“So you are not the killer.” The investigator rolls his perspiring Coke can across a baked black forehead.
“No.” Nuru drums his fingers on the table. The investigator crooks his head to the fat policeman, who shuffles forward and thumps an old solar laptop down between them. The investigator tracks his finger across the dirty screen and Nuru watches the murder play out in pixels.
“Here is you, here is your hands on his neck. Your hairs—everywhere.”
“Yes, yes, you know this means nothing.” The rhythm on the table is angry. He had been all night in the cell.
“So why is your boss dead, you puppet son-of-a-whore?” The investigator flicks his tongue against the can to catch a cold bead. He is like a lizard. At the question, Nuru's organs go damp and heavy in his gut.
“I think it has to do with Kataryna,” Nuru tells him. The investigator acts exasperated. His French cursing is too fast to follow, but Nuru hears the word for Christian and recognizes guignol as well. The laptop spins around and he clacks something in.
“The white bitch?” the investigator demands. “The European?” The laptop completes its circuit, now pushing a headshot across the table at Nuru. Her skin is bleached ghostly. The exposure was not meant for white skin, but the camera-man did not know better.
“Yes,” Nuru says, and his fingers die one by one on the plastic.
Kataryna, the way she looked, she was not a girl you ask so many questions of when she comes looking for work. My first sight of her was when the evening call was going out and I was leaving from the strip. I saw, as in a surgeon’s measures, skirt and leg and boot. She was tall and icy blonde as they are on the webcasts. It was half-dusk, but I knew she would look as good in full sunlight.
Then she had passed by me, going towards the building, so I turned and watched her with the muezzin ringing in my ears. She dressed flimsy for the cold season, and her clear pink-and-white skin was begging to be flogged, although the Hands do not do this so much now. Her body was one designed to sell product.
So Abdoule, the prick, Allah now give him peace, he tripped all over himself to get her the mesh surgery, the very best, not the kind that feels like rusty wires. Not my kind. Maybe he paid for something else, too, because when she came back I could not take my damned eyes from her chest. Maybe silicon or maybe just the shirt she wore, with a neck deeper than some dry wells I have seen.
She would smile at me. I saw her in the tea-room sometimes, and once through a cracked door at the end of the day. She was levering herself out of the webbed bed, wincing small and massaging herself. She was, of course, very popular. How could she not be? I always wondered, the way she smiled at me, if we had had each other during the work. It seemed to be a likely pair.
Then one night, a customer followed Kataryna home and she was nearly raped. Two Hands of Allah intervened, to drive him off, and then she was raped. Abdoule was sorry, very sorry. He made supplications to the Prophet while Kataryna stood there the next morning with red eyes. The mesh was itching badly under my skin that day, so I did not think too much when Abdoule told me from now on, I would walk her home.
From very close, where you could hear the skirt sliding against her legs and the un-Muslim scent of her paraded past your nose, she was even more beautiful. We talked of only small things first, walking through a smoky night still stiff from work. Her mesh, how well it was adjusting for her. The uncomfortable feeling like a hook behind your forehead when the download just begins. I think our bodies already knew each other, because that street is not a romantic place with its radiation-paled sand and the eyeless beggar woman, but when we arrived we climbed up the stairs and onto her mattress together.
We made a slow, sore kind of love. It was like a small act of defiance, I think, a small thumb in the face of Abdoule, Allah now rest his soul. As I said, our bodies already knew each other. More important than words are the chemicals, I was taught, and so I think our hormones must have sang to each other.
Also, we were both outsiders. When we talked afterwards, in that sleepy way, I boasted to her that she was not the first white woman I had been with, which is half-true, and so she made me explain about the compound and about my parents who, as Christian refugees, took protection there. I was raised in such places until the nassaru packed away on their planes with the Republic of Islam shouting behind them that Africa could take care of its own, and that there was a place for all who sought Allah whole-heartedly.
She asked me, propped up dozily on her elbow, if it was very difficult to be a Christian here now that the country was part of the Republic of Islam. So, I asked her if it was very hard to be so pale and European.
“Russian,” she said, rubbing my thigh. Maybe this was why she spoke so little French. Resurgent Russia, I remarked, to seem as though I knew about the world. I did not watch the newscasts then. Just Russia, she told me. The newscasts said Re-Russia this, Re-Russia that, to remind everyone that the country had limped into the 21st century as a carcass and to pretend it had not always been great, had not always been ready to reclaim its glory. She mentioned a ghost called the USSR, but of this I knew nothing.
