanni stated. “That suggests that she’s not working alone.”
That dreaded feeling of ambiguous naivety crushed the last remaining shred of Thomas’s confidence. “Spell that out for me, Fanni,” he requested.
Fanni nodded, understanding Thomas’s uneasy sensation. “People always have reasons for the things they do,” he began, “even if they don’t realise it themselves. This woman is about to go public with an allegation that a leading gubernatorial candidate raped her five years ago. Everyone knows she can’t prove it, yet by coming forward, she’s setting herself up to have her entire life put on display, and not in a very flattering light. Every man she so much as held hands with will come out of the woodwork to eviscerate her reputation if the price is right. The media will plaster her face all over its TV screens and newspaper pages. She will soon find herself pleading for privacy, as they all eventually do, despite the fact that she was the one who stepped into the spotlight of her own volition. She will most likely receive death threats. Her family may be threatened as well.”
“Oh my God,” Thomas exclaimed.
“Yes Thomas,” Fanni said sternly. “In the end, even if by some highly unlikely chance that she actually does have some tangible evidence that she was raped by Tunji Taylor, she will never be able to live down the questions raised regarding her character. Her entire existence in Lagos will be nothing short of a living hell.” He took a breath and slumped back in his chair. “So Thomas, you tell me,” he pressed onward. “Why would Ms. Edeh subject herself to something so wicked?”
Thomas looked back at him. He knew he didn’t have to ask the question to receive the answer.
“You do know that I’m talking about cold hard cash, right?” Fanni finally blurted.
“Of course,” Thomas replied, “but you said The Eye isn’t paying her much. Yesterday you guys said she could’ve gotten much more from a mainstream media source. If that’s true, money is probably not her biggest motivation.”
Fanni shook his head. “Like I said, I don’t think she’s working alone. I’m willing to bet that she isn’t being subsidised by just one source. There must be a high-powered political machine bankrolling her. Think about it, Thomas. The only logical reason this woman would throw herself into this horrible snake pit would be if she was guaranteed to receive enough cash so she could get out of poverty for good. The Eye doesn’t have that kind of scratch lying around. Who do you think does?”
“I suppose there are many possible suspects.”
Fanni waved him off. “Think in the context of the circumstances,” he urged. “Who has the biggest motive for throwing a wrench into Taylor’s campaign, as well as the financial capacity to pull it off?”
Thomas threw his hands up in the air. “The most obvious suspect is Aditti,” he answered.
“Now you’re catching on,” Fanni approved. “This is Aditti’s way of derailing the Taylor train without having to leave the safety of his hiding place.”
Thomas rubbed his eyes. “Why would Aditti use The Eye instead of the mainstream media though? Wouldn’t more exposure for the story make it more damaging to Taylor?”
Fanni rocked back in his chair. “These Eye guys are good, Thomas,” he replied. “They’re not nearly as good as we are, but they’re pretty sharp in their own right. The Eye may not have the mass circulation and extensive exposure of the mainstream media, but it does have something else on its side: credibility.”
Thomas snorted. “If The Eye is paying for sources, how credible can it really be?” he countered. “That doesn’t make it sound any more altruistic than all the other profit-maximising media outlets.”
Fanni winced. “Yeah, I know,” he conceded, “but The Eye really does make truth a greater priority than most other media. Other papers blast a headline that will sell copies. Later, if a story turns out to be inaccurate, they simply print a retraction.”
“In tiny print at the bottom of page ten,” Thomas cracked.
Fanni nodded. “Such, however, is not the case with The Eye. I read it regularly, and I can’t recall the last time they were forced to issue a retraction. Aditti and his advisors, assuming they are the ones behind this sleazy scheme, are perfectly aware of The Eye’s stellar reputation. They know that when a story is printed in The Eye, people are more likely to take it to heart.”
Thomas stood up and paced for a few steps. “I really don’t know, Fanni,” he said. “Why would The Eye involve itself in something like this? I mean, if the story is really bogus, wouldn’t they be able to poke some holes into it? I’m sure they have fact-checkers who are just as thorough as you.”
