The kitchen was in full swing. I was walking slowly with a foggy head. Felicia spotted me ambling toward the dining room and called out, “Frank is awake.” Shade swung quickly around the corner, her green flowered skirt swaying with the momentum. Her lovely hair extension flowed just moments behind her, catching a small draft and flaring out for moment. I saw determination in her eyes. I was ready for an earful so I pre-empted.
“I’m sorry.” It came out hoarsely, my throat wasn’t ready for words. So I cleared it with a cough quickly and continued, “I’ll get out of here and leave you alone.”
“What were you thinking?” Shade’s voice was controlled, and I don’t think it carried past me. She grabbed my hand and pulled me into the office. I followed, her will being stronger than my mushy brain could counter. “I had everyone looking for you.” She pushed me back on the camp bed and began covering me with the blankets.
“I thought…” Shade didn’t let me finish.
“You didn’t think,” Shade stated firmly, then her voice cracked, “if Fabio hadn’t found you…God… you were gone when he brought you back.” There were tears running down her cheeks which she quickly wiped away. I was confused and my brain wasn’t processing at full speed. She sat down on the floor next to me, spreading her skirt evenly around her. “I am so sorry.” It sounded like she wanted to say more. She couldn’t get it out and wiped away another tear.
“I don’t understand,” I said quietly. One minute I thought she wanted me to leave and the next to stay.
“I don’t either,” Shade said, her voice cracking, “it was cold last night, and I thought you were going to die.” She dropped her head into her hands and sobbed.
“I didn’t though.” It was an obviously useless statement. I thought back to crawl into that small open church building. It was almost my grave. “My stupidity isn’t your fault.” Shade tried to say something, then thought better of it. She stood, instead, wiping her eyes.
“I’m going to get you some food. You’re not to leave.” It wasn’t a request. I watched her leave. Something had changed and I couldn’t completely wrap my head around it.
Shade returned and allowed me to sit up. She placed a plate of semo and hot ogbono soup on the desk. I hadn’t realized how hungry I was until the smell hit me. She sat with me, watching me eat, smiling while I devoured the meal. When I pushed the empty plate away, she spoke.
“I want to take back what I said.” Shade looked at me, then her eyes drifted toward the empty plate. “I was angry…I can’t really explain it and it confuses me.” She looked back at me. “I don’t want you to leave, although I know you might. I wouldn’t blame you.”
“I’m pretty messed up,” I admitted. I tried to kill myself and then almost did it accidentally. “I’m not sure if I do more harm than good.” Shade put her hand over mine.
“I have been playing Richard’s favourite song every day at 4:00 for nine years.” Shade smiled as she thought about it. “I’ve been hiding in here behind a promise. My acquaintances all live on the streets. I am the poster child of messed up and I am highly efficient at it.” I didn’t move my hand, thinking she might remove hers. I felt guilty enjoying the human touch. The last person I touched died in my arms. It felt nice to be close to someone again.
“I threw my life away to live under the bridge with Fabio,” I said to top Shade’s concept of messed up. She laughed as I smiled. It was nice to see her eyes crinkle and little dimples form on her cheeks. I was happy she didn’t remove her hand.
“So you’ll stay for a while?” Shade’s eyes were hopeful.
“I could use the distraction this place provides,” I said honestly. “Those little solvable tasks are welcoming. I would also like to see this FIRS thing through. I kind of pisses me off.” Shade’s smile widened.
“You can sleep here until you find someplace better.” Shade rose and picked up the empty. I felt a small emptiness when she removed her hand from mine. “If you feel better in the morning, I’ll put you to work.” She started walking out, then stopped in the doorway and turned back toward me. “Thank you for not hating me.” She spun back around and disappeared out the door before I could form a response. I had no idea where that came from. I was hating myself, not her.
I ate dinner with Fabio the next day. I thanked him for finding me the other night. It turns out I actually walked back to the City Kitchen with his help. I remembered nothing of the walk. Fabio’s lecture on how to survive on the streets was long and disjointed. I listened patiently, knowing he was the reason I was there to learn it.
Shade and I began working closer together. I learned proper menu management and stock control. The problems that plagued me during her brief sickness were the norm, not the exception. She just had the tools to deal with them without panicking. The management skills she taught me would put Harvard Business School to shame. There was a change in Shade during the period. She would smile more and become more tolerant. I still had to do it right, without exception. She just identified the many errors in a pleasant, non-demanding way.
I was able to get into cookery contest with Shade. I worked with vigour and was handily beaten again. She had nine years’ experience, but I think I did a lot better than the first time. I suspected I could beat her given a few more tries. I loved her triumph face. Maybe I would never win.
I really enjoyed the escape from my past. I also knew that staying forever wasn’t much of a possibility. I had commitments I had been ignoring that would cause festering problems if I continued to neglect them. Using the office computer, I logged into my bank account. Nothing has changed on my account. I was a little concerned about my car. I had left it in the parking lot of a mall and I wondered if it was still there. I shrugged my shoulders and made payments to the Let’s Fix It Initiative, an NGO I support quarterly. It felt a little weird transferring the money. I had spent a lot of time these last weeks, trying to avoid real life. I was taking a step toward normalcy, and I still wasn’t wholly comfortable with the move. I had already checked the boxes and hit ‘pay’ so I couldn’t step back. I stroked my growing beard and logged out.
