A Shadow War | Chukwuma Jonathan

about the storyteller

I am Chukwuma Jonathan, a Nigerian writer and a military officer. I was born in Northern Nigeria and have spent a huge part of my life traveling across Nigeria. My journeys have been rewarding as it was on one of those trips I got the right dose of inspiration to roll out my first project.

Writing for me is just a way to get heard. Apart from writing, I play soccer, watch movies a lot and love jogging long distances. I love my wife and kid so much. They are an inspirational bunch. 


Read Chapter One of "A Shadow War" below or purchase the full novel at Okada Books.


Chapter One | The First Step

The kitchen, warm from too many bodies and cooling cakes on the counter, was blanketed in the sweet smell of cinnamon and chocolate. Two cakes looking as good as gold sat on the island, next to the Sub-zero fridge. Bachary smiled at his mother as she bustled to and fro making sure the anniversary spread was perfect. Nineteen years as a couple was no joke. He had the uttermost respect for his parents. 

His sister, Melanie, was in a corner making hamburgers with too much cheese. He wanted to remind her that their grandma was lactose- intolerant, but he held his tongue. Cheese was the best thing ever. He’d remind her to make cheese-less burgers after this next batch. He was mulling over the possibility of asking for one of the burgers when his father’s voice roused him. “Bachary! You busy?”

“No dad.” He slipped down from his stool and walked to where his father sat watching baseball in the living room. “You need me for something?”

“I’m going to the bank for some business. Wanna come?”

“Sure!” Bachary loved riding around town in his father’s truck. The four-wheeler was huge and growled like a dark, sexy beast when driven. A V8 engine made the Toyota Tundra a powerful car—not for the faint-hearted, his father always said. Bachary liked the way people stared when they drove past.

The car was expensive and well put together, a by-product of his father’s technical genius. Anderson McGary had a distinct touch for machines or anything at all he laid his fingers on. His maintenance culture was top notch, and he had answers to almost all vehicular problems. This skill had been passed on to his son Bachary.

Minutes later, father and son were on the road listening to jazz served by a local radio station. As they walked into the bank, something caught Bachary’s attention. It was not the customer yelling at the cashier, or the weirdly dressed guy spotting ripped jeans and dreadlocks. The distraction was a man standing ramrod straight, as perfect as a sculpture. Armed with a clean shave and spotless from head to toe, the man’s beret was lush green, worn jauntily at a right angle. His outfit, a digital camouflage uniform, fitted like a second skin. With the uniform wrapped around his well-structured physique, anyone looking would be certain the toned body was a result of a strict physical fitness regimen.

From the spot Bachary stood, he could sense the air of authority and confidence oozing from the gentleman. Decorations lined the top of the man’s left breast pocket.

Bachary recognized the man as a Green Beret and judging by the rank he spotted, the gentleman was a Major. His distinctive head dress was inscribed with De Oppresso Liber in silver letters which when translated meant Free the Oppressed. He envied the many tours the soldier must have undertaken and mentally doffed his hat to the awesome breed of men that joined the military. Bachary loved his country like life itself and in his heart he knew he would take up arms any day to protect the Star - Spangled Banner. His attention stayed with the soldier till his father touched his arm.

******

It had been a year since Hathaway last saw his favourite sister, Amy. It wasn’t easy hanging out with her and her family since they lived far away in Manhattan.  He thought that if he could, he’d leave work to see them all, but, in truth, he was too busy trying to ensure his architecture firm was the best.

After the phone call from his nephew Bachary, he had immediately invited the young man over.  Now hearing the boy’s deep voice from his foyer, he wondered if it would be okay discussing his mixed feelings with Bachary. His wife, Collina, and their son, Cameron, were laughing over whatever Bachary had just finished saying. Hathaway smiled at his wife’s soft laugh; it was hard to believe someone so blunt could have a heart of gold. He was grateful to her for all she did for him.

The phone shrilled twice before he picked it. “Hello?” A familiar voice spoke and he laughed a bit before he yelled: “Bachary! Come over and talk to your Dad.” Bachary rushed over.

“Hello Dad. I am doing great and having loads of fun with Hathaway, Collina, and Cameron.” After talking a bit, he thanked his dad. “I will do so immediately.” A huge smile was plastered all over his face when he turned to address his uncle. “The recruiter just opened up the portal for application into East Gate Academy. I am going to apply as fast as I can.”

Hathaway was not happy about the idea, and he’d told the young man that much. But whatever dream his nephew was chasing, he would support him. He knew that his nephew’s willingness to join the military started post 9/11. Amy had told him that Bachary as a child had wailed for days after watching the twin towers fall on CNN. But after his sniffling seized, he had requested for an army officer’s costume for Halloween that year. 

