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Collection II
Volume III, Unit 5
by Jesse Cataldo

The Lagos Tigers

The Lagos Tigers (Volume III. Unit 5)
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The Lagos Tigers

First, there was a knock at the door. This in itself was nothing unusual: people knock on my door all the time, at strange hours, odd characters looking for help or vengeance or even someone to talk to. But this one was faint; not a feeble tap, yet still sounding far off in the distance. I awoke in the dark, a sharp pain in my back, my face hot and sweaty, feeling disoriented. The knock came again, this time louder and more insistent.

It was then that I realized I was not in my room, but on the roof, the radio turned so loud I might not have heard anything at all had the knocks not have reverberated so desperately. Before I had time to ponder the strangeness of the situation, my mind raced on to other problems, most importantly that my gun was still down in the room, on the inside door of the refrigerator, where I always kept it. I leapt to my feet, nervous that my guests were those three brothers from Iddo, still bitter about the youngest’s broken collarbone, who had been nosing around the neighborhood, asking people where I lived. I picked up a piece of scrap metal and crept over to the trapdoor, peering through to get a view of the hallway below. This was how it all started.

Thank goodness the Iddo boys, who turned out to have a far different agenda than I might have imagined, were not the ones outside. They would come back later, displaying their scurrilous"I leapt to my feet, nervous that my guests were those three brothers from Iddo, still bitter about the youngest's broken collarbone.... They would come back later, displaying their scurrilous sense of mischief at at time when I'd nearly forgotten all about them." sense of mischief at a time when I’d nearly forgotten all about them. The man at my door, who I spotted through the trapdoor leading up to the roof, seemed less threatening. In fact, he looked tense, his eyes darting nervously about the dim hallway, his arm leaning against the doorjamb for support. I don’t often have visitors at home (my business, which employs all my wily"I don't often have visitors at home (my business, which employs all my wily secrecy, does not allow it) but I know some things about knocking on a stranger's door." secrecy, does not allow it) but I know some things about knocking on a stranger’s door. Many times I have found myself in a similar place, at the same hour of the night, knocking again and again, wondering what may be waiting inside.

I knew that at times like this it’s easy to forget your surroundings, focusing so intently on what will come from inside. With this in mind I decided it was best to pounce on the intruder, no convoluted"... I decided it was best to pounce on the intruder, no convoluted plans or sneaking around, disarming him through simple surprise." plans or sneaking around, disarming him through simple surprise. I slid down the roof ladder and approached the man with fulsome"I slid down the roof ladder and approached the man with fulsome kindness, like an old friend, warmly shouting hello." kindness, like an old friend, warmly shouting hello. The man raised his arm and stepped toward me.

I feel that I should provide more details before I continue. Firstly, my friends, I do not make a habit of sleeping on the roof. My part of Lagos is not the best, my home nothing like the tall houses that form ranks along the water, or the towering skyscrapers that have gone up here and there. I live in a humble hotel. There is no cleaning staff, which has left the place stuck in a dingy malaise"I live in a humble hotel. There is no cleaning staff, which has left the place stuck in a dingy malaise, where mice skitter through the walls and prostitutes split rooms near the pool.", where mice skitter through the walls and prostitutes split rooms near the pool. But the manager is an old friend, who lets me switch rooms when I feel the need for a new disguise, moving in the night like one of those mice.

As you might imagine, the roof is not the nicest place in town. At night the air there stinks of oil from the excess burned off the pipeline. But sometimes, from up at that high spot, the radio picks up the quiet prattle"But sometimes, from up at that high spot, the radio picks up the quiet prattle from the American station broadcasting from the Port Harcourt compound, where white men play golf in pink and orange shirts." from the American station broadcasting from the Port Harcourt compound, where white men play golf in pink and orange shirts.

I don’t listen for the news reports, the shouting voices or the advertisements for useless goods. I retreat up to that dingy space for baseball, the only thing I care for in this world. Don’t ask me how that started. But with this strange game, announced by invisible men with thin voices, I find a special kind of bucolic"... with this strange game, ... I find a special kind of bucolic peace. I know baseball games are played in huge cities, with tens of thousands of spectators, but I always imagine them in the country, stretched out over a huge field." peace. I know baseball games are played in huge cities, with tens of thousands of spectators, but I always imagine them in the country, stretched out over a huge field.

The man at the door was bald and short. He wore an Eshu pendant, meaning he was a Vodun worshipper. He was not from Lagos.

“Mr. Adenjii?” he asked in a plaintive" 'Mr. Adenjii?' he asked in a plaintive voice, a voice hinting at some underlying distress." voice, a voice hinting at some underlying distress.

