(Read the rest of this series here.)
Operation Manatee Theft was a go. I rode shotgun with my buddy-from-college-turned-human-trafficker, Sid. We were in one of his creepy trafficker vans, white with tinted windows, barreling down some Florida interstate on the way to the Tampa Zoo. On our way to steal a manatee.
The back of the van had been outfitted with a tank of sorts, complete with a moderate amount of water to keep the manatee alive. Next to it was some fancy monitoring equipment and a shelf of various tools (pliers, bone saw, surgical tubing, etc.) Pretty ritzy setup. In fact, we hadn’t even needed to make any special modifications to the van. It already had all this stuff in there, which probably said more disturbing stuff about Sid’s business than I cared to think about.
The vibe was less, “You kids want some candy?” and more, “We’ll be taking those vital organs, now.”
It was just the two of us in the van. Sid had chosen not to bring along any of his normal smuggling crew, saying that he was confident we could manage on our own. I felt inclined to believe him, but still I had my doubts.
I said, “You think we’ll be able to handle this?”
“Oh believe me, I’ve moved my fair share of manatees,” he said with a wink and an elbow nudge.
I said, “Right.”
He said, “Fat chicks, I mean. We deal with them a lot in the trafficking industry. There’s a huge demand. Ha ha, pardon the pun.”
Sid parked in the zoo’s back parking lot to avoid rousing any suspicion. We’d move the van closer to our target later; for now our priority was getting into the zoo unnoticed.
We snuck through the back gate using a little method I like to call “hitting a security guard.” From there we ducked and weaved through the off-limits areas until we were able to mingle with the crowds without attracting too much attention.
Once we were inside the zoo proper we split up. It was time for Sid to work his magic. I held back and hid in some bushes. The last thing we needed was one of the zoo staff recognizing me from the other day and causing an uproar. So, for twenty painstaking minutes, I squatted beneath various vegetation, waiting for Sid to give the signal.
I hid in the bald eagle habitat because we’re both majestic as balls.
Thinking about it, we had never actually discussed what the signal was. I guess I just assumed it would be the screams.
Suddenly, my phone went off in my pocket. It was on silent, luckily, so I let it go for a couple rings, titillated by the soft vibrations coursing through my pelvis. Finally I answered it. It was Husk, my pal from Cali who’d set me up to this whole manatee capturing thing.
“Hey friendo,” he said. “How goes things in the Sunshine State? You fuck a manatee yet?”
“What? Nah man, I ain’t into that shit. I’m definitely gonna kidnap one, though. Then I’ll get it further away from Florida than anyone has before! Beat your record for sure.”
Husk scoffed. “Yeah, sure you will. What’s your grand plan then, huh? It took me two weeks just to get close enough to sink my hooks into one, you know.”
I scooted further back into the bushes as one of the zoo employees came trotting by. I lowered my voice. “Yeah, I think I’m a bit closer to my goal than you’d think, bitch.”
Husk coughed uproariously then said, “Whoa, hang on, why are you whispering? Are you staking one out right now? Where are you?”
I sucked in my breath as I heard rapid footsteps approaching. From my plant-shrouded vantage point I could just make out three or four pairs of uniform-clad legs charging down the path. The zoo workers were shouting into their walkie talkies.
Then, off in the distance, a roar, followed by the first scream of horror.
I grinned. “Husk, I gotta go. The bear has started attacking people.”
“Wait, the what has what?”
“Next time you talk to me I’ll be champion of the Manatee Challenge! I’m Chris Derricks! Peace!”
I ended the call and shoved the phone back into my pocket. I burst out of the bushes, kicked the bald eagle out of my way, and slipped into the chaos. Sid, the beautiful bastard, had done his job well. The zoo staff was frantic. Some of them attempted to maintain order, directing screaming children and worried looking parents toward the exits. The others, the security team, sprinted in the opposite direction. Toward the carnivore exhibit. Toward the breach.
A woman shoved past me, practically dragging her two toddlers. “It got out!” she screamed. “Oh God, there’s so much blood!”
I smiled. Clearly I’d picked the right man for the job. Time to head to the rendezvous point.
I headed off down the zoo path, moving cautiously at first to avoid being spotted. But after four or five staff members ran past me without so much as a second glance, I figured I was in the clear. Just to be safe, I decided to blend in with the crowd by flailing my arms and screaming like the rest of them.
Sid and I were to meet by the alligator pen. It was unoccupied when I got there, most people having scrambled to escape the carnage and all. I stared at the alligators (or crocodiles or whatever the hell they were) while I waited for Sid. I’d thought about using the gators as a distraction, but then decided against it when I remembered how damn lazy they were. We’d tear down the fence keeping them and they’d probably just sit there for days.
Look at this lazy asshole. Judging by the amount of bird poop on him, this gator moves less than an average parking lot.
I didn’t have to wait for much longer. Sid arrived barely two minutes behind me, a long bundle tucked under his arm.
He nodded at me and said, “We’re good. Moved the van into position as well.”
I punched the air several times as a victory dance. “Shit, nicely done! You’re top notch, bro!”
“Thanks.” He looked around. “You were right, Derricks. That bear is one vicious bastard. Felt like I barely got away before it started charging, and I even had a headstart. Should keep everyone else busy for a while, though.”
“How’d you manage to bust it out of there?”
He smiled. “This ain’t my first prison break, pal.”
We high-fived and I said, “Damn right. Now let’s go snag us a manatee!”
We left the gators behind, me leading the way. I tried my best to navigate the twists and turns of the zoo using what little I remembered of it from my one brief visit. I found myself turned around at the exotic birds, got distracted by a manta ray petting tank for a while, and then finally emerged on the right path. We climbed up the few wooden steps and then there we were.
The manatee tank. A group of the slow, giant beasts swam in the pool below us, oblivious to the commotion outside of their tank. I grinned wider than my first girlfriend’s beer gut. Here I was, right on the cusp of bagging my manatee. Ain’t nothing gonna stop me now!
That’s right about when things around us started exploding.