Life is a game. Money is how we keep score. ~Ted Turner
Layla tossed her hair back and smiled as she watched her host approach. Behind him, a young man materialized with champagne flutes.
“Oh, Fred. I didn’t know we were celebrating,” Layla laughed.
Fred Momoh let his cane guide him, then he settled into the seat opposite hers. He liked the sound of her laughter. It was demure and tapered off to reveal the most graceful, brown-skinned neck he had ever seen.
“Maybe we are celebrating,” he intoned.
“Oh?” she smiled as the young chap filled her flute. “And what’s the occasion, my good Sir?”
“Your first 3 million dollars.”
There was a brief moment of silence, and then–
“My what?” she squealed now.
He grinned. He had led her to believe he was sending her 3 million naira. To be fair, he hadn’t told her what currency. He could see the wheels in her head, whirling, doing the calculations.
“3 million dollars! My God. Why?”
Fred paused and examined his fingernails, as if this was his first encounter with them. Then he said: “Most people, won’t ask why. They’d just take the money and run. But then again, you are not most people…”
“I don’t follow,” Layla stammered. “Wh-why am I not most people? Why wouldn’t I ask?” All the courses she’d taken in psychology and yoga could not help her here. She was suddenly aware that she was losing her composure, sweating. Why on earth would anyone want to give her 3 million dollars?
She took a sip of the champagne.
It was fruity, less bubbly than she had expected. It swam straight into her head and she immediately began to regret it. Soon she would be mouthing the words on the label, soon she would be drunk. Champagne got you there faster than regular wine and this was no ordinary elixir. This was Ruinart Blanc de Blancs.
Fred was staring at her intently. She couldn’t decide whether it was a red flag or not. He picked up his phone and pressed a few digits, it made an electronic pinging sound. 30 seconds later, her iPhone replied with a ping of its own.
“Consider it a gift from me to you,” he said. ‘No strings attached. I’m not going to turn you into my sex slave or anything like that.”
“Or make me lick whatever is wrong with your leg?” She blurted out.
Fred’s demeanor changed.
From the richness of sun burnished skin, he went straight to black. The veins in his temples throbbed angrily.
I am screwed now, you say aloud to yourself.
As if sentient, the gathering rain seems to agree. Fat drops collide with your upturned face like they are trying to buttress the point and you angrily swipe them away.
You gather what’s left of your dignity and begin to make your way back down the way you’d come.
You want to jump off the bridge. You want to dissolve like salt into the water.
You want to cry, but you cannot. “Emi. Mimo. Na me Joshua disgrace laidis? Kai.”
You cannot even make a phone call. The network reception on your phone is piss poor. You are in the middle of the frigging Third mainland bridge, after all. You might as well have been thrown in the Bermuda Triangle. No telecommunications network can save you here.
You do have a Glo SIM card though, but you use it as your SIM 2.
You kick yourself now, when you remember that advert where it was shown that Glo was built to work even in the oddest places. It should be your SIM 1, you think. 4G LTE, footprint extending to all the 36 states of the country. 700MHz band. First of its kind, since 2016. Backed by its own international submarine cable.
But you dare not bring out your phone under the rain.
You feel it getting heavier and your vision is getting worse. You increase your pace from trudging to a fast walk. When you find a bit of shelter, you’d make a call to a friend who lives in Yaba. Maybe they could house you for the night.
Once or twice, a car zooms past you. You wave, but no one stops. And why would they? You are a lone woman in the middle of the second longest bridge in Africa, Everything about you scream trap!
There is a tingling feeling that the sea is watching. You have heard tales of mammy water and all the other sea creatures before. You shake it off. You feel that if the circumstances were different, this was something you would like to explore.
The drops are only rain until they reach the sea, then they become a part of the briny madness, moving with the waves as one. You guess starlight is the same, shining as scattered seeds of perfect light until the return of the sun. You walk fast, but you are mesmerized by the choreographed chaos.
