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Wrath of Athena by Dale Cozort

© Dale Cozort

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This is the first part of a 22k word novella.

Summer 2007. That’s when we lost a breeding pair of dinosaurs on Madagascar Snapshot. I also got lied to and shot at, got led around by the nose by an Indian tracker who thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes, got kitchenware thrown at me and got burped at by a six hundred pound bear lemur, among other things.

June 6, 2007. We got out of US-53 Snapshot’s California one step ahead of state health officials, state wildlife officials, animal rights protesters and a plethora of creditors, in a plane that, as always, smelled of generic animal pee, a blend of urine from hundreds of animals from a dozen Snapshots, none of the animals big or dangerous.

Plethora. I love that word, partly because Athena had to look it up the first time I used it. That and “ubiquitous”. You’ll figure out why using words even Athena has to look up is important to me, but let’s not get sidetracked. Well, except maybe for a brief explanation of Snapshots and Tourists, for anybody who fell asleep in Geography.

Imagine each Snapshot is a photograph hanging from a necklace, a moment captured in time, except everything in it is still living and dying and evolving and making love and stuff. But it’s self-contained, cut off from Dirtball Earth. We know jack shit about the “Tourists” except that they’ve been taking continent-sized Snapshots of Earth for millions of years and the rest of us live with the consequences. But there are Vents, sort of wormhole passages that let us travel from one Snapshot to the next one on the necklace—if we get past the Babble Zones, which are a nightmare all their own. Anyway.

Why no big animals in our zoo? You can only get from Snapshot to Snapshot by flying through the Vents. When you fly, pounds cost money, so we don’t have full-sized elephants or dinosaurs bigger than a good-sized dog. When you run a fly-by-night petting zoo, you don’t do dangerous animals, big or small, because dangerous means likely to take a customer’s arm off and send you flying by night before revenue matches fuel and food costs, much less paying the help.

Being part of the help, I take it personal when the help doesn’t get paid. I’m Scott Hardy. Job Title: Assistant Veterinary Engineer. Actual job: Shoveling crap out of animal cages, plus some “keep your hands off the talent” duty. The “talent” equals our animal handlers, young, nubile girls and guys dressed to keep our audiences from noticing that our animal shows are boring. Young, nubile skin is cheaper than good animal trainers, so we mostly go with nubile skin. The downside: locals get drunk and try to get hands-on with the talent. Then I have to get hands-on with the drunks.

The Vent from US-53 California goes to the west coast of Madagascar-24M, the stretched, North America-sized Snapshot of Madagascar the Tourists made 24 million years ago, give or take a few million years. Most people are used to the exact dates on the more recent Snapshots, like US-53—copied from Dirtball Earth in summer of 1953—or Europe-42, taken in the summer of 1942, but when the Snapshot is millions of years old, our scientists are ballparking the age.

West coast Madagascar is the old, settled area, if you call having forty-year-old towns old and settled. Madagascar Snapshot still has a Wild West reputation, so I was pleasantly surprised to spot the unmistakable silhouettes of a mall and a nuclear power plant as we flew into Westport Airport. The marks of civilization.

One problem with being a fly-by-night private zoo is that the Snapshots you fly to don’t always roll out the welcome mat for you. Animals from off-Snapshot are a disease risk, for both people, and local wildlife. Westport promptly put the zoo in quarantine. Quarantine equals all the usual expenses, but no revenue.

Our owner, James Tiberius Smoot, had a plan to keep out of quarantine—going through the Vent close to a passenger airliner, so Westport’s radar wouldn’t see us. Like many of James T’s schemes, that one fell through.

Sometimes, on the right Snapshot, quarantines can be avoided with judicious financial transactions, but Madagascar-24M isn’t that kind of Snapshot. It was settled by blue collar types, a generation away from subsistence farming in the border South, pulled north out of the Bible Belt to work in Midwestern factories and mines during World War II and the Korean War. They’re farming people at heart and into that Old-time Religion. Not into bribery, unless it’s more subtle than old James T can do it.