“I doubt that.”
“Don’t flatter yourself.”
Fanni flashed a brief grin. “The Eye hasn’t published the story yet,” he pointed out. “They’re probably still feeling it out. They may have made a financial offer to Ms. Susan Edeh, but they may not have paid her yet.”
“They have interviewed her, right?” Thomas asked.
“Yes, that much I am able to confirm,” Fanni told him. “They may be holding out on the payment until they finish their fact-checking work. This is your window of opportunity, Thomas. You need to sit down with Susan and find out the true motives behind her accusation. If her claim is bogus, which I’m quite convinced it is, you must expose that to the editors of The Eye. If they refuse to kill the story, let them know that they will face dire consequences if they deliberately publish a false rape allegation.”
Thomas stopped pacing and leaned against the wall. “What do you mean by ‘dire consequences’?” Fanni dismissively waved his hand in the air.
“Such information is dispensed on a need-to-know basis, and right now, you don’t need to know,” he answered. “In fact, I don’t know because I don’t need to know either.”
“I’m not the right guy to send on a threat-making mission,” Thomas muttered.
“You won’t have to worry your pretty little head about making threats, Thomas,” Fanni assured him. “You’ll actually be telling the truth from a legal standpoint. Taylor could sue The Eye for libel and put the little ink blot out of business.”
With the previous evening’s conversation still fresh in his head, Thomas entered the building and carefully sought out apartment number 7D.
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“I’ve already made a deal with The Eye. They have the exclusive rights to my story. They won’t pay me if I speak to anyone else.”
Susan just opened the door wide enough to stick her head out and deliver her statement. She overdid it so the whole of her bust showed, drawing Thomas’ eyes to the curves jutting invitingly from the spaghetti-strapped top. He turned away quickly to hide his bewitched look. He had anticipated Susan’s response, so he had the appropriate alias at the ready and quickly flashed his ID card.
“I understand that, Ms. Edeh” he said. “I’m a data collector for Aditti Lawrence and the Progress Party. I need to speak with you before the story is published.”
“I don’t know no Aditti!” she said in a whisper.
“Sorry Susan, you do. If the story turns out differently….”
“Why?” she demanded to know. “I’ve already talked to Aditti’s boys. You can let them know that I gave my performance with The Eye exactly as we rehearsed it.”
It was time for Thomas to slip into character and give an award-winning performance himself. He flashed his ID at her again. “Yes, I was told that,” he said, trying to sound nonchalant. “The party needs to prepare its response to the story once it appears, so I’d like to review some basic points with you, Susan.” Thomas noticed that the mention of her first name made her drop her guard a little.
“Is there more money in this for me?” she asked, making it perfectly clear what Thomas’s answer needed to be.
“I will advise the party that you must be compensated for your extra time,” he stated firmly.
Without hesitation, Susan threw the door open and motioned for Thomas to enter the apartment. Her wide hips, held tightly in a pair of black stretch trousers, made Thomas swallow hard.
Hell! Fanni should have told me she is a bomb, Thomas thought. In order not to have this thoughts derailed by the ravishing beauty before him, he looked around the apartment as they settled down to talk. It was a two-bedroom apartment with a rather small living room, which could take only two undersized sofas. Without electricity, presumably because of another power outage or maybe because she had not paid the bill, the room was lit by mid-morning sunrays from the only window. Near the window sat a 21-inch colour television and an old Sony music set.
“What can I offer you, sir” Susan asked, straddling the coffee table between the two sofas.
Thomas looked up and shot flitting glances up and down the tall curvy body before him. Her trousers were so tight that they accentuated her flat stomach and captured the shape of her pubic area — a sight that was now filling virtually all of Thomas’s vision. Hot waves of desire swept into his belly, but he was smart enough to fight the urge.
“I’m fine, thank you,” he said. “I think we should talk, and if I have my way, I would like to see you again.”
“That would be fine…,” she looked at his ID for his name.
“Bello,” Thomas supplied the fake name on the ID, and drank her eyes in as she sat down.
