Nma beamed as the other girls fawned over her. Madam Meg made her the head girl of the house with Amara gone. She would be the one assigning customers to the girls,’ and best of all, Amara’s room belonged to her. Once announced, most of the girls’ gathered at the bar cheered, and Nma declared drinks all round. The barman put on some music, and everybody danced as they wished her well.
The ladies, who would not speak to her before, came to her table to talk. Everybody congratulated Nma, trying to scale into her good books. Nma smiled at the scene playing out in front of her with understanding. Her time had come, and she would dry it out.
Soon, most of the girls left the bar for their rooms. Nma and her trusted companions, Enna and Rowie, remained.
“Nkoli shimmied away, right after madam Meg. She didn’t pretend to hide her shame, follower of rubbish.” Enna said, taking a seat by the bar window.
Nma smiled, sitting as well as she took a swig from the beer bottle. “Don’t mind the losers. Nkoli is a small fish; no harm can come from her. I will teach her a small lesson later to show her who the real boss is. As for her mentor, I am not done with her yet. By leaving the brothel, she started the journey on the path I planned for her.”
Rowie looked at Nma wide-eyed, dropping her beer bottle on the table. “Babe, you mean you orchestrated her exit?”
Nma smiled at her and winked. “By the time I am through with the worthless prostitute, that old cargo, she will wish for death.”
Enna smiled at Nma. “I trust you, my friend. You can put people in their place. What about another beer? We are still celebrating, aren’t we?”
Nma whistled. “Stanza,” she called to the barman, “more beer bottles here.”
The girls whooped, hailing her.
“Listen, this is a new regime. The days of the old are over. I don’t understand how you girls could stand taking the customers Amara assigned to you, pretending that the good ones all requested for her? When I told madam, she asked her to stop attending to new customers. I made that happen.” Nma said, smiling at the looks on their faces.
Rowie raised her hands. “Powerful babe. Nobody told us. The changes in Amara’s relationship with madam Meg gladdened us, and we gave glory to God. So, the glory goes to you, Nma.” They laughed.
Nma sobered up and looked out the window. “I’m not done. No, not at all. I will make sure Amara never works again. If she does, it won’t be in Haraya. She is not aware of what is coming for her.”
“Nma, what did she do to you? It must be horrible for you to hate her this much?” Enna asked.
Nma remained silent. From her first week in the brothel, she hated Amara. The customers she wanted all chose Amara, and they assigned her the cast-offs. She waited her turn, endured the old and the drunk as they treated her like a penny-penny harlot.
She worked hard until the money she made the brothel opened Madam Meg’s doors to her. Once she gained access to Madam Meg, she filled the old lady’s ears with all sorts and few near-truths.
Amara thought she was better than others because she could read enormous books and speak well. Nma would show her everybody had their own time.
Mr. A hated to wait, and worst of all, he hated to wait for Nma. She did not value his time. If not for the fact he sponsored her in Haraya, he would have abandoned the hag a while ago. Packing up to leave, someone shouted his name, and he groaned. Why would she be calling out his name like that in a hotel lobby, for god’s sake? He closed his eyes and sat down again, ignoring her call. Her heels clicked on the floor, loud enough to drown out a drum. Mr. A held the armrest of his seat tight, waiting. When she appeared before him, he closed his eyes again, wishing for the ground to open. Nma dressed like the local masquerade.
Nma sat down facing him, smiling, then she called out to the bartender. Mr. A couldn’t speak. He swore never to meet her during the day or anywhere people knew him again.
“All these years, and nobody taught you how to dress? You beefed Amara and couldn’t learn a thing or two from her?” He asked, hissing as he shook his head.
Nma leaned back in the cushioned chair, looking confused. Her eyes furrowed. She checked her wristwatch. “I’m a few minutes late, Uncle. Why are you comparing me with Amara?”
Abiodun held on to the chair tighter and put his head back, eyes closed. He could make money at any meeting he attended. Nma provided money sometimes from the various deals they made together; it was the sole reason he agreed to meet her. He tried to focus on that fact. He leaned forward. “I’m not your uncle. Didn’t we discuss this?” Shifting back into the seat, he looked at her. “Why did you ask for this meeting?”
Nma looked at him with her mouth turned down. She opened her handbag, took out a beefy envelope, and dropped it on the table. “Check it.”
He picked up the envelope, looked inside, and held it up. “What’s this about?”
“What is Amara up to?”
Mr. A put the money in the pocket of his jacket and smiled. “Well, she’s about to hit it big. Madam Love is setting her up for life, here in the Central. She left you guys in the minor leagues and upgraded herself. I suggest you do the same.” He said and stood to leave.
“I’m not done yet. I gave you a lot of money for the seedling of information you dolled out, don’t you think?” She looked him in the eye.
“You asked, and I told you what you wanted to know. What else do you want from me?”
Nma smiled. “What if I tell you how both of us can make more money off Amara?”
Mr. A looked at her for a while and sat down. “I’m listening.”
“Amara pays you for every customer you assign to her, right?”
Mr. A nodded.
“What if I give you a cut from my customers every day of the week?”
Mr. A laughed. “I don’t understand. Why?”
