by S.J. Drum
Head down, I walked the paved path toward the keeper center where my fellow zookeepers and I gathered each evening before our shift. I kicked a small rock out of the way with the scuffed toe of my old steal-toed, leather work boots and shoved both hands deep into the front pockets of my worn jeans. Drawing in a deep breath of heavy, humid summer air scented by the thick foliage surrounding the path, I had to admit I both loved and hated my job.
“Could do without the damn mosquitoes, that’s for sure,” I mumbled to myself as I slapped one on the back of my sweat-slickened neck. An overabundance of insects was one thing I did not like about my job working second shift at the Bayou Zoo and Aquarium on the outskirts of Baton Rouge. A hundred degrees in the shade, a hundred percent humidity and a hundred insects per square inch.
As the light from the front porch of the one-story building that served as the Keeper Center came into view, I quickened my pace.
The Keeper Center was the only building on site with air conditioning and I was eager to have a few minutes out of the heat before my shift started. The air conditioner was loud as hell and rattled like a twenty year old Dodge but at least it still blew cool air. I figured management only relented and installed the unit because without it the smell of week-old sweaty socks and manure caked rubber boots quickly became unbearable. Kind of like keeping a dead body in a freezer, cool air cuts down on the stench.
Before I stepped under the aluminum overhang covering the front porch, I pulled my name tag from my sweat-damped back pocket and clipped it to the front of my khaki uniform shirt. The name on the tag was etched in such a small font it was barely legible. It was either make the font smaller or the name tag larger to accommodate my name. I’ve always been thankful they’d gone with shrinking the font.
My name is stupid long and it’s been the bane of my existence for as long as I can remember. Octavian Julius McKellter. Try spelling that out on your first day of kindergarten.
Half my time in school was spent filling in the letters it took to spell my name out on a scantron test sheet. My ridiculous name is the only thing my parents left me and if I ever happen to meet them, I’ll ask the bastards why they cursed me with it.
A chorus of “Hey, Jay”’s bombarded me as soon as I swung the heavy steel door open and stepped inside the Keeper Center. Thank the gods for nicknames. With a name like Octavian Julius McKellter, my middle initial is the only salvageable part.
Alex and Jace, my two best buds, were sprawled side by side on the one and only sofa inside the KC. Both had their long, lean legs stretched out in front, blocking the narrow path leading to the locker room. I stepped up to the first leg baring my way and nudged the khaki clad limb with my shin. “Move it, asshole.”
Alex raised one dark eyebrow, amusement dancing in his silver eyes. “You’ve got Area Five tonight,” he said, lips twitching, suppressing a smile. “And you’re on with Rabalais.”
My shoulders slumped and I stopped pushing against his outstretched legs, suddenly not so eager to get to the locker room and replace my jeans with uniform pants. I cast a wary glance at the man seated in the far corner with a straw hat pulled low, shading eyes so dark they appeared black. He looked like he could be anywhere between forty-five and sixty years old, but still built like he wielded broadswords and battle-axes in his spare time just for fun.
“Shit. Why do I always get stuck with Area Five.” Not to mention stuck working with Rabalais. I ran a callused hand down my face and turned back to Alex and Jace. “I hate Area Five. The Sirens creep me out.”
“That’s not what they do to me,” Jace said, elbowing Alex in the ribs with one arm and making a lewd ‘jacking off’ motion with the other. “They’re totally hot, man. And horny as hell.”
“Yeah, but if you got close enough to them they’d rip your dick off and have it for dinner,” Alex said, finally bending his knees, moving his legs out of my way.
I looked back and forth between the two idiots seated in front of me and had to remind myself that they were still my best friends despite their stupidity. “Jace, I don’t know how you can get turned on by something you have to feed through a hole in a four inch thick steel wall. Your depravity truly knows no bounds.”
I stepped over his still outstretched legs and headed for the locker room. As I rounded the doorway, I heard him say to Alex, “They’re women and they won’t wear clothes. They’re freaking naked, dude. How am I supposed to not get a boner lookin’ at that?”
I shook my head, knowing if I were a different sort of man I’d have the same affliction. Too bad naked women weren’t what got a rise outa me lately.
