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Excerpts from Merchants of Flesh

Prologue

Milan

The lifeless body was discovered a few days later, by the legendary Good Samaritan. The winter cold had preserved the upper parts, like a natural mortuary. The lower half of the torso – around the abdomen, was squashed. The limbs were intact, though at odd angles, one to the other. They were kitted in a pair of net pantyhose. The feet were shoed in very high-heeled boots, style of the early 70s James Bond that was called “knock on wood.” It was making a comeback in the fashion world. But it had never gone out of style for call-girls.

Her face had been heavily made up. Traces of the eyeliner and eye shadow she wore were visible around the dark eyes. A hoop ring hung limply from one ear. The thick African lips were lined in a shade of dark red. The hair was short, à la Grace Jones, but at the nape was a wig dislodged from the head and entangled in the dirt.

A striking aspect was the near-nakedness of the corpse, again in spite of the winter cold. There was a blood-soaked coat held loosely around the body by a belt. Underneath, a bare chest showed a small keloid in the middle. To the police officer who arrived at the scene, this was not puzzling. He suspected, a priori, that this Jane Doe had been a road worker, as prostitutes euphemistically called themselves.

A peremptory search of the environs brought forth a plain, plastic shopping bag. Inside were personal effects: a sweater, a pair of trousers called body-hug, some cosmetic knick-knacks, cigarettes and some papers.

At first sight, it seemed to be a hit-and-run accident. Assuming that is, that this was not murder. Planned. Premeditated.

Back at the police headquarters, the officer filed in his report: corpse discovered at angle of Corso Regina Margherita and Via del Corso of black female, late teens/early twenties. Identification: Certificato di Nazionalita of the Nigerian Consulate. Name: Lovett Jon, born 27-08-81 in Benin City, Nigeria. Probable cause of death: injuries sustained in a hit-and-run accident. Body deposited at the morgue of San Giovanni Hospital.

The officer duly reported to his superior officer.

The superior officer issued instruction: “Contact her country’s Mission to inform her next-of-kin for burial here or repatriation of the corpse. If we don’t hear from them in two days, dispose of corpse as usual.”

Chapter One

When Madam Tayo’s cell phone rings, it plays a Christmas carol. Jingle bells, Jingle bells, jingle all the way…She sighed and picked it up from the bedside table, wondering who was calling. Her girls had gone out to work. She was relaxing with her two male companions and did not want to be disturbed.

“Pronto,” she answered sleepily. It was the Italian equivalent of “hello.”

“There will be a meeting of the madams tomorrow, at Helen’s at 4 pm,” a voice whispered.

“What about?” Tayo asked incredulously, immediately recognizing Lizzy’s voice.

“Strike. Prostitutes’ strike. Tomorrow. 4pm at Helen’s.” The line went dead.

Tayo placed the phone back on the bedside table. Beside her, the two young men were sleeping. Good-for-nothing, lazy drunkards, she hissed. Despite all the money I pay them, and all the food they gobble, all they do is sleep. She shook them awake and berated them for their laziness. The young men lifted up their heads like lizards, stretched and yawned like dogs.

“Prostitutes’ strike,” Tayo repeated to herself thoughtfully, as she reached for the bottle of Guinness by the bed. “Wonders will never end.”

*   * *

The Consular Officer who received the fax was perplexed. It was the seventh mysterious death of a prostitute in recent days, from different parts of the country. What could be the reason? What could be happening? The police never investigated, never came up with suspects, let alone indemnify the victims’ families. She went to see her boss, the fax in hand.

He was expecting her.

“I see you are wondering too,” her boss said.

“This is the seventh this week, sir. Something is fishy somewhere.”

“I agree. One case, maybe two, but seven? That’s overdoing it.” He waved her to a seat. “So, what do you think? A serial killer knocking off pros?”

“The scenes are too wide apart to point to a serial killer, sir. I was thinking of the Mafia or some similar organised crime syndicate. The worrying aspect is that the police never seem to follow up on these incidents. No attempt is made to catch the perpetrators. It’s like the victims count for nothing.”

“Well, you know they are dead, they are prostitutes, and they are black. Triple calamity.” He paused. “What do you plan to do now?”

“Three things, sir. First, contact the Nigerian Community in her region to see what assistance they can render regarding her next-of-kin here in Italy. From our records, her Nigerian address is Benin City, Lawson Rd. No phone number, no fax, no e-mail. Nothing else.”

