The Jeep rumbles through humid backlands and I count the
mosquito bites on my right hand: four, just that I can see. Goddamn
Louisiana. Why anyone would voluntarily live in this armpit is beyond
me. I hate when the missions take us out to Hicksville, USA--but that
hate is wasted, since that's where we almost always go. The kind of
people who have the kind of things we're after, they live in places
like this, where minding your own business is the law of the land.
Three of us out today. Me in the backseat, Jim and Rambo
up front. Rambo isn't his real name, of course, but that's what he calls
himself. Stupid as shit, but good at his job and a good driver, too.
He's driving now. Jim's in the passenger seat with a walkie-talkie,
waiting for more directions. The land flying past has been getting less
swampy, more forested for the past couple miles. We're close, but until
we get details from Command, this is just a bug-ridden joy ride. And
we don't get paid unless the mission is a success.
"They're sure it's a confirmed sighting?" I
yell above the whine of the engine, the tires on unmarked, unpaved roads.
"Command says it's a reliable source," Jim calls
back. Command makes a big deal about keeping their 'sources' anonymous,
hoping they'll get more leads. But we all know who it is--disgruntled
housekeepers, spoiled kids hoping to screw Daddy over. Someone hoping
to get a cut of the money.
"You ever go after one of these?" Rambo says.
Jim shakes his head. "Tom got his arm ripped off
by one. Big male, up in Montana. Tom had him cornered, and the thing
just reached out and tore it clean off. Smart as shit and twice as strong.
We gotta go easy on this one."
I look over at the tranq guns sitting next to me. Unlike
Tom, I ain't stupid enough to get close enough to a cornered animal
to let it rip my arm off.
Several years back now--hell, it must be ten, but how
does the time go by so fast?--the yuppies got themselves into a twist
about the possession of large animals. When I say large animals,
I mean large animals--elephants, bears, lions, basically anything from
a jungle or forest or mountain. They argued that these big animals were
smart, that they could process complex emotions, that it was cruel to
keep them in captivity. Eventually, they convinced the lawmakers. And
the lawmakers? They went after the easy targets--zoos, circuses, places
like that. They made it illegal to obtain or possess "emotionally
complex animals"--whatever the fuck that's supposed to mean. The
zoos put up a fight, of course, but it's not much good when you got
a hundred liberal lawmakers with liberal assholes screaming over the
So no more elephants at zoos. No more tigers and pandas
and apes. You could have an aardvark or some shit, that was fine, but
none of the main attractions.
Except there was a loophole--a catch. Even the liberals
had to agree on one point: if you had an animal already in captivity,
it's just gonna die if you throw it back in the wild. So those
animals, those animals you could have in zoos. At the time,
I don't think the lawmakers thought much of it--just a bone to throw
at pissed-off lobbyists. After a while, all the captive animals would
die off, there'd be no more supply, and that would be that.
Here's what they forgot: the black market.
You make anything illegal, and people want it. And hell,
there were folk crazy enough to want lions and chimpanzees and wolves
even before you couldn't find 'em in an exhibit. And those
idiots are still out there, still buying their exotic pets, still stupid
enough to let 'em get away.
That's where I come in.
Zoos pay a hell of a lot for those animals. They got no
other source. And the money it brings in--if you're a zoo and you can
say on your posters, "We got an elephant," well, people come
flooding in. Money comes flooding in. So of course they'll
pay for it. They'll pay us for it.
We're not after an elephant today--both good and bad,
really. Elephants bring in the big money (you're set for a year if you
nab a female), but they're a pain in the ass to transport. You ever
try and move an elephant? Talk to me then.
No, today we're after the next best thing: a gorilla.
Female, we've been told. Zoos pay damn good for gorillas--just a couple
steps down from elephants, actually. Lions are number two, being "king
of the jungle" and all, but my inside guy says that's gonna change
soon--lions are moving down a rung. People get excited about them at
first, but then figure out that lions sleep all day. They're just big-ass
cats, after all.
Static breaks in over Jim's walkie-talkie, and Command
starts talking. I can't make it out from the backseat, but I see Jim
nodding, hear him click the button and say, "Got it. Over."
He turns in his seat. "Three miles north. We'll wanna start walkin'
in about two."
I nod. It takes a special kind of person to do this job--you
gotta be in good shape, for one. The animals get spooked by engines,
so you can't take the Jeeps too close. The last leg of it you walk,
lugging any gear you need with you. Jim and I were after a jaguar once
for two days on foot, no sleep. That was a hell of an animal, all jet-black
fur and muscle and those fangs like you wouldn't believe. Got a good
bit of cash from it, too, from a zoo up in Omaha. I was able to spend
a whole month back home with Maya, not worrying about work at all.