Hathaway followed as Bachary raced to his laptop. Watching his nephew pick his way across information fields reminded him of a time he wanted to forget. In a few minutes, the submit button was visible, and Bachary crossed his fingers. “For luck,” he said before clicking.

******

The practice questions on the academy’s website were all Bachary needed to eliminate the apprehension that came from waiting. Nailing the entrance exams weren’t easy, and he knew he couldn’t leave any stone unturned in making sure he got perfect scores.

At first, it had been annoying when his family hovered around him, constantly asking if he was fine or needed something. Once, Leonard had hooted with laughter after Bachary flared up at their mother for trying to serve him breakfast in bed. His sister, Melanie, had gotten so mad at him that she left him alone after that. Grandpa and Grandpa had promised a wad of cash if he got in. If that wasn’t good motivation, he wasn’t sure what was. He loved his old folks, and it was not for the money they threw about each time they wanted to reward their grandchildren. The two had been married for over sixty years and had grown their small loan-shark business to a huge assets and estate management firm known within and beyond Manhattan. Bachary thought them the kindest set of people he had ever met.

The practice questions were helpful in writing the exams and after that he lived online waiting for the final list. With three weeks gone and no result, he was disintegrating at the seams. A nervous tic had started in one hand and he was sleeping less. When he wasn’t stalking the academy’s website, he played online multiplayer games and chatted with his girlfriend, Amanda. She was Face Timing him one night in the fourth week when his father called. “Dad, you’re literally next door,” Bachary said when he picked the phone, “Why’re you calling?”

“Doesn’t a father have the liberty to call his son when he misses him?”

“I guess so.” Bachary was wary when his father acted weird. No one called their child by 11:30 pm except they were in trouble. “Dad? What is it?”

His father's voice dropped. “Do not take this news badly, Bach.” Bachary felt the air become brittle when his father paused. “I checked the recruiter’s website minutes ago. You did not fail the academy’s qualifying exams.” 

Bachary’s ears buzzed as he struggled up from his chair. 
Dad? Dad?” His grip on the table turned his knuckles white.

“Congratulations, son.”

Bachary’s body rushed towards the floor as relief flooded his cells. For the first time in his life he realized how it would feel to win the lottery. He opened his mail box and found an email nestled cosily in his spam box. It had arrived hours ago and read:

“Congratulations Bachary McGary. We are delighted to inform you that you have scaled the first hurdle in the journey to a glorious career in the best military academy in the world. Be informed that you are a step away from joining this elite profession. You can contact your local Recruiter Office for your final screening package. Please accept the Commandant’s best regards.”

He called his uncle right away.

******

“Who’d have thought we’d see you more than once a year?” Aunt Collina said, hugging Bachary so hard he almost couldn’t breathe. “Your uncle’s been over the moon since you got your letter. He’ll be back soon.”

With the level of excitement from his uncle, Bachary was left wondering why someone who had shown reservations about his career choice was so ecstatic. He was beginning to feel like he’d driven to his uncle’s house one too many times.

“You must be hungry,” his aunt said.

Bachary nodded.

“Lasagne?”

One invitation to Aunt Collina’s cooking was enough. She was amazing in the kitchen, and they were already digging in when his uncle arrived. “Congratulations, Bachary! You deserve everything and more.” Young Cameron reached over from his seat and clapped his cousin on shoulder. They all laughed at the toddler’s pranks. Dinner was extraordinary. The macaroni had been plastered with oodles of cheese, just how he liked it. They talked about the pending elections and who they thought stood a chance of winning. Aunt Collina was very suspicious of Obama’s campaign. In her words, it felt too planned, primed, like there was a moral lesson to voting him. Bachary did not agree with her.

He was helping his uncle wash up when the man asked for a meeting in his study. “Let’s dry these spoons and grab a six-pack. We have a lot to discuss.”

Thirty minutes later, in the big room with its warm dim lightning and silhouettes, Bachary settled on the lone leather settee across his uncle’s desk.

“Beer?” His uncle said, fiddling with some papers on the table.

“Aren’t I a bit too young?”

“You’re in the army now. You’re an old man.”

Bachary laughed. “I’m not in yet.”

“Well, nearly is as good as anything.”

The silence that followed wafted through pores and secret spaces. It made Bachary uncomfortable. A can of beer disappeared down his uncle’s throat and he immediately reached for another one. The balding man removed his shoes and settled into the settee. “Did you know I was dismissed from East Gate in my final year?” he said.

“What?” Bachary stared in surprise.

“Well, apparently, no one told you.”