The downpour intensifies and now, you can feel your clothes beginning to stick to your skin.
From out of the corner of your eyes, you see movement that isn’t just water.
Someone is on your trail. It’s not a mammy water, it’s not a sea creature. It’s a person.
You increase your pace from a fast walk to a jog.
You’ve heard about omo ita and agbero who lurk about near the bridge waiting for stranded commuters. They could be armed with knives, they could have guns or broken bottles, you aren’t going to wait around to find out.
You jog, but it seems as though whoever is following you is jogging also.
You silently curse the day you met Joshua on Facebook. If you hadn’t left the safety of your hostel in UNIBEN, maybe none of this would be happening. Maybe it isn’t entirely Joshua’s fault, but you need something to curse so you curse away.
You are hoping this is some bad dream and you’d wake up anytime now, but no–
The storm comes as the opera of the skies, the instruments determined to sing out. Livid black clouds rear up like serpents preparing themselves for attack. They spit lightning mercilessly onto the tableau below, cutting through the sky like fiery venom.
You break into a run.
You hope to God whoever is following doesn’t give chase.
For a minute, it seems as though God has answered your prayers… then you hear the thudding sound of shoes as your pursuer begins to catch up.
The last resistance of the heavens gives, as twin thunder claps hit to shake the core of the bridge.
You shrink back in fright. Carnage ensues, with trees down below writhing and flailing, their groans of pain carried away by the wind. It screams like a banshee, evacuating weeds, nylon and dust in a rage.
You feel your pursuer closer now than before, and you make to run. But you stumble on a piece of wood lying on the asphalt, because you are stupid and this is a total horror movie.
You fall and graze your knees, but you don’t feel anything. Not yet.
He is upon you in a second.
You feel his rough, muscular hand as he grabs your arm roughly. “Up!” he growls.
“I’m sorry,” Layla said shaking her head as if to get the wine out.
Shit. She knew she had just blown her chance at friendship with this Tycoon and quite possibly her chance at doing business with him. She didn’t know what had come over her. She had meant her question as a joke, but it came out wrongly. So, so wrongly.
“I’m sorry,” She repeated.
Fred Momoh wiped a tiny speck of dust off his sleeve and folded his hands neatly in front of him. Layla was not sure whether she had just being imagining things or whether he really had had that murderous look on his face a few seconds ago.
He took a sip from his own flute and then he said: “No, I’m not going to make you lick whatever is wrong with my leg…”
His voice trailed off. There was jazz playing somewhere in the building. The artistes seemed very good. The music danced out of their instruments in a nice, swinging rhythm. Fred contemplated standing up to go find these pied pipers, then he caught himself and picked up from where he stopped. Or rather, switched topics.
“Did you ever read about J.P. Morgan’s nose?”
Layla shook her head, no.
“J.P. Morgan’s nose was an unfortunate anomaly.”
“J.P Morgan, as in the wealthiest man in America?”
“Yes, that one. Legendary financier. Owned all the railways. Acute business acumen. Impossible confidence. Had the world wrapped around his fingers. But the anomaly…
“See, Morgan was deeply insecure about his nose. His bulbous, deformed nose was the result of the skin condition rosacea, and he went to great lengths to try to conceal it. Almost every photograph of him was retouched, and those taken outside his control were destroyed.
“He’d had seizures as a child, and because of that, Morgan never allowed doctors to treat his nose. He feared that being put under anesthesia would cause his seizures to return. So he carried the thing about like that.”
Layla watched the forty year old Tycoon’s face for any sign of danger, but it was as unreadable as a Singaporean monk’s. She couldn’t tell where he was going with his story. He didn’t seem to know, himself.
He got up from his seat and approached her slowly, his cane leading.
“No, my dear Layla. You won’t be licking anything…” He said, then he let his voice trail off again. “Not yet, anyway.”
(TO BE CONTINUED)