The bar had been a grocery store once. The owner back then had been a teetotaller who preferred women over alcohol. His love for the former had driven him out of business. The new owner had now converted the square room into a famous watering hole. There was a bar with a wooden counter at one end of the room and a few tables at the other end, near the windows. A pool table was placed right in the centre, above which hung half a dozen incandescent lamps which gave the whole bar a dull yellow glow. Next to the bar was a door which led into a side office.
Dave Manda shifted nervously on his bar stool. The contents of the glass he was holding nearly spilled onto his lap but he quickly steadied himself. He carefully placed the glass back on the bar’s counter and ordered another round.
“Everyone has their own problems,” Dave finally managed to speak. “And we cannot claim that our problems are bigger than the other person’s. Not unless we have walked in their shoes.”
The two other people at the counter with him only stared at Dave. “That’s easy for you to say. You are rich. You have a beautiful wife and can have anything you want. What more could you possibly need?” It was Manford Chiyenda who had spoken first.
“I hate to say it, but I agree with Manford, Mr Manda,” spoke up Dick the bartender. “Your life is perfect.”
Dave only sighed and looked around the dimly-lit room. The only other person in the bar was sitting at the table in the farthest corner, staring out of the window. Not surprising, it was three in the afternoon on a Monday. Not many people had started drinking yet.
“You really think so? And what about you, Manford? You have a very good job as an auditor and you are married to a loving wife with two children. What more could you want?”
Manford grabbed his beer glass off the counter, took a large sip and burped. “This is my problem, Dave. Right here. Alcohol. Why do you think I am here at this hour? I have been suspended from my job. And to top it all, my loving wife as you call her, is leaving me and taking the children. Says my drinking is out of control. Happy life? I think not.”
Dick interrupted him. “Not that I want you to stop patronizing this place, but if alcohol is the cause of all your problems, why don’t you just quit?”
Manford let out a snort. “That’s the problem with people who aren’t alcoholics. You think the solution is that simple? I have been drinking since I was sixteen years old. I have no known medical condition that requires me to stop drinking but that does not mean I haven’t tried to stop. And believe me, I have tried. But the bottle loves me, and I love it too. And it’s not like I can just walk into a rehabilitation centre. Remember which country we are in.”
“I cannot believe you two,” Dick spoke again, laughing. “You are wrong, Mr Manda. Some people’s problems are clearly bigger than others’, even if you haven’t walked in their shoes.”
“And I suppose you have bigger problems?” Manford was clearly not amused.
“Of course I have,” replied Dick, wiping the wood countertop with a damp dishcloth. “How long have I been serving you drinks here? Twelve years. I have seen people get rich, come here and buy rounds for the house. These are people who months before could only afford cheap gin sachets. I am a hardworking man. Where is my opportunity?”
“You know, most of the time, it is better to talk about solutions to your problems rather than just complaining about them.”
Startled, Manford and Dave turned around. Dick, however, had already seen the stranger approaching the counter. He had moved from his seat by the window.
He was six feet tall, with the build of a soccer player. He smiled, showing a perfect set of white teeth that, in spite of the colour difference, seemed to blend in quite well with his brown skin and navy blue pinstripe suit. Even in the low-watt light given by the bulbs, he looked handsome enough to catch the eye of any woman.
“I am sorry, but I could not help overhearing,” he said, before ordering a double gin and tonic. “My name is Ted.”
“Well, Ted, not that we asked for your opinion, but go on. Say whatever else you want to say,” said Dave, slightly annoyed.
“I did not mean any offence,” Ted said quickly, before ordering two more drinks for the gentlemen on his side of the counter. “All I meant was that it would be more helpful if you all sat down and tried to find solutions to your problems. That’s what I did. It made my life a whole lot better.”
“You’re overlooking the importance of analysis, friend,” Manford interjected. “Sometimes you have to analyze the problem before even talking about solutions. It is better that way.”
“Indeed it is,” Ted replied, before gulping down his drink and ordering another. “But, in your case, don’t you think you have analyzed your problems enough? You need solutions.”
“And what would your solutions be, O wise one?” Dave was still irritated by the intruder, but he was also nervous. He never liked talking about his problems, especially with strangers present.
