Customer traffic in the brothel lessened the next week; the streets were getting too hot. A famous entrepreneur overdosed on drugs in the area, and the police were picking up any and everybody.
Amara told her boys not to cross paths with the police for a while until the heat settled. In the evening, she fixed herself up and met with Abiodun, known as Mr. A. They met in the city center, the Central. The area housed government offices, private organizations, and industries. It was the meeting point for big business; too boisterous to be residential.
Grand hotels took up space in the area; for visitors to stay and do business or find pleasure. The Central also boasted clubs for the rich and the super-rich, and for those who sought extreme comfort and escape. Mr. A scheduled a meeting for Amara with an industrialist. A Mr. Marshall, whose wife, traveled out of town for a few days. He and Amara went way back, as she always soothed his lonely heart.
Excited about the evening, Amara took extra care of her appearance. Mr. A stood in front of the Excellency hotel waiting; the rendezvous point. Dressed in a grey three-piece suit, Amara smiled as she hugged him. “Hello lover, long time.”
A handsome man in his early fifties, Mr. A kept himself in shape. He smiled back at her, looking her over with approval. “Mr. Marshall can be petty about every little detail. I came to ensure everything goes well. You look beautiful as always, my dear.”
They strolled to the elevator, which took them to the thirteenth floor. “Madam Love would like a word sometime this week if you can make the time.” He said, looking at her.
Amara did not say a word, waiting for the root of the matter.
“She needs you now, Amara, and you can make so much money off her customers. What’s the hold-up?”
Amara smiled and turned to him. “Tell her I will call her later in the week to schedule a meeting. Wish me luck.” The elevator doors slid open, she stepped out and walked away.
Their first book club meeting left them sated. They discussed the first chapter of the chosen book in-depth. The story started with action, a mysterious murder. The chief investigator, the protagonist, suspected a member of the dead man’s family.
“A question,” Amara started the discussion the next day, once they took their preferred seats in the cafe.
Gerald removed the book from his backpack and thumbed through to the chapter up for review. “Shoot.”
“Why would a person kill a member of their family for money? Not their extended family, but mother, father, brother, or sister?”
“My question would be, what is the value of family to such a person? What did his parents teach him or her about life’s basic values? I am not speaking for the killer, but you would need to put a higher value on money than on whatever the family can provide to take such a step.”
Amara nodded, thinking about her family. Written off at a time she needed them the most, they seemed like specks of dust on the sand to her now. The whole family, including the extended, treated her like trash. Still, would she go as far as killing them for cash?
The server brought their coffee and left.
“So Amara, what does family mean to you?”
Amara thought about her answer. “Can we find a perfect family situation anywhere? I believe all families have their problems. It is what makes us human; however, I expected more from mine. I can’t blame them because they acted as society expected and shunned the sinner.”
He smiled. “If you think like that, you can forgive them. I am glad you realize no one is perfect.”
She laughed. “Forgive them, hah! They think I’m the one who needs forgiveness,” she said, looking out the window. She chose her seat near it because of the view. Thinking there helped clear her head.
“We all need to identify where we missed it. This would enable us to retrace our steps. If we need to forgive people along the way, why not?” Gerald said.
Amara looked at him. “Easy to say, but difficult to live out.” She paused. “I was sixteen, scared, and pregnant. Abandoned by all I loved; my parents included. They only accommodated me to avoid the shame of seeing me homeless. No one wanted to talk to, encourage, or help me with the pregnancy. I can never forget the pain of those nine months, ever. You will not believe this, but my parents held a grudge against me the entire period. They still do, for my shameless act. Forgiveness does not come easy to people, my friend. I believe my parents would have sold me at the time for any amount to dispose of me.” She smiled at him. “Story over. Back to the book and the handsome detective.”
Amara arrived at Madam Love’s flat early. A high-rise building in the Central. It boasted a view of the city like a painting in an art gallery. Amara loved the picture. She rang the bell, and a man answered the door. He asked her to sit and wait for the madam; he knew madam expected her.
She sat on the dark green sofa, which complemented the mauve cushion and the abstract floral wallpaper, a dramatic backdrop in the room. Amara smiled at the metallic ceiling pendant, which housed the light bulb. The decoration reminded her of the high-end clubs. Madam Meg could not compare with Madam Love, though they did the same business. Amara nodded her head; it was time to move up.
