OCT 8, 2022
Based on a true story.
Barnaby is idling at the gate of his construction site. He warily eyes his dust-covered tattered rubber shoes that threaten to fall apart at any given moment. Inside the busy construction site, his contractor is organising the gang to get to work. The tasks are carefully assigned and daily rates are discussed. The contractor works out the material he requires for the day, checks the water tank and they are ready to go. The baking sun is majestically soaring across the radiant turquoise sky that is blotched with undescribable pale cotton creatures.
Across the putrid river, two young men are hiking up a sandy path towards the principal artery that feeds into the ward. When they get to the main road, they can feel the baking tarmac slowly sear through the thin rubber of their worn-out crocs to their toughened soles. It's barely morning, yet the crushing hunger is propelling them to madness. Their last meal was a day ago, and they know they need to eat soon, or they will be forced to forcefully forage.
The main road is slowly reviving, as the thick matrons sweep away their yesterday onto its shoulders. Everyone jostles for a favourable spot along the length of the artery, the busiest in the ward. They are talented professionals at aligning themselves for excellent visibility and accessibility. Also, it does not hurt to find one shielded from the fierce sun. Barnaby eyes the modest hotel that is across the pedestrian thoroughfare. The large cauldron of goat-head and goat-feet soup diffuses a delicious aroma that is diluted by blue smoke from the inferno underneath.
Alex and John, walking up the murram path are actively scanning through the hive of activity, scouring for loose opportunities. John spots Barnaby peering furtively at the hotel and then around the corner. He smells action, and he wants to be a part of it.
Barnaby is already playing the game. He desperately needs to remain ahead of the determined opposition. The two young men approach him and relieve his mind a bit. He sort of recognises them, but the look on their faces tells him they are seeking work. It's ideal for him. He needs a crew to support him with the secondary tasks for today.
"Hi. You have problems?" John asks.
"Like everyone else. But you look like you are experiencing greater problems," Barnaby responds, noting their desperate hunger.
"Then we all have problems," John responds, a mischievous smile carving out on his cracked lips.
"What are your names?"
"I'm John. He is Alex."
Alex knows to be quiet. John typically handles the business and is better-spoken. Barnaby probes them a bit, to properly understand who he is dealing with. They tell him what part of the slum they live in and confirm they have phones. They each produce a tiny China-made import that is carefully wrapped in plastic and fully charged.
"Excellent," Barnaby mutters to them.
The duo smile, realising they have found themselves a gig.
"So this is what I want you to do. In about an hour. . ." He details it out. The guys realise it's an easy gig.
"So what is the day rate?" John asks. He adds, "We want five dollars. Each."
"Five dollars?" Barnaby gasps. "In this weakened economy? Surely."
They waltz with each other, eloquently explaining their terrible hardships, and how the bottom-up and trickle-down economic models have failed them, so in a few minutes, they reach an agreement.
"Alright, two-fifty, and I will buy breakfast and lunch."
The young guys smile. They would have gone down to a buck each, but this is a win.
Barnaby steers them to the small cafe at the end of the street. They all perch themselves on the blue stools while the stained brick walls serve as a witness.
"Two teas, one coffee, two rolexes and two slices of bread." Barnaby orders.
Breakfast is served. The rolexes constitute a full African breakfast and should keep them fueled for their hazardous adventure. Barnaby meticulously details his operational plan and where they come in. They don't ask why, they just nod in agreement. They wolf their breakfast and gulp down the hot tea. They know they have a few critical minutes to go so the burning pain will be dealt with later. When they finish, Barnaby guides them to the site and calls the contractor. Just by merely looking at them, he recognizes their critical role in the game and smiles appreciatively. Barnaby is 'pouring' intelligence. They exchange numbers, and it is time to go.
