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Dougal has just arrived in Lagos to meet Chief Ernest, a Nigerian man who emailed the British schoolteacher ...
2019-06-19 10:00:00
short story
Uncle Sam

Dougal, a teacher from the UK, arrives alone in Nigeria. At the airport in Lagos, a mysterious black man approaches him. He claims that Dougal is in danger.

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Murtala Muhammed International Airport

Dougal was hot and he was afraid. He had been warned about this, the heat. He’d shrugged it off at the time. Everybody knows Africa is hot. It is Africa, after all. But when he stepped out of the British Airways jet and onto the ramp and he inhaled the hot air, it felt like he was drowning standing up. He was instantly wet under the armpits and around the neck. He wished to sweet Jesus he could just take off the white jacket. Heck, other than a couple of men in suits – and they were black – he was the only one not dressed for the tropics. Underneath, his Marks & Spencer cotton shirt was already showing patches of sweat.

It was not too late; he could take off the darn jacket. A patch of blue had blossomed out from the bottom of the chest pocket. Sudoku. He had forgotten to replace the cap when he’d folded the complimentary copy of the Guardian away and put the ballpoint pen into the pocket. Then he’d made it worse when he asked the stewardess for water. He had dipped the surprisingly large and thick napkin from the meal pack in water and tried to dab the ink away. The stain taunted his OCD. It was cruel that he had to keep the jacket on.

He could turn back and refuse to leave the aircraft, but instead he continued walking along the dusty blue carpet of the ramp, Nigerians brushing past him with their bulging hand luggage and their unapologetic impatience.

He had never been to Africa. Nigeria seemed the wrong place to start. He followed occasional signs and the throng that had overtaken him, and eventually arrived at the immigration booths where he was told by a man not in uniform to join a different queue. The foreign passports queue. And it was just as long as the impossibly long one he’d been in. There couldn’t have been this many people on the flight. Thirty sweltering minutes later, he walked through baggage claim and out into the arrivals lounge of Murtala Muhammed International Airport. He was truly in Lagos. What the hell was he doing?

He stayed in the lounge, surrounded by Nigerians who paid him no notice and men and women in different uniforms – some armed, some not – and he looked out of the floor-to-ceiling glass panes at the waiting crowd staring back into the lounge. He could see the heat outside rising off the top of cars that pulled up to collect passengers. Still, it was not too late.

It was eight in the morning, but he was sweating like he was in a sauna. It felt like he was the only one suffering in the choking heat. The other passengers from his flight seemed fine, naturally. He found a tall, free-standing air-conditioning unit whirling out air from dirty vents and stood in front of it. He watched the vents with suspicion. He imagined he could smell the dust. He even tasted it in the back of his throat. Or it could just be the smell of Lagos itself. A police officer was seated on a stool next to the refrigerator-sized machine, the barrel of a Kalashnikov resting on his crotch, his head bent to a noisy game he was playing on his phone. He had no epaulets on his shoulders. He could be any rank in any force.

“Do you need a taxi, sir?”

Dougal swung around. A girl with a brown face that glistened as much as her glossy red lipstick was standing next to him. He shook his head. She didn’t leave; she just stood there staring at him. He looked outside, conscious of where she stood and where his bag lay on the ground.

In the sun, amongst the crowd of people on the other side of the road, a man was holding up a large card with his name written on it: Dougal McManaman. It wasn’t too late. Yet.

“We have air-conditioned cars for hire,” the girl said.

“No thanks, I’m fine.”

By the time Dougal peered back out the window, the card with his name on it was gone and a mosaic of brown faces, each of them looking the same as any other, stared his way. He panicked. Then the card went up again. The man holding it up had only taken a second to mop sweat from his forehead. Dougal did the same with the sleeve of his white jacket and saw the blue ink stain on the pocket as he did so. He just wished he could take the darn thing off. He was cooking under it. The stain was testing the limits of his self-restraint. He looked at it again, even though he didn’t want to, and again it made his skin crawl.