“Mr. Adenjii is my brother,” I answered, “but I can speak for him.” This was a lie. I do not have a brother. Isaac Adenjii is my name, of course, but it’s one I keep to myself, choosing other names for this kind of business. I like obviously fake names, phony, tenuous"I like obviously fake names, phony, tenuous covers taken from famous novels or foreign leaders.... That they are not convincing fakes is not important." covers taken from famous novels or foreign leaders, ones that sound important and mysterious. That they are not convincing fakes is not important. The work I do—finding things, learning secrets, searching for some people, watching others—requires a certain air of mystery. The names help with that. It’s also why I carry the gun, which tends to creak in my hand and has only three bullets. I have drawn it, used it to conk heads and threaten fools, but have never had to fire it.

It’s this reliance on mystery that made me wonder how this man had learned my name. Anyone who might have referred such a foreigner here, any of the dodgy people I did business with in town, knew me by different aliases, and seemed completely indifferent"... any of the dodgy people I did business with... knew me by different aliases, and seemed completely indifferent to learning anything more." to learning anything more. This made me uneasy. I’d have felt better were I holding the gun, but remembered again that it was still in the room, where I kept it hidden in an empty juice container, fitted with a false bottom.

“Having a brother yourself you will sympathize with my plight,” the man said, holding his hands together in a hopeful gesture. He spoke with a Fongbe intonation, an accent indigenous"He spoke with a Fongbe intonation, an accent indigenous to parts upcountry and beyond. His English was rough and stilted, the kind rural children learn in schoolhouses or mobile trailers..." to parts upcountry and beyond. His English was rough and stilted, the kind rural children learn in schoolhouses or mobile trailers, the kind taught by visiting nuns. We assume things about those people here in the city, and though they come to Lagos often, looking for work or other opportunities, importuning"We assume things about those people here in the city, and though they come to Lagos often, looking for work or other opportunities, importuning us with desperate please for directions, they don't stay very long." us with desperate pleas for directions, they don’t stay very long. This man seemed to have bigger things on his mind.

“My brother Kofi,” he continued, “has been away from home for eight months, working on the pipeline. At first this was fine. My mother, she is not well, so, he sends back a little here, a little there. Two months ago the money stops coming. The calls stop. We have heard nothing for weeks.”

“My brother and I are in business together,” I lied, “and I would like to hear more about yours, but first tell me your name.”

“Kwesi,” he answered.

“Tell me, Kwesi, wouldn’t you like to go to a café?” I motioned to the hallway around us, where a bare bulb flickered against a fly-specked wall.

“It’s not safe,” he whispered.

I suppressed a sigh. Country people hear the news that comes up from Lagos—about the car bombings and the cruel warlords who act like the world is still ruled by men with spears—and they are filled with fear. They’re swept up in the tales of heresy"Country people hear... about the car bombings and the cruel warlords who act like the world is still ruled by men with spears—and they are filled with fear. They're swept up in the tales of heresy against the traditional gods, of loose morals and intemperate behavior." against the traditional gods, of loose morals and intemperate behavior. But here in the city it’s the opposite. We hear stories about the indigent"We hear stories about the indigent country-folk who are packed into communal farms, or of those who roam the foul, noisome swamps surrounding the oil-drilling sites..." country-folk who are packed into communal farms, or of those who roam the foul, noisome"We hear stories about the indigent country-folk who are packed into communal farms, or of those who roam the foul, noisome swamps surrounding the oil-drilling sites..." swamps surrounding the oil-drilling sites, and can’t imagine living where the air isn’t rank with the putrid sweat of fear and the streets not packed with strangers.

I would have invited him inside, but such a familiar step seemed against the rules of this sort of meeting. My tiny room, besides serving as a panacea"I would have invited him inside, but such a familiar step seemed against the rules of this kind of meeting. My tiny room, besides serving as a panacea to the stringent demands of my work, was too revealing a place." to the stringent demands of my work, was too revealing a place. The pictures of family, the newspaper clippings, the dusty Odudwa shrine I kept up for my mother’s sake, with its assortment of trinkets—the rooster’s feather, the red dirt, the palm kernel). They would all reveal too much to this peculiar stranger.

“Tell me some things about your brother,” I asked.

“He has always been stubborn. We told him about the pipelines, the explosions, the attacks we told him about, but he would not heed" 'He has always been stubborn. We told him about the pipelines, the explosions, the attacks we told him about, but he would not heed our advice....' " our advice. And we need the money he sends back. We farm enough to feed ourselves, but the rest is not good. The extra helps with little things, toothbrushes, new shoes for the children.”

