Naturalist: The Call

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liarliar
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Naturalist: The Call

[I really liked the Naturalist Supporting Cast episode of the Letters Page, and Chima in particular caught my attention, and when they talked about her knowing his secret really early on, I wondered how that chat might have gone...]

Chima had always said she wanted to do something good with her life. Something effective, that would help people who needed it. Something she could be truly proud of. And here she was, doing it! She knew she ought to be grateful every minute of every day that she was here.

She just hadn't imagined that making the world a better place would involve quite so many spreadsheets.

She glared at the numbers in front of her, as they impassively stared back. Try as she might, she couldn't intimidate them into saying anything other than the truth - they were being squeezed out of existence. Slowly but surely, donors were drying up, and the people they knew in government seemed to be less and less useful to them as the months passed. If this continued, they'd be out of operation in less than a year. Probably much less.

The phone rang.

With the speed of a striking snake, her hand whipped out, gripped the handset, and drew it to her ear. It took longer, almost half a second, to ready the sugary sweetness in her talking-to-potential-donors voice and prepare to speak.

"Hello, you've reached the Sustainable Abuja Fund. My name is Chima, how can I help you?"

"It's Michael."

She slammed the handset down without even a thought, and stared at it.

Michael? Why on earth would he call her?

She'd heard he was back - it had been almost a week, now, and the news had been full of it. The incredible disappearing businessman had returned! Well, how lovely for him.

The phone rang again, and she grabbed it up and snapped: "Whatever it is, Conteh, I don't want to hear it."

"You were right and I was wrong."

She blinked, slowly and deliberately - part of her taking the chance to check whether she was dreaming. Because surely this couldn't be real. "Say that again."

There was a rich, deep laugh from the other end of the line. "You were right, Chima. You told me that I could do something better with my life, and I didn't listen to you, and I owe you a real apology. Can I buy you a coffee?"

"Is the coffee also the apology?"

"The coffee might supplement the apology, but I promise I mean to use words as well."

She pouted as she thought, then nodded. "Alright then. But this had better be damn good coffee."

 

The cafe was a tiny little place with uneven brickwork, hidden away on a quiet side-street, and Michael's expensive suit looked distinctly out of place as he paid for their drinks - so much so that the barista taking his order barely seemed to be holding back the urge to roll her eyes at him. But either he didn't notice, or he was just taking her attitude in stride. He found them a table away in a corner and pulled out a seat for her. Always the gentleman.

She took the other chair, and gave him a hard stare as he sat. "So."

"So."

"You said you wanted to apologise?"

"Yes, of course. I don't suppose you can wait for our coffee to come?"

She shook her head. "I've been waiting for you to come to your senses and apologise since the day we had our little chat. If you try to make me wait five more minutes, I might just kill you instead."

He chuckled and gave a sort of nod, acknowledging the truth in her accusation. "Alright then. Years ago, you talked to me about my plans for my life. I told you what I wanted to do, you told me I was wrong and should try and help people instead of just helping myself."

"I know this. Skip to the good part."

"I'm getting there! Honestly, Chima, you're so impatient!" Whatever he might have followed that with, and whatever retort she might have made, were cut off by the arrival of their coffees. The woman serving them frowned at Michael before turning and leaving. Michael lifted his, took a quick sip, and smiled. Then he looked straight at Chima, right in the eyes. "Fine: you were right. I should have listened to you and I should have tried to do good in the world. I'm sorry that I didn't take you more seriously."

She nodded. "Good." Her own coffee was luring her, its scent strong and delicious, and she stopped resisting the call. Her first taste was surprising - it was very dark, but not as bitter as she'd expected. The flavour was full and almost heavy in her mouth, and as she swallowed it down, the taste of it seemed to spread and deepen.

Not bad at all.

"Is that all?"

"What else do you want me to say?" She shrugged. "You've apologised. Good. Thank you."

"After all this time, I don't know - I'd expected you would be a little more pleased."

"It's just an apology, Michael. If you want me to get excited, you're going to have to try a little harder."