So the animals went into quarantine in an abandoned warehouse outside Westport. It was late evening and the electricity was turned off, so we had to set up the cages by the dying sunlight filtering through sparse windows, finishing the job by flashlight. We had to set up the cages closer together than normal. The break in the routine put the animals on edge, causing the warehouse to echo with animal calls from dozens of species. I bedded down with the rest of the help in a machine shed, while James T and his current favorite commandeered an office. The electricity finally came on in the dark hours of the morning, not long after the animals finally settled down, causing the animal racket to start up again.

The next morning we sat in the sweltering, humid Madagascar sun, waiting for Sam Dwyer, the veterinarian in charge of examining the animals, to show up. I helped feed the animals and chase away the local wildlife, which consisted mostly of lemurs, cute little monkey-raccoon-looking things that were far too ingenious at getting into the warehouse and far too bold at stealing food. If the zoo actually had dangerous diseases to spread, the lemurs would have spread it.

I didn’t have time to take in the view from the warehouse the night before, but I got a good look out the windows while I fed the animals. The warehouse sat in an area that must have been zoned Post Apocalypse Industrial Wasteland or something that meant the same thing. One on side, an eight foot tall wooden fence stretched for the equivalent of six or seven city blocks, with “Westport Auto & Industrial Salvage” signs at intervals along the warped and peeling boards. On the other side, a sewage plant surrounded by ten feet tall chain-link fences. In the direction of Westport, a small mountain of black industrial slag towered above the warehouse, pierced only by a gravel road. On the fourth side, a narrow strip of grassland stretched between the junkyard and the sewer plant, gradually getting wider until it was lost over a long hill.

This morning, the wind blew in from the sewer plant, as if we didn’t have enough crap odors from the animals.

At least Sam the veterinarian arrived promptly at eight the next morning, Sam turned out to be short for Samantha. Samantha Dwyer’s visit also turned out to be short. I saw her in the parking lot with James T, who was extolling the virtues of the zoo and himself in his booming announcer voice. I couldn’t make out his words, but she was obviously bored. I couldn’t blame James T for trying to impress the woman. She stood a little taller than him, and James T is two inches over six feet. Samantha had long arms and legs, blond hair, freckles and a snub nose that didn’t look like it went with the rest of her face, but looked good on her. She looked to be in her early thirties, about my age and twenty-five years younger than James T.

Samantha abruptly turned pale, grabbed her stomach, lurched back to her car and drove away.

And that’s the last the zoo saw of Samantha Dwyer for nine long hot, money-draining days. Apparently she was it as far as local veterinarians went, so while she stayed sick the zoo stayed in limbo.

Those nine days were full of suckage. The prevailing wind sent sewer odors our way in waves, not continuous so we could get used to it. We had to let the sediment in the water for the animals settle to the bottom and then scoop from the top. The first time we gave her water, our female dinosaur, Horney Chick, sniffed and said, “What is this crap?” Of course she says that sort of thing a lot, sort of like a parrot, so it’s not a sign that the words mean anything to her, but in this case it was appropriate. James T managed to get jugs of decent water from town for the humans, but he simply couldn’t afford to buy enough water for the animals.

On the tenth day, James T took Jessica, his current favorite among the female talent, to town, supposedly looking for new zoo prospects among the Snapshot’s lemur and tenrec ecology—not that the zoo could afford to buy or feed more animals.

A traveling zoo is a self-contained social world. We’re never in one place long enough to establish ties with the locals. That self-contained world business gets awkward when relationships go sour, like they did a month or two ago between Athena Anders and me.
Athena Anders is the zoo’s veterinarian. Different pay grade. Name of a Greek goddess. Freckles. Flaming red hair and a temper that matches the stereotypes of that hair color. Light skin. An inch taller than me. Fire to my coal (black hair, tan like an Indian in the summer). Yeah, it wasn’t going to work for long, only it did for just over three years, not counting half-a-dozen screaming, dish-hurling break-ups (her hurling china, me ducking) that lasted from three hours to three weeks. Breakup seven was final. I’m not sure how we knew that, but we did.

So Athena and I sat at opposite ends of the break room table in a sweltering warehouse under the hot Madagascar sun, in the humidity and stink, slow-motion bickering in the pointless, biting way only failed long-term relationships produce, while the talent sat between us, probably wishing both of us would shut up.