I sat down on a blue painted wood bench in front of the row of lockers and removed my battered leather boots before slipping my jeans down over my hips and pulling them off. As I stepped into my khaki work pants, I tried not to think about what did get a rise out of me. No, not what…but who.
Damn it, don’t think about it. Just don’t think about it and you’ll be fine.
Dressed, I joined the rest of the twelve person crew in the main room. I bent over the cheap, faux wood table in the center of the room and started flipping through the binder for Area Five. Reading the previous days’ reports was a ritual before beginning each shift. In Areas 1-4, where the normal, viewable by the public animals were housed, the reports contained important information like “lion 15.B is on medication X twice a day, last given at…” and “Pygmy Hippo 2.A discharged to Audubon Zoo for breeding, will be away for six months.”
Area Five reports were an entirely different matter.
I skimmed along the notes from the days between the time I last worked the area, three days ago, and today, my index finger following the words as I read. Someone dropped a laminated card the size of an ID directly on top of the passage I was reading. I brushed it away only to have it shoved back in my line of sight again. I looked up to find Jace grinning at me with Alex standing behind him, a head taller than Jace so his grin was also visible. “What?”
Jace picked the card up and handed it to me. “I had my sister make these. I tried to get her to make us some fake IDs but, well, she hasn’t given in yet. Something about her not wanting to go to jail for supplying underage kids with fake IDs. Prude. Anyway, she made these for us instead.”
I looked down at the card now held between my finger and thumb. Jay McKellter, The Khaki Maffia. “What the fuck is this?” I turned it over, hoping I missed something of importance on the back but there was only a rough sketch of a logo centered on the otherwise blank back. A gnome being run through by a sword. The front held information. My name, the words ‘The Khaki Maffia’, and rank—apparently I was a captain.
“Look at us, dude.” Alex swept an arm over the dozen zookeepers collected inside the KC. “We’re the Khaki Maffia. I came up with the name myself.” He nodded as if this were a great achievement.
Alright, so it was kind of funny, I thought, looking over the laminated card again. We did look like a gang of beige bikers clothed head to ankle in khaki, each wearing a knife strapped to our belts and thick soled shit-kickers on our feet. Even the ladies were outfitted similarly. And, I gave him props for not putting my given name on the card. Still… “You were supposed to be getting us ID’s that say we’re 21 so we can get into some bars.”
Undaunted, Jace’s grin held. “Yeah, I told you. I’m still working on that. But this is freakin’ sweet! Look, she made one for me and Alex too.” He pulled his wallet from his back pocket and fished out a matching card.
I returned his grin despite myself. “Great,” I said, flipping open my own wallet and sliding the card inside. “Now we’re all official, card carrying members of Losers-R-Us.”
It sucked to be working full-time—shoveling shit for a living—yet unable to buy myself a beer. ‘Course the alternative was to still be stuck in high school.
High school just never worked for me, never worked for those like me either. Those within my world tend to mature at an early age, I was no exception. By the time I was sixteen I was more than ready to leave the pep rallies and lunch time tribunals to the humans. Now, at seventeen, I’d already been working full-time for a year.
I had my head bent, focused on folding my wallet closed and daydreaming about a frosty Abita beer when a deep, rumbling voice startled me from too close behind.
“Ready,” the voice said. I wasn’t sure if Rabalais meant it as a statement or a question.
I looked up to find Alex and Jace backing away with hands raised, as if begging off an attack, before they both turned and nearly knocked each other over in their efforts to be first out the door. Jerks.
Rabalais might be the most intimidating son of a bitch on the planet, but working with him wasn’t all bad. The Sirens were just as intimidated by him as everyone else, which meant they’d be on good behavior as long as he was around. A deep breath in and I told myself tonight might not be so bad. I should have knocked on wood the moment those words entered my mind.
Rabalais started down the path toward the Aquarium and the Area Five entrance, moving with a combination of grace and silence usually reserved for Marine snipers.
I kept pace as he weaved his way through the shadows surrounding the Aquarium building. The entrance to Area 5 was directly behind the Aquarium, hidden in plain sight. Rab stepped in front of me when the path narrowed to single file and I obliged by dropping back, not wanting to crowd him.