The man outside did not look like a chief. He couldn’t be Chief Ernest Abraham Okonkwo II, who spoke with an American accent, invited Dougal to Nigeria, paid for the first-class ticket, and reserved the presidential suite at the Sheraton Hotel. This new man was young, glancing about constantly – like he was on the lookout – and was wearing a brown costume that was faded at the shoulders.

Dougal tried again for a signal on his phone. He’d had no luck when the jet was on the runway. The mobile still had his UK SIM card. The network had assured him his roaming had been sorted. He did stress, several times, that he was traveling to Nigeria. Maybe he’d upset the customer support lad. Maybe the Indian chap in some call center in Bangalore was punishing him. He switched the phone off and on as Betsy always did when she thought something was wrong with her own phone. Around him, other people were using their phones. Phones worked in Nigeria. He held the phone up – nothing.

Betsy had warned him not to come. She told him to call the police. She went on the Internet and printed out dozens of stories about Nigerian fraudsters – 419, they call them. But Dougal had shared the news with Matthew, Betsy’s brother, who had been the best man at their wedding. Matthew had looked up Okonkwo & Associates and the lawyer’s website seemed legit. They were even on Wikipedia. Matthew showed all these to Betsy, but she said she knew Dougal would be kidnapped.

Okonkwo, who had strangely insisted on being called Chief Ernest, promised to be at the airport in Lagos. The chief swore by his mother that he would route his private jet via Lagos first thing in the morning, before leaving for Monaco, so he could be there when the plane from England arrived. But it wasn’t the chief holding up the name card now, it couldn’t be. And there was no way to contact him to ask if it was safe to go with this stranger outside.

“Are you waiting for a taxi?”

Dougal had been aware of the man who’d come to stand next to him in front of the hopeless air conditioner. He’d even to shifted a little to the side so the man could also get some dusty, coolish air. The slender, bespectacled man had placed his briefcase on the floor between them. Dougal remembered him from the flight. They had shared the first-class cabin with just two other passengers: a black girl who looked too young to be traveling alone, and a slightly stooped white man who wore a dark suit and kept asking for more champagne. He was also standing by the glass pane now, the stooped white man, within earshot, looking out for his driver, perhaps, or maybe he was a sheep, instinctively sticking close to the one person who looked like him. They were about the same height. One could even say they looked alike. Somewhat.

Illustration by Dennis Wojda
Illustration by Dennis Wojda

“Are you waiting to be picked up?” the black man asked.

“I think that lad there is mine,” Dougal said. He pointed at the man with the name card. The stooped man seemed be listening.

“I see. Erm, listen, I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation on the flight. Before we took off. You were talking to someone on the phone.”

“Yes.” Dougal took a more careful look at the man. On the aircraft, he had been reading a copy of the Financial Times before he pulled out a computer and worked on what looked like spreadsheets. He had also declined the champagne and didn’t have any alcohol with his meal – unlike the stooped man who couldn’t have enough of the stuff.

“Again, I must apologize,” the black man said, “but from what I heard, it sounds like you are being swindled.”

“What do you mean?”

The man looked at the officer, whose head was bent to his phone. “Someone you’ve never met invited you to do some business with him, yes?”

He was taller than Dougal, who took a step back and took him all in.

The man continued, “They paid for your flight, booked you a hotel, and maybe even sent you some money?”

Dougal nodded. “They sent money; Western Union.”

The man smiled and shook his head. “And this business, whatever it is, you stand to make a lot of money from it, yes?”

Dougal nodded.

“Without spending a lot of your own money?”

Dougal stared at him.

“Or none of your own money,” the man went on.

Dougal searched his pockets for his cigarettes

“If you don’t mind me asking, what is this business? They told you they are in possession of some millions of pounds and they need an account to keep it in?” He searched Dougal’s face. “They said they are related to a former head of state and they need to get his assets out of the country?”

