22 May Thomas Haunted By His Evil Past
A comfortable breeze from the ocean blew across the CMS bus stop as Thomas enjoyed a day off from the underground scheming and anarchy that came with working for Kenny. He was still haunted by the sight of the bullet reshaping the bank manager’s head as the scene replayed itself inside his mind. The bank manager had been stupid for being too loud, but to Thomas any death was horrific.
He had barely slept for at least three nights, and when he did manage to drift off, he was jolted awake by nightmares that could be more accurately described as night terrors. His responses were varied, yet equally alarming. On two occasions — at least the two that he could remember — he found himself sitting straight up in bed covered in a thick coat of sweat, and panting as if he had just run a marathon. One time he was awoken by a sharp pain in his hand, which had resulted from slamming his flailing arm into the wall. Another time he was brought back to consciousness by Nancy, who grabbed him by the shoulders and shook his body until his eyes finally popped open.
“Thomas, are you all right?” she exclaimed.
He pulled up the sheet to wipe the sweat off his face. “Yeah,” he said through his staccato breathing. “I’m okay… sorry about that.”
Nancy held his hand. “Thank goodness,” she responded. She let out a long sigh of relief. “I thought you were having a seizure or something.”
Thomas let out a tired laugh. “Actually, a seizure sounds pretty good right now,” he remarked. “It might turn off my memory for a few minutes.”
Nancy caressed his fingers. “Were you dreaming again?”
“What did you see this time?”
Thomas lay back and thought for a moment. “That’s strange,” he replied. “I can’t remember any of it.”
“That’s good,” Nancy cooed.
Nancy lay next to him and rested her head on his chest. “You can’t go on like this, Thomas,” she said. “We can’t go on like this.”
“Yeah,” he said as he closed his eyes tiredly. “I know.”
What he did not know was how he was going to get out of the bank robbery business.
With the arrival of sunrise, to drive out the darkness loaded with nightmares, Thomas found some comfort in the light of day. As he walked through the marketplace towards Apangbon, he relished the sight of the merchants displaying their wares for the crowds of potential customers who had descended on the area that afternoon. The atmosphere seemed so cheerful, almost festive. Thomas could not help but relax, despite the constant nagging voice inside his head that ordered him to at least attempt to remain vigilant.
He knew that Kenny’s team was being tracked by similar entities, and ever since he joined up he had been exhorted to store the images of certain suspicious-looking faces in his memory bank for future reference. Still, on this particular day, Thomas was desperate for just one afternoon off from all the plotting, paranoia, and espionage. For a mere twenty-four hours, he wanted nothing more than to be a normal and unassuming human being.
He thought back to his university days, a time when, despite the frustration of having very little money in hand and the need to get by on almost zero sleep, he still felt safe and secure in his surroundings. His greatest fears in those days revolved around his abilities to pass certain courses, complete papers by their due dates, and find himself some female companionship on a Friday or Saturday night. He had his entire life ahead of him, and his future felt like a book that he could write any way he so chose. There seemed to be an infinite number of opportunities and plenty of time to take on everything.
The aroma of sweet, ripened fruit and freshly baked bread was captured by the soft breeze and sent wafting through the air. The blue sky, glowing sun, and glorious scents combined to take Thomas far away from Kenny’s missions, the bank manager’s killing, the riot with the motor park touts, the night in the jail cell, Mani’s murder, and every other difficult location or strenuous circumstance he had encountered since he had first arrived in Lagos.
He took his time as he moved from one display to the next and casually chatted with the merchants, graciously accepting samples of their wares when they were offered. He could not recall a time when such simple things had made him feel such an enormous sense of joy.
By the time he got to Apangbon, Thomas was not sure for how long he had been wandering. It seemed like hours, and yet it did not seem nearly long enough to satisfy his need for serenity and relaxation. He checked his watch and decided that he had better touch base with Nancy. Assuming he was fortunate enough to make it through the day without being called into one of Kenny’s impromptu meetings, recognised by a witness as being an accomplice in the recent bank robbery and murder, or assaulted by a gang of touts and Area Boys, he hoped to take Nancy out for a nice dinner at a restaurant in Apapa.
She had provided him with so much love, care, and support in recent days, and he suspected that it had probably been ages since a gentleman had entered her life and treated her like the beautiful and classy woman that deep down — despite her means of earning a living — he believed her to be. The bank job had been a lucrative endeavour for the team, and Thomas had pocketed a sweet amount of cash for his participation in it. Although he detested the means by which he had earned it, he did not see any benefit in turning it down. Instead, he would spend some of it on a good cause: he would give something back to the woman he felt had given him so much.