Rabalais always reminded me of a lion—quiet, prowling, brimming with carefully leashed power. He rarely said two words at once and when he did, you better damn well pay attention ‘cause he wouldn’t have bothered if it wasn’t important.
As I stepped free from the shadows and into the clearing behind the Aquarium, Rab was already climbing the ladder poised against one of the two huge, thick PVC pools containing giant Alligator Snapping Turtles. Without pause, he reached the top rung and hopped over the side into the tank. His expression never wavered, never once showed worry or fear.
There was no splash, no frantic thrashing of limbs or calls for help.
The first time I’d watching Rab jump into this tank, I’d almost pissed myself. Bastard hadn’t explained, just expected me to follow blindly. But I don’t follow anyone blindly. Trust issues and all.
So, I’d scrambled up the ladder and peered into the pool thinking of bloodied body parts and strong, lethal jaws belonging to 200 plus pounds of Snapping Turtle only to find the tank devoid of anything other than turtles. That’s when Rab had popped back to the surface, dry as a bone, brows lowered in challenge and, for the first time, offered me more than one word. “It’s safe. Jump.” He’d said, before disappearing below the surface again.
I remembered this, watching the scene play out in my mind, as I climbed the steps more than a year after I’d seen Rab jump into the tank for the first time. I laughed, chest shaking just thinking about what my expression must have been.
Now, as I stood at the top, looking into what appeared as a tank full of water and two giant-ass Alligator Snapping Turtles, I reminded myself as I did each time, it’s only an illusion.
Born and raised in Louisiana, I’d had a healthy respect for the creatures instilled in me from birth. The kind of Snappers found in the bayou—grown too large from industrial waste run-off, unlimited space and green-house heat—had been known to carry off small children who wandered too close to the water’s edge. Jumping into a tank of them just didn’t seem smart, no matter if their image was only an illusion or not. I still had to fight my instincts each time I entered the portal.
The identical tank poised next to the portal contained actual giant Snapping Turtles making the experience all the more disconcerting.
Ever cautious, I pulled a smooth black rock from my breast pocket and held it over the “water” I was about to jump into feet first. I’d found the strange rock while tending to the Pygmy Hippos one night when I’d first started at the zoo. Dropping it into the portal to make sure I was standing over the correct tank before jumping had become a ritual of mine.
Even though I’d just seen Rab enter the portal, I still opened my fist and watched the shiny surface of the black rock disappear into the portal without so much as a splash. Satisfied I did indeed have the correct tank, I tamped down the urge to plug my nose and hold my breath—neither of which was necessary—and stepped over the edge into the portal.
I landed on hard pavement, my boots hitting the ground with no more impact than if I’d jumped off the top of a shoulder-high fence. This side of the portal was so eerily quiet tonight, the sound of my shit-kickers striking the ground made what seemed to be an obscenely loud noise.
I scanned the path, dense with foliage on either side and canopied with great-leaved trees that I’d only ever seen in Area Five, and tried to locate the black rock, my lucky stone. Rab, as usual, had already taken off for the small building that served as the kitchen for this area to begin assembling the food we’d need to distribute.
“Ah,” I said, finally spotting the shiny stone on the edge of the path, tucked just under the arm of a green leafy fern. I was bending, hand outstretched to snag the stone, when a furious curse rang out from the direction of the kitchen.
“Rab?” My spine snapped straight at the sound of my partner’s curse. I looked in the direction of the sound but couldn’t see anything through the dense swath of forest between us. “Rab? You alright, man?”
“Fine, just get your ass over here.”
I turned back, ready to snatch my lucky stone from the ground before taking off for Rab. “What the hell?” I spun in a circle, my eyes skipping over the pavement. The stone was gone.
My unique genetics made my eyesight incredible, even at night. Still, I couldn’t see everything in the deeply shadowed underbrush. Maybe I’d kicked the stone when Rab’d startled me with his bellowing.
I reached for the small flashlight clipped to my belt just as a string of curses erupted from Rab that ended with my name. Shit. I’d have to find my lucky rock later. It was just a stupid rock, after all. But… As I walked toward the kitchen, I looked over my shoulder to where I’d seen the stone laying beneath the leafy fern. I paused mid-stride. Did that bush just move?