Dougal looked outside, at the man holding up his name.

“They said you inherited some millions from a relative who died in Nigeria?”

“Yes, my uncle. He moved to Nigeria in the sixties. He married a Nigerian woman.”

The man chuckled. “And he left you a lot of millions, right?”

“They said they’d been looking for me for some time.”

The man bent over with laughter and gripped Dougal’s arm as if to stop himself from hitting the ground. A gold Rolex peeped out from under his sleeve. His grip was tight.

Dougal thought of Betsy. He still had the five thousand pounds, anyway. He would take her on holiday to Mabaya. That would sort her. “What should I do?”

With the back of his hand, the man cleaned tears from his eyes. “Dugal, right?”

Dougal pronounced his name properly for him.

“See, the only reason I came to talk to you is because I saw you standing here, having second thoughts, I assume. Let me ask you something – are you a rich man?”

“No, I’m a schoolteacher”

“What about this uncle of yours, was he rich?”

Dougal shook his head. “He ran a bar.”

The man tried, but couldn’t talk and laugh at the same time, so he turned his face from Dougal and bent over laughing again, holding his belly with both his arms. Dougal looked around. A few people glanced at them. The policeman looked up briefly and then continued with his game.

“My friend, there is no money and no Uncle Sam,” the man said after he managed to straighten back up. “It was probably a lucky guess that you happened to have a relative in Nigeria. Did you even know the man?”

“No.”

“And they know you are not rich?”

“What?”

“The people who invited you. They know you are a schoolteacher, yes?”

“Yes.”

“Do they know what you look like?”

“No. They asked me to wear this.” Dougal held his arms out. His eyes went to the blue stain.

“A white suit is strange in Nigeria.”

“Yes.”

“So they don’t know what you look like. Thank God for that.”

“Why? What are you getting at, anyway? Who are you?”

“I will tell you who I am in a minute. First, like I said, I got suspicious when I overheard your conversation on the plane. You see that man out there? He is here to kidnap you.”

A loud gong went off in Dougal’s head. He looked at the man outside and his body felt weak from the furious beating of his heart. Betsy was right. It felt as if she was standing next to him, rebuking, mocking him with her silence. Her unspoken I told you so permanently etching itself into one of the wrinkles under her eyes. What a fool he’d been. But they sent him money. He still had some of it. They sent him money, and they knew his uncle. They even knew his uncle was his mother’s brother-in-law from her first marriage to an Irish miner. How could they know all those things? He’d asked, just to be sure, and after a couple of days, Okonkwo – Chief Ernest – called and said the tattoo was of a bird in flight. A dove on the departed relative’s shoulder. How could they have found that out if they didn’t know the man? They could have dug up his grave. He shuddered. But who would go to that extent just to lure a schoolteacher to Lagos to be kidnapped? Who would they demand ransom from? Betsy?

“They’re going to kidnap me?”

“Yes. He will kidnap you, and your family will pay them ransom to release you.”

“But…”

“But what? You people make me angry. You have never been to Nigeria, maybe you don’t even know any Nigerians, and some stranger calls you and says come to Nigeria to collect some millions you didn’t work for, and you come. Next thing, you get kidnapped and they’ll be saying Nigerians are bad, Nigerians are this, Nigerians are that. I have a mind to arrest you for conspiracy to defame Nigeria.”

“What?”

The man reached into his breast pocket and pulled out an ID card. He held it up to Dougal’s face. “I am a director of the anticorruption agency here.”

The police officer hopped from his stool and stood to attention. His phone sang away in his clenched fist as his eyes darted back and forth between the men standing before him.

Dougal could see it now: Betsy receiving the call. They would put him on to let her know it was no joke, then they’d warn her not to call the police. She would tell them how they had no money. They would tell her to sell the house or take a loan on it. They’d probably already planned everything. The money they sent, the cost of the flight, it was all just an investment. Betsy would take out the loan, she wouldn’t call the police, and the kidnappers would get their money. It was all so sophisticated.