“But I’m not politically-minded,” she would always finish, laying her head back down on her arm and laughing in her throat, just softly. She was not entirely Russian, either. Her father was born an Algerian Muslim. That gave her the technical citizenship, so she could move freely in the Republic. It had certain other advantages too, Kataryna said. I still did not know why she had come so far, to West Africa, but I did ask her one night why she was working the guignol. We do not expect white skin to be rich anymore, but still, Christ Jesus in heaven.
“It’s better than prostitution,” she told me firmly. “Your brain is shut away safe while it all happens. And the rooms are all monitored.”
“What about the bleed?” I asked. It was becoming dusk, and the vendors were packing away. The lingering smell of a pigeon roasted over charcoal was distracting me, making my stomach eat itself. I think that was why I asked about the work, because usually I am aware enough not to mention such things. Even though Islamic law has no provisions for neural puppetry, and it thrives in that barely-legal space, the work is shameful and I know this.
As for the bleed, that millet mash of image and feeling that steals across the mesh when you least expect it, painting an arched moaning back into your retinas or a woman spread to the ovaries with her lips saying a name that is not yours… I do not enjoy the bleed, but I think I have seen Kataryna on it. I think I have done things to her flesh I would never have dared.
“The bleed isn’t so bad,” she said, and I knew for certain that Abdoule had paid for mesh much better than mine. “And besides, if it ever gets so bad, we’ll pay for a memory wipe. You and I can wander the streets together with a little card to tell us our names and that we are desperately in love.” Her head leaned onto my shoulder then, which I liked even though I knew she teased me.
“Do not joke of such things,” I told her. She tilted her head at me, making her blonde hair fall, and so I explained to her about the old soldiers I have seen from the annex wars, who wander, as she said, with all the explosions and amputations and death camps sponged right out of their heads, wandering with sad eyes but not knowing why. She laughed a little sadly and pulled me into her, making it difficult for us to walk. I loved her then.
“I think that everyone has their own mesh,” Kataryna told me later, in bed. “Some just won’t show up on a CATscan. Wherever you go, someone pulls your strings.”
“And you? Are you pulling my strings?” I asked.
“I’m pulling something,” she smiled at me, and she did. The next morning I watched her dress. She was unembarrassed, looking back at me from the mirror. She was beautiful, but unlike other beautiful women I have known, like doe-eyed Tsayaba or the slim-hipped Fulani girls who work some days in the guignol and some days in the brothels, she seemed to rediscover it every day. Watching her dress was like wrapping a gift together in secret.
But despite what Kataryna said, I think the bleed did get to her. She said something strange once, when she was fondling my prick still half-swollen.
“Does it ever look out of place to you?” she asked. “Like something just grafted on?” I looked at it, the way it was discolored and the wrinkles. I thought I understood what she meant, how after you see enough of it on the bleed such things might start to seem strange or unclean.
“The act of coitus is something so hideous, it is a marvel man goes on,” I quoted to her. She laughed. I told her it was said by an old old Italian, Leonardo da Vinci, and she became sheepish because, as with all Europeans, she thought Africans were still something like children no matter how hard she tried not to.
“You are probably more educated than I am,” she said, and started to move rhythmically. I knew it was an apology of sorts, and I did not want it, but I let her go on. The screen across from her bed, which was always on, played pale violet light on our melding shadows. It chattered at us in Arabic, and I imagined it to be the chastisement of an imam, which made me move deeper. Her breath caught and her fingers tightened on me. I was pleased until I realized it was because of something on the screen.
“What?” I grunted. She pushed me away. Her subtitles were running along the bottom, somewhere between the clunky French letters and serpentine Arabic. The news was of a diplomat from Russia stepping down. His face looked eroded, and one finger kept plucking nervously in his ear while he spoke. I gathered what I could from the Arabic. The news spent little time on the resignation. This man’s son had vanished in a scandal, run off with some girl, they postulated. The reporter used it to segue into talk of morality and good Muslim practice. Kataryna switched it away and then looked at me, hurt, like I had witnessed something private. Maybe she did not like to be reminded of home.
