Closer To God
There was no security inside the entrance to the court complex. Off to the side a metal detector sat pushed against the wall, and there were a couple of blue uniformed police officers lounging around, but that was it. I motioned at Burt to take one side of the filled room.
“See what you can find out,” I said, moving toward the right side of the completely filled space. There was a long counter that divided the room horizontally across the center. A long row of men and women sat behind the counter handling thick unruly lines of waiting people. It was not quiet. The room was a teeming sea of seething sound. It seemed like everyone was talking at the same time, to the people behind the counter, to the people in front and behind them in the lines, and then across to other people waiting in nearby lines.
We were the only white guys in the room. I thought that our race would gain us plenty of unwanted attention, but we were totally ignored. Whatever system of administration or justice being practiced in the court was running right across racial lines.
I worked the room, attempting to move past some of the people to get closer to the counter, and possibly talk to one of the clerks, but it was useless. Unless I applied some intense physical force there was just no way the waiting people were going to let me through. Going violent was not an option, so I eased toward the center of the room, looking for Burt. He wasn’t hard to find. At the far side he surfaced above the masses and locked eyes with me. The message was clear. He was having no more success than I. I motioned my head toward the entry doors. We met just inside of them.
“There’s no joy in Happy Valley today,” Burt intoned, which momentarily shocked me. Happy Valley was a place from memory. Not my memory, as I’d been a Marine further north while in the Nam. Happy Valley, sometimes called Dodge City, was down in Quang Nam Province. Burt didn’t appear to be old enough to have been in Vietnam, but the expression, which meant ‘no luck,’ was not normally used by non Vietnam Vets. In fact, I’d never heard it used by a civilian in the ‘real’ world.
We stood by the center set of three double doors that led into the courthouse. After examining Burt more closely, to see if I could figure out if he’d been a Marine or not, I looked around wondering what could be done about our situation.
I came to no conclusion on Burt. He was an enigma, like the mess we were in.
“Those two, where they goin?” Burt said, his eyes directed toward the far outside wall behind the long counter. Two female clerks were laughing while they walked. One was going through her purse as she moved, just as both passed under a huge sign that read ‘No Smoking.’
“Smoke break,” I replied, absently. Seconds later I connected the dots. “C’mon.” I said to Burt. “Maybe there’s a side entrance back along that wall. With no security, we have a shot.”
I moved quickly, leaving through one of the doors, and then walking rapidly to the corner of the building. The two women exited out through an unmarked door near the back of the building, as I’d hoped. There was a picnic table set under a tree not far from the door. They walked in that direction.
“Come on,” I said, over my shoulder, then made for the table, moving at a casual, non-threatening but rapid pace.
The women seated themselves at the table, facing one another and lighting up. A bright morning sun beat down, the day setting out to be a hot one. A low spreading palm gave plenty of shade but only for those at the table itself. Burt and I waited to be noticed, standing in the sun a few feet away, which didn’t take long.
We were the wrong color, and it was obvious we didn’t belong.
“Jambo, bwana,” one of them said, between puffs.
“Jambo, M’wali,” I responded, using a common Kiswahili greeting response.
I bowed slightly, before placing four of the five thousand shilling bills between them on the wooden surface of the table. They both puffed and stared down, unable to take their eyes from the huge offering, but making no move to pick it up either.
“What want?” the one who greeted me asked, not looking up at me. Her eyes were glued to the money.
“White man came through this place some time back. Not long. Like us,” I offered.
The woman flicked her eyes up to run them quickly over us, and then returned to the shillings.
“What can you tell me about him?” I asked.
Both women shifted uncomfortably. “Nothing,” the same woman said.
We know nothing. No one know nothing.” I moved my hand slowly, as if to take the bills back.
“One thing only,” she said quickly, stopping my hand in mid-air.
“Mr. Owili,” she said, her voice dropping to just above a whisper.
“Mr. Owili?” I echoed, in question.
“Mr. Owili cellmate, not long. He still in. No bail money. No fine money.
Inside.” Her eyes met mine for the first time since I’d walked up. I blinked. She swept the bills from the tabletop down to her purse in less than a second.
“How do I get in there?” I asked, wondering whether an attempt would prove worth the effort or not.
“Shillings. My brother inside gatekeeper. Have note.” The woman took a scrap of paper from her purse. She rummaged around for something to write with.
I looked over at Burt, raising both my eyebrows.
“What do you want me to do?” he asked.
“Go tell Sam what’s up, then come back and hang around the main prison building and see what happens.” I took the paper, but couldn’t make out what was written on it. It looked like Sanskrit. But I folded it and thanked her.