“What should I do?” Dougal asked.

“What do I care? Just don’t get yourself kidnapped in my country.”

Dougal felt stupid. He stared at the man whose countenance had gone from unrestrained bemusement to pure disgust. Dougal was desperate for help. His face pleaded on his behalf.

“Look,” the man said, “get rid of that jacket, for one.”

Dougal looked down at himself, his eyes drawn to the stain. It was ruined, anyway. He hurriedly took off the jacket. His shirt was wet and clung to his body. He folded the jacket then unfolded it and rolled it up.

“Get rid of it,” the man said.

Dougal understood. The jacket was like a target painted onto him. He glanced around for where to stash the cheap thing.

The man held out his hand. “Give it to me,” he said.

Dougal handed over the jacket. “What now?” he asked

The man picked up his bag and in an unnecessarily loud voice said, “You are what they call mumu over here. If you are lucky, you’ll get a flight back to England today. If you step out there, be ready to lose everything you ever worked for in your life. And maybe even your life itself.”

Dougal watched him go, then peered at the man outside, then locked eyes with the police officer who was still standing rigid and appearing confused, then looked back at the man who had saved him from being kidnapped. He turned around to check for the stooped white man from the flight, for safety. He was gone.

Dougal picked up his bag from the ground. At least he hadn’t lost any money, and he still had theirs. He had come out tops. Yes, he’d taken time off to fly to Nigeria during term time, he’d lost two days of holiday for that, but he still had their money. If only he could get out of Nigeria before they found him. Before they figured out that he’d been warned. He imagined the chap waiting outside bursting into the airport and chasing him down. His heart beat even faster.

At the British Airways desk, Dougal asked the lady if he could use his return ticket to get on the next available flight home.

The lady took the ticket from him and inspected it. “Sir, you just arrived this morning.”

“I just want to get the hell out of this place,” Dougal muttered.

Betsy would agree with him that they had made a profit out of the failed kidnap attempt. If she would go along with him and leave out the flight to Nigeria, he could tell the story to their friends about how he had outsmarted Nigerian con artists. If she played along and they both pretended he never actually took the flight.

The woman shifted backward in her chair and called over to a male colleague.

Matthew would play along. After all, he’d also fallen for the con. It was as much his fault that Dougal had almost gotten kidnapped in Lagos. He shivered. It’d been so close. If not for the eavesdropping gentleman from the flight. So close. But the bastards had done their homework well; the only thing that still puzzled him was why they chose a poor schoolteacher – of all the mumus in London, why him? And how on earth did they get to know so much about Uncle Sam?

“Sir, what seems to be the problem?” the male attendant asked. “Sir? Sir? Sir, is everything okay? Sir?”

“How did he know his name?” Dougal said, staring into the man’s face.

“What, sir?”

“The man, the anticorruption man, how did he know my uncle is called Sam? I never told him my uncle’s name. How did he know it?”

“What are you talking about, sir?”

“He knew my uncle’s name. How could he have known that, unless… Oh my God. I've been swindled. He’s the con!”

 

“Are you waiting for Dougal?”

The driver checked the name written on the name card and nodded, even though what the man said didn’t sound like what he read. And he was there to pick up a white man, not a Nigerian like the slender, bespectacled man in a suit standing in front of him. But next to the Nigerian was a white man, slightly stooped, mopping his forehead with a damp white handkerchief and sweating as if water had been poured over his head. And the white man was wearing a white jacket. The jacket had a large blue stain on its pocket.

This story first appeared in the English-language anthology “Lagos Noir” (Akashic Books, 2018).
 
 

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Leye Adenle

is a writer from Nigeria. His debut novel “Easy Motion Tourist” was honoured with the Prix Marianne award (2016). He comes from a family of writers, in which his grandfather Oba Samuel Adeleye Adenle I (the former king of Osogbo in southern Nigeria) was the most famous. He lives in London.