I know I shouldn’t check her out but I cannot help myself. She’s wearing cheap clothes and her braids are fuzzy and yet her picture does not do her justice. My assignment turns her head quickly and catches me in the act. I smile self-consciously. She does not. Her eyes trace a slow, sweeping burn up and down my body before she turns back to her group of friends resuming the conversation. I feel hot and cold at the same time. Ashamed and aroused. They warned me of this but I’m an old timer, me. I’ve got everything under control. I set my glass down on the bar and make my way over to her, resisting the urge to cover my balls like I am twelve. I guess she has more of an effect on me than I’d care to admit. I feel naked, vulnerable.
“Hi.” I sidle up to her, one hand sweeping my jacket aside to slip into my pocket. My back feels bare without my handgun tucked into my waistband.
“No,” she says.
“I said no.”
“You don’t even know what I was going to say.”
“The answer is still no.”
“For all you know I could have been coming over to ask for the time.”
I pause. “No.”
Her friends giggle. Something about grown women giggling sets my teeth on edge and I turn to leave. “Whatever.” All I was told was ‘find her.’ Nobody ever said anything about bringing her back. I just need to make one call and-
“Ah, you’re one of those. Big-” She measures out a space with her hands. “Ego.” She gives me another one of those looks.
“You don’t know anything about me.”
“No,” she says. “But I would like to. Wanna hang out at my place?”
She’s mocking my accent but I don’t care. In that instant I know that I am going to sleep with her and that neither of us will actually drift off. I know sex with her will be messy; scratches and spitting and smacks and hair pulling. I know it will be exhilarating and wonderful and awful and terrifying all at once. And when we’re done, I know I’ll sleep with one eye open because she is the kind of chick who will cut a man’s balls off just for dozing off before she does.
I know all these things and yet I say, “My place is closer,” with a big, stupid grin on my face. She takes my hand.
She has quite the rack on her. The second and third pairs are not bad either, even if they are smaller. Nipples lined up on either side of her midriff like Hershey’s Kisses. I want to act surprised but I am not. This is Nigeria after all. Anything goes.
“What are you, exactly?” I ask. What I really want to know is ‘Why do people want you so bad?’ It can’t be the six nipples – I mean, they’re hot and all but it can’t be that. Not for the price on her head.
“Do you really want to know?” she purrs into my ear. I decide I’d rather not. I reach for her but she dances away, divesting herself of clothing until she stands in just her thigh-high Pretty Woman boots. Afterwards I lie wincing on my back while she licks the blood from under her fingernails.
“How was that for you?” she asks.
“Amazing.” I mean it.
“I’m thirsty,” she says. “Got milk?”
“Nobody drinks milk in Nigeria,” I reply because it’s true. The first few weeks after I came back, people laughed and called me ‘Taata’ when they caught me eating breakfast in the doorway of my flat. Eventually I’d stopped eating cereal altogether and settled for bread and tea with boiled eggs like a normal human being. She rolls her eyes and I get up to make her a cup from that Nido powdered stuff.
When I return, she has her back to me and one leg up in the air. She makes growly noises in her throat as she licks herself.
“Oh thanks.” She takes the mug from me. “This is thirsty work.”
Her skin glows. She puts on her clothes.
“Will I see you again?” I ask, forgetting myself. She finishes up her beverage.
“Maybe.” She slams the mug down on the bedside unit. “If you’re good.” She tweaks my cheek.
After she leaves, I realise my wallet is missing.
It takes me three days to find her this time.
“We’ve got to stop meeting like this,” she says. As before, she does not excuse herself. She grabs my hand and leads me into the alleyway. “Why are you following me?” She runs her nails all over my scalp.
“I’ve been asked to find you,” I say, putty in her hands. She kneads my belly with her fingers and I find myself sucking in my breath even though she has seen me naked before. She licks my chin.
“You could tell them you didn’t find me.”
“I am not the only one looking,” I say. “There is a price on your head.”
I tell her. She tsks. “That’s all?”
“It’s a lot. More than many will make in their lifetime.”
“And you haven’t asked yourself why anyone would pay that much for little old me?”
Truth be told, at that moment I am not up to asking anything. Her kneading is turning my muscles to spaghetti and I want to feel her tongue on my face again.
“Come with me,” she says.
The carpet in the living room is so plush and so white and so deep it’s like walking in snow. Apart from an armchair, a fridge, a bed, a dresser, and a drinks cabinet, the flat is bare. Everything is white and pretty hi-spec.
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” she replies to my raised eyebrow.
“Some friend,” I say. Her dark clothes on the carpet look thrillingly out of place. This time when she licks herself I want to ask her to marry me.