Ted only smiled. “Well, since I do not know what your problem is, Dave – it is Dave, isn’t it? – I cannot give you a solution. But as far as your two friends go, I can guarantee that I know the solutions to their problems. I can make your problems go away, gentlemen, if you let me.”
Dick and Manford both laughed at once, drowning out the soft music playing in the bar. “So let me get this straight,” Dick managed to speak through coughing fits, “you can solve all our problems just like that? What will you do, throw some money my way? Give Manford here a drug to stop drinking?”
“Well, something like that, yes.” Ted finished his drink and reached into his trouser pocket. He fished out a wad of one thousand Kwacha notes and gave them to Dick. “Keep the change. And think about what I have said. Here is my card in case you decide that you want my help. See you, gentlemen. “He placed his card on the counter and left.
“I was wondering whose Benz that was,” mumbled Dave as he watched the man they only knew as Ted get into a Mercedes parked outside a nearby grocery store and drive off. “Very nice.”
“Why, you want to buy it? We all know you can afford it,” Manford remarked jokingly, slapping Dave on the knee. “Do you think that guy was serious?”
Dick was looking at the card. “This says his name is Ted Levih, with an ‘h’ at the end. Apparently, he is the director of a firm called Ndemo Management Consultants. Sounds important. Maybe I should call him. Just to see if he was serious. After all, I have nothing to lose.”
“Actually, Dick, you do not know that,” Dave quickly chipped in. “This guys just said he has solutions to your problems, and Manford’s. What does he want in return? Did you stop to think about that?”
Manford stood up and stretched himself. “Well, all I know is, I have tried to stop drinking, to no avail. If this guy says he has a solution, then I want it. I do not care what it costs. Dick, give me the man’s contact details.”
Dick lay awake that night, tired but unable to sleep. His wife snored loudly beside him but he ignored her sounds. His mind was racing. He had long waited for an opportunity to present itself. And now, finally, it had.
He had started bartending at the age of twenty. Fifteen years later, twelve of which he had spent in the same bar, Dick had nothing to show for it. The tiny two-bedroomed house he lived in with his wife and two children was rented. It had no indoor plumbing. He had no savings and his salary just about managed to cover his monthly needs.
He had seen people move from rags to riches. He had even served people like Dave Manda, who had been a young, often-broke college boy when Dick first met him. Then his miser of a father had died and left him a fortune at the tender age of twenty-three. A lot of the people Dick knew had progressed while he himself had not. He worked hard. He even had plans to own a night club one day. He had even told his plans to his boss, but the bar’s owner had only smiled affectionately and patted Dick on the back like a child. “Sounds good, Dick. That sounds very good.”
But now, it seemed he had a chance to make his dreams come true. The more he thought about it, the more the idea appealed to him. By the time Dick fell asleep, he knew exactly what he had to do.
“So, tell me, what do you want? Just so there are no misunderstandings.” Ted Levih, impeccably dressed in a smart gray suit, addressed his guest.
Seating opposite Ted in the management consultant’s plush apartment, Manford Chiyenda spoke confidently. “Well, you said at the bar four days ago that you could help. You already know what I want. I have a drinking problem. I need you to make it go away.”
“Well, now, that is easy enough,” Ted replied. “As a matter of fact, I can guarantee that your problem will be solved by next week.” He crossed his legs. “I work fast. Ask your friend the bartender.”
Manford smiled, but eyed his counterpart with suspicion. “What exactly is it that you want in return? You are helping us and that’s fine. But what’s in it for you?”
“Helping people out of predicaments is what I like doing. I do not need anything right now. But if I ever need a favour, I hope I can count on you.”
Manford stood up, hand outstretched. “If you help me, I will owe you a hundred favours. You can count on that.” Ted Levih only smiled broadly as they shook hands.
The first thing that Dave noticed as he parked his silver Toyota Fortuner outside the bar was the awning. He was positive the bar had not had one the week before. It was actually a great idea, he thought. At least now we can sit outside in the shade when it gets too hot.
As soon as he walked into the bar, he could immediately tell that it was not just the outside that had changed. The bar was still dimly lit, but was now more flamboyant. Blue, red and green light bulbs had replaced the usual yellowish hue. The countertop was still wooden, but now had been recently varnished. The glass display now held more different brands of alcohol than there had been previously. And, perched on a high stool behind the counter was a different bartender.