“But there’s been no more money?”

“For two months.”

“Oil work is hard business. Those men are on the job all hours, sleeping outside with bad rations, dirty water, no lights. Those villages are awful places. Many of the men run off.”

“Kofi is not a man to run. His stubbornness is very strong. Once he starts something he will finish it, no matter what anyone says, it’s why we couldn’t convince him to stay in our village.”

I could tell from what he was saying that the case was too messy. I have few connections outside the city, and the men who run the workers’ camps are dangerous, exactly the kind I try my best to avoid. The streets here are bad enough. I try not to take cases out of altruism"I could tell from what he was saying that the case was too messy.... I try not to take cases out of altruism or pity, and by now know better than to waste my time with the ones that seem hopeless." or pity, and by now know better than to waste my time with the ones that seem hopeless. Men like Kofi, or at least the men like his brother described, often did not last long in that harsh world. They were never buried. There was no simple country funeral with a teary eulogy"Men like Kofi... often did not last long in that harsh world. They were never buried. There was no simple country funereal with a teary eulogy. They simply disappeared.". They simply disappeared.

But I could not send the man away so quickly, feeling a hint of pathos"But I could not send the man away so quickly, feeling a hint of pathos for his slow speech and shoddy clothes. I could empathize with his pain..." for his slow speech and shoddy clothes. I could empathize with his pain, even if my brother was only an invented character. I decided to placate"But I could not send the man away so quickly.... I could empathize with his pain.... I decided to placate him by asking for more information." him by asking for more information.

“Do you have a picture of your brother?”

He produced an ancient, battered cell phone, an antediluvian"He produced an ancient, battered cell phone, an antediluvian model. The screen was pitted with holes and cracks." model. The screen was pitted with holes and cracks. “This is a picture we received, four months ago, or more.”

“Did Kofi have a phone?”

“No. No phone. He told us they shared one, but that it had no card. The bosses didn’t allow that kind of distraction. Only once a week, then men would come to the camp and rent the cards.


'Do you have a picture of your brother?' He produced an ancient,
battered cell phone, an antediluvian model.

Illustration by Teresa Murphy

I knew one of these men, these SIM card dealers, who drove out to the camps in pickup trucks and rented their goods, carrying plastic bags filled with every type imaginable. He called himself La Familia, a twist on his given name, modeled after a Mexican drug cartel. Or so I had been told. La Familia did not refer to himself as an individual, taking the constant pose of the front of an organization, talking always in the third person. To the oil workers and others unfamiliar with the ways of the city, La Familia might have seemed like a real conglomerate. He had business cards and dressed his employees in monogrammed khaki shirts. He appeased"He had business cards and dressed his employees in monogrammed khaki shirts. He appeased them with small discounts and free bottles of water." them with small discounts and free bottles of water. But the only workers were the street boys he hired to pass around the cards, who often as not ran off with the goods, only to find out they were otherwise worthless. It was a messy business, there was no antidote"But the only workers were the street boys he hired to pass around the cards, who often as not ran off with the goods, only to find out they were otherwise worthless. It was a messy business, there was no antidote to that..." to that, but his profits showed a steady acclivity"... his profits showed a steady acclivity, as the camps swelled with workers and phones became easier to obtain. He had enough money to have purchased a small bar...", as the camps swelled with workers and phones became easier to obtain. He had made enough money to have purchased a small bar on the outskirts of town, where he sat all day in the darkness, ceiling fans whirring, pretending to be an important man.

Kwesi showed me the picture of his brother, taken by the man himself, wearing a colorful t-shirt with a tiger across the chest. He stood at the top of a hill, which I could tell because of the angle at which the sun was shining, probably having traveled higher in search of better reception. There were trucks in the background behind him, blurry, distant figures, but they were blocked by his body, which took up most of the frame. His shirt caught my eye, and I looked closer to read its text. I made out the words: “Detroit Tigers” and then “2006 World Series Champions,” written in a delicate orange script. I felt a smile come over my face.

The Detroit Tigers had not won the 2006 World Series. Yet there were shirts out there that claimed they had, just as they did for the 2003 Yankees or the 2010 Rangers. Even better, I knew just the kind of man who had bales of such clothing, using them to dress his workers, after their clothes fell apart in the sweltering heat. He was someone I’d dealt with before, and had wanted a chance to speak to, to hash out outstanding debts, for a long time. I looked to Kwesi and handed him back the phone. “I may be able to help you find your brother.”