Today, everyone is a pawn in a significantly ancient gentleman's game. There is a cat and there is a mouse. Barnaby and his gang are all mice. He has an empty lot and has decided he needs to set up a small supermarket. This needs to be done in about five days with a meagre three thousand dollars that he has borrowed. The opposition, in this case, the city council officers, are the cats. They need to make sure that in this chaos, council regulations are aggressively enforced by them. Except, in this case, the officers don't want Barnaby to go pay the exorbitant two thousand dollars he needs to get permission to build his structure. All that does not matter as Barnaby does not have the money anyway, so, the easier thing to do would be to collect a small 'facilitation' fee. There is a trick, however. They need to find an active construction site to make it happen. If the construction site is vacant, there is no one to extort. The obscene amount in question may stretch to three hundred dollars. Barnaby can spare himself a bit of money, and get his work accomplished, provided he plays the game right. The ward is the arena.
He sets out the parameters for the duo. They have to cover the entire ward and meander through a near twelve-kilometre maze avoiding detection and escaping the dire perils that come with the territory. They establish waypoints on the various roads and decide what constitutes a safety perimeter. As the duo discusses their plan of action, Barnaby walks over to the tiny bookshop and picks up three different coloured sticks of chalk, a squared exercise book and three cheap pencils. He divides the book into three parts and explains to the duo the final bit of the plan. They all agree. Their participation in the game commences.
Barnaby leads them to the river crossing. They pick a small cafe that gives them a great vantage and Barnaby orders more tea. They sit there slowly imbibing, as they carefully scrutinise the faces, the clothes and the various body languages. He obsessively checks the clock on his feature phone. The opposition should be here in a few minutes.
Alex's keen eyes spot the first set. Two plainclothes officers. Barnaby instantly recognises one of them. He had run-ins with him before. When they had crossed paths the first time, the officer had given Barnaby his number and instructed him to telephone him whenever he had problems. Barnaby smiled and wisely explained he was keen on cooperation. He had 'eaten' two hundred dollars from him, and since then, Barnaby had become sly, knowing it was far cheaper and more entertaining to properly manage the situation. Almost instantly the various tongues transmit in various tongues that their various roles in the game have started. The remaining group in their pressed navy blue uniforms and black polished shoes are fording the polluted river. Even before they are officially in the ward, everyone knows who to watch out for, what the plainclothes officers are wearing and in what direction they are heading. The cogs of the game are now furiously revolving.
Nearly everyone in the cafe scurries into position. They were all there to keenly observe the three groups arrive. Everybody in that cafe has a substantial operation going on so they have their crews ready to go. The officers merge into an informal meeting. One of the plainclothes officers, the one Barnaby knows, is relaying instructions. They might be at a distance and alone, but their words are translated by the lipreaders among the groups. John is an expert. They know their plan.
The group splits and begins their 'routine' inspections. The first set of uniforms cut through the main road. John stalks them from a distance. Alex shadows the other group that walks past the main road and heads for the alternative entrance into the ward. The plainclothes officers briskly walk down the main road and pick a spot from where they will operate. Barnaby, unseen, minds them cautiously. They turn towards his site, and he knows trouble is brewing. He pulls out his phone and dials his contractor.
"Lay low, the first pass is happening."
Their tools are concealed amongst the machine-cut stones. Everyone selects a spot to hide, and in an instant, the site looks deserted. The officers are steaming over the broken pavers and finally get to the locked gate. They pick a spot covered in a nylon sack and pull it aside. The vastness of the site sneers at their peeking eyes. Impossible. There is nobody? How could this be? The lead officer takes out his phone and dials the controller at the HQ.
"Are you sure the information is correct? This site is deserted. Check with your guy again and come back to us."
The contractor, cleverly obscured by the wall next to the gate can smell the eggs the officers ate for breakfast. He can see them, but they can't see him. He hears the squawking phone as the controller feeds back information. Someone is talking. There is a snitch. That is not really a big surprise. In this industry, you are bound to end up with a disgruntled former worker or broke rat that is desperate for a quick buck. Hell even your own competition that is eager to complete their construction before yours could sell you out. There is also that perpetually inebriated guy who drunkenly slobbers his mouth in the various pubs. The officers lean on the wall and wait twenty minutes. They are talking about who they are going to 'eat' today. The contractor on the other side has his ears in the conversation. He knows who they are talking about. Silently, he types a message out to his friend.