The shoppers were bustling in Apangbon in large numbers at that hour of the afternoon, so Thomas sidled his way through the sea of people toward a less-crowded area. He finally found a quiet spot just outside the shopping zone. He sat on a bench, flipped open his phone, and scrolled down through his contact list for Nancy’s number. Before he could push the Send button, the bench shook. Thomas looked over to see that a large, scruffy man had plopped down next to him.
Not wanting to appear rude or arrogant, Thomas nodded an acknowledgment before carefully sliding a few inches further down the bench. The scruffy man wasted no time sliding closer toward him, and the two men continued sliding until Thomas had completely run out of room. Thomas came to the conclusion that, given the man’s behaviour, he was no longer obligated to be tolerant and polite, so he decided it was time to leave.
Before he could push his way up to his feet, the man reached over, grabbed his belt, and pulled him back down.
“Hey!” Thomas snarled. “Let go of me!”
The man released his grip on Thomas’s belt, but a split-second later, his other hand appeared brandishing a large sharpened screwdriver.
“Hand over the phone,” he ordered.
Thomas felt his stomach flip. He gripped the phone in his right hand, wondering if it would serve as a sufficient weapon against the screwdriver. Before he had a chance to consider his options for an attack and an escape, he felt a person’s hot breath on the back of his neck. He glanced backward just far enough to see a second scruffy man squatting behind the bench. When he turned back around, he discovered that a third and a fourth were suddenly planted directly in front of him. Then he remembered he was in Apangbon, the headquarters of the street urchins in Lagos, the ancestral home of touts.
“Give up the damn phone!” the man with the screwdriver commanded. “And if you use up all the credit on us, you’re a dead man.”
Feeling completely outnumbered and defeated, Thomas extended his hand to relinquish the mobile. The man’s hand snaked out of nowhere and snatched the object out of Thomas’s grip. He was surprised by the man’s speed, considering the fact that he appeared to be so slovenly in every other way.
“Thank you, kind sir,” the man cracked.
Thomas grunted. “I hope you don’t expect me to say, ‘You’re welcome’,” he muttered.
The man waved the screwdriver in a menacing manner in front of Thomas’s face. “I recommend that you don’t say anything at all.”
Thomas leaned back in an attempt to get away from the sharpened piece of metal. When the man pulled the screwdriver back to play with the buttons on the phone, Thomas seized the opportunity to rise from bench. The other three men immediately blocked his path before he could attempt to leave.
“C’mon,” Thomas griped, attempting to sound more irritated than frightened. “You got what you wanted. Now get out of my way and let me go about my business.”
One of the men grimaced at the sound of the order. He was about to bark back a threatening retort when the other man gasped in surprise. His bloodshot eyes widened and his mouth dropped open.
“Father!” he screamed.
Thomas just looked blankly back at him, unable to hide his confusion.
“Don’t you remember me?” the man pressed. “We met at the Toyo rally! You’re a media guy, right?”
The wheels inside Thomas’s head began spinning as fast as he could think. The Toyo rally? Yes, I remember that! But that was months ago. Who the hell is this guy? Surely I would’ve recalled coming in contact with anyone who looked or smelled like him. But it was a very chaotic event. Do I really need to know who he is? Nah, I just need to convince him that I know him. Maybe. I hope so anyway.
“Of course,” Thomas improvised. “I remember meeting you at the Toyo rally. Forgive me for not knowing your name. It was actually my first event working for a media outlet and I spoke to so many people that day. It was a pretty wild rally, wasn’t it?”
The man laughed. “It was unbelievable,” he agreed. “We were hired to fill in the crowd. No rally gets big in Lagos without our presence. We brought as many people as we could find. I thought we did a great job, but as it turned out, we did too good a job. The crowd got too big for the area, remember that?”
Thomas nodded. “That was one hell of a crowd, all right.”
“Damn straight!” the man cheered. “It was crazy. All of a sudden, everyone just went nuts and started running toward the platform.”
Thomas nodded again, but this time it was in actual recognition. The last thing he wanted this hygienically challenged man to know was that he was part of the team that had instigated the stampede. “Well, it was a very hot day,” he finally said.
“Yeah, it was hotter than hell!”
“When you get that many people crammed together in a small place under those circumstances,” Thomas went on, “there’s always a chance that something might go haywire.”
The man nodded his head in agreement. “You’re not kidding,” he remarked. “I barely got out of that place alive. Bodies started scattering, and the next thing we knew, it was every man for himself. I saw a guy get knocked down to the ground, and before he could get up, about fifty people ran right over the top of him.”
Thomas was still dealing with the horrific image of the bank manager’s blood and bones shooting out of his head that was entrenched in his thoughts. He was not the least bit interested in reliving the horrors of the rally stampede as well, so he had no desire to continue this conversation.