“Hello Amara, so nice of you to come.” Madam Love said as she entered the room in her long floral gown. Tall and still beautiful, men still flocked around her when she appeared in public. Mr. A told Amara the lady hit fifty-five the year before.
Amara got up and allowed the Madam to kiss her cheeks before they both sat down facing each other. “Hello, Madam, you called, and I answered.”
“Thank you. Tea or something cool to drink?” Love asked.
The temperature in the room compared to that of the Swiss Alps. Amara would swear to it, though she had never been. She longed to ask Madam Love if she thought she lived in Antarctica.
“Tea, please,” Amara said, hoping for the lavender tea she enjoyed the last time she visited.
“Good choice,” Madam Love rang the bell on the side of the coffee table, invisible to the eye. The man appeared again. “Armand, please serve tea. The Lavender Cinnamon I got from China would be perfect.” He nodded and left. “So, tell me how you are faring. Abiodun told me your madam almost stopped you from working.”
Amara smiled. “Well, I do not blame her. Who would? She considered our meeting as disloyal to her and took the steps she thought most beneficial for her business.”
Love threw her head back and laughed. “Business, you say?” She asked, recovering from the joke she enjoyed alone. “Let me tell you how to do business, dear. None of my girls are mine to do as I please. They can do business with my customers from anywhere, if they pay me my cut. The cut, darling, is the essence of the relationship. Without the pay, how do we survive in this cruel world? So, Meg is losing money because of pride and disloyalty? Hah!” Love shook her head.
Armand brought in the tea tray and laid the engraved china set on the coffee table. The tea set transformed the place, giving it a Chinese tearoom look.
“This is beautiful china, Madam,” Amara said.
“Thank you, dear. I hope you enjoy your tea.”
After a few sips of the tea, which filled the nostrils and lingered on the tongue as it warmed its way to the belly, Madam turned to business.
“Amara, our first meeting did not go well, and I apologize. I underestimated you, thinking a girl from the ghetto would jump at any and everything to work for the big boys in the Central, but you set me straight. It must be why big wigs like Marshall want only you.” Love smiled at her.
“I want us to build another relationship, this time as equals. You give me my cut, and I give you the big boys. I will set you up in a flat in the Central to make business more accessible for you, and I’ll make sure everything you need is at hand.” She leaned close to Amara. “Say, yes.”
Amara smiled at Love. No madam would provide you with all Love listed if the stakes did not stack up in her favor. Love would benefit a lot from the deal, and until Amara understood everything in the agreement, she would continue to dilly dally.
“Thank you, madam, for the kind offer. Give me a week to think?”
“Haba Amara, do not be coy now. Who else can provide you with all of this? Listen, my time makes money. I will give you two days, nothing more.”
“Why me, Madam? Many younger and more beautiful girls abound. Girls well-known for their techniques. Why me?”
Love looked at her, a slight smile on her face. “Because it is you, Amara. Only you would ask such a question. Connected to your inner self, you have clear goals for your life. You carry yourself with enough poise to enter and leave any room. The customers who stick to you can tell. They understand one can’t fake such a personality. Those are the men I want. Men of stature recognize strength and presence when they see it. A woman who knows her power, but still maintains her place, is sexy, don’t you think?” Madam Love burst into laughter. “Oh, I see us making lucky money together, my dear.”
Amara tilted her head to the side. “Give me two days, madam, and I will send you my answer.”
The madam beamed. “Fine, I’ll be waiting.”
Alex ran to hug her, and Amara laughed, thankful for the love of the child. She bought Alex books and a toy car. The girl tended towards the boyish. They stood outside her parent’s home and heard her mother speaking to someone on the phone.
Amara sighed, reluctant to engage. “Where is grandpa?” She asked Alex.
“He is sleeping, Mama. Grandma says he is down with a fever.”
Amara nodded and gave Alex the bag of gifts. “I want you to read these books every day. I will take you to the Shawarma place this weekend, and you will read a page from one of them to me… promise?”
“Thanks, Mama, you’re the best.” Alex hugged her again.
The more Amara looked at Alex, the more she liked Madame Love’s offer. She would achieve her dreams of starting a business and living with Alex. She played with the child, and thoughts of a home, a better school, and a better life for her child flashed through her mind like a dream becoming clearer and clearer.
“Hey Alex, how about living with Mama soon?” Amara could not stop her thoughts from slipping out of her mouth.