“Where’s Dick?” The new bartender looked confused for a moment before a smile of realization crept over his face. “You mean the boss. He is in the back. Let me call him.” At that moment, the door that connected the bar and the back office opened and Dick walked in.
“Dave! You’re back! How was your trip?” Now Dave was even more confused. For one thing, Dick was smartly dressed in a white silk shirt and he had a gold watch on his wrist. And another thing; Dave? What happened to calling me Mr Manda?
“Yes, Dick, I’m back. I’ll have my usual. What the hell happened to this place? I have only been away for a week!”
“Yes, well, a lot can happen in a week,” Dick said, laughingly. “I bought this place a few days ago so I decided to renovate it a little. Do you like it?”
“Yes, of course I like it, but how did you…? Wait. Ted Levih?”
“Yes,” Dick replied. Then, in a hushed tone, “Let’s go in the back, Dave. It is a bit crowded in here.”
“So, here is what happened,” Dick had started talking excitedly as soon as they both sat down in the back office. “He gave me ten grand and told me to go to the Roaring Pirates casino. He told me to keep playing the slot machines until my money ran out. I ended up winning the jackpot, Dave! I won millions!”
“Dick, wait. That does not mean that he had a hand in it, does it? It could just be a happy coincidence. At best, you owe Ted ten thousand large.”
“I don’t think so, Dave. My luck suddenly changed the same day I went to talk to him. I now have what I have always dreamed of; my own bar. Not to mention a couple of cars and a new house. Besides, if you want more evidence, just ask Manford. He visited Ted too.”
“Manford? Are you telling me that Manford is now a teetotaller?”
Dick nodded vigorously. “I would not have believed it had I not seen it with my own eyes. Twice he came here and twice he refused to have any alcohol.” Dick then looked a little distant. “It was almost as if he was too scared to even look at the bottles. But he told me that he hasn’t had a drink since the day he went to see Ted.”
Dave rubbed his clean-shaven chin thoughtfully. “Interesting. But I will only be convinced if I see Ted myself. Give me his phone number. By the way, you say he helped you. What did he want in return?”
Dick drummed his stubby fingers on his desk before replying. “He did not ask for anything in return, only that he might call on me if he ever needs a favour. Talk to him. I know you are already rich and are not an alcoholic, but, like you said a while back, everyone has their own problems, right? Maybe he can help you solve yours.”
Dave looked at the new-and-improved Dick the bartender and smiled. “Yes, who knows? Maybe he can.”
He literally bumped into her two days after his meeting with Ted Levih. His large Toyota scraped the rear bumper of her black Nissan hatchback. She got out of her car, furious.
“Why don’t you watch where you are going? Are you crazy?”
Dave got out of his vehicle, apologetic. “I am sorry, madam. I did not realize that I was too close and…”
Her voice was suddenly less hostile. “Just be careful, alright? That car of yours is not a beetle, it is a buffalo on wheels. Try not to ram into the rest of us.”
“Look, madam, I am very sorry. I will get your car fixed. Or, I could just write you a cheque right now. My name is Dave Manda…”
“I know who you are,” she suddenly snapped again. “And I do not want your money. I will get it fixed myself.”
“I did not mean any disrespect, madam. I will give you my contact details in case the police or your insurers need a statement or something. And my offer to have your car fixed still…”
Dave was interrupted by incessant blaring of car horns. That was when he noticed that they had blocked a one-lane street.
She had noticed it too. She snatched his card and gave him hers. “I will let you know if all that is necessary. Goodbye.”
Only after she had driven away did it occur to Dave that he had not asked her where she knew him from. But at least I have her name, he thought, looking thoughtfully at the card.
Scared of us now Manford aren’t you? We used to be friends good friends but now you run from us and you are always tense now but let’s release that tension Manford let’s have a drink it will be all better Manford yes Manford it is a good drink it tastes good like blood hahaha your son agrees Manford he does he loves us now hahaha.
Manford woke up drenched in sweat. His hands were shaking. Beside him, his wife mumbled sleepily, “you were having a bad dream again, Manford. You have been snoring like a pig.”