“I am surprised they are not aware of this. Usually, it is the community that notifies us when someone dies.”

“She probably died far from her place of residence. Perhaps her flatmates are even now looking for her. Unless they assume she has run off with a white man. I will call Osato, their president. Then I will send a fax to headquarters. And then a note to host Foreign Affairs about the increasing spate of our nationals slaughtered on Italian roads.”

“Yes. Ask for copies of police investigations on the cases, assuming there were investigations. I doubt it very much.”

As the Consular Officer turned to leave, Mr. Ufot stopped her. “You said there were two hypotheses: either a serial killer or a crime syndicate like the Mafia. I am prepared to think a crime syndicate may be involved, though not the Mafia. Here, take this file. Go through it. Let us discuss it on Monday.”

“Are we still going on the consular visit to Tuscany next week, sir?”

“I don’t see why not, unless other things come up. But don’t forget the UNICRI seminar tomorrow.”

“On human trafficking. I won’t forget, sir.”

“The who-is-who in human trafficking will be there: Internal Affairs, Foreign Affairs. Carabinieri, Polizia, Caritas, WOTCLEF, Don Benz…”

“Of the Papa Giovanni XXIII Organization, Martha & Mary, Idia Renaissance …” interjected the Consular Officer. “Perhaps I will pick up one or two useful info on these murders or deaths.”

“My dear girl, don’t forget you are a diplomat, not one of Charlie’s Angels.”

“With due respect, sir, we were told in the Academy that a diplomat is an officer…”

“Sent abroad to lie for his country,” completed the Consul.

“Yes, sir, and to protect his country’s interests. I believe my country’s interests need protecting now, sir.”

“Deport these girls. Deport them faster than they come and you’d be doing your country the greatest service,” Mr. Greg Ufot said with emphasis. He twirled his Mont Blanc pen across his lips and shook his head.

“Deporting alone may not do the trick, sir. The effects are not felt. These girls are arriving from all angles, from every corner, through all sorts of ports. You deport fifty a week, while every day ten arrive. The effects are not felt, sir.”

“’How are the mighty fallen in the field of battle!’” quoted Ufot. “To think that our great country could be reduced to supplying prostitutes to Europe… Is this what our people understand by diversifying the export market? Exporting human beings? This is slavery all over again. It is disgusting, to say the least.”

“Disgusting indeed, sir. Disgraceful. Shameful. Because of this, no black woman in Italy has any respect left. We are all considered whores, even when we go about our honest business. We are propositioned at every corner, at the bus stop, at the stations. It’s not a good feeling, I can tell you.”

“My wife told me the other day how she went into a shop and a man trailed her, asking for sexual favours in signs: pointing to his private part and giving the come-on sign and then showing her lira notes. It’s embarrassing, to say the least.”

The Consular Officer sighed.  “What is to be done, à la Karl Marx?”

“Indeed, what is to be done?” echoed the boss. “Beats me. But I think we should form a small committee of three or four. Meet once in a while. You know, a kind of a think-tank. Brainstorm. Get new ideas. Initiate a memo or something on this. God knows I’m at a loss what next to do.”

“I’ll get cracking on that. If there is nothing else, I’d like to seek permission to knock off, sir.”

“I guess that will be all for now. Goodnight. Have a nice weekend!”

“You too, sir. Thanks.”

As Ms Osunde turned to go, Ufot reflected that some of his female subordinates were indeed the most hard-working and most reliable, in spite of family obligations. If half of his staff were as diligent as Osunde, this Mission would succeed. But there was a limit to what a person could do.

It would be hard to have a nice weekend with all the reports and assignments screaming to be done. Several meetings had taken place these past few weeks. Two cabinet ministers had visited and the minutes of the sessions they had with host authorities were still outstanding. There would be no sleep tonight, in any case, not before midnight. Sometimes, it was practical to be single. A spouse at these times could be problematic. 

Greg Ufot was not single. He was what his colleagues jocularly called a married bachelor. He was a slim, short man with a balding egg-shaped head and a jet black complexion. His wife of fifteen years, Mercy, was perpetually on the move. She was overseeing a building project he was putting up in their hometown. He did not trust his relatives to do an honest job of it.  Before he got the plot of land on which to build, it took a lot of years, a lot of storytelling, with the result that almost all his savings from that first posting had gone down the drain, down other people’s throats. They were all swindlers. But what could you do? Take your kith and kin to court? “That would sound the death knell for your lineage,” his brother had warned. Land disputes were more often than not, bloody. This time, he had been wiser. He had put his wife in charge of the building project. No doubt, it meant the disruption of his family life, with Mercy half the time at post and the other half back home. Luckily, there was a live-in maid who took care of Junior and Elsie.