Bachary was taken aback. His mum had never mentioned anything about his uncle yearning for the barrack lifestyle. All he knew was that his uncle hated the military and went to any length to discourage anyone from joining.

“I was set up during my final year by the Academy’s Command Sergeant Major (CSM),” his uncle continued. “His name is Command Sergeant Major Jones Wallace. Still saw him at the park last summer. Ugly bastard! All my conspiracy theories are yet to unravel the mystery surrounding that incident and why I was picked as a pawn.”

This is news. Bachary thought, sitting ramrod straight and only flinching when his uncle reached the fourth can in the six-pack.

“You should know that some things happen in military circles that defy all explanation,” his uncle continued, “While in we were not allowed communication devices except the payphones strategically positioned at Battalion lines. Any Cadet caught with a mobile device was sent away.”

Bachary nodded. He had heard of the rule. 

“Many years ago, the Academy’s fire alarm came alive and all cadets rushed out to the parade ground fully dressed in fatigues as was the drill for fire alarms; we had to be prepared for emergencies at all times you see. From where I stood, I could see personnel of the Special Intelligence Battalion moving to and from rooms. CSM Jones Wallace disappeared, alone, into the entrance of my battalion’s building.

“My attention was quickly diverted as I had to order all Battalion Cadet Captains to compile the parade state for their battalions. I called the whole parade to attention and as my role as the Cadet First Captain required, I submitted the parade to the Adjutant who then submitted the parade state to the Deputy Commandant as he was the most superior officer.

“When the Deputy Commandant addressed us, he said he was displeased about Cadets flouting the order on the prohibition of mobile phones. He told us that he had been informed that those in authority were the ones disobeying this instruction. He reiterated that anyone found wanting would be shown the way out of the Academy.

“You know, he was right. It was true that most cadets still had phones hidden far away from the prying eyes of officers. I was not one of them, but I had seen some members of my battalion with their phones. The drill was soon over and I ensured the cadets observed their lights out before I wandered to my room.

“Do you know…?” Uncle Hathaway said, hiccupping, “Do you know that there was a note on my bed directing me to move to the Academy Headquarters? Guess who wanted to see me? The Deputy Commandant!”

“I think you’ve had one too many beers,” Bachary started to say, but his uncle belched and continued, deaf to the world.

 “For some reason, I could smell the Command Sergeant Major as I walked to the Headquarters. He had this old lady smell, camphor and mothballs that was hard to forget. I figured he was nearby but I didn’t know where he was. You have no idea how nervous I was when I knocked on the Deputy Commandant’s door. His asking to see a soldier could mean elevation, relegation, or dismissal.”

“Brigadier General Brian O. Bridges was an understanding officer, but we were scared shitless of him. He had a trillion medals! Tours too many to count. Badges I was sure I could only earn after a lifetime in the army.  I saluted him and he wasted no time at all. He immediately started on his displeasure and how all the confidence he had in me had died a natural death. “You have broken the no-mobile phone code, Hathaway. You, of all people were supposed to avoid this.” He spoke with the conviction that the evidence against me was brain shattering, and I was too mortified to disagree. I was to be tried by the Commanding Officer (CO) of my Battalion.

“The trial happened a few days later and boy, you should have seen the long list of witnesses testifying against me. The only person that spoke for me was a junior cadet that was my roommate. You know, I am still trying to understand how my SIM was cloned. I guess nothing is too difficult in this technology age.”

“At that point in my life, I was convinced of hell on earth. I was so lucky I survived the trauma and frustration. My recovery and everything I have…I owe to Collina. Meeting her was the greatest thing ever, even though all I wanted to do at that period was bury my head in the sand. She was there for me and even encouraged me to study for a College Degree. See how it all worked out, Bachary? See how it all worked out?”

Bachary nodded and struggled to help his uncle who was slipping further down the settee. The man mumbled something incoherent and shrugged off his nephew’s arm. Chairs and tables suffered in silence as he knocked against them and walked out of the study.

******

It’d been smooth sails after his medical examinations. The physical exercises and obstacle crossing had been child’s play as he’d heeded the instructors’ safety measures. The final showdown was the interview and Hathaway had advised him to no end about facing the selection panel. “Try to maintain eye contact and don’t let them scare you. They are humans after all. Impressive candidates are all they’re looking out for especially and you get fortunate if someone clueless appeared before you did. Be different and make them want to listen to you. Mask your words in confidence,” he concluded. Everyone at home had something to say in the way of suggestions.

The more he listened to his uncle, the more he realized he was exhausted by the screening process. He’d later realize that those hurdles were only foundations for the real deal. But then living in the unknown, fatigue got the best off him and he finally gave in to sleep.