(Read the rest of this series here.)
I shrugged. “Kidnap is kind of a strong word. I want to liberate a manatee. Help the poor thing escape from this land of hurricanes and alligators. This state is crazy. I mean, Jeb Bush might be coming back here. I don’t want to subject a poor creature to that. This is a moral crusade, man! Also I want to win a bet.”
The guy standing next to me, black-haired with a posture left somewhat uneven from multiple motorcycle crashes in his youth, let out a small chuckle. “Well, that makes sense. Same ol’ Chris Derricks, always finding new ways to prove himself to the world.”
As I said before, I knew somebody in Tampa who could help me out. That somebody is Sid, an old buddy from college. He dropped out sophomore year and moved down to Florida to start his own business. By the looks of the warehouse we stood in, things were going pretty well for him.
The place was abuzz with movement. Guys in overalls pushing dollies with huge boxes, tall and wide as they were. I followed Sid around as he inspected the operations. Occasionally he would bark an order to someone in between our idle smalltalk. We walked up to one of the big boxes. He hummed lightly as he checked some numbers on a clipboard.
I looked around and said, “So Sid, remind me what you do again.”
“Human trafficking, mostly.”
The box started screaming. Sid kicked it and it shut up.
He checked a box on his clipboard and glanced at me. “So how much they pay you if you win? Gotta be substantial to go through all this trouble, huh?”
“Nah, man, I’m just in it for the bragging rights. I’m not getting paid any more than my standard Double Thumb rates.”
“This is a work function, then? Kind of a strange outfit you’re with.”
I glanced around at all the human-sized wooden crates in Sid’s place of business. “Yeah, but they’ve got a sweet dental plan. New teeth whenever you want them, no questions asked.”
These are so last season.
“Anyway, listen Sid, I’m in a bit of a jam here. I need a manatee, right, but I don’t know where I can get one. I’ve harpooned around in shallow waters: nothing. I tried to talk to the lady who ran the manatee tanks at the zoo and ask where their natural habitat is: no dice. I’m outta options man, unless I want to pay for a touristy boat tour and that sounds gay as shit.”
Across the warehouse a short guy in sweatpants pushed a dolly loaded up with one of the big crates. He seemed to be having a hard time with it and, sure enough, soon the crate went tumbling to the ground. Shortie flailed, tried to catch it, but it was no use. The box hit the floor and splintered apart. A small Asian woman came spilling out among the wood chunks. She screamed and scrambled to get away. Shortie swiftly recovered enough to tackle her before she got too far. Others rushed in to help him subdue her.
Suddenly, Sid had a pistol in his hand. He pointed it straight up at the roof and fired two shots. There were several yelps as everyone in the warehouse snapped to attention. Meaning that they ducked and cowered. The guy who dropped the box covered his head with one hand and gripped the crying woman with the other as Sid shouted at him.
“Carlos, you drop the merchandise again and the next time this gun goes off it’s pointed straight at your brain! You feel me?”
Carlos mumbled a hasty apology, threw the woman over his shoulder, and hustled off. Her yelling took a while to die down.
Sid stuck the pistol back into his waistband. “I swear, union employees are just the laziest.”
Hence the sweatpants.
I said, “Hey, uh…”
Sid waved his hand. “Yeah, yeah, I’m listening. So, you need my help, not just with smuggling the manatee out of the state, but also with finding one in the first place.”
“Yeah, that’s about right.”
“Look, this doesn’t sound like that much of a problem to me. You said you’ve already seen some manatees, right?”
I sighed. “Yeah, but they’re just the ones at the zoo!”
Sid raised an eyebrow. “And?”
I held up my hands. “Whoa, whoa, hang on. You want to kidnap a manatee straight outta the zoo?”
“Why not? Because that place is an impenetrable fortress, that’s why not! Not all of the gorillas are inside cages. The ones outside are wearing security uniforms and horrible temperaments. We try to get in there and they’ll throw us back on our asses in ten seconds flat. I know from experience.”
Sid laughed. “Security guards? Shit, that’s no problem at all. You call me when you’ve gone up against the FBI or the combined private armies of two South American drug lords. Then we’ll talk about a challenge.”
I was still hesitant. “I dunno, bro. These guys were pretty serious about zoo safety.”
“The way I see it, you can either waste time splashing around in the Everglades to find your manatee, or we can figure out a way to deal with a few overzealous security guards and then just waltz in and snag one. The second option sounds way easier to me. Trust me, Chris. I know what I’m doing.”
I thought about it. About 75% of the times I’ve taken the advice of human traffickers it has backfired on me. But I’d known Sid for a long time, and he’d always been a good dude. Toward me, at least. Crate lady would probably disagree. Still, I decided to go for it.
“All right. We’ll hit the zoo. What kind of number am I looking at for your services?”
Sid clapped me on the back. “Let’s just call it a favor for an old friend. How’s that sound?”
Well shit, “free” sounded pretty damn good to me! I held out my hand. “Deal, brother! It’s a fuckin’ pleasure doing business with you again.”
Sid grabbed my hand and gave it a couple firm, meaty pumps. “First things first: we brainstorm some kind of distraction that’ll let us slip away unnoticed. You know the zoo better than I do at this point, so what can you tell me?”
I thought for a moment. Those guards were vicious, no-nonsense types. And they were everywhere. Plus, I was pretty sure that if they saw me again they would shoot me on sight. So how exactly was I supposed to get around them? What could possibly make them ignore the escape of one of their largest animals?
Then there it was inside my head, like a flash of lightning.
I turned to Sid. “Yo, I got an idea.” I grinned. “Have you ever heard of a sloth bear?”