Standing back in front of the courthouse, I watched Burt walk to the Rover. I’d given him all of the money I had, save four of the big notes, just in case. He also had my wallet and passport, which I’d thought seriously about. The prison proper might want some sort of identification, but I couldn’t afford to lose my passport. The cell phone came out of my pocket last. We had to have communication. I couldn’t risk its loss.
I approached the front of the imposing prison structure. People were milling around the outside. It looked like most were trying to communicate with prisoners inside, either cupping their hands to yell toward upper windows or using hand signals. I moved through them to the entrance.
The main door to the prison was made of steel. The huge bars were criss-crossed with smaller construction rebar welded in after the fact. The steel was painted a bright blue color, while the walls had been done in some sort of bright white. There was a small solid window set into the middle of the bars. I knocked, not knowing what else to do. The little door opened.
“Entry?” a voice asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“How many?” the voice asked.
I almost laughed. It was like a routine out of Monty Python. I could see through the bars that surrounded the window, so I knew the guard could too. There was no one standing anywhere near me.
“One,” I said, feeling stupid.
The big door swung open with a huge creaking sound. I stepped through. I had never seen a Hollywood movie with a better prison door scene.
The heavy thing slammed behind me. Inside, the huge inner room was empty, except for the guard I’d encountered through the window.
“You a self-surrender?” the man asked, placing himself directly in front of me, so close I had to take a step back.
“I don’t know, “ I answered, not knowing what a ‘self-surrender’ was. I handed him the note the woman had given me. He took it, and then held it up in front of his face, as if trying to determine authenticity.
“Hmmm,” was all he said, lowering the note. We stood looking at one another for a few seconds until remembered the money. I pulled out the small roll and handed it over. It went straight into his pocket. He didn’t bother with counting.
“Owili. Put me inside with Owili,” I requested. He nodded with a smile.
“Come,” he answered. He took me to another steel door, this one solid and the color of steel. It was even more imposing than the outside door. The guard removed a short black rod from a belt loop.
“Baton,” he stated, smiling. He held out the strange looking thing with a proud smile. “Rubber, with fiberglass inside. Good bruises, but no broken bones.” He laughed while using the thing to beat four times on the outside of the door. Four thumps came back from the other side immediately. The guard unhinged an articulated locking device with his left hand, adroitly returning the baton to his belt loop while doing so.
“Put him in with Owili,” the guard stated to several men who stood on the other side of the open door. I noted that the inner guards did not wear the distinctive pressed blue and white uniform of the outer guard. Their khaki shirts and shorts were soiled and tattered, but each carried a copy of the rubber baton in a belt loop. I stepped into the darkness, very hesitantly. They grabbed me, pulled me harshly forward between them. The heavy door slammed shut behind me.
Things were not going as I had hoped.
They didn’t let go; instead I was moved forward, a guard grasping me firmly by each of my arms. There was no light at all and the place smelled like a sewer. I saw faint light ahead, after being guided roughly around several turns. We came out of a corridor into a large room of solid concrete, lit from above by a single light bulb.
“Wait here,” the guard who’d held my right arm said, pushing me against one bare wall. I moved to stand inches out from the filthy surface. I surveyed my fellow inmates, all native, all restless and moving about, except for a few crouched down along the walls. A small group was gathered in the corner furthest from me, casting furtive looks my way. I smelled trouble coming, above and beyond the aroma of raw sewage. Suddenly the group moved, as one, toward me. Two large Africans in the front, with a snake of men trailing behind. I turned slightly to the side, exposing the outside of my left arm, minimizing my silhouette and preparing to defend myself. I had made a mistake coming into the prison without more information. I knew I was about to pay a substantial price for that mistake.
The two guards returned through the side door they’d left through, right into the middle of the moving band. Instantly, their batons were out and swinging. The men near them screamed, while others ran and cowered. I breathed a great sigh of relief, until the guards reached me. One swung a baton into my stomach, while the other brought his down on my upper back when I bent down from the first blow. The pain was disabling. I wanted to shout at them that I was a visitor, not a prisoner, but I couldn’t get a word out.
Rough hands grabbed, half-dragging me through the door, and on into another concrete room, similar to the first but marginally cleaner, and with only a few inmates inside. The guards pushed. I stumbled forward, and then regained my balance. When I turned I was expecting anything but to be struck again. Both guards attacked, both aiming for my head. I took several blows on my arms as I covered up. Finally, I went flat to the floor on my back. Both guards were bending over, screaming down at me.
