To everyone’s surprise, when she reached him, she put her arms around him, as if giving him a tight hug. The man was more surprised that we were but that was for a few seconds. Suddenly, however, she began to pull at something in his clothing. When he seemed to realise what she was about, he began to try to pull himself out of her embrace.
Have I told you that once Aunt Deline gets hold of something, she is worse than a hungry tiger holding on to its prey to make sure its lunch does not escape? No? Well, you must know now that Aunt Deline would as soon wrestle with a lion over his prey if she felt he had no right to it as she would punch a man in the nose for insulting her.
When she gets like that, I usually look for the nearest exit because her punches have had previous habits of falling irreverently on anyone who gets between her and her target. I have been an unwary recipient before. Before our very eyes today, however, her embrace transmuted to a struggle to hold on; but the more she struggled, the more the cleaner tried to pull out.
Nearing exhaustion, Aunt Deline cried out, ‘Don’t just sit there all of you, help me hold this man down. He has the papers!’
Hearing that, the two men rushed upon them just as the secretary came in and within minutes the man was on the carpet. While the men had the man pinned down, Aunt Deline was stripping him of his French suit. She started with the trousers. I tried to look away because I thought she was going to be taking off his briefs next. When I looked again though, she had removed his short-sleeved jacket and was feeling all over it. There, from right inside the front lining, she pulled out a long brown envelope. Everyone gasped as they left off holding the struggling man.
The permanent secretary held out his hands for the envelope. Trembling all over, he brought out the contents and checked them one after the other. The look he gave us was both exultant and triumphant.
‘Everything is intact,’ he said in wonderment. Then he sat down heavily on his chair again and looked at Aunt Deline with reverence. ‘Madam, you have saved me and my career today!’
By now, the cleaner, who had been full of valiant struggles a minute before, was sitting hunched up on the carpet, face down and refusing to look at anyone. The secretary, who had come in while the struggle was on, took a seat near him and draped his shoulders with his jacket.
When all was calm again, the permanent secretary had a look of awe on his face but he spoke quietly.
‘How did you know?’
Aunt Deline answered. ‘I didn’t. I was sure that the papers were in the office, but I at first thought that the secretary had them. However, when I spoke with her, I did not see a woman hardened by crime but I saw a face in pain. When I surprised her in the office the first time I was here, I thought she was either deeply unfriendly or deeply troubled. Even now, I am not sure what the source of her pain is as it cannot be just the papers.’
The secretary sighed. ‘Ma, it is the papers. I was also worried about them.’
‘Then you should be happy like the rest of us’, shouted the permanent secretary.
‘Yes sir’, the woman replied wearily, ‘but I am not happy about the place where we found them.’ Then she burst into tears.
We all sat in perplexity.
Pulling herself together and wiping her eyes, she explained.
‘Fifteen years ago, my sister who lives in Zunguru asked me to take her young boy to live with me since I was in the city and could give him a better chance in life. I took the boy and tried my best for him. I sent him to the same school as my children. I fed him the same meals as I did my children. In fact they did everything together, including studying. For some reason, however, my children came out of school with good grades, went on to university, graduated and took good jobs and are now living fine, independent lives.
‘Somehow though, my nephew just could not do well in the same academics despite being exposed to the same conditions. I did all I could to help him, including taking private teachers for him, but nothing helped.
‘Unfortunately, my sister blamed me. She said I used juju to take her son’s star and distribute it among my children; that’s why they are now doing fine now and her son is languishing.
‘After trying everything I could, I finally got him a job in another ministry hoping he would build a career and rise on the job. But he got involved with a bad group and started misbehaving, stealing and all that, and he got sacked. I decided to bring him here right under me so I could keep an eye on him. So, I came to you sir and you gave him a job, and now a fine job I seem to have done. What am I going to do? If he goes to prison, what am I going to tell the mother?’ She started to cry again.
Aunt Deline was grieved. She hated to see a woman cry.
‘Don’t worry, the permanent secretary will be magnanimous. He will not press charges.’
The permanent secretary sighed and agreed that he would not, but the young man should just tell us how he got hold of the papers because he thought he guarded it jealously enough.
After a lot of coaxing, the cleaner opened his mouth and explained.
‘I had been present when the paper was brought to the office by the boy sent to deliver it. The secretary my aunt had not seen the contents of the envelope before she went to the restroom. While she was away, I quickly looked in the envelope and decided that the papers were very important so I just bid my time.
‘Whenever I cleaned the office, I noticed that Oga would make sure his briefcase was near his feet just behind his desk. So, I just watched for the times he went to the toilet and how long he spent there. One day, I saw him go to the toilet because the door was slightly open and my aunt was not around, and since I knew the shape, size and colour of the envelope, it was not difficult for me to get it within half a minute. Before he came out, I had done what I wanted to do and was already back on my seat pretending to sleep when he came to see if anyone was waiting for him here.’
‘But why did you take it?’ his aunt asked in exasperation.
‘I saw the gambling receipts. They were more important than the other papers. I was going to sell them back to the owner.’
The inspector spoke. ‘Do you know that blackmail is a criminal offence?’
‘And supposing the man killed you instead of paying you? What then?’ his aunt asked again.
Aunt Deline stood up. It was our cue. ‘I think our job here is done. We should allow the good permanent secretary to get on with his job.’
The permanent secretary stood up too. ‘I know that if I asked you how you knew that the envelope was on the young man, you would not tell me. But at least let me pay you.’
‘Oh, I don’t mind telling you. I was not expecting anyone to be ‘wearing’ the papers; I was expecting to have to lift up every carpet in the place or go through the toilets, but I was prepared to be surprised anyhow so I paid attention to everything.
The post Madeline Berah, the African Detective in the missing government papers (8) appeared first on The Nation Nigeria.