I mentioned dinosaurs. We had two, from the same dog-sized, dog-smart species, unfortunately a male and a female. Dinosaur chicks are notoriously hard to sex, and James T thought these were both males. A male/female pair is no end of trouble, as you’ll see, but James T was too cheap to get the female neutered and males get fat, mean, and develop urinary tract infections if you trim their family tree. Not great for a petting zoo star attraction.

And the dinosaurs were our star attractions. Our male, Mr. McGuffin, weighed seventy pounds, while Horney Chick, the female, weighed ten pounds less. That’s dog-sized, but they walk upright like an ostrich, and they’re rangy, with eyes about a foot lower than mine and I’m six feet tall. They’re cute. Covered with thick grey down, halfway between baby chick down and hair. Big brown eyes. Faces that always look like they’re smiling, except when they’re snarling, showing sharp land-croc teeth, which doesn’t happen without world-class provocation, not among family, which we definitely were to our pair.

What really made our dinos stars was the mimicry. Small dinos are like parrots, only more so. If they hear it, they’ll repeat it, but only if they feel like it. They mostly feel like repeating stuff if it gets a reaction. Yeah, dinosaurs swear like sailors unless you’re careful around them. Enough twelve-year-olds come through the zoo that we get parents bitching us out because the dinos let rip with some choice phrases.

On a good day, Mr. McGuffin might do a thirty second, pitch-perfect early Elvis, in the voice you would expect from a seventy pound parrot, then sit grooming himself and making car noises for hours while people crowd around him, waiting for him to do Elvis again.
The dinos love Athena. She does a show called Fractured Shakespeare, where the three of them toss random phrases around, mostly Shakespeare. Athena shapes it into a semi-coherent improv routine.

Yep. Red hair, long legs, trim figure and she’s a gifted improv comedian too. So tell me again why I don’t move Heaven and Earth to get back together with her?

Short answer: all that comes with a nitroglycerin temper, unpredictable, uncontrollable and apparently unchangeable. Tragic flaw. Our blow-outs were epic, passionate wobbles between love and loathing, ending in the bedroom almost as often as in us getting as far away from each other as possible. And that last part amplified it all. As long as we stayed with the zoo, there was no way to get far from each other, but neither of us wanted to leave. The zoo was our family—dysfunctional, fly-by-night, but nevertheless family.

Horney Chick goes into heat twice a year, unless something in the current Snapshot’s weather or sun or magnetic field—we’ve never figured out which—triggers it. And, to add major screw-upage to the misery of watching the zoo eat itself broke in the heat and humidity and stink of that Westport warehouse, Athena announced that Horny Chick was in heat. Half an hour later, Ella, James T’s twelve-year-old daughter, came back from a shopping trip and told us that Horny Chick had staged a breakout, taking Mr. McGuffin with her.

Dinos have always been escape artists. Dog smart, but with raccoon-flexible hands. No thumbs, thank God, but with nimble fingers. An escape in familiar territory and Horny Chick not in heat is bad enough, though they do come back eventually. We’re family and reliable patsies for food and water. Before they come back though, they stretch those long legs and run, pack predators with a cruising speed of forty-five miles an hour and a sprint speed only cheetahs and the antelopes they chase can match. In a long-civilized place, the worst that could happen would be somebody twisting their ankle running away from the dinos, but in spite of the mall and Johnny Atom cranking out megawatts, Westport had a “look what I shot, mom” vibe to it.

So chances of losing our dinosaurs, or gaining baby ones the zoo couldn’t support, spurred Athena and me into trading our bickering for tranquilizer guns, dirt bikes and a tracking dog. We keep the dirt bikes around for just such occasions.

Dogs can trail dinos, but aren’t fast enough to catch them. Our best trailing dog was a beagle/border collie mix named Rufus. Rufus and the dinos are pack mates, but Rufus will trail anything you ask him to and a lot of things you don’t. He trails silently when we’re in sight, but gets noisy when we aren’t. Perfect combination for trailing dinosaurs.

Rufus headed north from the warehouse, away from the black slag mountain and between the junkyard and the sewer plant. That took us away from Westport into farming country. The trail was parallel to a gravel road, so we kept Rufus in sight, our tires tossing up dust, and the breeze giving a much needed break from the heat and humidity.