“We’ll, I’m glad you came out of it okay,” he said, hoping that would close the subject.
The man grinned broadly. “I’m glad to see that you came out of it with your head still attached too.” He reached over and snatched the mobile phone out of the other man’s hand. Before the armed mugger could complain, he said, “This here is a good man. Let’s give him back his phone and let him go on his way.”
The man with the screwdriver appeared to be terribly disappointed by the thought of losing his new toy, but he slouched back on the bench and nodded in concession. Thomas’s new friend — or perhaps his old one, depending on how he chose to look at it — patted him on shoulder and gave him a mock salute. Thomas smiled, returned the gesture to express his gratitude, and tried to appear fearless and nonchalant as he turned to go.
“Father,” the man pulled at shirt. “I’m educated too. I know you journalists have connections. If you could find a job for me, I would be very grateful.”
“Oh, that’s right.” Thomas said. “Can I get your number?”
“Here,” the man pulled out a CV from his dirty jacket. “I’m Wunmi Abass. I have a diploma in marketing.” He beamed a smile of contentment.
“That’s great.” Thomas said, surprised about the CV. “I’ll give you a call as soon as I see open windows.”
“Thanks,” Abass said.
“But, honestly, I thought it was fun to be able to control Lagos as the Lords of the streets.”
“Not really. What’s the name again?”
“Thomas,” he said with growing interest to know more about their job. “So what really is it? Not many people seem to like the business that you’re in.”
“Don’t mind them. They like us when they want to rent crowds. They know us. We keep control of this area, we allow people to shop or walk around here, and we ask them to offer us a little something now and again. Is that a crime?”
Although fragile and scruffy, some of Abass’s more handsome traits still remained, but Thomas was well aware that the man with blazing eyes also needed some form of behavioural therapy. The government’s various attempts to get the Area Boys off the streets and rehabilitate them by teaching them artisan skills and trades had not been very successful.
“Erm,” Thomas tried to choose his words carefully. “People are not happy about your use of force. Your people threatened me to get my phone, didn’t they?”
“No, Father!” Abass grinned sheepishly. “That was minimal force, Father.” Weak and unable to remain on his feet, he sat down.
“But you didn’t beg me for it.”
“It’s simple, Father!” He paused to stretch. “Nobody wants to be burned by the sun. We all want to be fine like you,” he rubbed Thomas’s hands. “We need help, and when we get it, we’ll quit the streets. If you gave any of us something, nobody would have touched you here.”
No, no, that does not make sense, Thomas thought. “But how is it possible to give money to every group one runs into?” he asked. “If I give you something here, how am I then able to give to the groups in Marina, Race Course and other places?”
That simple argument seemed to have got Abass’s stoned head twisted. “Erm, erm, you see,” he scratched his temple. “You see, this is Apangbon. This is the headquarters. At our next meeting, I am going to suggest to our Headquarters’ Father that people who find us something are given a small, dated card for helping the poor.”
“I see,” Thomas said and looked away to hide his reaction from Abass. “I have to go now.”
“Okay, find me something, Father.”
Thomas gave him a thousand naira note. “This is for all the boys here,” he said.
The sight of the money drew the others to the stop. “Father, father, you are too much,” some of them shouted excitedly, as Thomas walked away.
As soon as he rounded the corner out of the men’s view, Thomas broke into a quick jog.
á á á á á
“Well, at least you got your phone back,” Nancy commented as they walked back to her apartment.
“Kenny would’ve had a fit if I had lost it,” Thomas affirmed. “Especially to a group of two-bit muggers like them.”
Nancy let out a small laugh. Although stories like this usually gave her the jitters, she seemed completely nonplussed this time around. Thomas wondered if she was actually getting used to all the underground cloak-and-dagger escapades in which he continued to find himself or whether she was just feeling laid-back and serene at that particular moment. The latter was quite possible since they had just dined on two succulent prime steaks and a good bottle of Cape wine at the Ocean Prime Restaurant in Apapa.
Once they settled into her apartment, Thomas and Nancy quickly slipped into bed and wrapped their arms around each other.
“I sure hope I didn’t look like a pig at the restaurant,” she said.
“How could a woman as beautiful as you ever come off looking like a pig?” Thomas wondered.
She giggled. “I ate everything in sight! I haven’t been treated to such a delicious meal in a long, long time. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever had a man take me to such an elegant place. Thank you again, Thomas.”
“It’s the least I can do for you, Nancy,” he said. “Besides, a gorgeous woman like you deserves to enjoy a touch of high society life.”
She let out a girlish squeal and snuggled up close to him.