It had been months since his last bottle. Everyone at work was happy for him, not to mention his wife. But they did not know about his dreams. They had started a month after he got onto the wagon. Now, alcohol literally scared him. The bottles talked to him. In some cases, he actually saw some of the bottles glower and sneer at him. And it was not just in his dreams. Sometimes it happened when he was awake.
Manford fluffed his pillow, much to the annoyance of his wife, and tried to get comfortable. But it was a long time before he fell asleep again.
They lay in bed together in her apartment. She snuggled close to him, their naked bodies spent but warm in the afterglow. Her fingers ran playfully in his chest hair.
“What exactly are you going to tell your wife? About why you are divorcing her, I mean.”
Dave was silent for a moment. “Let me worry about that, okay? I can handle my wife. She won’t be a problem.”
She ran her brown, well-sculpted right leg against his inner right thigh. “I hope so. Because I don’t think I can do this anymore. Not while you are still married.”
“Like I said, Martha, I will handle it. You know I love you and want to be with you.”
“I love you too. I have been waiting for you to ask me out since we were in college. Now that it finally happened, I don’t want to share you, even if you married her first.”
Dave only kissed her forehead and sighed, remembering the day he had accidentally bumped into her little black car a few months before. He knew she loved him and that it was not about the money for her. She had her own money, her own job, unlike his former model of a wife who solely depended on him. But, he also remembered what Ted had told him.
“I can help you find someone who loves you for you. The fact that you are already married, my friend, is your problem to fix.”
They all want my money, Dick thought to himself. All of them. My wife, her relatives, my relatives, everyone. They all want to get their grubby little paws on my money. But that will not happen. Not now, not ever. This is my money.
“I need money for the hair salon,” Dick’s wife interrupted his thoughts. Give me ten thousand.”
Dick nearly choked on his own spit. “Ten thousand? What for? You never needed that much before, Madalo!”
She planted her hands on her hips, her large breasts heaving. “Well, now we can afford it. Don’t be so stingy. Just give me the money.”
Dick counted out a few notes from his pocket. “Here is six thousand. You will take it and like it!” Madalo glared at him but silently took the money from her husband’s outstretched hand, lest he changed his mind.
“I am going to the bar. If the taxi drivers come, tell them to meet me there.”
“Can’t they just leave the money with me?”
“No! Just do as you are told!”
Madalo left the room, her ample behind shaking furiously behind her, while she mumbled something about stingy, ungrateful and paranoid husbands.
Dick said nothing. It was bad enough that Tuesdays were slow at the bar. He did not have to put up with this.
The priest was surprised to see the smartly-dressed man standing at the back of the church. He was absolutely still, staring at the altar as if there was something specific which interested him.
“You know, we rarely get people coming to pray during the week. Most of them claim to be too busy.”
Manford looked like he had just been slapped into consciousness. “Oh. I am sorry, I didn’t realize…” He turned to go.
“I was not chasing you away. Come closer to the altar. My name is Father Musa.”
“I am Manford Chiyenda. My wife and I are having a dinner with my work colleagues tonight and I just thought I should stop by before we left.”
“Are your colleagues that bad?” When he saw that the other man had not been amused by the joke, Father Musa’s face grew stern. “Is everything alright?”
Manford looked at the priest long and hard. “Do you believe every problem can be fixed, Father?”
Father Musa touched Manford’s hand. “Of course, my son. Every predicament can be overcome one way or another. But you must be willing to take the first step. Do you know what that is?”
Manford shook his head so Father Musa guided his gaze to the figure of Christ on the cross which hung on the wall behind the altar. “First, tell him your problems. Admit your mistakes. Then ask for his help, his guidance. It may be hard, but it is not impossible,” the priest said. “You can start right now. I will help you. Let us kneel and pray together.”
Silently, Manford and the priest knelt in the closest pew to the altar. The priest was about to start praying when Manford suddenly stood up and, like a man possessed, ran out of the church. The priest was confused. He thought nothing of the two bottles of wine which had just been placed at the altar.
Madalo was startled to see her husband walk into their spacious living room. “Back so early? Who is at the bar?”
“I closed early. There was no one there,” Dick answered, looking around the room. “Where are the taxi drivers? I see the cars outside.”
“They left a few minutes ago. I saw that it was better if they left the money with me. They were here, anyway.”
Lines formed on Dick’s forehead. “Woman, did I not tell you to tell them to meet me at the bar? Are you deliberately trying to provoke me?”