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“I don’t care what happens to that dolt Taylor. To be honest, I couldn’t care less what happens to that pompous jerk Aditti either. All I care about is collecting enough cash to get out of this God-forsaken city. I’ve got a friend in Paris. She’s not really supposed to be there. She travelled there to study at the Sorbonne on a student visa, but she didn’t leave when it expired. I’ve already applied for my visa, and as soon as it comes through and I can afford the plane ticket, I’m out of here and I am never coming back. If Aditti wants to pay my way out of Lagos, that’s perfectly fine with me. I’m warning you, though. If Taylor wants to hand me a bigger pile of cash, I’ll be happy to take back every damn word I said to The Eye.”
Thomas clicked the stop button on his audio recorder, stopping Susan’s voice from resonating out of its speaker.
“The woman is a complete fraud, sir,” he stated. “Her story is nothing but a collection of unabashed and totally fabricated lies.”
The tiny headquarters of The Eye periodical looked more like an artist’s loft made over into offices. The furniture did not match, and papers, photographs, and computer disks were littered throughout the area in a state of chaotic organisation. People tapped on the keys of laptop computers. Extra computers sat on the floor, charging their batteries, thus assuring that in the event of a routine Lagos blackout, reporters always had a fully charged unit on which to work.
Thomas sat facing Inyang Riverson, the reporter who was in the process of breaking the Taylor story. The journalist listened intently to the voice recorded on the Dictaphone and then rubbed his eyes.
“You can’t run this story, Mr. Riverson,” Thomas warned. “To do so would not only serve to destroy an innocent man’s reputation, but it would be a miscarriage of justice and even an act of betrayal.”
“How so?” Riverson asked blankly.
Thomas’s mouth dropped open in surprise. He had thought he was dealing with an altruistic reporter, but apparently this diminutive and very hairy journalist was no different from any other media whore.
“Are you kidding me?” he gasped. “If you ran a story knowing that every word of it was fabricated, you would be deliberately feeding lies to the people of Lagos: the very people your publication exists to protect!”
Riverson listened to Thomas’s response with interest, but he was not about to be swayed by it. “The mere fact that Ms. Edeh is making these allegations is news, Mr. Bello,” he replied, “whether or not she possesses a shred of credibility.”
Thomas could not believe what he was hearing. “Just because someone says something about someone else doesn’t mean it merits reporting,” he countered. “If I said that the Editor-in-Chief of The Eye was a child molester, would you report it?”
Riverson wasn’t sure how to respond to that question, so he blew it off completely. “The Tunji Taylor story has been accepted for publication in the next issue,” he maintained.
“Will you at least mention the fact that Ms. Edeh has admitted to lying about the alleged rape for monetary gain and that people connected to the Progress Party have been named as bankrollers of the deception?” Thomas pressed.
Inyang Riverson scratched his chin. “If Mr. Taylor wishes to issue an official response to the allegations, we will be glad to publish it,” he answered.
“How charitable of you,” Thomas remarked sarcastically.
“That’s the best offer I can make,” Riverson said in a business-like tone. “Otherwise, we have no reputable evidence to question the validity of Ms. Edeh’s claim.”
Thomas shook his head in disbelief. “Didn’t you hear what I just played for you?” he exclaimed, waving his recorder in the air.
“How did you acquire that recording?” Riverson asked.
“I recorded it this morning at Ms. Edeh’s apartment.”
“Did she know her words were being recorded?”
“Who did you represent yourself to be when you met with her?”
Thomas fell silent.
“Did you tell Ms. Edeh, as you said, that you were currently working for a PR agency”
Thomas shook his head.
“You must have told her something,” Riverson pressed. “She wouldn’t have let a strange man enter her apartment for no reason at all. My guess is that she was made to believe that you worked for Aditti Lawrence.”
Thomas felt uncomfortable and cornered.
Riverson sat back in his chair, an expression of victory showing on his face. “It seems to me, Mr. Bello, or whoever you are, that you are not a particularly honest man yourself.”
