Later, when I walk into Heaven’s Bar, it is empty and as hot as hell fire, with the sun already burning way high up and the aluminium absorbing all the heat and emitting it inside. Outside, the shadows of people have disappeared so I assume the day is about half-gone. The bar man shoots glances at me as though he has something to say but cannot come over to say it. He does not bring my regular order too because he knows it is too early. The old clock hanging over his head says 3 o’ clock. It whines loudly, distorting the silence of the atmosphere. Soon the clink of bottles and glasses fill the air as the barman gets busy. He smiles and waves before disappearing into the back room with an empty crate.
Today Abu is bringing me “Information.” Maybe something useful I can relay to headquarters. Maybe something that will make them send a team to crack down on this crime conglomerate and so I can go home to Ada. Forget the nagging, I miss her. I miss her stories about the market women and her silly customers. The door of the bar cracks open but it is not Abu, it is the wind pushing it open. It wavers and clangs back on the frame. Abu has been helping me gather names. In this business, you need names to cripple the trade, taking out a supplier is like doing only a quarter of the job. It is vital to know where the money to run the network comes and who pockets the profits. But progress has been slow. The name of an informant here, and a mole in the immigration office is all I’ve got so far. Abu cannot get all the information in a day. But because he is Madam’s chief errand boy, he is able to eavesdrop on conversations over the phone and with the big men that come for the girls at night. He says Madam is keeping him because he is one of the oldest boys now, so he commands the others. He collects all the money they beg from the street everyday and gives it to Madam, she feeds them with some part of it and saves the rest for them and tells them that one day they would go to school and those that don’t want school, would go to say Libya, or Morocco, or Italy. Abu wants to go to Libya because that is where his sister went. The night he told me this back in my little shack, he pulled out the folded page of a magazine from his shorts pocket and pointed at the picture of a beautiful city with high buildings. Then he said, “Rosco, this is Libya.” His eyes gleamed with excitement, and his smile stretched ear to ear. Then he put the page down on the bed and asked, “You ever kill a man?”
The directness of this question caught me off guard and I couldn’t give an immediate reply. In that moment of silence, he flicked on the transistor radio he had found tucked in-between pillows at the head of the wooden bed. It made a shhhhhhhhhh sound as if to tell me to keep quiet and say nothing. He turned the frequency knob and searched for radio signals. I wanted to tell him I have killed men— shot a kidnapper in the head; a clear shot, but only after he had killed two officers. I have shot a robber dead too, during a bank robbery attack in Enugu. But how was a ten year old boy going to assimilate all that? Wouldn’t it open an array of unwanted questions and compromise the whole operation? So I said, “No.”
Ed sheeran’s voice suddenly sounded from the radio speakers, and he nodded slightly to the music. “I kill a man for my sister Laila last year,” he said, “the police look for me so I run. I come back here in January.” As he said this, I noticed his voice stiffened in a swerve, and the resentment in him bared itself. It was strong and rebellious, I could feel it.
“You see Rosco, I not remember my mother face well.” He dropped the radio on the bed and continued. “But if you show me a picture I will. Laila pick me up on the street, so that is why she is my sister. I am three that year and she is seven. She bring me to Madam and say to her, ‘he is my bloda!’ Madam take me in quick-quick. She treat me like son, buy me tiny slippers. I don’t know what Laila do for Madam and so one night last year, it is her fourteenth birthday but who cares? Madam send her on job and I sneak out and follow her. Man, you need to see! The street is lonely and this man, he keep touching her breasts. Laila don’t want but this man push her down and tear her cloth. The street is lonely, she is crying. So I jump on him and hit his head with stone. I hit him again and blood cover Laila’s face. She is screaming. I only want to hurt the man small but then he die. I run. I kill for Laila, Rosco.” He rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand and fondled with the radio. I moved closer and wrapped him in a warm embrace. That night I realized there is something the street does to the spirit of a homeless boy. I realized it teaches boys how to break up their childhood and scatter its fragments on a sea of survival. Ed sheeran sang on, mama…mama ay……gimme looove.
The door of the bar cracks open again, and it is Abu this time. He comes in sweaty and exhausted, breathing hard, as though he was running. I call out to the barman to bring us Fanta but he replies, ‘No! no Fanta here!’ from the backroom. I almost forget this place is for adults. There is no park for children here, no game center, no ice cream shop. Abu does not like to meet in the open but information is good when you work with time. He goes to the window and looks outside. The maize seller is not out yet, only the fruit woman. He has become apprehensive since the night he told me about Laila and I promised to get the police involved so they can stop what she is doing to the other girls, what she did to Laila. He asked me if the police would bring Laila back from Libya and when I said no, he seemed very happy. As he sits across the table, I catch a whiff of the scent of my perfume he had applied yesterday’s night on his shirt. “They will move Almajiri tomorrow,” he whispers in-between breaths, eyes darting this way and that.
“Do you know where?” I ask. He looks around again; we are the only people in the bar. Outside, a few people, dogs and chicken roam. The city drains this place of life during the day.
“I don’t know. But I know Madam say new ones is coming soon. I hear her talk it over the phone.”