Athena made the ride a competition, of course, riding a bike length ahead of me, just far enough to kick dirt and pea-sized gravel into my face, the gravel bouncing off my helmet and goggles, and, painfully, the lower part of my face. Squirrel-sized grey and white lemurs with long tails held upright like flags chattered at us from utility poles that spread Ma Bell or Johnny Atom’s bounty to farm country.

Rufus led us up a long hill that left us both struggling for breath under the hot Madagascar sun, our bikes pushing through heavy humidity that felt more like liquid than air. Athena kept pushing the pace, but finally even she had to stop and walk her bike the rest of the way up.

We paused at the top of the hill and stared at country-side below us. I stretched my back and wiped sweat out of my eyes. "Almost worth the climb," I said.

She didn’t respond. The farms below made a checkerboard, with blocks of towering, old-growth forest between the fields, even this close to town, actually filling most of our field of vision. Like Madagascar’s animals, its trees are weird. Some look reasonably normal, but a lot of them have bloated barrel trunks that make them look like tree-sized potatoes with skinny branches at the top. White farmhouses sat in groves of towering, more normal-looking trees, with broad porches on each side.

"They let people homestead six hundred and forty acres," Athena said. "But gasoline is scarce here, so it’s mostly mule farming. A lot of land doesn’t get cultivated. That’ll change in a few generations if people stay on the farms and divide them between the kids."

That’s another annoying thing about Athena: she knows more than anyone else about wherever we are, and tells us more details than anyone wants to hear.

Rufus paused at the top of the hill, panting, but he recovered quickly and stared at us, making little circles that said he was ready to move on.

We were a few miles out of town by now, and medium-sized lemurs, up to deer-size, grazed along the side of the road below us. A herd of kangaroo-like Ground Sifakas bounded across the road, eyed by Swindel Wolves, coyote-sized, with dog-style heads and brown tiger-stripes across their hind-quarters. Swindel Wolves are actually carnivorous lemurs, according to the brochures back at the warehouse.

We didn’t see any sign of our dinosaurs, which I took as a bad sign because we could see a long way, at least the open country part of a long way, and small, fast dinos are open country animals.

This part of Madagascar is crappy farmland. Red dust blew across the road, as wind whipped across a dreary-looking soybean field, the topsoil ripping away, a blood-red cloud lofting toward the ocean. The farms look prosperous around here though. Ranch-style houses peeked out from sheltering groves, with electric and phone lines bringing them the benefits of civilization.

We rode into the valley, still on the trail, but too far behind to get visual on the dinos.

Other than the risk to our star attractions, this was a step up from the warehouse. Wind in our faces, even humid wind with a faint metallic scent, beat assorted feces odors. And Athena wasn’t saying much—a big improvement.

One good thing: Horny Chick and Mr. McGuffin probably weren’t doing the nasty yet. Dinos, even in heat, aren’t into slam, bam and see you Sam. They had a courtship ritual to perform, downy feathers to preen, and a boatload of noise to make before Horny Chick decided that Mr. McGuffin was the best of her suitors. And yeah, she would decide he was number one, him being the only one of her species within two Snapshots.

Then, once they got into the business of getting down, the courtship noise would sound like firecrackers in an artillery barrage, the artillery barrage being the two dinos actually doing the deed. The part about them doing the nasty is from books, of course. I’ve heard the courtship. I’ve never heard the actual consummation.

So we knew all wasn’t lost and when it headed toward lost, we’d know about it. That being said, there are other ways for everything to be lost beyond just the two dinos relieving sexual tension.

A rifle shot in the distance emphasized that truth.

Rufus trotted down the hill, nose to the ground, then stopped abruptly. He circled in ever-wider arcs, crouched even lower, testing the heavy air. Finally, he raised his nose, testing the dust-laden wind, then went back to circling.

"Did he lose them?" Athena asked.

That didn’t seem likely. Rufus had a world-class nose and dinos aren’t exactly stealthy. I found dino tracks in the red dust beside the road, but both sets stopped abruptly. Another rifle shot sounded in the distance. I looked for blood or human footprints at the end of the dino trail but didn’t see any. No scents. No trail. No dinosaurs. Nowhere they could have gone.