á á á á á
Thomas was exhausted when the team convened for its next meeting. His outing had not been particularly good. After he had left Inyang Riverson sitting smugly in his office and slipped dejectedly into his car, a horde of street urchins, called Area Boys, poured into Laka Street, blocking his right of way.
“You can’t go, you can’t go,” they chanted rudely, banging viciously on the bonnet of the blue Honda.
Afraid that they might be working for Aditti, Thomas sat quietly and took deep breaths to calm his nerves as he thought about what to do. His pulse roared in his ears, and he felt the sensation of a spider crawling up his spine. On impulse, he revved the car and threatened to drive through the boys. Three of the scruffy-looking boys tossed themselves across his right of way, and the rest pulled out their weapons, an assortment of long kitchen knives and screwdrivers.
“Oga, give us something now.” A rather fragile looking boy of about fifteen yelled at the driver’s window, flagging some naira notes in his hand and brandishing a hammer. “Fine suit, fine car, let’s have our share now.”
“Okay,” Thomas said to himself and scooped all the money he had kept in the dashboard for shopping at Goodie’s Supermarket. He saw the boy’s eyes light up with excitement.
Promptly, he flung the money out of the window, drawing the attention of the rest of the boys. As they scrambled around for the few notes that had scattered amongst the litter, Thomas threw the car into gear and sped away.
Back in Apapa, he went straight to bed after briefing Kenny at 7 pm, and slept like a log.
He was still exhausted, when he was roused out of a very deep sleep by the high-pitched ring tone emanating from his newly acquired mobile phone for a 3 am meeting. The call informed him that he was to join the other team members immediately in the SPR. He was just barely awake enough to throw on some clothes, delete Kenny’s phone number from his call log, and stagger to the designated meeting place.
Most of the other men appeared to be tired as well, but their weariness was wearing off as the adrenaline rush began to kick in. There was a sense in the air that something big had occurred, and Kenny could not wait until dawn to let them in on it.
When Kenny finally arrived, the men sat forward in their seats, anticipating the news.
“Okay, gentlemen,” the Boss began, “I just want to make some quick announcements and then you can all go back to bed.”
Grunts of agreement circulated round the table.
“First off, our man Thomas spent the morning talking to the woman at the centre of the Taylor rape allegations,” he began. “As we all suspected, she was a liar for hire brought in by the Progress Party.”
Mutterings were heard throughout the room.
“Thomas also spoke to Mr. Riverson at The Eye,” Kenny informed them. “Who apparently couldn’t care less who was lying about what.”
“That’s disappointing,” Fanni grumbled. “I always assumed that The Eye possessed higher standards.”
Kenny held up his hand. “Not to worry, Fanni,” he assured him. “I think their standards are about to be revisited.”
Everyone leaned forward for clarification. Kenny flashed them a tired smile.
“Here’s some good news,” he went on. “If you have business on Laka Street tomorrow, you’ll be happy to know that you’ll get the day off.”
One of the bodybuilders laughed. “Why would any of us have business on Laka Street?” he asked. “The only thing on that street is a row of houses.”
Kenny nodded. “I know,” he said, “but one of those houses went up in flames about two hours ago, so the block will probably be closed off tomorrow.”
“Thanks for the traffic report, Boss,” Fanni remarked. “But what does that have to do with us?”
“Would I bother to mention it if it didn’t?” Kenny asked back. “The Eye will most likely be reporting on the fire, and if Mr. Riverson didn’t make it out of the window in time, the paper will also be listing their own reporter’s name in its obituary section. Trust Sadoki to make that flawless attack.”
Thomas looked over at Sadoki, whose face registered nothing.
“As for Ms. Edeh,” Kenny continued, “she won’t be sharing her story with anyone.”
Thomas winced. “Why not?” he asked, although he wasn’t sure if he really wanted to know.
“I picked her up from the club where she works and took her for a night out,” Kenny answered. “The bitch wouldn’t shut up, so I shot her in the mouth and dumped the body.”
Thomas swallowed again.