That's what I'm hoping will happen here--I haven't nabbed
a gorilla before, but if they pay as well as they say, then I'm set
for at least three months. I can go home, be with Maya, and there's
plenty of money left aside.
Her fourth birthday was last week. It split me apart to
miss it, but money's tight right now. The last check I sent my sister
was six months ago. There just hasn't been an escaped animal in a while--nothing
worthy of our attention, at least. My sister tries not to hassle me
about it, but I know she needs the money--she's got three other mouths
to feed, her own kids, and I can't expect her to pay for Maya. Besides,
I want Maya to have the best of everything--and the best costs money.
So if I have to miss her birthday, if I feel like shit about it, that's
And if I'm good about saving up--well, soon Maya won't
have to live with my sister anymore. I can retire, get a house. We'll
have a home together and I'll be there with her all the time. Hell,
maybe we'll get a dog. A house isn't a home without a dog.
Static comes through on the walkie-talkie. Jim holds it
to his ear. I see him frown, but he just says, "Got it. Over."
He turns. "Backers on this one, too."
"Shit," Rambo mutters.
Not everyone agrees that previously captive animals should
stay in captivity. There's a whole group of folks that say, "You
know what, we can't put these animals back in the wild, but at least
we can give 'em a place of their own." Wildlife refuges. Which
just seems like a hell of a lot of wasted money to me. But that's one
thing these Backers got: money. All the Hollywood hippies started throwing
money at these people, wanting to feel like they were doing some good
in the world. And these people, of course, think they're doin' the Good
Work. Backers, that's what we call them--back to Africa or Asia or Canada
or wherever the hell they animals are headed. They got refuges all over
these days, all different groups. It's probably One Green Earth working
these parts. But they all work the same way: they swoop in, get the
animal before we can, and it's bye-bye paycheck.
"Command thinks we have a head start on them,"
Jim says, "but we'll need to move fast. Once we hit the ground,
we'll split up, cover more territory that way."
It's not ideal--we're most effective working in pairs,
with one person left behind to prepare the Jeep for the animal--but
Jim's right. With Backers out here, we gotta cover as much ground as
quickly as possible.
"This is good," Jim says to Rambo, and the Jeep
rumbles to a stop. That's another thing we'll have to use this paycheck
on--replacement parts for the Jeep. Always Goddamn something.
We climb out, grab the tranq guns. Jim consulted the dosage
chart before we left, but I do a quick double-check now. It has to be
precise. Too little and you have a groggy, raging animal on your hands,
too much and you kill the thing. Zoos don't pay for dead animals.
"Command says the Hominidae gorilla should
be about a mile north of here," Jim says. Jim does that, learns
the scientific name for the animal we're tracking. He thinks it makes
him sound smart. I think it makes him sound like a jackass.
"Everyone got their GPS trackers?"
I pat my belt. Rambo does likewise.
"Good. I'll hold onto the main unit. We’ll
each cover a 30-degree radius. Rambo--you head out at 315. I'll start
at 345. Jane, you got 15 to 45. If you see her, don't bother radioing
in first--just get her tranqued up. We have to move fast if we wanna
beat the Backers on this one."
We split up, heading our separate ways into the forest.
I can already tell this is gonna be a tricky one--the grass is tall
out here, but the trees sparse. Harder for an animal to hide, but easier
for it to spot you. Strong breeze, too. It whips up the grass as I head
north. Luckily I'm downwind of where the animal should be. I move quickly,
making sure not to step on any dry twigs.
Every hundred yards or so, I stop and listen. We're not
tracking a wild animal; we're tracking a caged animal that escaped and
is most likely panicking. A wild animal, you've got little to no chance
of being able to hear it coming or going. But one of our animals?
Thrashing brush, splashing through water, the whole nine yards. Every
living thing makes a hell of a lot of noise when it's running away.
There--not far ahead, from the sounds of it. A loud crack,
like a tree limb breaking. It may be nothing, but my gut says otherwise:
I've got the quadrant, the gorilla's here. She's mine to get.
I start forward. Static from the walkie-talkie--Jim's
voice cuts over. "Update from command--there's a report it's two."
I clip the walkie-talkie off my belt. "Two what?"
"They're sure?" Rambo comes in.
"No. Unconfirmed. But watch out for a second one,
just in case."
My heart races. One animal on my own, I should be able
to handle. Two? Two's gonna be a bitch. I clip the walkie-talkie back,
turn down the volume. If I'm close, I don't want the static startling
the animal. Animals.
I go slowly now, the hairs on the back on my neck on edge.