“I told you. I did not think it was necessary. What is it with you and your money? You don’t even trust your own family with it!”
“Just shut up and bring me my money.”
Madalo said nothing, but there was a look of resentment on her face as she heaved out of the comfortable chair she was sitting in.
“Is this all there is?” Dick was beginning to get hysterical. “Where have you put the rest?”
His wife only pointed at the pile of money she had dumped onto the coffee table and which her husband had finished counting. “That is all they gave me. They said it was a slow day today.”
“Liar! You have hidden some of it! Hand it over! I want the rest of my money!”
Madalo had heard enough. “I said I do not have any of your money! What is wrong with you? You accuse everyone in this family of trying to steal from you. You have forbidden any of our relatives from coming to visit because you think they are after your money. Well, I have had it! I’m leaving!” She spat on the carpeted floor and turned to go pack her things.
He yanked her by her hair, Madalo nearly losing her balance and spinning around in surprise. Seizing the advantage, Dick then slapped his wife so hard she went sprawling backwards, hit the coffee table and slumped to the floor.
Dick kicked his wife’s legs. “Get up and go get my money.” Madalo did not move. “Did you hear me, you slut? I want my money!” Silence. Dick began to feel uneasy. He dropped to his knees and took a closer look at his wife. The hair at the back of her head was matted with blood. The cream-coloured carpet she was lying on was beginning to turn crimson. Anger gave way to panic and fear. Madalo was not breathing. Dick hastily stuffed the money inside a pillowcase and fled from his own home.
The living room door slammed in Manford’s face before he could walk inside the house. He sighed and looked at his watch. Seven-thirty. It was going to be a long night.
“What the hell got into you? Do you need psychiatric help or something?”
Manford tried to calm his wife down. “Look, Regina, I said I was sorry. I was only trying to…”
“Trying to do what? Embarrass me as well as yourself? Well, you succeeded! Manford, I know you quit drinking and I am proud of you for that, but that does not mean that everyone else has to stop drinking too!”
“Regina, I was only trying to point out that alcohol is poison. It destroys you! It’s evil!”
Regina held the hem of her black evening gown with her left hand while her right hand was raised as if she was going to slap her husband. “Pointing it out? You snatched a wine glass out of your boss’ hand, broke it and then started throwing expensive bottles of wine out of his living room window!”
“Keep your voice down. Mike and Janet will hear you.”
“I do not care whether our children hear us or not! Manford, you need help. When you quit drinking, I thought it was the best thing to ever happen to you in a while. Now I am not so sure.”
It was at that point that the front door opened and their teenage son walked in. A goat could not have been more startled by a two-headed python. Michael managed to steady his body, only just managing to prevent his left hand from dropping the beer it was holding onto the floor.
“So is this what you do when we are not around? You go out drinking?” Regina glared at her son, kicking off her high-heeled shoes. “What has got into you? Since when do you drink?”
Michael said nothing, and neither did his father. Manford only stared at his son, transfixed, ignoring Regina who was about to blow a gasket.
You thought you were getting rid of us didn’t you Manford? We won’t go anywhere because we are everywhere Manford hahahaha and now we are back in your house Manford in your son in his blood and we are not leaving you will never get rid of us take us back Manford have a drink.
Manford did not want to listen anymore. It was true. He could not get rid of them and now they had his son. But I have to save him, Manford thought. I have to try. I know exactly what to do.
The Toyota screeched to a halt in front of the bar. The driver hopped out and immediately made for the bar’s large doors. The bar was closed, but the lights were still on inside. Dave pounded on the doors.
“Dick! It’s Dave! Open up!”
No answer came.
“Dick, I know you are here! Your car is here and the bar’s indoor lights are on! Open up!”
“We’re closed!” Dick’s voice finally rang out. Come back tomorrow!”
“Dick, please!” I need your help! Let me in!”
Seconds passed before Dick finally spoke again. “Alright. Use the back door. I will unlock it.”
Dave was through the door before it was completely open. “Dick, I am in trouble. I badly need your help.”
Dick was not even looking at him. “What is going on, Dave? What do you want?” he had turned his attention to a cabinet in his office, which was open and had two leather briefcases in front of it.
“I killed her, Dick. I killed Martha, my girlfriend.”