“I want us to figure out a way to ensure the deal between Love and Amara falls through.”
Mr. A sat forward, a frown marring his handsome face. “Listen, you are taking this jealousy thing too far. Your plans are late. Madam Love furnished an apartment for Amara, and she will move in tomorrow.”
“I will double your cut if you can help me stop Amara from working with Love. You must also do it before tomorrow.”
The fire in Nma’s eyes caught Mr. A’s attention, and he leaned back, getting comfortable. Now, this he could use. “The money you make in your seedy brothel in a month cannot pay for the shoes I’m wearing. You can’t scratch out enough for this one.”
“I’ll do anything. Make sure Amara fails.”
Mr. A frowned. “Well, my foreign customers are looking for a certain type of girl.”
“What type? I can do anything. Tell me.” Nma said, leaning forward.
“They want a girl who can sleep with their dog.” He said, looking away.
Nma hesitated for a minute. “Is that the only way?”
Mr. A nodded. “You cannot pay me from the peanuts you make. This is the only way I can ensure the risk I’m about to take is worth my while.”
“How much would we be making?”
Mr. A smiled and looked at her. “Enough to make us rich.”
Madam Love did not respond to Amara’s greeting. She stood facing the windows, looking out at the city. “You dare come here after all you’ve done?” She turned to Amara. “After all the money I spent on you?” Madam’s hands clenched and unclenched.
She advanced towards Amara, eyes growing wide and showing the whites “Chief Ekwerre used to be my biggest customer, the one I reserved for only my best girls? What did you do to enrage him so? Imagine, he asked me never to call him again? Your first customer, for god’s sake, and you messed it up. You’ve messed me up.” Her voice rose in pitch with every statement.
Amara stepped back. “Madam, I…”
Madam Love rushed forward, hand in the air, and stood in Amara’s space. “Shut your mouth, harlot! How dare you try to speak when I’m talking? Who are you? You low down, dirty piece of trash. I wanted to wash you off the streets. In one evening, you set me back by years. Now tell me, how can I maintain you? Our biggest client is gone. How?”
Amara stepped back again. “Madam, please let me explain.”
“What do you want to say now? There is no deal between us henceforth. I never want to see you again. Leave my house with your bad luck.” She said and walked out of the room.
Amara could not believe or understand what happened. What did the lady mean? Who was Chief Ekwerre? She pulled out her phone and called Mr. A. Maybe he would have answers.
Mr. A answered on the seventh ring. “Hello, Amara.”
“Mr. A, do you know of a Chief Ekwerre?”
“Amara, oh Amara, why did you do this? After everything she planned for you. I am sorry, but I am so disappointed. I need to look out for the customers I assign to you from now.”
“What are you saying? I did nothing. I don’t know this Chief Ekwerre. Please, Mr. A, this is a big misunderstanding. It is a set-up. Help me beg Madam Love. She canceled our agreement.”
He sighed. “I don’t understand you. Madam said the Chief kept calling your name as he vented at her. He canceled their agreement, and it cost Madam. He pays the rent for her apartment, meaning she needs to move. Amara, this is not very good for you or your reputation. What happened?”
Armand came to stand by her. “Miss, please leave, or I’ll call the police.” Amara cut off the phone line and nodded, exhausted.
She went back to Gerald’s; she had no choice.
Amara did not leave her room for the rest of the week, and the tears stopped then as well, but she cursed Madam Love and the mysterious Chief. She refused to speak to Gerald, and he respected her need for privacy. He kept trays of food and snacks outside the door of her room for breakfast and dinner.
On Saturday, she transferred money to her parents for their upkeep, still unwilling to visit Alex. The devastation she felt left her hopeless. Her plans seemed like a pile of baby bricks, which someone built up and destroyed in an instant. Now, she did not have a job or a place to transact business.
Amara called up her old customers to meet them at hotels close to their workplaces. Hope rose again like waves in high tide. Minute by minute, as she planned, the future looked liveable, possible; she could start again.
The next Monday, Amara wrote out the list of the customers she called. She finished the list a minute before she received a text message alert. She checked the sender, a customer on her list. Amara could not believe the insults the man sent her. She tried to call him back when she received another text message. A second customer threatened to beat her up whenever they met again, and the texts kept coming. By the twelfth message, Amara sat on the floor, dazed, unaware of the tears dripping down her face. They all accused her of being an AIDS carrier and would deal with her for not disclosing her status.
Gerald returned late and found her in the dark living room, still lost. He put on the lights and went to stand by her side. On the center table, pieces of paper torn to bits took up space like flower petals scattered by the wind. He watched as she stood and walked away, leaving him in the room without a word.
“I can help Amara, please.”
She stopped. “No one can help me.”
Gerald went to her and turned her round to face him. “Talk to me.”
She looked at him, and his eyes implored her. Wanting to be held by him, she closed hers. Amara knew that if she gave in to his demands once, that would be it. She opened her eyes. “I’m fine, Gerald. I need time to compose myself. Can I stay here for a while? I hope it won’t be too much trouble?”
Gerald shook his head. “No trouble. Take as much time as you need.”
When she left, he glanced at her phone. A text-message showed on the screen. He picked it up and read.