#

We wandered further down the hill, hoping to pick up the trail. Rufus went with us reluctantly, dashing back to sniff at the last place he scented the dinos, then returning. We finally rode back to the warehouse and into a crap storm.

Local animal control had done a pop inspection of the warehouse minutes after we left, found out the dinos were missing and went ballistic. They called the local police and the warehouse was swarming with investigators when we got back. Even Samantha Dwyer got out of her sickbed to show up.

We rode into a warehouse driveway packed with police cars and guys in suits. An old safari bus pulled into the driveway just before we did. A powerful-looking dark-skinned guy in his late twenties was driving, with a tall, broad-shouldered Anglo guy in the passenger seat. The dark-skinned guy had American Indian features and wore a beaded headband with a single feather in it, along with a buckskin shirt and blue jeans. A sign on the side of the bus said, “Julius Butcher, Cryptozoologist &Tracker Extraordinaire.”

The driver waved and stopped his bus. "I hear there are dinosaurs to be tracked. That’s one thing I haven’t tracked yet. I’ll find them, though. I can track a mouse lemur across bare rock."

The Anglo guy rolled his eyes. "He really can too, which is worse than if he was full of crap."

The driver grinned. "Julius Butcher at your service. Tracker extraordinaire and searcher for hidden animals, just like the sign says. Cryptozoology tours. The thrill of hunting for the Tiger Chameleon, the Golden Moon Bear Lemur and other hidden animals of Madagascar. Are you with the zoo?"

We nodded.

Julius Butcher’s Anglo companion introduced himself as Elijah Haigh, deputy sheriff in a little town called Wind Lady Falls. “I’m on vacation, out of my jurisdiction. None of my business really. I’m just along to watch the train wreck.”

Athena turned to Julius. "Are you here with the police or to drum up business?”

"Both." Julius got out of the bus, leaving it blocking the driveway. He glanced at Rufus. "Been out trailing them, I imagine. No luck, or you would have them with you." He gestured around the parking lot. "No accounting for what stirs up officialdom, but you hit the jackpot with escaped dinosaurs. I was in town, so I got called in. Shouldn’t be too hard to find something the size of a dinosaur, but city folks couldn’t find an elephant in their back yard."

“Our dinos are dog-sized," I said.

"That’s disappointing." Julius grinned. "It does make it more challenging though. Keep that under your hat. I’m getting a big bounty for tracking Thadeus the Thunderlizard. Money would go way down if these guys thought I was looking for pooch-sized lizards."

Two dog-sized dinos loose in this Snapshot were much more dangerous than ten ton thunder lizards. Remember what I said about fast-moving pack carnivores? They also throw out an impressive number of eggs per mating. I thought about the animals we saw on the trail. If our two dinos became hundreds and then thousands, they would go through the local animals like prune juice through a small intestine. I didn’t mention that, though. The zoo was already in enough trouble without the locals knowing what the dinos could do to their ecology and ranching.

Athena knew what the dinos could do if they started breeding here as well I did. She glanced at me and did a subtle “cut” gesture across her throat. I wasn’t sure if she meant “shut up” or “we’re screwed”, but I mentally agreed with both messages.

Julius held a finger to the wind. "We need to move before the wind wipes out the tracks. I can still find them, but why make it harder than it has to be?" He turned to his companion. "Elijah, tell whoever needs to know that we’re tracking the strays. I’ll let these two show me where they lost the trail." He grinned. "Them and their little dog too."

Athena got into the safari bus, looking subdued. I understood that. It was suddenly sinking in that this could go beyond the zoo getting a nasty-gram and fine from the locals. An entire Snapshot’s ecology seriously screwed. Millions of dead animals. Whole species wiped out. This rich, lemur-filled land turned barren. And all because of us. Serious crap. James T and maybe us in the history books as the guys who destroyed a Snapshot. And nobody here had figured out how screwed they might be.

