WHAT NIGHT IS
It’s chilly on a Saturday night in Lagos. Illuminated edifices stare silently beyond the Atlantic into foreign lands. Roads have already begun to wear thin of traffic and a minute or so now has to lazily drift past before a car whizzes speedily under the watchful orange eyes of street-lights. The steady flood of humans has also been drained thus abandoning the scenery to the occasional passage of lunatics, criminals, prostitutes and other nocturnal beings.
At a T junction in the Iyana-Isolo area of the city, a Volkswagen van bearing the traditional yellow and black striped color of the commercial transporters halts to allow three of its four occupants peer up at the circular red glow beside a 180-second counter of a traffic light.
The timer reads 169, 168, 167… as the sound of the engine is killed.
One of the three occupants exhales loudly for the umpteenth time. He is seated alone in the center row of seats and is dressed as transport conductors often do: a discolored sleeveless top clinging tightly onto his shoulders and trying so hard to avoid any contact with the frayed pair of khaki shorts and bathroom slippers under them. He exhales once more and rests his head on the backrest of the row of seats in front of him.
His eyes fall upon the huge brown sac on the floor before his feet. Immobile, irregular and filled to the brim. It could contain anything: yams, tomatoes, maybe fruits. He imagines it contained money. Plenty money. Enough to make all his problems go away. Enough to set him up in business and buy whatever he wanted. He imagines the money would be enough to pay for his father’s hospital bills. Hospital bills accrued from six months dialysis to save a pair of failing kidneys. He imagines that after settling the bills, the money could further pay for an actual kidney transplant. That would ensure the issue being checked once and for all.
He raises his head from the backrest and exhales loudly again. If only wishes were horses. But, maybe his wishes would one day become horses and will him to ride far off into the distance. Maybe he could own that amount of money enough to make all his problems go away. Maybe he could save his father’s life. Given, those would be reasons enough for whatever crime he was about to commit.
The timer now reads 122, 121, 120…
In the front passenger seat of the van, a bearded man taps the fingers of his left hand impatiently against the cap of his left knee. His right hand sits idly atop the extended forearm of the left gripping tightly an object in the direction of the driver. The blue long sleeved shirt he‘s donned all day atop no singlet now feels really uncomfortable. There is sweat running down his back and patches have already formed under his armpits. But he ignores all of these and concentrates on the timer of the traffic lights now 100, 99, 98… before them. He’ll soon be home. The day would end soon.
His mind slips backwards. To yesterday. When he was seated in another commercial transport vehicle at this same spot and he spotted the newest model of the Honda CRV also awaiting the traffic lights. Inside the vehicle, a pretty lass laughed heartily to the unheard jokes of the driver -a quite ordinary looking middle-aged male.
He remembers almost going green with envy. Why couldn’t it be him in that vehicle? Was there any hard and fast rule stating conclusively that he couldn’t find opulence? Wouldn’t that pretty lass enjoy his jokes better? And wasn’t he even better looking than that male in the CRV?
The bearded man turns away to smile into the darkness. But alas, things wouldn’t have to remain that way for long. Soon he too would be smiling to the bank. Soon he too would be able to get one of those flashy automobiles and would flaunt it wherever he went. And the girls? He smiles again. Oh, what he’d do with them. What he’d do TO them.
It is the tightening of his crotch that reverses his attention in the direction of the traffic lights. He has to concentrate. He has to focus on the task at hand. He has to complete the job which he has started and which should be his passport to getting all that he’s dreamt for.
The timer has now dropped to 81, 80, 79…
The grip of the steering wheel feels clammy in the driver’s palms. Over the past ten minutes, he has become acutely aware of the increasing rate of his heart beat. He dabs his forehead with a brown handkerchief for the twenty-fifth time -he’s been counting- and peers up at the traffic lights again.
He tries to guess the time now. Should be around ten-thirty P.M. It was his wife’s birthday today. And he had already bought her gifts. She’d reminded him time and again to be home early for the family celebrations. Now, that was if he would return home at all.
Work as a danfo driver had never been easy. Each day was always another conflict with either corrupt police officers, drunkards behind wheels or the ever violent agberos. And now, today, which at first had seemed the easiest of all, was beginning to seriously scare the life out of him.
He takes a deep breath. But they said they would let him go once he played his part. Once he dropped them off at the residence in Isolo. Maybe they would keep their promise. Maybe there was still hope.
The skinny frame of Chinedu, his only son, now stands between the parked bus and the traffic lights. The five year old is unclothed save for the thin, cotton, dirt smeared pants under the forever bulging torso. He must have been playing in the sandy compound again. The boy smiles at his father in the way the man has always recognized. The smile that has always said ‘welcome home, papa’
The driver dabs at his forehead again. Pouring sweat. He hears the exhalation of the young man behind for a millionth time. Fighting the impulse to look backwards, he half turns in the direction of the bearded man. The black circle, the nuzzle of a small pistol stares back not saying anything. He is bound to the present situation by this. Then he turns to look out at Chinedu again but the boy is gone. Maybe run off to play with his friends in the compound.
But who’s fooling who? There’s no way these men would let him go. After being a witness? He’d seen their faces, heard their voices. Who would believe he wouldn’t talk? He is almost deafened by the sound of his own heartbeat. He peers up at the traffic lights again. 55, 54, 53…
The young lad behind exhales once more and shifting uncomfortably in his seat, accidentally nudges the filled sac with the toes of his bathroom slippers. An electric bout of pain flashes through the spine of the twenty-two year old girl lying tightly bound and gagged in the crayfish smelling pouch. A hole in the cloth material serves as the only source of dust filled ventilation.
Being bound in a cloth sac is the least place she had expected to wind up today. It was supposed to be at a party. Her friend, Niki’s party. Her parents had refused to let her attend and so she’d sneaked out of the window and jumped over the fence. The deserted route between her father’s compound and the nearest bus stop served as the point of her abduction. And to think that she had waved them down for a lift. Her parents would be mad but most definitely, worried about her safety. Maybe if only she had listened.
She squirms to lie more comfortably on her back. Comfort should be the least of her worries right now, she knows. She wonders if her abductors are kidnappers or ritualists. She prays the former. Means that they’d only demand a ransom and surely let her go. At least, her retired Deputy Inspector General of police father would pay whatever ransom they demanded. But if they were ritualists…
Her tear ducts seem to have dried up now. She’ll never disobey her parents again. She has tried to scream many times but has always ended up being kicked in the tummy by the man sitting above her. She aligns her nostrils with the small vent and inhales another round of dust-filled air.
She’ll wait. She’ll wait for her fate.
It’s 09, 08, 07… and the engine of the Volkswagen van revs into life.
03, 02, 01… The van veers off into the adjoining route.
Less than a block up ahead, a single torchlight flashes down the vehicle. A police checkpoint. A figure clad in dark clothes and wielding an empty AK47 rifle approaches the vehicle and peeps in through the windows. The young lad dressed like a transport conductor reaches out and squeezes something into his palm and just as soon as it stopped, the vehicle is on its way again.