“You took my wallet,” I say instead.
She pauses, looks at me with blissed-out eyes. “Well, you found me. You can have it back.” She nods to her bag on the dresser, points her other leg in the air and continues her ablutions.
Her bag is a mess: Tom-Tom wrappers and nail files and bits of string and crumbs and wraparound sunglasses and an ancient Nokia – a 3310. There is a Ziploc bag of something that looks like wire-wool sitting on my wallet. I move it aside and reclaim my possession. It’s flat. I open it. It’s empty. I decide not to make a fuss.
“So what did you do to piss off the bigwigs?” I ask.
She shrugs into a batik print robe, chuckling. “What makes you think I pissed them off? For all you know, they pissed me off.” She walks away as she says this. Her voice sounds slightly muffled and I know she is rooting about in the fridge. When she comes back, she is drinking a tall glass of milk thirstily.
“You’ve got to let me take you in. Your parents are going crazy.”
“My parents?” She smiles a big smile, showing small, pointed teeth. “Is that what they told you?”
“And you’re better off going with me,” I ignore the feeling of disquiet. “Others might not be so lenient.”
“Ooh. Leniency. I didn’t know that was the name of this game.” She puts the glass down and comes towards me. My face burns with shame. This is the first time I have gone to bed with a person I am supposed to find.
Okay, second. But let’s not talk about that. The point is, I am sure my clients will be displeased.
She reads my face like it’s an emoticon. “For the amount they’re paying, I am sure the Millers will be glad you kept me happy. They like it when I am happy.” Her face darkens but only for a fraction of a second. “Mostly.”
My instincts are screaming at me but I am not listening. Her kisses are warm and milky. She nips my lower lip.
“Ow!” I pull away sharply, feeling the salt flood my mouth.
“Hee hee hee!” she laughs. She gasps and starts to cough, great racking, heaving, wet coughs that leave her teary-eyed with exertion. She falls to her knees.
“Are you okay?” I thump her on the back. She makes vague motions with her hands. I move to get her some water but her coughing changes, becomes even more alarming if it is possible.
“Ack! Ack!” She vomits something on the carpet. It is covered in gunk and slime and I can see white bits from the milk that has curdled in her stomach. Frankly it stinks and is disgusting but I cannot take my eyes away. Something shiny is under all that mass.
She picks it up and springs towards the bathroom. I can hear water. I try to control my own sympathetic gag reflex. The smell is sharp and foul and clings to the back of my nose.
“Here,” she says. She plops something wet into my hand. It is big. Heavy. Tangled up. Like wire wool. But gold.
“Whoa.” I am getting the ‘marry me’ feeling again. “Whoa,” I repeat.
“Now you know why they want me.”
“What is this?”
“What does it look like?” She grabs my face in her dripping hands. “You don’t have to take me back. We could be together. I keep a clean house too.”
I hold a hand up defensively and back away. But of course it is an empty, useless gesture. Unlike in other scenarios, to other girls. “I have to take you back,” I say instead. “I gave my word.”
I am trying to fight my desire and losing. Her proposition appeals to me. Anything sounds better than the motels with semen-spattered bed sheets and the dusty, bumpy Nigerian roads that turn to fast-flowing rivers during the rainy season. Plus I really like her. And not just because she’s flexible.
“They told me you’d try to change my mind.”
“Did they now?” She kisses my cheek. I hand the gold wire-wool thing back. “Keep it,” she says. “You’ve earned it. The best ones are the ones made willingly.”
She scratches at my nipple and I forget the smell in the room. It takes me almost eight hours of lounging around her flat the next day to figure out that she is not coming back.
Which is what she is eating the next time I track her down to an uncompleted building full of squatters, nomads and druggies. I’m glad I’m carrying my gun. Her mouth is all bloody and there is fur between her teeth. I should be disgusted but I am relieved that I have found her again. She doesn’t seem to have affected my tracking skills. All the same, I feel a sort of perverse pride that she is making it hard for me.
“You found me.” She picks her teeth with a fingernail.
“I found you. Are you going to come quietly?”
“Never.” She throws her arms about me and kisses me. I lose my balance and try to steady myself. Rat bones crunch beneath my feet.
“Sorry.” I twist her around quickly and try to handcuff her. It is not part of this job and I am hoping it does not leave a mark. I’d have better luck shackling water. She twists this way and that. Eventually, she huffs and holds still. I click the handcuffs on.
“I’ve called the Millers.” I have made sure this time, even before I entered the building, to call my employers. “They should be here by morning.”
“How shall we pass the time, I wonder?” She puts one leg up on my shoulder and then the other. I have no choice but to carry her out that way.
