A sweet voice whispered in his ear. “Time to get up.”
Nathan opened his eyes. From out of a mountain of white duvet Aiko smiled at him. He smiled back.
Aiko moved closer and kissed him gently. “New job day, remember?”
“Oh yeah.” Nathan said. He frowned as he remembered. “I hate first days.”
Aiko grimaced and moved away. “It’ll be fine.”
“Why that expression?”
“You have really bad morning breath!”
After a moment Nathan grinned. “Yeah, I do. It smells exactly like a crocodile fart!”
“How could you possibly know that?”
“Jason told me.”
“I haven’t seen him for ages. He’s a zoologist; a reptile specialist. He works a lot with crocodiles, or at least he did. We went camping many years ago and shared a tent. He noticed then.”
“Right…” Aiko said, getting out of bed. She stepped over to a chair on the corner and grabbed her dressing gown.
Nathan made the most of the few seconds he had to admire her slim figure before it was covered. “Maybe I can prove it to you?”
Aiko nodded. “Sure.” She said, tying her gown. “Coffee?”
“Always.” Nathan said, throwing back the duvet.
Aiko saved the document, and then took a moment to look out of her office’s window. The trees opposite were almost bare of leaves as Autumn reached its conclusion. She could finally see across the park again, all the way to the boating lake.
Her phone rang. It was Nathan. She answered. “Hi.”
“How’s your day?”
“Annoying.” She said with a sigh. “I’ve been lumbered with the month-end report again.”
“Very. How’s the new job going?”
“So far so good. It’s a good team, but the learning curve is steep. Once I get settled I’m going to be doing a lot of overtime.”
“Don’t let them take advantage of you.”
Nathan laughed. “Never! Hey, can you meet me at the zoo tonight at six?”
“The zoo? I don’t know. I already feel tired and it’s not even lunchtime. I’d just like to go home.”
“It’s only two stops from your office. Please. It’ll be fun!”
Aiko noticed Jeannette approaching. “Erm… Yeah, okay. Whatever. Gotta go, the boss is coming.”
“See you at six!”
It was a cold evening, very cold, and the clear sky looked almost black against the corporate towers of the city. Even Nathan’s new thick Berghaus jacket seemed to be having trouble keeping out the chill. And Aiko was twenty minutes late. But just as he was about to call her she turned up. He shouted. “Finally!”
She reached him and kissed his cheek. “Sorry. Delays on the subway. I could’ve walked quicker!”
“No problem. We still have time. This way.”
Nathan lead Aiko into the zoo’s wide arched entrance gate against a throng of people leaving.
She shook her head. “I think we’re too late. It’s closing.”
“No we’re not. I arranged a private viewing.” He stopped at a ticket booth. The bald and bearded man behind the glass looked tired and more than ready to leave. “Hi. I spoke to you half-an-hour ago. I’ve got an appointment now with Jason Knoles at the reptile house.”
The man nodded and motioned towards the zoo, saying nothing.
“Thanks!” Nathan said. He grabbed Aiko’s hand. “Come on!”
She frowned. “Jason? The guy you said you went camping with?”
Nathan nodded. “Yeah. I lost touch so I looked him up. Can you believe he’s working right here. Lucky, eh?!”
“I guess we are.”
Up ahead was a large dark green building. There seemed to be no one around. Aiko felt nervous asNathan led her in through the open side entrance. Inside was a man, gaunt and a little grubby-looking, his straggly hair unkempt. He wore stained grey and green overalls. He seemed perfect for his surroundings.
“Jason!” Nathan said happily.
Jason smiled. “Long time!”
“Yeah. This is Aiko.”
“Hi.” Jason said, glancing at her. His eyes moved quickly up and down her body, which seemed really creepy. “I’d shake your hands but I’ve had mine in all sorts of places that you wouldn’t want to know about!”
Aiko forced a smile. “That’s thoughtful of you.”
“Well, Nathan asked me to prove something to you, so this way.”
Aiko’s eyes widened. She felt a touch of dread. She looked at Nathan as they followed his friend. “You didn’t?”
Nathan just grinned.
Jason led them through a ‘Staff Only’ door into well-lit back room. I was very humid, with a large waist-high tank at the centre. There was a small crocodile in there, lying on a bank of sand and grass. “That’s Jenny,” Jason said, “an adolescent Philippine crocodile. They’re a critically endangered species which we’re trying to breed here.” He picked up what looked like an empty jam jar off a side table and handed it to Nathan. “Open that and get ready. She was fed about an hour ago so we should be able to squeeze one out of her.”
Nathan took the lid off the jar and watched as Jason reached into the tank and grabbed the metre-long crocodile by the back of its neck with one hand, and its tail with the other. He held it up, pointing its underside towards Nathan. He strained to control its thrashing. “Quick, put the jar over its anus.”
Tentatively, Nathan did as he was told.
Jason nodded. “Good. Now push on Jenny’s belly, just above where the jar is. Hurry, I can’t hold her like this for long.”
Nathan nodded and pressed the palm of his hand where Jason had told him to, and then pushed. The crocodile pressed up against Jason. There was a short rasping noise.
“Put the lid on.” Jason said, putting the crocodile back in the tank.
Nathan did so.
Jason breathed heavily and laughed. “Holding such creatures is never easy!”
Aiko had watched the whole episode with more than a little disgust. Nathan handed her the jar. She looked down at it. “You’re not seriously expecting me to sniff that, are you?!”
Nathan grinned nodded. “It’s the only way.”
“It is.” Jason agreed.
They were both staring at her, and the jar, in eager anticipation. She longed to be on her sofa, warm and cosy, with a glass of wine. She sighed. “All right! If it’ll get me back home quicker.” She held up the jar just beneath her nose. Nathan and Jason were staring at her and nodding. They looked like ten-year old boys waiting for her to do some revolting dare, which she actually was. Rolling her eyes she unscrewed the lid and breathed in. A stench, powerful in its potency and offensiveness, enveloped her. She screwed up her eyes, and then her gag reflex triggered as odours reminiscent of rancid vegetation and putrefying innards registered in her brain. And all of that accompanied by the expected scent of defecation.
After a few seconds a strong after smell, much like the reeking tang of heavily mature blue cheese smeared in stale sweat, congregated in her mouth. She coughed, and dropped the jar. It shattered on the concrete floor.
After a few seconds Nathan spoke. “Well?”
Aiko took a couple of deep breaths. And then with some amazement, she realised he was right. Absolutely right. She felt annoyed, embarrassed. She even felt foolish. But she realised she was also grinning. “Yes, it’s exactly the same. More concentrated, but still, exactly the same smell. Wow…”
Nathan leaned over and kissed her and then turned. “Thanks, Jason.”
“Anytime.” He replied.
Nathan and Aiko waved and left the reptile house.
When they were outside and heading towards the exit Aiko took Nathan’s hand and looked up at him. “You really need to see a doctor.”