United Kingdom, present day.
‘They cant harm me, I live a charmed life. Told you before.’
‘Bello, let’s leave please.’
‘Don’t worry baby. This lot are pussies.’
In the dimly lit alley Bello Momoh sized up the three men that blocked his path. He could not make out their faces but he did not need the light to know they were hostile. Two had sticks and one had a pick axe. He had Laura. He felt her squeeze his arm, trying to drag him backwards to ‘safety’ but he resisted. Five years and seven months living as the lone minority in the Backwater council estate had made him well acquainted to animosity. He was never one to run from a fight no matter the odds. So far he had come up trumps in two ambushes, sent two men to the hospital and killed a dog that had been set on him.
‘Danger and I are two lions born on the same day, and I, the elder and more terrible.’ He had once told his girlfriend, quoting Julius Ceasar from Shakespear’s drama.
‘We know how that ended up.’ She had quipped back.
With a Master’s degree in psychology among his repertoire, it was not foolhardiness that fuelled Bello’s belligerent nature. For one he had the body of a body builder and was a black belt in taekwondo to boot. But those were not the credentials he relied on. There was something else.
They had been dating for a year when he revealed his secret to Laura.
‘My mother took me to a witch doctor when I was born and I was dipped in magic iron. I will not die until I have lots of money.’ He winked.
‘Bello, come on. Surely even you do not believe in that African voodoo thing. It is hocus-pocus.’
He looked at her with a smirk.
Hocus-pocus? Only if she knew.
He did not think it was his chiselled frame, his honey coated words or his intelligence that had won her over. It was that ‘something else.’ Mama had assured him he would be able to have his way with anyone. But he was to use his powers wisely. He had spotted Laura at the University beauty pageant contest. The moment she stepped out on stage the other contestants had no hope. Bello promptly ditched his ex who he had gone there with and sought out the beauty queen. Since then they had been joined at the hip (a good number of times) and Bello held on. He was not going to let her go in a hurry. Never mind that he lived in a rundown area where men with nothing creative to challenge their minds took offence at seeing a stunning white girl in the arms of a black man. Bello savoured the attention and was bent on twisting the knife. Eat your hearts out.
They had gone for a movie and she wanted to get chewing gum on the way back. There was a shop open at that time of night. It was not quite on the route home and that meant they might chance a short cut via the dark alley. Hoodlums hung about the place and he had had a fight there before.
The shop was open. Bello waited outside for Laura. She got what she wanted and slipped her lithe hands around his biceps and they shared a joke. They had just turned into the alley when the men jumped out of the shadows. Bello did not know if the men had tailed them to the place or if they had been waiting for an unlucky victim to walk by. Either way he did not care.
The men advanced.
‘Hey black boy. You like white meat, do you?’
‘You think you can come to our country and fuck our women do you?’
‘If you come any nearer I am going to fuck you too, arsehole.’ Bello challenged. He unhooked Laura’s fingers around his arm and protectively stood in front of her.
‘You can talk, can you? I am going to shut your mouth for you.’ They were skinheads with tattoos plastered around their wrinkly skin. They wore sleeveless camouflage vests and jackboots. Every single one carried a sizeable amount of bulk that matched Bello’s but none had his muscles. The shadows retreated from their faces as they got nearer so he could see the hate in their eyes.
Soon, he mused, it will turn to fear.
Taking down two men was easy if one had the speed. The trick was to attack first, hard and with accuracy, aiming for some vital part – the groin or the windpipe – to incapacitate the first man.
Then turn to the second (who would be rattled on seeing he had no support).
Against three men it was not that straightforward. In the seconds it took to attack the first man, the other two would definitely charge. If they were amateurs it would still be easy work but if they were veterans of a good number of street fights then he would have to be fully focused.
The man with the pickaxe had the heaviest weapon. He needed time to balance it and swing. So Bello went for him first. He grabbed the man’s arm as he raised the axe, kicked him in the shin, punched his neck and followed up with a head butt. The man grabbed his throat in agony and sank to his knees.
From the corner of his eye Bello saw the other men already swinging their sticks. He had just enough time to dodge one. He expected to be hit by the other. But by charging at his adversary, he shortened the arc of the man’s swing and reduced the force of the impact. It caught him on the shoulder. He had felt much worse in his lifetime. He punched the man’s stomach and drove his elbow into the grimaced face in front of him, breaking a nose and drawing blood.
The man went down.
Bello did not spin around fast enough. The third man seized him in a choke hold and locked his hands behind Bello so there was no way to reach them easily. But it was far from hopeless. Bello had earned his black belt fighting stronger opponents. He tucked his chin in to ease pressure on his neck.
‘Hey Johno, get up, get up damn it, and get the girl. I have this sucker.’
Bello heard one of the fallen men scramble to his feet, then he heard his girlfriend scream, and at that point he lost all reason.
He kicked, he lashed out, he dug his teeth into the flesh of the man pinning him and bit hard. The man yelped in pain and released him. Laura had gone but he could hear her voice from down the alley, shouting for help.
She was on the ground spread-eagle. Scattered strands of her hair billowed across her face. Her tee shirt had been torn in two and her bra was pulled down so her exposed breasts bobbled free. The man that had pursued after her was seated on her torso, pinning her down. He moved from side to side to dodge her fists with which she pummelled his body.
‘Stop struggling, bitch!’ He slapped her face.
Bello reached them just then.
“He controls the world who controls his emotions.” He had learnt that phrase in training and it had served him well. There was always a solution to seemingly impossible entanglements if one kept his heart in check and calmly used his head. In the moment though, seeing his girlfriend unceremoniously exposed and being assaulted, that advice went out the window. In a fit of rage he seized the man by the collar, yanked him off Laura then knocked him down with a punch.