He pauses to catch his breath and when he does, he begins to cry, “They will move Sheila too Rosco, I like Sheila,” he says.
For a moment, I am at a loss for words. Then I reach out across the table and hold his hands, I tell him not to worry, and promise him, she is going to be safe.
She will be safe. I do not know where this sense of surety is coming from, but I remain optimistic nonetheless.
“I won’t go back there after tomorrow. I move in with you, read and learn good English.” When he says this, I look at him and see the look in his eyes—there is a gleam of hope and a fire I do not wish to extinguish. And as we walk down the road, he tells me he wants to be a reporter in Libya, ride a Ferrari or a Lamborghini maybe.
For this kind of operation, you need men, you need ammunition. This is how it should be: Thirty men to form a perimeter outside the settlement before nightfall, two women, young and stunning, they will come to look for the settlement. Men will talk to them. Three men to drink at the bar, they are electricity officials, they will tell the bar man that finally this place will have electricity so he can spread the news. They will have guns, pistols preferably. I will observe the old mosque from a distance and give the signal when the time came to swing into action.
Abu is lying in bed and listening to the news on the radio, and at the same time flipping through pages of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Abdullahi’s voice cracks over the phone but I hear him say he will get back to me. Soon, Abu begins to sing along with the kids in the noodles advert, he is happy and I think of taking him home after today. Him, Sheila, and all the children too. I think of how different life would be after today, how they will be taken off the streets in a while, rehabilitated until they are ready to be reintegrated into the society.
Just before midday, Abdullahi calls again but he is no longer optimistic. “The Police Commissioner has been in the office with the Senator and it seems they may cancel the operation oh! People are whispering here they have not been paid and only two vehicles are functional,” he says. Immediately, beads of sweat form over my face and I become so disoriented I hardly hear Abdullahi’s next words. When he finally ends the call, my mind clogs up with anger and bitterness; perhaps, this how it feels when the force exanimate the commitment in you. I have only heard of this in pockets of discussions with my colleagues, but have never being in position to experience it. It hurt me. Imagine going plain clothes for months to uncover a crime syndicate; when you think it is all about to end, in a split second they make you a stranded operator. They make a caricature of your own efforts. I feel like a fingerling scooped out of water and left wriggling midair in a netted mesh.
Meanwhile, Abu has packed his clothes in a sack bag, optimism glittering in his behaviour. His excitement is more so because Sheila would meet us here soon. I think of how he would feel if I ask him to go back but then I look at him lying there and decide he deserves a better life. He will be a useful witness when I lodge a private complaint to human rights activists. Quickly, I ring my friend at the bus station, Capello is his nickname and when I tell him I need a space for two, he asks, “Ah Rosco! You taking a girl into town?”
Capello is that type that believes he is fortunate enough to wriggle out of life in the slum. He used to live in a shack down here until he was elevated to the position of Deputy Officer at the bus station. Then he rented a flat in town and swore nothing could ever drag him back to this place again. But lately I have been seeing him around, he has been coming for the local prostitutes. One night he told me “Rosco them town girls too costly fa! If you talk they tell you economy bad sah!” We have been good friends and a couple of times we have shared some drinks together. He fixes up two bus tickets for the next hour. Then I call Ada and arrange for her to pick the kids up in town.
Abdullahi would call later to tell me that I have to report to headquarters on Monday, the case has been closed, “You are not to interfere in what-so-ever way with the activities going down there,” is the instruction, and he said once I return, I would be reassigned. He thinks the swift turn of events is strongly related to the Senator’s visit but I should not tell anybody what he thinks because he is afraid of losing his job. His child’s christening ceremony was successful and he will show me pictures when I return.
In the evening, I walk down to Heaven’s Bar and order for burukutu mixed with gin. I need something strong. Something that can drain anger. The barman is surprised, I see it in his look though he does not bother to start a conversation. I feel the same. The regular couple are surprised too, today I am not smoking and the woman pouts when our eyes meet. Equal rights is keeping up the spirit of the atmosphere with the story of a senator caught pants down with his cook. The picture has been all over Facebook and now the people are calling on the government to reshuffle its cabinet members. The President is obstinate and Equal rights is irked about his decision. They have been passing around a six paged mock-memorandum for customers to counter-sign and they plan to mail it off to the press by tomorrow. They title it: Pussy or Good Policy? When it comes to my table, I wave it off and they scowl at me.
Outside it is getting dark and Suspect X is buying cooked maize. Two lorries with carriages covered with thick canvas lumber past and I know it has begun. The barman brings another cup of burukutu, and asks if I want more. There is an expression of concern on his face. In my mind, I pray for the time to run so I can leave tomorrow and force myself to pretend this assignment never happened. The city awaits me. Suspect X comes into the bar and orders her usual. But today, she lingers around the bottle, and drinks until it is almost empty. There is a way her face sags when she is drinking— like a fabric that has lost its colour from overuse, pale and empty yet resilient. When the lorries zoom past again, I hear the voices of the children, they are singing Olamide’s Wo! She stands, grabs her handbag and exits the bar, limping on until the darkness swallows her figure.