“I’m really glad you enjoyed it,” he added, “because I have no idea if I will ever have enough cash to treat you to another night on the town like that again. I’m really not cut out for this whole bank robbery thing. I’ve already spoken to Kenny about it, and he just laughed at me. I really need to find a new line of work.”
Nancy sighed. “Me too,” she said. “Perhaps we should both become nuclear physicists.”
Thomas laughed. “You may be overqualified for that position,” he joked. “Actually, I was thinking about maybe making some quick cash as an Area Boy.”
Nancy bolted straight up in the bed. “You are kidding, right?” she shrieked.
Startled by her outburst, Thomas simply looked up at her blankly.
“Thomas,” she said sternly with a determined look in her eye, “tell me you’re kidding!”
Thomas smiled and tried to pull her back down under the covers with him, but Nancy wasn’t having it. She flung her hair back over her shoulder and flashed a disgruntled pout.
“C’mon, Nancy,” he then said in a calm tone. “Lagos is crawling with Area Boys.”
“Then it doesn’t need one more of them,” she countered. “That job has already been taken… about fifty thousand times over.”
“If that many guys are doing it, how bad can it be?” Thomas wondered.
Nancy rubbed her eyes and shook her head in disbelief. “You’re joking, right?”
Thomas shrugged. Nancy could not tell whether he was serious or if he was just playing with her. She decided not to take any chances on the matter.
“It can be worse than you can possibly imagine!” she declared. “Believe it or not, Thomas, despite all that you’ve been through, you still have not seen the most despicable scenarios that Lagos has to offer. Even I can’t say that I’ve witnessed this city at its worst,” she said, her lips curling with disgust. “My worst night was when some guy went crazy and punched me in the face. I was lucky enough to get away by kicking him in the crotch and smashing my way out of a window. I’ve heard about so many other girls working the streets who haven’t been nearly as fortunate. Some were beaten up so badly that they suffered concussions and broken bones. I even heard about one girl who was permanently blinded when her client threw bleach into her face to try to ‘cleanse’ her. None of this happened to the girls because they were bad people. They weren’t stupid or weak.
“There are a lot of sleazy people out there, and they prey on the poor kids who are stuck on the streets. I’ve always made sure that I had a steady supply of condoms. If I didn’t, I didn’t work that night. Some other girls were so desperate and hungry that they couldn’t wait. They needed to get money quick, and they didn’t have a chance to protect themselves. Sure enough, they eventually wound up sick and dying of AIDS, syphilis, and many other kinds of disease.”
Thomas held up his hand to interrupt her, but she ignored him. She would not stop until she had said everything that was on her mind.
“I was also lucky enough to avoid the other kinds of self-destruction. I rejected the drugs and the cheap liquor. That wasn’t easy, Thomas. There were plenty of times when I wanted to numb the pain and distress I was feeling. I tried hemp a few times. I felt better at first, but then it made me jittery and nervous. Besides, I knew it wasn’t the solution. I knew it was just masking my problems. I would come down eventually, nothing would be resolved, and I’d be more depressed than ever. I’ve seen other people dive into cocaine and heroin because they can’t handle living in pain and fear. It’s only a matter of time before they are no longer living at all.” Nancy held her hands up to her face in an effort to ward off the tears. “I swear, Thomas,” she whimpered, “there is nothing adventurous or exciting about working the streets. That life is tragic.”
Thomas could see that Nancy was becoming terribly upset. He reached up and stroked her long, beautiful hair. “Nancy, please relax,” he pleaded. “I wasn’t talking about selling sex or hawking drugs or anything like that.”
She scowled. “So, what were you talking about?” she pressed. “Are you going to be the nice Area Boy? Trust me, Thomas, there is no such thing.”
Thomas held up his hand in surrender. “Okay, okay!” He held her soft hand in his. “You’re right. It was a stupid idea. I was just thinking about how there have been government programmes set up to teach skills to Area Boys to help get them off the street. Maybe if I found a way to qualify, I could get some government assistance and even get placed in a legitimate job.”
Nancy finally allowed herself to lie back down next to him. “Most of those programmes are now defunct,” she informed him. “I tried to work my way onto one of them myself. The street gangs seem to handle their finances more efficiently than most governmental agencies.”
Thomas could not help but laugh. She was right. He supposed that if some of the gang leaders were to handle the city’s budget, there would be more money to spread around.
Nancy rested her head on Thomas’s chest. “Promise me that you won’t go out on the street,” she begged.
“I promise,” he stated, “with all my heart. At the very worst I’ll go back to the classroom to teach.”
She closed her eyes and he felt her soft breath on his neck. He held her in a gentle embrace and stared up at the ceiling. He wished he could find a new path for his life. He knew that Kenny’s next big mission was only a few days away.