#

The tracker seemed confident he could find them. He took the feather headband off as soon as he was out of the parking lot and flirted casually with Athena while he drove. Athena flirted back, glancing at me once-in-a-while to see my reaction. My reaction? Silent, hopefully expressionless, teeth-grinding fury. An urge to grab Julius Butcher by his thick neck and choke the life out of him. That urge would undoubtedly not end well if I tried to carry it out. Julius was massively muscled and had a subtle toughness lurking beneath his flamboyant exterior.

We reached the downslope of the hill where Rufus had lost the dinos. Rufus jumped out of the open-topped safari bus as soon as we slowed down enough and ran to pick up the trail, apparently eager to redeem himself. That eagerness didn’t last long. He ran into the same unsolvable problem that had stopped him before and turned away to chase a chipmunk-sized lemur to its burrow.

I’m an awful person. With the fate of an entire Snapshot’s wildlife potentially at stake, and at the very least the future of the zoo on the line, I found myself hoping Julius Butcher would bounce off the problem of the missing dinos. I tried to push those thoughts away, but couldn’t. I don’t like cocky good-looking guys who flirt with my ex in front of me.

Julius started out confident, followed the tracks until they ended, then backtracked, looking for some way they could have gone back on their own trails and hopped off I guess.

"Dinos aren’t smart enough to go back on their own trail," I said, trying to keep a grin from sneaking onto my face.

"You sure?"

I wasn’t completely sure, but I had never seen them do anything like that. I shut up and watched him backtrack to the top of the hill, watching for any place where they could have hopped off the trail onto a rock, I suppose. He also studied the gravel road all along the stretch. We should have thought of that and didn’t. I grudgingly gave him props for covering that base.

Finally, Julius turned to us. "They got in a car."

We both laughed. "They wouldn’t get in a car unless they knew the driver," I said.

"That’s what happened."

I thought about James T. He’d gone to town in a rented car. Maybe he came back to the zoo early, found the dinos gone, managed to find them and pick them up. That made sense, and solved the otherwise unsolvable problem of why Rufus couldn’t track them any further. But if he did find the dinos, why weren’t they already back at the zoo? James T would have rushed them back to avoid just the problems we were facing.

"You’re not telling me everything," Julius said.

"Not leaving out anything that matters," I said. "If anyone from the zoo found them, they would be back by now."

And that was pretty much that. Mr. "I can track a mouse lemur over bare rock" Butcher studied the road, went back over the dino trail, studied the ground in an ever-widening circle, then climbed back into his bus, looking thoughtful but not deflated, which was a disappointment at least for me. At least he didn’t flirt with Athena when we got back in.

He studied us, then finally said, “Two men sat for a couple hours in a grove of trees not far from where the dino tracks ended. They had guns, but that was an unlikely place for hunters. Any idea what they were up to? Money problems at the zoo? Good insurance on the dinos maybe? Slag Mountain and the junkyard would funnel open country critters this way.”

I waited for Athena’s temper to flair, but she looked thoughtful. “Nobody would insure exotic animals going through the Babble Zone. Too much risk of them killing themselves.”

“Any other reason your dinosaurs would be worth more to someone dead than alive?”

We couldn’t think of any reason, so we headed back to the warehouse. We met James T and Jessica on the way back. Athena recognized their rented car and flagged them down.

“If you’re looking for the dinos, they aren’t up there,” Athena said.

James T glared at her as though she was personally responsible for the escape. He hopped out. “Where did they go?”

“Into a car,” Julius said. The big tracker made a show of examining the rental car’s tires. “Not yours, apparently.”

“Of course it wasn’t mine. And who are you?”

Julius introduced himself. “I’ll find them. I can track a mouse lemur across bare rock, and if I can’t find tracks I’ll track them with my mind.”

James T got back in the rental car without saying anything more. Jessica glared at Athena for no apparent reason, except the dislike that good looking women seem to automatically feel for potential rivals. James T did a U-turn and made a point of speeding away to beat us to the warehouse. We arrived less than a minute after he did, though.

Julius’s companion met us in the driveway. "No dinosaurs unless they’re real small. Did Mighty Casey hit air this time?"

"I’ll find them." Julius actually sounded confident.

We went into the warehouse and into chaos. Most of the help were in an angry confrontation with the local men in blue, the anger on both sides probably fueled by the heat and the stink, from both the animals and the sewer plant.