He gave her that rolling laugh again - he'd always been good-humoured, cheery. She'd missed that about him. Not that she was going to show it.

"Of course. Well, I did have one idea that you might appreciate..."

"Yes?"

"Come and work with me."

She almost threw the coffee in his face. "What!?"

"Listen to me." He leaned forward, ignorant of the danger that put him in. "Conteh Energy could do a lot of good if it can be targeted correctly. I know the work I've done there in the past has been..."

"No!" The tiny pause was enough for her to jump in. "No, absolutely not! Why would you even ask me that?"

"I need someone I can trust. You were the first person who came to mind."

"And what if I can't trust you?" Her anger was open, now, drawn in every line of her face. "It's not just our history, that's bad enough. You also had the gall to up and vanish on your whole life! How could I work with someone, how could I rely on someone who would do that?"

He was looking away. "I came back as soon as...as soon as I could."

"Why now? Why come back now, why come back at all? You disappeared, Michael. You just vanished out of the blue for no reason, not a word to anyone. And people searched for you, you know! Not me, obviously." She took another sip of coffee, to try and calm her fury. It helped that it was very good - Michael certainly knew how to sweeten her temper. "But people. I think you owe them some sort of an explanation."

"You're right, I do." He was giving her a strange, thoughtful look - a familiar look. When they'd played together as kids, that look had always meant 'I'm about to do something stupidly risky because I think it might work.' Annoyingly, it often had. "So I'll start here. But you have to promise you can keep a secret."

She rolled her eyes so hard that her whole head moved with them. "You know I can."

"Of course." He flashed his smallest, cheekiest grin. "Tell me, did you hear about what happened at the Carayarr Pharmecueticals facility last week?"

She nodded. That had been all over the news - when they hadn't been obsessing over Michael, anyway. The place was outside the city, far enough that the company had felt like it could do whatever it wanted - its shady business practices and the pollution it pumped out were barely a secret, but they'd kept operating without any noticeable problems. That is, until last week, when the place had been mysteriously...destroyed was too simple a word. It had almost been levelled. Machinery had been ripped apart, walkways collapsed, electronic systems smashed to pieces. The official word was an animal attack - but one that had somehow managed to avoid doing any further damage to the surrounding environment. In fact, the way the outlet pipes had been blocked with rubble, it was probably already cleaner than it had been.

"I did. They're saying it was some kind of animal attack."

"Some kind is right." He glanced over his shoulder, leaned forwards, and she instinctively leaned towards him.

That meant that their faces were very close together when one of his eyes suddenly turned yellow and slitted.

She almost hurled herself backwards out of her chair, and only his grip on her arm saved her balance. He gave a quick wave to the rest of the room, smiled, and the other couple of patrons went back to their coffee as Chima settled back into her seat. Her heart was still racing, and she leaned towards him again so that he could hear her hiss.

"What on EARTH do you think you're doing, Michael? Why would you go around just telling people that?"

He was grinning at her. "You're the first person - the only person I've told. Because I trust you. And...because I need you."

She frowned. "You certainly do. If you're doing this sort of crazy nonsense, you obviously don't have enough people around to tell you off!" She knew she was saying exactly what he wanted her to, an impression he confirmed with another broad smile, but she couldn't stop herself. He probably knew that too.

"Then help me. Come and work for me. I know you're the best assistant I could ask for, but what I really need is someone there who knows me, who really, honestly knows me. And who knows me better than you do?"

She thought about it for a few seconds that stretched and stretched. She could always stay where she was. She could keep trying to make the Fund work. But if Michael was sincere, he could probably do a lot more to make that happen from the head of his company, and if he needed her to make that happen...

"So you'd be paying me as your admin assistant."

"That's right."

"And I also get to tell you when you're acting like an idiot?"

"Please do."

An irrepressible smile crept over her face, and she raised her cup. "Then I accept. If nothing else, I'm sure it will be fun."

His cup met hers, and they drank deeply.

It really was very good coffee.