It was just a step, I’ll take the leap later.
Three weeks after the FIRS audit, a letter arrived. Shade was crushed and I was livid. The FIRS had identified the one thousand, five hundred naira window cleaning payment as an undocumented cash disbursement. They claimed it indicated fraud and were notifying Shade that a seven year audit of both the City Kitchen, and her personal account, will commence in ninety days. It was the second time I had seen Shade cry. This time it was on my shoulder. It took a few minutes to return to work.
The City Kitchen’s fundraising banquet was a week prior to the new audit. The pressure mounting on Shade showed in her face. She couldn’t stop the banquet, its proceeds are necessary to keep the kitchen running.
“They’re going to ruin me,” Shade said with surprisingly calm, “maybe this was all meant to end.” I saw the signs of depression setting in. I knew them well.
“Only if you let them.” I avoided the word ‘we.’ It was hard not to try to make it our problem. It felt like it was ours.
“I’m going to need you if I fight,” Shade said as she stopped slicing onion and looked up at me. I tied off the garbage bag I had just pulled it out of the can and smiled with confidence. She needed the support.
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” I watched her lips curve into a malicious grin as she went back to the onion. The knife moved with blazing speed. I think she was imagining FIRS fingers as she cut.
Shade woke me early the next morning. She handed me the morning paper. There was a small article in the bottom right of the front page. ‘Promise Keeper Alive?’ was the heading.
“They say there were movements in your accounts,” Shade said quietly. There was no one else here so I wasn’t sure why she was almost whispering. “They are requesting you come forward.”
“I made a donation yesterday,” I whispered back. It was contagious, the whispering. “I guess they were monitoring the accounts.” I read the article and, as Shade had said, a detective Bakare was asking me to come forward and claim my wallet. “I’m not ready to go back. Not with that singing thing.” For some reason, I didn’t like being forced back into society. I was planning to drift back slowly. Shade sat on the edge of the camp bed.
“You can hide as long as you need.” She took the newspaper back. “Forever if you need to.” Dolapo would have loved Shade. Dolapo never let the world tell her what to do. She made up her own mind and then steered the world to it. I saw a lot of that drive in Shade. I just needed to get the FIRS out of her way so she could live her life, her way.
“Thank you,” I responded, and meant it. Shade’s eyes sparkled as she rose.
“We have work to do,” Shade stated. It wasn’t lost on me that she used the word ‘we.’ I jumped out of bed. There were people to feed and an FIRS audit to thwart.
A week before the banquet, my beard had finally come into its own. Shade hated it, but endured it for my anonymity. She gave me a battery operated trimmer so I would at least keep it groomed. I had spent countless hours going over Shade’s tax returns. There were no glaring errors. Nothing that would even hint at fraud. I was confident the witch hunt would end the next week. The FIRS has a lot of power, but would still have to defend themselves in court if need be.
Unfortunately, I was not prepared for the next bomb to drop. Shade and I were standing at the head of the line, monitoring the dining hall when a fat gentleman in jeans, red shirt and papa’s cap pushed his way to the front. Shade moved quickly, her glare set to dagger mode.
“You must be new.” Shade stated the obvious and moved to block the man from moving forward. I moved in next to her, thinking she looked awfully small next the man.
“Shade Aiyeto?” the man asked with little politeness.
“Yes, and your name?” Shade responded with an equal lack of charm. The man handed her an envelope.
“You’ve been served.” The man smiled and headed out the door. Shade’s shoulders slumped, then her back straightened again. She moved back to allow the rest of the line through, gritting her teeth.
“Can you keep your eyes on things, Frank?” Shade asked with false calm. I nodded and she headed off to the office. She didn’t return.
When the meal ended I started the clean-up process without Shade. When everyone was assigned a task I went to the office, my temporary home, looking for her. I found her asleep on the camp bed. Shade’s eye sockets were blushed red and sunken. I quietly moved to the desk where a stapled set of papers lay. The top sheet had a few small crinkled spots where wetness had dried. Tears.
I picked up the papers and read. I felt my throat knot at the first few paragraphs. A class action lawsuit filed by a donor claiming fraud. There were twenty seven pages of legal language and the citing of precedents. Both the City Kitchen and Shade were at risk. These people, whoever they were, were not going to stop with a fraudulent FIRS audit. Shade was right, they were going to ruin her.
I sat on the floor and watched Shade sleep. I wanted to wake her and tell her it was going to be okay, but that would only make it worse for her. In the end, she was innocent and would prevail. I just didn’t know when the end would arrive. The lawyers she needed to hire would most likely charge enough to send everything into a financial ruin.
I rose, opened the file cabinet and retrieved the donor book for three years ago. I turned to the page with Dolapo’s name and ran my finger across it. Dolapo saw something in this place, something in need of support. There was no way I was going to let Dolapo or Shade down, not while I was breathing. Defense was no longer an option.
I left Shade sleeping, and quietly left the room. She needed the sleep, and I needed to think. I cleaned and inspected, letting the helpers go once everything was to Shade’s standards. I locked up and sat in the main hall, thinking. The rudiments of a plan developed, I knew the lawsuit wasn’t the end. The timing was deliberate. They meant to kill the banquet and destroy the City Kitchen’s funding. Things would get worse before they got better. I would need help, and, to get it, I had to come out of hiding.
…to be continued