He considered himself blessed to have a good wife. Mercy was a medical doctor who had the ill-fortune of meeting and falling in love with him, Ufot used to joke. He had been a young dashing diplomat then on home leave. Her friends had warned her of what lay ahead of a marriage to a diplomat: an unsettled life. And that is what it had been: three years in Cotonou, three years at headquarters, three and a half years at The Hague, and then this cross-posting to Milan. All these, not counting the two years attachment spent in London. Unsettling, to say the least, for all involved.

But it was much worse for the spouses of diplomats because they were not allowed to enter into official employment at post. Conflict of interest, the Government had said, quoting the Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic and Consular Relations, which guided diplomatic practice from A-Z. And so spouses, professionals in their own right, in their various fields, were made redundant at post. They were forced to keept their careers on hold, for as long as the spouse’s posting lasted. It was a big sacrifice to make for love and for family.

Ufot knew that many of his colleagues’ marriages had been rocked by it. Some had completely broken down. Some colleagues were at their second, third, fourth marriages. Some gave up after the third attempt and chose to remain unattached.

There were many arrangements diplomats made to keep their spouses’ work whilst the posting lasted. It was always better if you were posted to a country nearer home. Spouses, usually wives, (there were not yet so many females in the Foreign Service) would commute from the home country to post on a regular basis for important official functions. Some of his colleagues had actually lobbied to be posted to nearby capitals: Cotonou, Lome΄, Accra, Abidjan, Yaounde΄, Buea. Even Dakar was not too far. In these Missions, you could kill two birds with one stone. You would be at post, earning expatriate salary, while the wife would maintain her job and career prospects, especially if she was in the private sector. Many wives of diplomats worked in banking, insurance and oil.

Spouses in the Civil Service could take an official leave of absence, and then commence one business or the other, usually buying and selling of gift items, watches, perfumes, leather goods, cloths, etc. This was not allowed in the Foreign Service either. Those involved did it surreptitiously. Your bosses may know and turn a blind eye either because it did no harm, or because their own wives were into it too. As long as one was careful not to overdo or deal in contraband to attract attention, no one cared. It was a good way to keep a wife happy and fulfilled. She made money. She, who was a salary earner back home did not need to depend on you for pocket money. It made her happy. It kept her busy. And you had the peace of mind to concentrate on your job.

Still, it was hard for wives. If they survived the first posting with you, they could refuse to accompany you the next time. They had been bored throughout the first posting. They were idle from morning to night, watching television, going shopping, cooking, eating and getting fat.

Once in a while, an invitation to a cocktail party or a national day celebration would come. Sometimes, the invitation would be to a child’s naming ceremony, or to a meeting. Or you could be in a church committee organizing the church’s bazaar or thanksgiving. Occasionally, the International Women’s Club would organise an outing for the spouses. Those were your choices, you, the erstwhile Credit Manager of the Finance Bank or Senior Accountant at ELF.

Foreign posting was a two-edged sword, no doubt about it. You made money, yes, but the posting could cost you your marriage and happiness. Either way, many wives could not take it. Some would abandon you at the end of the posting. On the eve of your recall, she would disappear into thin air leaving you to go back to your home country alone. You did not need a soothsayer to tell you that the marriage was over.

Nowadays it seemed there was a compromise. Many diplomats settled their families abroad, usually in America, while they braved it alone at different postings. It stabilised the children’s schooling but it had the disadvantage of separating families.

Again, Ufot thanked God for Mercy. She was reliable. Because of her, he was able to commence a building project at home, while at post, with the savings he had made. Mercy was also contributing to the project with the profits she made from her trading. She used to go to Naples and Vicenza to buy stuff which she sold in Nigeria.

In all honesty, he could not complain. God had been good to him. He could hold up his head in the comity of his friends and former schoolmates. He had made good. A diplomat’s life was elitist. Had not someone described diplomacy as wining and dining? The pay was good and one had the opportunity of travelling all over the world, hobnobbing with the crème de la crème of society.