Alex turned from playing and looked at her. “Can I, Mama?” She asked, the smile of a minute ago gone.
“No, darling, next time say, ‘may I’, alright?”
Alex nodded. “May I, Mama?”
Amara smiled at her. “Yes, soon. Be patient, love, and keep it our little secret. Don’t tell anyone-grandpa or grandma, no one?”
Alex nodded and turned back to her toy.
Amara was fighting a masked assailant. In the dense darkness, they fought on an empty road. The man tried to choke life out of Amara as he pinned her to the ground. He wore all black, but his red eyes were his only visible features; Amara shuddered at the way they glowed at her. She panicked as her strength ebbed; she kicked as well. The man kept up the chokehold. Her attempts did not deter him in the least. Amara’s hold on him loosened as she lost strength and any hope of being saved in that darkness.
Out of nowhere, he appeared. A man just stepped out of the shadows and strode towards them with speed. The assailant turned to find out the person bearing down on him, when the newcomer placed one hand on the assailant’s arm and threw him off Amara, and into the darkness like garbage.
Turning to her, he said, “wake up now.”
Amara woke up to smoke. When she tried to open her eyes, the smoke hurt her. The noise of people screaming and pounding on her door reached her. She staggered from the bed, coughing, and felt her way to the door. She unlocked it and fell into the arms of someone, Nkoli.
“Oh, thank you, Jesus. Aunty, we have been knocking. People are trying to enter your room through the window to stop the fire. Come to my room.”
Amara could not understand what Nkoli said about the fire and went with her to the room. She lay down exhausted on Nkoli’s mattress on the floor, still coughing.
“Aunty, since your room is open, let me go back. Please stay down.”
Amara nodded and smiled at her. She understood Nkoli needed to look out for her. Some girls would use the opportunity to their advantage. Nkoli came back with the keys to Amara’s room and related what she knew of the fire.
On her way to the toilet, when it was still dark out, smoke filled the hallway. She traced the source to Amara’s room and started knocking. The noise made from knocking woke up the others, and they all tried to force the door open.
Amara smiled. She changed the door to the room the month before, and if she had not opened it herself, it would have been difficult to open from the hallway. Madame Meg’s boys also tried from the back to remove the barrier at the window in the kitchenette. They found a gaping hole in the new mosquito net Amara changed earlier in the month.
That last bit of information confirmed Amara’s suspicions. Someone tried to burn her room down with her in it. At a loss about who would do such a thing and why, she kept her thoughts to herself.
The fire damaged most of Amara’s kitchen area and burnt up part of the table. The side of the room affected was black with soot. Madam Meg invited her for a meeting after they cleaned up as best as they could that day.
Amara thanked her and sat down, waiting.
“I hope you are alright? No health problems from the fire?” Madam swirled the tea in her tea cup slowly.
Amara shook her head. “None, Madam, thank you.”
Madam Meg nodded, sipping from her teacup. “Amara, I will not waste your time. Fate has moved us to the next stage of events. We have been going back and forth about your departure from the brothel. I think this is the best time.
“My boys found your scented candles around the burnt areas, so you caused this minor disaster. I will not ask you to pay for repairs if you leave without a fuss. I will renovate the room for Nma. She always coveted the little room, and since she is the house star, she deserves to have what she wants. You have decided on Love as your Madam. I hope you find success with her. God be with you in all your future endeavours.”
Amara’s heart stilled. This was the end, though not the way she hoped, and it seemed Meg was done. Her face cracked into a smile she did not feel, as she knelt, then crawled towards Madam Meg.
“Thank you, Madam. When nobody would, you took me in. You nursed me back to health and helped me start this job. You taught me the ways of the world and helped me stand on my feet. I have not been disloyal. Madame Love hasn’t hired me yet. I understand the reason for your anger, and I ask for forgiveness. I want us to part as friends, not enemies, please?”
Madame Meg looked at her, and the look of sadness in her eyes struck Amara. “Amara, I don’t need this. I took you in as the daughter the man upstairs did not give me, and Alex, like my own. Don’t you understand how much your betrayal hurt? In my shoes, what would you do? I set things up, so in a few years, you would run this place.” She looked up and pointed a finger. “Why can’t people be loyal? Why does everybody want more? Where did the contentment spirit fly to?” She paused, looking down. “Go, go to Love then, and be happy.”
Amara stood and bowed to Meg. “Goodbye, Madam.”