I kissed her and told her how badly the bleed bothers me sometimes. I said this to make things equal again. Sometimes when I wake up in the webbing with my muscles aching, and I find body paint in a place the cleaner did not reach, or smell the alkaline smell still hot in my nostrils, shame rises to my skin like dregs from an oilspill, from a disaster. Then it all comes to me in pieces, the things my body has been doing, and I want to murder all of the customers for their perversions.
But I also told her how sometimes it is good. I remember in flashes, doing calisthenics stripped down, lunging and stretching and laughing in the empty room. And after the shift was done, there was an old man waiting for me outside. He was strapped into a walker that made raspy sounds when the joints moved. He was an old soldier and he thanked me, over and over, for my limbs and for those hours. Allah smiled that day, I said.
“Allah?” she asked. “Or God?” I tried to explain to her that Allah is Allah, that the imams and the Christian leaders have agreed on this, but she was more interested by what my religion would make of our work-place.
“I think my soul is safe,” I told her, and I had thought of this many times. “Some of the acts I know are an abomination. But my soul stays apart from my body while they happen.”
“What about what we do?” Kataryna asked. “Is it a sin?” I shrugged to her. What we did, it did not feel like sinning.
“My mother, though, she would weep if she knew my work,” I said.
“My father…” Kataryna’s laugh caught. “He would kill me and everyone who knew of it.”
“And politics,” she said, frowning.
“Ah, but you are not politically-minded,” I told her, to make her smile. We talked then of her customers, who like mine are mostly men. She mumbled that this was ironic, and laughed in her throat when I asked her why. Some of them, she remembered from the bleed, all they did was sit in front of the streaky mirror for hours. No different from you, then, I said. She laughed again, but something had changed when we spoke of her father.
Eventually, maybe a week after this, I had to tell her my story. I told her of my mother and young brothers in the coastal village who had needed my broad back for the plankton farms (some of them sponsored by Russian corporations, I noted for her) but instead saw it leaving for the city. I had hoped to play football once. And I explained to Kataryna the rut, how I was trapped here, but it was still better than having to return still poor and having to explain the mesh when it needed maintenance. Kataryna was quiet on this for a long time.
“Are you sure it would be the same if you went back?” she asked me. “Things are changing all the time, Nuru. People are always changing. Did you know that every cell in your body dies and gets replaced every single year?”
The number sounded wrong to me, but I nodded, to show I was listening.
“So you aren’t even the same you anymore,” she went on. “And your mother is not the same her. This job isn’t going to change. I think you’ll have better luck with people.” She looked away. “They’re always in flux. If they understood that, they wouldn’t mind change so much when they see it in other people.”
After that, I began to save money. I stopped using my wages for massages or the webcast games. There was even an idea in my head, stupid, half-grown, that I would ask Kataryna to come back with me to the village.
I was saving money, so when a bandaged man found me after my shift and flashed Euros at me, not francs, of course I accepted. He wanted to do something quick and solo. He used a translator while we talked, but now I do not think that is why his voice sounded so dead. The beds were shutting off and only Abdoule was left in his office. I used my key and went into the webbing, still warm, while he went behind the glass. When I woke up, there was blood drying under my nails.
“So this is why the transaction was not logged?” The investigator crumples the empty can and it skitters into one of the room’s dark corners.
“Yes.” Nuru looks up. “You can see, if you check the bed, that it was used. You can check my mesh, even.” The investigator has a growing smile on his face.
“And this money he gave you. Where is this Euro cash?”
Nuru reels out into watery morning light, a sun promising to be fierce later on. He pushes his way to a familiar street, going to her tin-roof apartment. Later he will not remember much of these hours, only that despite the light glinting from broken-glass crenellations and pounding the sand, the entire day seemed to be one long evening.
A week later, on the newscasts he now watches religiously, Nuru sees the Russian diplomat again. His son’s body has been found drowned in one of the irrigation canals that cuts West from the Niger River, although it shows no picture. Nuru thinks that maybe this is a lie, and Kataryna explained to her father's agent about the cells and the flux, and she has gone on somewhere else. But he is not hopeful. He thinks that the mesh whispering of honor and politics was strong in him, and Kataryna has been killed.
As for Nuru, the village waits for him. Soon he will walk there on his own two feet and let the sea wash him clean.