“Can we buy some chicken or something? I’m starving.”
I don’t sleep. I watch her instead, spread-eagled on her cream bed sheets. She sleeps in the nude, glowing and glorious. The sight of all her nipples almost sets me off. I throw a wrapper over her. She chuckles and turns over.
She snuffles and shudders lot in her sleep. Without all the eye rolling and her mouth in its insouciant quirk she looks all of sixteen. I pour myself a stiff drink and watch the rise and fall of her chest till dawn.
I jump out of the armchair, knocking over the empty whiskey glass.
“Shit!” I run to the front door only to find it still bolted. When I hurry back to the bedroom she is sitting up, staring at me.
“I am still here,” she says.
“Oh.” I pick the crust from my eyes. Falling asleep on the job, I think, God I’m old.
All the cheek seems to have gone out of her. Her braids hang lank over her face and chest.
“Would you like some milk?”
Even the way she drinks has changed overnight. Her greedy gulping and slurping has been replaced by dainty sips. She hands me the still-full glass.
“How old are you anyway?” I ask when the silence has stretched for more than I can bear.
“However old you want me to be, baby.” The look is back in her eyes. Just for a moment. She exhales and her shoulders droop. “It’s no use. You’ll never stop looking.”
“Not really, no. It’s my gift, see.”
“You’re the worst.”
“How many times have you run away?”
“A few. Everyone has a price. But not you. I gave you a trich and you still won’t leave me alone.”
“The gold thing. You have no idea how valuable I am, do you?”
I had forgotten about that. It is a wonder I can even remember how to tie my shoes with her around.
“Yeah, I can’t take your…trich by the way.”
“Keep it. I told you. You earned it fairly.”
“It’s against my rules. I can only accept my fee.”
“Well your rules are stupid. You cannot accept a gift that has been freely given but you will accept payment to put me back into slavery?”
“What are you talking about?”
She hisses, clicks her fingers in front of my face. “Open your damn eyes. You know they are not my parents.”
The venom in her voice makes the blood rush to my face. My instincts had told me something was off. “Wait-”
She ignores me. “Do you know what it feels like to have hair stuffed down your throat? Eh? Brazilian, Peruvian, Indian human hair weaves – only the best mind, from the head of a maiden or some such nonsense. Doesn’t matter though. Hurts much the same way as your garden variety hair being stuffed in. And all for the purpose of making trich. Like I’m a damn factory.”
She makes a pounding motion with her fists.
My stomach roils a bit. “You mean-?”
“I mean feeling full to bursting, so sick that you cannot breathe. And when it comes up, it is worse than going in, no matter how many injections they give you to try and numb your throat.”
I sit down abruptly.
“I could kill myself. I tried it before but I only came back, short one life.” She rubbed her neck. “And it hurts worse than heck. Not a fan of pain.”
Something tells me now is not the time to make a crack about my nipped lip, the scratches on my back that make me almost wet myself each time I break a sweat.
“I’m so sorry.” I don’t know what else to say.
She starts to cry. It’s as if the thing that is holding her together has come undone. Tears gush down her face. She doesn’t make a sound. I hold her and we lie down together. She is shivering so I cover her up with the bedclothes. I rub her back until she stops.
“My family has been passed down theirs for as long as I can remember. Like possessions. I don’t want my children to belong to them too.”
“They own you?”
“Some ancient thing. I don’t get it either.” She tilts her head upwards to meet my eyes. “That’s why I have to stay lost this time. I’m the first female my family has had for a long, long time. There’s no way I’m sticking around to marry Biodun stinking Miller with his grey buckteeth.”
I think back to the shapeless blob who poured himself – uninvited – into the armchair in his father’s study. He’d sat there picking his nose and nibbling on its contents while Mr Miller pretended not to notice. Biodun did not say one word as he saw me to the door, plodding down the many flights of stairs. He held open one fleshy buttock, farting almost noiselessly as he retreated. Yeah. Can’t say I blame her.
I stroke her hair and her dewy skin and wish the Millers had not got bounty hunters involved. A thought occurs to me.
“You say you’ve run a lot of times. What’s changed now? Why are there other people looking for you now, the price on you head?”
She swallows. “Yeah, about that. I’m in heat. And I can only have babies once. But I will not be bred like some animal!” She glances at me. “Sorry. I should have told you.” At least she has the mind to look sheepish.
I’m expecting to feel the familiar thumping fear that the thought of offspring usually brings but there is nothing.
“Why me?” I ask.
“Why not you?” She kisses me lightly for each point. “You’re tall. Handsome. Kind. Smart enough to find me. Thrice. And you’re not Biodun Miller.”