“They want your shoes. If you do not give them your shoes then they are going to strike you some more,” a calm voice, right next to my ear, said. I turned slightly. A man, not a native, but dark complected, lay on the floor next to me.
Scrunching up, I reached down and quickly pulled off my shoes. I pushed them away, and then pulled my feet back up. The guards went for the shoes.
“What’s the deal with shoes?” I asked the man crouching next to me on the floor, while trying to rub the agony from my forearms.
“American leather. It is the finest in the world. We are in Africa and there are no good animal skins. Is that not very very funny?” The man laughed.
“Thanks,” I said, my lips still stretched too thin with pain to smile
at the irony. “Who might you be?” I inquired.
“I am Mr. Owili. I am here for drunk driving, but they will not tell my family I am here so that I cannot pay the fine to get out. I have been here for some time. I am from India,” he finished.
“Well, Mr. Owili, what’s your first name?” I asked.
“It is not pronounceable. Everyone calls me Mr. Owili. You can call me by any name you like, but let us rise up from the floor and get some air.”
I mimicked the man’s crawl across the floor. “Air? What air?” I asked.
“Here,” he said, propping himself next to a huge crack in the concrete.
It was at least four inches wide, penetrating all the way through the wall’s great thickness. A breeze blew in. It was fresh air. Mr. Owili knew his way around.
I had only been inside the prison for less than half an hour but yearned terribly for the outside. I breathed slowly in an out, my back and arms still throbbing.
A voice spoke through the crack. “Donner? You in there?” I couldn’t believe my ears. It was Burt. Part of his large face blocked the light and the breeze, not more than a foot from where I sat.
“Burt! How the hell did you find me?” I asked, amazed.
“Don’t know, just walking around, checking everything out, like you said,” he replied, as if it had been nothing at all. “You find the guy?” he asked.
“Yeah, he’s right here. Can you get some shillings in through this crack?
I need some serious help in getting the hell out of here.”
“Sure. I’ll get a stick. What kind of a budget you want to put on this?”
Owili, listening to our exchange, began to laugh.
“This man Burt is a very funny fellow,” he said, between laughs.
Burt pushed through ten of the bills. I was pleased that who ever Tony was sending from the consulate would be packing cash. Our supply of shillings was dwindling rapidly.
“I’ll go around front and start bribing from there,” Burt stated gruffly.
The light and wind came back through the crack with his departure.
“Will you help me to get free of this?” Owili asked, as I gathered the money together. There seemed to be no modesty or restraint in the man.
“Tell me about the white man they brought in a few days back to stay with you. What did he say?”
“What?” the Indian said, his eyes growing larger. I waited.
“There is nothing to tell. He was dead when they brought him in. They put him over in that corner. They came back later and took him out. He was missing his private parts and was terribly bruised. But it was the many bullets in his chest that killed him, I am almost certain.”
It was the last news I expect to hear. I rubbed my face with my right hand, trying to think. Why in hell would anyone bring a dead man into a prison, leave him there for a while and then allow his body to be repatriated? Nothing seemed at all plausible, but I didn’t believe for a second that the Indian was lying to me. He didn’t seem to care one whit who I was or might be. He just wanted out, and I fully understood.
“Let’s get out, if we can. Here, see what you can do with these.” I gave him four of the five thousand shilling bills. He was up and moving toward the door before I got the notes fully into his hand. Once there, he stood, beating quietly, but patiently, on the thick solid wood. After a few moments, the door opened.
The trip back to the front of the prison building was worse than the trip in. I had no shoes, and the floor was littered with unknown debris. The guards led us, as before, by holding our arms. More guards had assembled as soon as they found out that money was changing hands. When we reached the front room the huge steel door was already open, and through we went, as before, but this time among a full entourage of guards. The same men who had beaten me clapped me on the back, laughing, as if the brutality had been some sort of rough joke. I grimaced with pain. I wondered what my body was going to look like for some days to come.
Standing outside, with the blue door closed behind us, Mr. Owili and I simply enjoyed the open air and the sun. A sudden urge to get as far away from the area as I could swept over me.
“Get Sam here with the Rover, now. I’m not walking anywhere without shoes,” I informed Burt. He waved both arms in the air, and then returned to the front of the building to beat on the metal window in the center of the door. Sam drove up. Mr. Owili and I climbed in.
Seconds later, Burt came running, jumped in the through the back door behind Sam, and then tossed my shoes into the wheel well in front of me.
“Another ten thou, but what the hell, there’s no Allen Edmonds around here.”