"Watch out. The council guys have you in their sights. They are headed your way,"
The response is practically instantaneous.
"Hi. Thanks for the info. We are halting for a few. My guys are tracking them already."
He overhears one of the plainclothes officer's phone ring."Hey, what is the word?"The contractor hears the squawking from the speaker.
"But boss, we are over here. The site is vacant," the plainclothes officer frustratedly responds.
The voice on the other end sounds irritated and is directly issuing stern instructions.
"OK. We shall circle back."
He hangs up and they slowly drift off. The contractor's heart can finally slow down. However, they remain quiet on the site, waiting for the 'all clear.' Ten minutes have elapsed. Ultimately, Barnaby rings him.
"They have left. Get the guys back to work."
"OK boss!" he enthusiastically responds.
Barnaby follows them across to the next quarter. Before he crosses the road, he signals the others using their neighbourhood telegraph. On the electric pole, he scratches his first mark of the day using his white chalk on the side facing the plainclothes officers.
When either of the duo passes, they will know that Barnaby was there and he was still shadowing the two plainclothes officers and they went in that direction. The 'X' denotes a pair while the 'O' denotes that at the time they passed there, they were still in a group.
The officers spot a construction site in furious mechanisation mode. They lick their lips in anticipation as they walk towards them. The would-be victim already wary has a casual swagger.
"Close this site immediately. You have no permission to work here. Close it now."
The guy regards them with disgust as he whips out the dreaded blue note from his pocket. The officers shrivel as they know they are going to pound sand. They peruse it and blink, then furiously slink away, with humble pie all over their faces.
John has been shadowing his two uniformed officers down the main artery for almost an hour. He knows they are there to strictly observe and report. The plainclothes officers are the ones that execute the well-cultivated grift. They walk round admiring the wares being sold by the road. Some secondhand jackets, knock-off t-shirts, an inexhaustible supply of various vegetables, the guy selling roasted chicken gizzards and fried goat intestines, sausages. . . it's all there. They spot a crew installing a gate. Luck. They walk towards the now scampering workers, tools in hand. One of the uniformed officers breaks out his phone and dials a number
"Boss, we have something for you." His voice is excited. "A gate here by Friendship Butchery."
He keenly listens.
"No! No! They have all scattered, except for one person so you can come."
The voice on the other end sounds cheery.
"Good! Good! Stay on-site and watch him. We will be there in five minutes. Clear?"
The gate owner endures his defiant look. He recognizes the pain and agony that is about to follow, but in the meantime, he can only afford to be bold. John sets himself among the motorbike riders and watches. He can't feel the gate owner's pain as he has never been in any situation where he could afford a gate. As he waits, he sees the plainclothes officers rush past him towards the gate guy. He also spots Barnaby lurking by the butchery. They don't acknowledge each other visually but merely stare at each other for a moment. Their eyes do the talking.
"Animals," John reads off Barnaby's face and smiles.
Barnaby walks over to the nearest street lamp and marks it out.
Alex will instantly know the two groups converged here. The uniformed officers do not wait long after the plainclothes officers arrive. Their job is done, and it's time to continue prowling. John continues to hound them, stopping long enough to mark the pole, adding to Barnaby's message. Meanwhile, the plainclothes officers are expressing fallacious outrage at this minor infraction.
"Now look here, you did not obtain a permit to install this gate."
"But, but. . ."
"No buts. Either we shut this down and impound the gate, or you get a permit for it."
"Impound the gate? Good one." the other plainclothes officer chuckles to himself.
The gate guy seems defeated. Bound by the act, he pleads his case, asks for his options and loses fifty dollars in a heartbeat. Satisfied, the officers walk away while the gate guy wearily rallies his team back.