I let the kiss go on for longer than I should. Unease tugs me out of it.
“I’ve got to get you out of here.”
But before we can move, there is a crack of what sounds like thunder. The front door and part of the doorway come crashing down. I grab her and force her to the floor, throwing myself on top of her, handgun already in hand.
A man-mountain steps into the settling dust. I recognise Priye, one of the Millers’ henchmen. He scans the room with red eyes before moving aside. A gold-wrought cane. Mr Miller steps in gingerly, his loafers sinking into the carpet. He takes one look at us tangled up on the floor. His eyes become glacial behind his rimless lenses.
“You’d better not have dipped your wick in my KitKat.”
I glance at her. She doesn’t look like a KitKat to me. Not with the way her eyes are narrowed into slits. I keep the gun trained on my employer.
“Mr Miller,” I say by way of greeting.
“It’s Richard, actually.”
“I see from the gun that she has managed to turn tricks on your mind.” He smiles. His teeth are a solid piece of bone. “I thought you said you were the best. Not so, eh?”
“I am not going back with you,” she says.
“Hello, dear,” he says, as if he’s only just seen her. “My, have we been a busy little sausage.”
Mr Miler’s mixed metaphors alone should qualify him for villain of the year. I ought to have known he was the bad guy. Besides, nobody who has as much money as he does should be this thin. It’s unnatural. Un-Nigerian even.
She stands and secures the wrapper tightly over her chest. The flyaways from her braids stand as if from static.
“The police are on their way, Mr Miller,” I say. “I suggest you leave before they get here.”
“My dear boy, I am as rich as Methuselah. If you called the police I would have been here sooner. Now, return my property if you don’t mind.”
“You are not my parents!” Her fingers turn inwards into claws. “I am not going anywhere with you.”
Priye eyes her as if he is waiting for someone to give him a reason. I pull her back gently by the shoulder and stand in front of her. Mr Miller’s eyes flash.
“Has he ruined you?” he asks, voice whisper-soft.
My stomach knots.
“Utterly,” she says.
Mr Miller’s jaw clenches. “Take her,” he says to Priye.
Priye moves forward suddenly and wallops me hard in the face. She screams and flies at him. Mr Miller grabs her. I stagger to my feet and return the favour, almost shattering the bones in my hand on Priye’s skull. I aim a kick at his groin. He blocks it and punches me in the belly. I nearly void my bowels. I pull my gun as I come up again. I use the butt on his face. Something cracks. Priye claps me about the ears. Hard.
The room swims. I can barely hear. My nose is weeping red which pools on my shirt. Priye spits a tooth in my direction. I can see her mouth moving. She is screaming as they drag her away. Priye watches me like a predator. I feign a slip, reach up and jab him in the throat. He gasps. I hit him in that sweet spot again. He clutches his neck as he goes down. I hold the gun to his ear and shoot. Red on the wall. There are feet everywhere. Ugly boots. Other henchmen. They kick me. My wrist crumbles like a biscuit under a boot. My gun deserts me.
“Stop! I’ll come. Just leave him!” Her voice is shrill enough to cut through the ringing in my ears. In the short time I have known her, she has never sounded so scared. “Just let me say good bye. Please. Please…Dad.”
I know the strength is has taken for her to call Mr Miller ‘Dad.’ I drag myself up. Priye’s trumpeting like an elephant, clutching the hole where his ear used to be. His hands are sticky and dark. The other goons are stopping him from trampling me to death.
She flings her arms around me, kisses me hard. No nipping, no licking. Just the deep, sweet sorrow of parting.
“Makeitfourmakeitfour,” she whispers frantically. “Don’t believe the news.” She clutches my face. Her lips are stained with my blood. I pull her close. Someone drags her away from me.
The clip is playing on a loop all over the airport as I make my way to the front of the queue for customs. There she is, leaping from the Millers’ helicopter over Lagos lagoon. They didn’t even let her change for the journey. The wrapper, still tied to her chest, envelopes her head as she falls. It catches the setting sun, flickering like a flame. The video zooms into the famous windmill logo under the helicopter. Thank God for smart phones. The whole of Lagos is watching the Millers and they know it. The ticker informs everyone that the family still have no comment. Mystery woman. Police investigations. Day eight. Then it’s back to the studio with some expat oceanographer in his bowtie going on about chances of survival.
“Very slim from that height,” he says. “In my expert opinion.”
I smile. His expert opinion is not worth shit where she is involved.
“Ah, chairman,” the fawning customs officer draws my attention from the screen. He slaps my passport close. “Anything for the boys?”
I pull out the trich from my pocket and set it down in front of him with my good hand. I will not need it where I am going.