The locals, at least the male ones, took a break from the confrontation to ogle Athena. I hate it when that happens, though since we’re an ex-couple I suppose it shouldn’t matter. At least it stopped the argument for a while, which gave James T and Jessica time to wander in.

James T has a way with people, an easy, friendly politician’s smile with a slap you on the back and kiss the babies manner. That sort of worked this time, but not enough to keep the zoo from getting slapped with a five hundred dollar per day fine until we got the dinos rounded up. Not as bad as it could have been and not as bad as it would be if the locals figured out how much danger those dinos could be to the Snapshot’s economy if they grew a genealogy. The locals also ordered a shoot to kill policy on the dinos.

So we were screwed. A ruinous fine and the dinos would die if we weren’t the ones who found them. Chances of that were slim to none. When the cop shop guys left, James T told us that he didn’t pick the dinos up, not that we figured that he did. That left us at a dead end, and probably with two dead dinos.

I’m an insensitive, selfish oaf. I have it straight from Athena’s mouth. Her latest evidence: she was in tears over the prospect of losing Horny Chick and Mr. McGuffin and I wasn’t.

My interpretation: I was too busy trying to save them to do the tear thing. If tears had been flowing down my face she would have found some other way to make this my fault. She loved those dinos. I did too in my own way, which didn’t include tears but included cycling the situation endlessly in my brain without coming up with any answers.

Elijah, Julius’s companion, approached me. “Julius wants me to poke around, get a handle on people. You sure these dinosaurs wouldn’t get in a car with someone they didn’t know? Not even for doggy treats or dinosaur catnip, whatever catnap is for dinosaurs?”

I was pretty sure and said so. Dinos are pack animals and we’re their pack. They tolerate audiences at our shows and petting zoo sessions, but keep a definite reserve toward outsiders. They don’t see outsider people as food, more like dinos from another pack—them, not us, potential rivals that they tolerate because their pack leaders want them to.

"If strangers tried to force them into a car they would go land-croc on them," I said. "We would have found blood and probably detached arms and legs."

"Trank guns?"

"Good luck getting the dosage right," I said. "And that would probably leave evidence in the tracks." I grinned. "Your Indian friend can’t track dinosaurs in ankle-deep dirt, much less a mouse lemur on bare rock."

"Much as I hate to say it, if there were tracks he would find them," Elijah said. "He walks as big a game as he talks and that’s quite a game. He’ll find them."

I took the deputy out to the dino cages, which he eyed carefully. They’re crap cages for fast running carnivores, which is why we take the dinos out on leash as often as we can, usually within the zoo grounds. You get the strangest looks if you take them out on a leash outside the zoo. Dinos can tolerate an over-sized chain-link dog run for a while, but put their minds seriously to escape if they don’t get to stretch those long legs enough.

“How did they get out?” Elijah asked.

I was wondering that myself. I hadn’t thought about it when we got word that the dinos were out, but now with time to look the cages over, their escape route became yet another mystery. The padlocks on both runs were locked. The chain link looked intact. Elijah and I systemically checked every inch of both dino runs, but didn’t find anywhere a dino-sized animal could have gotten out.

“Were they supposedly in those cages when they escaped?” Elijah asked.

I didn’t know. It took me a minute to remember who told us they were gone. That would have been Ella Smoot, James T’s twelve-year-old daughter. Ella’s mom, a now long-gone talent, left her then two-year-old daughter behind when she found a guy with deeper pockets and took much of the zoo’s cash with her. At least that’s what I hear. It all happened long before I joined the zoo.

“Any conflicts in the zoo? Disgruntled employees?” Elijah asked.

I tried not to laugh. Closed world. Young, egotistical types who wanted to be in show business but ended up here waiting for their big break, which never came. A boss who was very nice to morally flexible young ladies until he lost interest. Ex-favorites usually left when he replaced them, but a few hung around and probably stuck needles in voodoo dolls of James T and his current favorite. Ella Smoot, who hated every one of the string of young talents who shared James T’s recreation time. Good luck sorting that list down.

“Your co-workers claim the dinosaurs are a big part of your ex-girlfriend’s show,” Elijah said. “Nasty breakup. You angry enough to let the beasties out?”