If he was not so intent on punishing the man he would not have followed up with incessant kicking, and stamping, he would have paid attention to the scurrying sounds behind him and he would have heeded Laura’s warning shout.
At the last moment he turned. Too late.
The stick caught him across the temple. Pain! The impact made him stagger. His knees went wobbly and his vision blurred. He swayed from side to side, struggling to stay on his feet, somewhat wary of the second wave of attack that was sure to come.
They gave him no chance. He doubled up from a punch in his stomach, reeled backwards from a knee in his face and finally fell from a sharp pain in his chest. It was pain like he had never known.
The world went still. From afar he made out voices.
‘What have you done? You just killed the man.’
‘He deserved it.’
‘Let’s get the hell out of here.’
‘Help us. Somebody help us.’ Laura was screaming.
‘I call ambulance and police.’
Bello recognized the voice of Mr Wong, the Chinese shopkeeper from where they bought the gum.
He felt himself having spasms.
‘He is shaking. Please do something.’
‘Ambulance come soon. Wait.’
And then his world went black.
Africa, twenty five years ago...
‘This child will not die! I say he will not die!’
Mma Nana quivered at the shrill incantations of the witch doctor, doubting the wisdom of bringing her newborn son to the old hag revered in the village for her mystical powers. After two miscarriages though, she had to insure her successful birth.
A small log fire burned in the centre of the room. The flames cast moving shadows on the walls, giving the place an ethereal feel. Mma Nana coughed from the smoke that filled the interior of the little hut. Her eyes watered. If she felt such discomfort she wondered how bad it was for her baby boy. He squealed his protest as hard as his lungs allowed. The witch doctor held him by one leg so he hung upside down, dangling like meat at the butchers. She raised him towards a shrine of ostrich feathers and cowries. Two human skulls impaled on sticks driven into the ground, stood sentry on each side of the shrine and rattled as she screamed.
She grabbed a handful of powered chalk from a calabash and blew into the body of the squealing baby, coating him white. The flames rose higher. Mma Nana shrank backwards.
The witch doctor seized a dagger from a low stool beside the shrine. Gently she lowered the tip of its blade to the little feet of the child. Mma Nana covered her mouth to stop herself from shouting. But if the woman harmed her baby this would have to stop.
‘What more do you want for the child?’
‘Woman,’ the witch doctor called out in a high pitched voice that reverberated around the room. ‘What more do you want Amadioha to do for this boy?’
‘Mama, I do not understand.’
‘The spirits have favoured your child. He has protection but they want to give him more. What else do you want for him? Choose well so it does not become a curse to him.’
‘I want him to be a leader among men. People will listen when he speaks and I want him to have money.’
‘Yes, lots and lots of money. He must not die a poor man.’
‘Then so be it. He will die a rich man.’
She pierced the soft sole of the baby’s feet. Mme Nana covered her mouth again as her son wailed in pain. The witch doctor dropped the dagger and held the baby’s bleeding foot over a broken eggshell so the blood dripped into it. She placed the baby on the ground beside the fire and cupped the eggshell in her hands. When she opened her hands again it was not a cracked eggshell there but a whole egg. It had mended itself. Gingerly she placed it beside the shrine, and then she picked up the baby and handed him to his mother.
‘It is done.’
United Kingdom, present day.
Laura rested her head on the doctor chest, drawing strength from his hug. She had been treated for shock, bruises and a few cuts and asked to go home but she had stayed in the hospital, waiting for Bello. He was in a coma, strapped to drips and machines and adorned with bandages. Most of it was wrapped around his chest where the pickaxe had pierced him. The surgery had taken the better part of five hours and finally she was allowed to look at him through the glass window.
The doctor walked up to her and she fell against him, overwhelmed by it all. He held her.
‘Be honest with me doctor, will he make it?’
‘ Tonight is most critical. If he can make it till the morning then he will likely survive. It is a fifty fifty chance. Time to pray.’ He held her at arm’s length and looked in her face. ‘And time for you to go home. There is absolutely nothing you can do here and you need to get some sleep and rest your wounds. Come back in the morning. He should be up by then. If anything changes during the night I will call you. Okay?’
She nodded. It was for the best.
But sleep would not come. Horrific scenes of the attack harried her subconscious. A hot shower did not help and it was too late to go the parents. So she switched on the telly and turned the volume up. Some TV challenge was on. Though she stared at the screen she barely took note of the game show host grilling contestants with question after question. It was soon over and something else flashed on the screen. Six numbers. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7.
Where had she seen that before?
‘Oh, no number five.’ Mr Wong’s voice entered her head. Of course, the Chinese man at the shop!
A sudden cold gripped her, making her hairs stand on end.
She had gotten a fiver from Bello to get her gum. Mr Wong hadn’t change.
‘You buy lottery ticket? Maybe goodluck?’
‘Oh go on then.’ She smiled back.
‘1,2,3,4,6,7.’ He read out the numbers from the ticket he had printed. ‘Oh, no number five. Good numbers this.’
She winked at him, took her booty and skipped out to a waiting Bello.
Where was that ticket?
With shaky hands she rummaged through the pockets of the dirty jumper she had had on earlier, pulled out the piece of paper and help it up to the light. There was no mistake – 1,2,3,4,6,7. The winning jackpot number combination. They were millionaires.
Her world collapsed. She fell on the bed, curled up and wept. There was no need to answer her ringing mobile phone. She knew it was the doctor. And she knew his exact reason for the call.
Somewhere in the world an egg cracked open, spilling its bloody contents.