“God Dammit, Jay! Get your ass over here! We got a problem!”
Damn. The stone would have to wait.
I turned and started jogging down the path. The sound of Rabalais’ continued yelling kicked me into a run. Anytime Rab put together this many words all at once, something was seriously wrong.
I bounded up the six cement steps onto the porch of the Area Five kitchen and came to a skidding stop. The door was thrown open, hanging precariously from one twisted hinge. Vegetables, fruits and various cuts of meat littered the linoleum floor and stainless-steel counter tops.
“What the hell?”
Rabalais looked up, scarred hands fisted on his hips and a dangerous scowl marring his already unforgiving face. He kicked a half-eaten cantaloupe with the toe of his black boot, sending the melon across the room to smash against the opposite wall with a sick splatter of orange mush and white seeds. “The Gnomes are out.”
Rab growled. He hated it when people—especially me—asked stupid questions. “You heard me. I said the Gnomes are out.”
I tried to think what I could possibly say that wouldn’t push Rabalais one step closer to putting his fist through the wall…or my face. “Do you think they broke out, or were they let out?” I avoided asking him the obvious question of how he knew the Gnomes had made this mess. He hadn’t made it any further than the kitchen so he had yet to check the exhibits.
“That’s what we’re going to find out. Bastards are fast. The last one jumped out the window just as I came inside.”
I looked to the solitary window in the main room of the kitchen. Broken glass littered the concrete floor beneath the destroyed opening, purple blood dripped from jagged shards of glass still attached to the frame.
Fast, Gnomes may be. But not intelligent.
“Here, take this.”
Rab handed me—okay threw at me—an automatic tranq gun that looked disturbingly close to an assault rifle. Each of the five cartridges inside contained enough tranquilizer to take down several bull elephants…or one seriously pissed off Gryphon. “You think the other creatures are out?” Gods, I hoped it was only the Gnomes.
“Not sure. Not taking any chances.” After setting his trademark straw hat aside, he tossed a black, floor-length cloak over his head and donned the hood before shoving an identical cloak at me.
I knew what the cloaks were used for, though I’d never had to wear one outside of practice drills. Imbued with magical wards, the cloaks provided protection against magical assault. Too bad they didn’t come with masks.
The question that entered my mind as I set my rifle aside and pulled the cloak over my head was the same question I had every time I watched a cop strap on a Kevlar vest in an action movie. Okay, but what if they shoot you in the face?
Rab swept out the now permanently-opened door, his own rifle slung over one broad shoulder. I grabbed mine, deciding to hold it across my chest, not trusting myself to be fast enough to pull it off my shoulder should I need to shoot at something big and deadly.
We joogged, as quietly as could be managed,down a path that ran behind the creature enclosure closest to the kitchen. I knew now was not the time to let my mind wander but still I found it strange looking at Rabalais silhouette and not seeing the hat perched atop his shaved head. My thoughts went off track a little further with the realization that, with the black cloaks, if we traded our tranq rifles for scythes, we’d look like twin Grim Reapers.
I tripped to a stop, nearly plowing into Rabalais’ suddenly stationary back.
“Pay attention,” he hissed over his shoulder.
He pointed to the enclosure now visible through the brush. An empty swing dangled from one bare, artificial tree limb inside the front yard of the enclosure housing the Gorgons. My heart rate kicked up, pounding against my chest. Any of the creatures in Area Five getting loose was trouble. If the dangerous creatures were freed, it’d be a disaster. If one of them made it through the portal? Think end-of-days catastrophe.
It’d been decided, many, many generations past, that Humans were best left ignorant of the Supernatural world around them. Imagine the mayhem that would ensue if a Faun trotted through downtown Baton Rouge on its two hoofed feet…a mass of curled horns atop its human-like head. And Faun’s are one of the non-dangerous creatures.
If a Phoenix were to burst into flames while perched on a rooftop or a flock of Harpy were to sweep through the park picking off edible children…
Rab inched forward, moving off the path with careful steps, trying to be as quiet as possible. None of the normal forest sounds were present. No bugs buzzing or frogs croaking. No owls hooting or underbrush being disturbed by scurrying prey. The only concession to a world on pause was the faint breeze that moved a few leaves and caused the musk and incense scent of Rabalais to wrap around me.