Still, he would have preferred to be posted to a quiet Mission, where one would spend one’s days in relative peace. A corner of the Caribbean came to mind, say Kingston or Port of Spain. Africa used to be good but now manifested a lot of instability. Look at the Congo. Look at Rwanda. Even Côte d’Ivoire that had hitherto enjoyed relative peace had become a land of coups and wars. Lots of wars and threats to peace spoilt Africa. Otherwise, it had a lot going for her, including, ironically, poverty. Low cost of living coupled with a thriving foreign currency black market meant that with two or three hundred dollars, one could feed comfortably in any month, whilst living like a king. Anyone salaried in foreign currency in a country with a dual exchange rate, Ufot reasoned, automatically tripled his purchasing power. You could purchase anything that took your fancy-jewellery, designer wears, leather goods, electronics… and women. That was the reality of the matter. Women were available when and where there was cash. Again, in this field, he could not complain. He remembered one of his ex-girlfriends asking him how many women he had slept with. Though he had given a conservative figure off hand, he knew in all sincerity that even if he tried, he could not remember. They were so numerous, uncountable.

Granted, in his first posting, he had gone as a single man. Then his life had been a long stretch of night-clubbing and partying, with sprinkles of work in between. He had been sent to London, on a two-year Attachment Programme, a novice, an acolyte, an apprentice, to whom much had not been given and from whom little or nothing was expected. He had lived life to the full, with no cares or family ties to hold him back or slow his velocity. The London society was multiracial. He had dated many women: Black, Caribbean, Asian and White, of all shapes and sizes, assorted nationalities and races, of differing creeds and varying professions, sometimes two or three even four, at a time. It had been a juggler’s act.

Yes, sadly, it did not take much to bed a woman nowadays. In many places just a “Hello!” or a bottle of Guinness and some chicken parts sufficed. He wondered how he managed to escape the sexually transmitted diseases now making the rounds. Thank God for His mercies.

Yes, the Foreign Service was good, whether in Africa or overseas. You were, as a rule, comparatively better off. Still, there were ways of upping your income if you dared.

For instance, there was the possibility of smuggling in some scarce commodities, albeit surreptitiously. Your right hand was not to know what your left hand was doing. In this respect, of all the Missions where he had served, Cotonou was unbeatable. Each weekend, he had ferried across the border, bags and bags of rice, hot drinks and tobacco, frozen chicken and other consumables, some bought tax-free and duty-free in the name of the Mission. It was providential that he had not been caught. He had taken serious risks capable of jeopardising his budding career.

True, the frontier customs officials always waved his CD plated Mercedes Benz on, but you could never tell what could happen, especially under a military regime. You could drive in and meet an illiterate khaki man who did not know the meaning of CD. It had never happened to him, but there was no doubt in his head what to do in those circumstances. Money spoke. The almighty dollar would do the trick.

Those were the good old days in the Service. Those were the days when you would be relaxing at home and a call would come through informing you to proceed on a posting to so and so place, and you would beg to remain at home for a while longer. Then one naira exchanged for 1.62 dollars! Who needed the dollar? But now, now, one waited years and years lobbying right, left and centre for “the opportunity to serve”. Opportunity to serve indeed! Guys were looking to line their pockets, to earn the elusive foreign exchange, the almighty dollar, to keep body and soul together. Especially now that one dollar, one little dollar would fetch more than one hundred naira. Opportunity to serve indeed!

It was amazing how much things had changed in so short a time. Yet, in spite of it all, the Foreign Service remained the place to be in the whole of the public service. And if one was lucky to get an ambassadorial appointment at the end, why, that would be icing on the cake. It was difficult now because the ruling party rewarded its members with ambassadorial positions, bypassing the career officers of the ministry. But there was no harm in hoping…

He glanced at the clock on the office wall. Seven-thirty! He had day-dreamed his time away again. He debated within himself whether to head home. It was not such an interesting prospect: TV, dinner, a glass or two of wine and then some magazines before hitting the sack. He had a computer at home so he would be able to check his e-mails and finish his report before going to bed. He decided to call his wife back in Nigeria. Better to do it in the office and save on the home phone bill.

The phone rang for a while before it was picked up by his sister-in-law. Mercy stayed with her family anytime she went home. His house was not yet completed. Mercy was off to Benin City, the voice informed. He wondered what business his wife had in Benin City.

He called his boss to sign off. The latter answered on the third ring, just when Ufot was about to hang up thinking he was gone.

“Your Excellency, calling to sign off, sir.”

“My Honourable Consul, come up for a drink, before you go.”

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