‘Talk to me,’ warned Sergeant Onoja gently, ‘If I did not use to friend your mother many years ago, you would have seen yourself in Kirikiri prison by now.’
‘My own mum?’
‘You were not yet born that time,’ he said, lowering his voice confidentially as his corporals returned from a futile search of the rooms, ‘ she was a student at the TTC, and it was two of us together.’ He winked and showed me two romantically crossed fingers.
I shook my head, trying to dislodge thoughts of my mother and the hulking old man on the other side of the desk. I had to focus on the matter at hand – the thing with my mother was probably an interrogation tactic by the wily fox to disorient me; my mother never went to any teacher training college. ‘I swear. It wasn’t me.’
‘Police matter is more than ordinary “I swear to God,”’ he explained, slowly massaging a heartburn with an appropriately long-suffering expression on his face. ‘It is a matter of evidence – my missing chief suspect is your best friend – and his last known address is this hotel.’
‘Rummy’s not even my friend! He’s just a customer!’
Sergeant Onoja raised his tragic eyes to the ceiling. I was not fooled. It was with sympathetic eyes like that that he exposed and executed black-marketers during the Biafran war. He was an eccentric cop who claimed to have spent the war years selling spare parts in Cameroon – but that was a story for children. If he was not the notorious Major Mazi, why did his superiors in the police treat him with the deference due to a retired General? Why was he said to have rejected promotions above Sergeant – as if even the police rank of Inspector General was an insult to a decorated veteran like him?
When Biafra fell, General Ojukwu had fled to Ivory Coast but Major Mazi, one of his notorious young intelligence men was rumoured to have shaved his own beard and disappeared into the forests of Mid West under a false name. Onoja had joined the police force and had been stationed in Waterside since then. Until recently, no one had known the attraction that Waterside held for him, but he was now a fixture here. The war was forty years dead, but we all knew that Major Mazi was alive and well. Crime in Waterside was mostly accidental, and we knew whom to thank for it.
‘In politics there are many political parties,’ he said unnecessarily, ‘but in crime there are only two-’
‘-I know,’ I told him, trying to save time, ‘the ProOnoja, and the AntiOnoja parties.’
He looked at me narrowly. ‘Exactly. And you know the party that always wins. A whole state governor cannot come to Waterside to open a school and then the whole four tyres of his car will be stolen. I’m going to get to the bottom of this.’ Nothing about his physical appearance inspired confidence in that pledge: he was seriously overweight and his uniform wanted ironing. The stubble on his chin was three days old and his one-week old moustache could barely answer to the name.
‘But what’s the big deal about four tyres,’ I said irritably. ‘Let me pay for the tyres from our imprest and let the governor leave us alone. What’s all this?’
Onoja chuckled, ‘Remember that time that the football hit the privates of Warri Wolves’ number 6, and he fell down and held his stomach?’ I nodded, not knowing where he was going with this. ‘The real thing they stole is too embarrassing for the ears of newspapers,’ he added meaningfully. ’But you and I know what it is.’
‘As Rumbanafa’s partner,’ he said icily. His alert eyes frisked me slowly, and when a knowing smile started growing on his face, I held my breath, wondering what he had seen. ‘Answer me one question,’ he said, ‘for the sake of your mother.’
I wanted to tell him to leave my mother and his TTC romance out of it, but I didn‘t like the idea of Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison either, so I just nodded.