I get here first.
The bus is empty with the exclusion of its driver; a Yoruba boy from either Ibadan or any of those uphill village towns. He’s a young chap with a rough face complimented by a croaky voice and exaggerated actions─ like how he slams the bus door violently for no just reason. It’s not because he’s angry, it’s just because he can. The bus looks rickety on the outside but I trust it just like I trust its driver. In Lagos, you come to know these things without being told. Perhaps it’s prescience.
I’m adjusting into my front seat position when he joins me in the bus. Instantly, I know him for who he is. I judge him by his looks and for his accent; Igbo pastor stereotype─ the types who are innately imbued with a clear, far-reaching voice that can’t be described as loud without being dishonest. He moves into the row behind and sits.
I do not greet. This is Lagos.
If you’re new to the city or still a JJC after all this time, I’d have you know crime uses a calendar here. It’s like how trends and hash-tags work on social media. Sometimes, many things trend simultaneously. Other times, it’s the opposite.
At the moment, the ‘free ride’ scam is in vogue amidst other trends. It’s usually a play by two. The line is usually ‘we’re stranded and need your help to reach so-so’. So-so is usually the destination of the bus. It’s a play on your intelligence. Don’t fall for it.
Say I’m callous or paranoid─ heck, say I’m superstitious. You’ll come to learn in this city, superstition is a science. I like to think I’m a scientist, at least, most of the time.
Funnily, more females than males have attempted to play me. It makes perfect sense when you reflect on it though. Honey-potting at its crudest, I guess. Again, don’t fall for it. I have and my heart broke when they (my scammers) bought gala and La Casera in the bus with me still in it.
The bus is filling up when he approaches me to deliver his well-rehearsed lines. I could mime it with him if I wanted. But I’m not in the mood today so I give him my trademark reverse ‘talk-to-the-hand’ gesture─ I show him the back of my palm in slow mo. He’s another Yoruba boy with a rough face; he’s smart and doesn’t push it. I like that.
Sharp Alhaja has boarded the bus by now. I see this peripherally. She’s small and hawkish; the type who doesn’t trust people yet believes every WhatsApp broadcast.
Mr Free Ride scammer and his side-kick (who I didn’t spot earlier) make it into the bus courtesy of Igbo pastor (IP henceforth). I listen to their exchange and what sells the scam is the idea money isn’t exchanging hands─ IP has seen those WhatsApp BCs about giving to beggars too, I guess. He’s scared of being charmed with juju and feels more comfortable paying for them instead. Like I said, superstition is a science here and there are levels to this shit. You don’t know if you don’t know.
I’m counting the number of pretty girls passing by. Mentally sieving them─ those I’d like to have a conversation with; types I’d date and those who just looked interesting when I’m suddenly snapped out of my unassisted augmented reality.
I look back.
Sharp Alhaja is squawking out accusations at one of the two-man scam band. She says he has loaded the recharge voucher she just bought.
I turn my neck into orbit so that I’m now facing away. It’s messy business and it’s not mine. I can hear them though I’m not watching.
He protests and asks why he would. He’s got enough airtime on his phone, bla bla.
SA is unmoved. She saw him leaning over to look from behind her shoulder she says.
I look back again, longer this time.
The scam band is together; one seated on the others’ thighs. Lapping is what we call it here. From his elevated angle in relation to SA’s position, her argument seems rather valid but I want to be objective so I say nada.
I just watch.
SA says she has bought the voucher because she’s visiting a strange area and needs to call her host for directions. She doesn’t understand why the chap would want to play a ‘fastest finger’ prank on her.
At this point, IP interjects. I’d been waiting for him.
My neck oscillates away again.
Like a freshly promoted detective, IP slides into his new role, all enthusiasm. Asks all the questions and SA indulges him with answers. Anyway, they’re seated side by side and she needs a shoulder.
After some Sherlock-style sighs, IP still can’t crack his first case.
Scam band member is still protesting but a little weakly.
SA then says he should bring his phone and allow her reload the voucher on it. It is an MTN voucher and it will read “This card has been used by you” if reloaded on the same mobile number she says.
SA is sharp. No doubt about that now. She may be an illiterate but she’s definitely not uneducated.
IP applies vocal pressure and scam band member acquiesces by releasing his phone.
S.A checks his balance first. He has N300.00 credit.
She punches in the digits of the used voucher.
Network registers it and the phone beeps intermittently.
I am no longer looking at this point and it’s not because I can’t take the suspense. I just can’t afford to appear interested.
“This card has been used by you”. SA reads out and displays the message to the civilized world triumphantly.
I look back, amused although it doesn’t show─ one of my numerous Jaqen H’ghar faces is on.
IP isn’t amused. Rather he’s switched characters─ Sherlock to Gollum in a second. Mad but not ─yet─ frothing at the mouth, he goes from ‘this is why people don’t help people anymore’ to ‘damn, I want my money back’─ all this within micro-seconds.
Commands are flying everywhere and being executed faster than lightning.
Without delay, scam member finds himself outside of the bus in the centre of a small crowd. The driver is there as well as other everyday Joes who make a bus park tick─ a lot of shady characters if you ask me.
It’s like something died the way SM is suddenly circled. Not the kind of circling flies do on carcass. This is more akin to wolf packs and lion prides during a hunt with vultures overhead keeping score.
SM shot himself in the foot when he released his phone to SA. He’s dead but he doesn’t know it yet. If there’s something that excites people to madness here, it’s the prospect of delivering justice. Jungle justice─ proudly supported by faceless mobs since primordial times.
His phone and backpack are confiscated. SA is with the phone. IP is calling for his money back. The driver is using all sorts of expletives to demonize SM for stealing. Everyone has an opinion, story and they’re telling it all at once.
Chaos! The world is alive again.
Gbosa! First hit.
Third─ I can’t hear what language SM is speaking at this point. They’re going to tear him apart. I can already hear calls for tyres and matches. It will take less than 5 minutes for them to make him a memory. This is Lagos.
I do not step out of the bus. I do not stop clutching my backpack nor do I look too long at the building mayhem lest I, myself fall victim to another group of fast finger crooks; pickpockets.
Again, this is Lagos.
SM’s counterpart is overplaying Peter inside the bus.
“Are you with him?”
Deny. Deny. Deny. Deny.
Four times ?! Lord Jesus!
I do what I can to appease the angry crowd from inside the bus. It’s not much but somehow they let him go─ perhaps because it’s a Sunday─ after he buys SA another voucher. IP gets his refund from the driver but he’s still raving. He will never help again he says.
SM rejoins the bus. It’s the only way he escapes the mob outside. This time they (Scam band) pay their fare themselves. No scam.
The bus is filled to capacity and we move.
As we leave, I can’t help thinking back on what almost happened in relation to the parable of the adulterous woman who was almost stoned. Who should cast stones in a failed system like ours where the cops are dubious and justice is commoditized?
A criminal is apprehended, handed over to the cops but out again soon─ to relapse─ because he can pay; he can’t be processed; knows someone up top or prison is filled to capacity. Crime doesn’t reduce and hapless citizens are bound in its vicious grip.
Frustrated, they resort to crime (extra-judicial killing) to fight crime. No one wins eventually except whoever’s playing judge at a given time─ a win which at best is marginal and counter-productive.
My thoughts turn back to the mental sieving─ it’s too fine a day to lose myself in the deep.
So I breathe.