The heavy steel door at the rear of the Gorgon enclosure remained locked. A cabin rose from the middle of the enclosure, it was possible the Gorgons were inside, though it’d be out of character for them as they spent most of their time outside. The five Gorgons in residence even preferred sleeping on the large, heated slab rocks instead of in the beds provided for them within the cabin.
I gave up on forcing steady, even breathing and held my breath as we reached the gate at the front of the enclosure.
“Still closed.” Rab jogged back to the rear entrance, keyed the lock and slipped into the small holding room filled with supplies and surveillance equipment just inside the enclosure. There was one more locked door to key through before you entered the Gorgon habitat. The idea being, you went through the outside gate, locked it behind you, then moved through an inner gate which you then also locked behind you as you entered the enclosure. Though, I’d never known anyone to enter any of the Area Five enclosures when the creatures were in residence.
I stood with one hand braced against the open door, my back to Rab so I could keep an on the surrounding area. I heard him punching buttons before the low-level wine of a monitor kicked on and the glow of a computer screen lit the small room behind me.
“Five. All inside the cabin,” Rab said in his gruff voice.
“Great, let’s move on. Banshees are closest.”
He locked up and we set out for the Banshee enclosure.
As soon as we were within seeing distance of the habitat, a screeching howl went up and was echoed by six other distinct but similar howls. The Banshees were territorial, homicidally so. The sound of their howls made me flinch even though I’d heard them scream frequently over the past year. Hearing all seven of their distinct howls coming from within their enclosure instead of outside it was enough to make the sound bearable.
I shined the flashlight over the enclosure, finding the Banshees huddled together with their skeletal limbs seemingly knotted in the tallest tree as if they were afraid.
We moved through eight more habitats after confirming the whereabouts of the Banshees.
Sirens, Harpies, Gryphons, Unicorns, Kelpies, Fauns, Phoenix and one Cerberus, all accounted for. The only remaining enclosure, the one furthest away from the portal, was the Gnome habitat.
I expected to find a hole in the thick-wired fence, a limb dangling over the side in a manner the Gnomes could use to climb over the fence or even a tunnel shoddily dug under the fence line. But, as we circled the enclosure, nothing seemed amiss, excepting the lack of ten Gnomes trotting about inside like a flock of chickens.
“What the fuck,” Rab growled.
The side entrance to the Gnome habitat was nudged open just enough to cast a narrow line of black around the door. I reached for the lock hanging open, lazily swaying back and forth as if a hand had touched it only moments before. “Well, the good news is all the other creatures are safe and sound. And the Gnomes are too small to climb up to the portal and too weak to push open the hatch.”
On the Zoo side, the portal was the faux-Snapping Turtle Tank. Inside area five, the portal resembled a tree house, more out of necessity than a cultivation of ambiance. There was no need to conceal the portal door from this side. If you were here, you’d obviously already been through the portal. However for some reason, when you jumped into the tank on the Zoo-side, you fell into Area Five from about six feet up and so close to a tree that you were lucky not to skin your elbows on the rough trunk as you fell. Thus, the small wooden box and ladder built against the tree and around the portal.
“Who worked the day shift?” We’d both read the reports in the Keeper Center before the start of our shift but my mind wasn’t functioning at 100% just then, whether from anxiety or excitement, and I couldn’t pluck the name from my memory.
Rab’s lips pressed into a tight light, his expression harshened by the dark shadow of his hooded cloak. “Grace.”
Damn. And no one to vouch for her.
Area Five only required one keeper during daylight hours. All the feeding, cleaning and exchanging of enrichment items was done after dark. The inhabitant’s nocturnal nature made locking them out of their houses easier for the evening crew because at night, they were already out in their yards, in their ponds or up in the trees. The daytime keeper functioned more like a security guard than a zookeeper, making rounds but never entering enclosures or engaging the creatures. If there was an emergency or for some reason the daytime keeper needed to enter an enclosure, they always, always called for backup.
So why had the Gnome enclosure been opened?