This time Dick turned around, disbelief unmasked. “What? What happened?”
Dave looked a mess. In spite of the cool night, sweat covered his forehead and the front of his shirt.
“She went to my house to confront my wife. I found them in the middle of an argument. Then, Martha – she just went crazy. She grabbed a steak knife and stabbed my wife repeatedly in the abdomen. I guess I just lost it too. I was angry. I-” Dave looked at his hands, as if terrified of them. “I broke her neck.”
Dick only stared at Dave, shaking his head. “I am sorry, Dave, but what do you want from me? What can I do?”
“I need to get out of the country tonight. I know you have connections. Help me.”
“Alright, I can help you but we need to move quickly. In fact, I am also leaving the country right now.” Dick then recounted the events that had occurred in his own home.
Dave was flabbergasted. “Dick, what are the chances of this happening to both of us in one day, on the same night? This is too big a coincidence.”
“Indeed it is.” The voice behind Dave literally made him jump a few inches. Even Dick stood up, banknotes in each hand, startled.
Ted Levih’s tall frame entered the office, dressed in a black, double-breasted suit. He was smiling, as always. Despite the dim light, his caramel-coloured skin was glowing.
“I am so happy to see you again, gentlemen. Dave, you look horrible. And Dick, where are you going? It looks like you are packing.”
Dave’s fear gave way to anger. “This is all your fault! You and your promises! Now look at the mess we are in!”
Ted only smiled and shook his head. “While I admit that the three of you are in a mess, I will not take the blame for it. I only granted you what you wished for.”
Dick, however, had noticed something else. “Wait. You said the three of us. Where is Manford? Is he also in trouble?”
“I am afraid so,” Ted replied. “Your friend decided to save his son who, according to Manford, was possessed by alcohol demons. And, since alcohol runs in the bloodstream, Manford decided to purge his son of his demons by slitting his wrists and throat.”
Dave gasped. Ted ignored him. “Yes, quite unfortunate. But, maybe he will explain better himself. He is on his way here.”
“And how do you know this?” Dick never received an answer. There was a scrunch of tyres against gravel and moments later, Manford squeezed through the same door Dave had used a few minutes before.
“Manford, it is so good to see you.” Ted gave Manford a hearty clap on the back. “As I was telling your friends here, you are all in big trouble. You do, however, have a few options. Let me lay them out for you.”
Ted paused and looked at his audience. They all stared back at him. In Manford’s eyes, he could see the raved look of lunacy. Dick looked like he wanted to strangle Ted. Dave, however, had the dazed look of someone who could not comprehend what was happening.
“You can try to run, but I can guarantee that you will not get far. The police have already been alerted and as I speak, there is a mob coming here. I would give them about five to ten minutes. If they get here before the police do, you will not get your day in court, believe me. In case you are wondering, it is your cars that have given you away, parked in the open as they are.”
“If, by some miracle, the police manage to get here first and whisk you away, I can all but guarantee you the death penalty; even you, Dick. That brings me to your other option.”
Not a sound was made, except by Dick. He seemed to be sucking air through his teeth, his fists clenched. Everyone ignored him.
“Your other option, gentlemen, is to make sure that neither the police nor the mob find you alive. Fortunately, Manford can help with that. I think you know what I mean by that, don’t you, Manford?” Ted smiled at the other man, who only stared back at him.
“You see, Manford still believes that alcohol is pure evil, even more so now. That would explain why he came here, as well as why he has ten litres of petrol behind that door.” Ted pointed to the back entrance. “Manford did not come here for your help, Dick. He came to torch this place, with you in it. And I think it is an excellent idea.”
Dave immediately recovered from his stupor. “Are you mad? I am not dying in here!”
“Well, given your other options, I think you should seriously consider it. After all, you do not have a lot of time left.”
“I don’t understand. Who are you? Why are you doing this?”
Ted’s smile only grew broader. “I have not done anything. This is happening because you all made it happen. Greed and dissatisfaction are what got you here. And now, here we are. As for who I am, well, I think you already know.”
The three men said nothing, each a wanderer in his own thoughts. Manford still bore the deranged look he had put on that evening. Ted Levih looked at each one of them, seemingly enjoying himself.
“Clock’s ticking, gentlemen.”