“I like getting paid,” I said. “The dinos are our star attraction. And I was with Athena when the car picked them up.” I realized I didn’t really know when the dinos got out, or when they got picked up, but Athena and I had been very publicly bickering in the break room for long enough I was probably in the clear.

“Where did you get the dinosaurs?”

Zoo legend claims James T won them from a Europe-42 German guy in a high-stakes poker game years ago when the zoo swung through Africa-80M. That was before I joined, which is a shame. I’ve always wanted to see the big dinosaurs. I doubt if I’ll have a chance now, with the Europe-42 Nazis advancing in Africa-80M and US-53 arming French and British exiles to stop them.

I mentioned a few of the zoo’s conflicts, without going into detail. Zoo business stays inside the zoo.

Elijah grinned when I finished. “You aren’t telling me much. Not really my case though.”

He meandered off to flirt with one of the female talents. James T and Jessica went into an air-conditioned office he had commandeered, earning our envy and contempt, while the rest of us sat in still-stifling heat and humidity in the break room. And Elijah Haigh wanted me to list everyone who might have a grudge against James T.

By now the evening sun was low against the western mountains, casting long, low shadows through the high windows in the warehouse.

The rest of the animals still needed their cage cleaning. I did my evening rounds. Surprisingly, Athena followed me.

"Going to help me with crap patrol?" I asked.

She ignored the crap shovel I held out to her. "Somebody from the zoo picked up Horny Chick and Mr McGuffin, but didn’t bring them back. Who and why?"

Somebody had to leave the warehouse before we did to pick up the dinos. Maybe somebody saw them leave, or we could figure out their motives.

I thought about Deputy Haigh’s theory about somebody with a grudge against James T. Anyone who has been in the zoo long wishes the bastard harm, but we’re family, remember? If the zoo folds, our family scatters. We put up with James T to keep that from happening.

“I’m nothing without the dinos.” Athena sounded uncharacteristically tired and depressed. “And that sounds selfish, doesn’t it?”

I couldn’t think of an answer that wouldn’t get me in trouble, so I concentrated on my job. Most of our animals are US-53 livestock—sheep, goats, miniature horses—but exotics bring the crowds, so we had sleek, agile climbing wombats from rain forest Australia and a panda sloth from island South America—a hundred pounds of tubby black and white cuteness that almost upstaged the dinos but had the unique talent of crapping high multiples of the bales of hay it went through every day. At least the crap didn’t smell too bad as crap goes—kind of a flowery scent, actually.

“Deputy Haigh thought maybe I grabbed them to screw up your act,” I said.

“I wouldn’t believe that on your worst day.” Athena grabbed the shovel and helped me with the panda sloth’s cage.

“Do you think anyone in the zoo would do it?”

Athena scratched the panda sloth behind its ears. It groaned its contentment. Athena smiled down at it. “If you could talk like a parrot you would be a contender.” She wiped away a tear. “Horny Chick would scratch your eyes out if she heard me say that.”

We went down the long list of zoo employees with reason to hate James T. None of them stood out.

“I know people who would gladly stick a knife in his back and laugh as he bled out,” I said. “But they wouldn’t risk the dinos.”

Athena nodded. “And they know I would rip their hearts out through their noses if they hurt those dinos.”

That had been in the back of my mind too. Nobody who has seen Athena’s temper flare wanted to be on her bad side., with the possible exception of Ella Smoot, who was fearless, but also four years short of driving age. Even James T walks carefully around Athena.

“Maybe the German got them back,” I said. “The one he supposedly won them from.”

Athena laughed. “If that poker game actually happened, the German would have to cross a thousand miles of territory where Germans aren’t welcome, go through the vent to US-53, cross a hostile Snapshot, then find us here when nobody on US-53 knew where we went.”

“You said, ‘if the poker game happened.’ You don’t know if it did?”

“Before my time. I think it was a figment of James T’s imagination. He probably got them from an animal shelter when the zoo was in Africa-80M. They’re as common as dogs over there from what I hear.”

We finished with the panda sloth and went on to the zoo’s thylacine. It rubbed its dog-like head on Athena’s leg, managing to half-snarl at me at the same time. Some people have the touch with animals, others clean the crap out of their cages.

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