I'm close, I can feel it. You do this job long enough, you develop a
There--in a clearing up ahead, a hint of black fur in
the sun. I take a few steps forward and pause behind a bush. Her back
is to me--she's paused, figuring things out. It's not an ideal shot,
but it'll work. And thank God, there's only one. I raise the gun, put
my eye to the site.
Krrrrrrk! "Jim, Jane, you guys got anything?
I ain't seein' shit up here."
The gorilla's head whips around at the sound of the walkie-talkie.
Our eyes lock. Before I can move she's grabbed something off the ground,
thrown it onto her back and charged off into the woods.
"Shit!" I start after her, running
as fast as I can--but what good is that gonna do? An animal like that,
I've got no chance. Fuckin' Rambo. Fuckin' me, not turning the damn
Jim's voice cuts in. "I got nothing here. Jane?"
I grab the walkie-talkie, still running. "I had her
until you jackasses started yammering. Two of 'em."
"Two? You confirmed two?"
"Mother and infant."
"Hot damn. Hot damn!"
"Keep on 'em, Jane," Jim says. "I'm looking
at your location on the GPS. There's a ravine a half mile ahead of you--that'll
stop her. We'll meet you there with the Jeep."
"On it." I clip the walkie-talkie back to my
belt and focus on running. Jim thinks a ravine will stop this animal,
but I'm not sure. He didn't see the size of her--didn't see the look
in her eyes. Which is stupid, of course, because animals don't have
looks. They're animals. But something tells me this one ain't goin'
down without a fight.
An infant. A fortune. Zoos'll pay double for a young animal,
one that's more likely to last a while. And it'll be two paychecks,
from separate zoos. They'll have to split them up--one zoo couldn't
afford two prize animals. This money could last me a year--more'n that,
if I play my cards right.
It does complicate things, though. Will I have enough
tranq for both of them? Can you even tranq an infant without killing
it? I've never had to try before.
Up ahead I hear her crashing through the underbrush, dry
wood breaking in her path.
Jim cuts in. "Jane, you got company. Backers are
on her, headed towards the ravine. Fuckers moved fast on this one."
I don't take the time to respond. The only way to win
is with speed. My leg muscles burn as I sprint through the underbrush,
my ankles threatening to roll at every divot. If the Backers get there
first, there's nothing. No animal, no payout. All the tracking and work
for nothing. One more month without a paycheck--one more month without
Maya. The separation kills me. I run faster.
The trees stop suddenly, and I'm out in a clearing. There's
a drop-off up ahead--the ravine Jim said would be there--but no gorilla.
I look right and left--and there she is, pacing, frantic, trying to
find a way down. The infant is on her back, skinny arms snug around
her neck. It's younger than it first appeared, a tiny thing. It turns
its head, looks at me. I see its mouth move but don't hear its cry.
The mother does, though--she looks over her shoulder and back at me.
There's a rumble in the distance. At first I think it's
the Jeep, but no, ours has never sounded that good. That's a Land Rover.
She hears it, too. She's pacing again, starting to run,
realizing there's nowhere to go. She makes a whining noise and looks
over the edge of the ravine. Would she jump? Unlikely, given the infant,
but then trapped animals behave unpredictably. A jumper's no good to
me. I have to end this, and fast.
I lift up the tranq gun. The gorilla's stopped pacing.
Now she's just standing there, facing me, staring. She's smart, I can
tell. Maybe she's realized there's nowhere to go, nowhere to run. Through
the dark fur covering her neck, I can just make out the infant's hands
clasped together. There's no way she's moving--no way she's giving me
a clearer shot.
"Jane! The backers are right on you. What's your
I don't respond. I stare into a set of dark brown eyes.
This one's not looking away, literally staring down the barrel of a
gun. The rumble of the Land Rover grows louder, clearer. It's now or
never. Maya's counting on me.
I shoot just as the Backers' Land Rover comes spinning
around a corner. I'm sure they're shouting at me--they love their bullhorns,
those Backers--but I don't hear a word. All I hear is the sound of the
tranq dart zipping through the air, landing with a soft thud in a patch
of grass to the left of the gorilla.
And then they're there, the Land Rover between me and
the gorilla, their net out and over her. She screams, but then they
have their own tranq gun on her. It'll be over in a minute. They'll
have them both scooped up, heading off to whatever refuge has agreed
to take them both.
There's a crashing sound behind me, and Jim and Rambo
come tearing up in the Jeep. "Fuck!" Rambo says. "Fuck!"
Jim yells some choice insults over towards the Backers,
but I doubt they hear. They have their hands full up. "Come on,"
he says, grabbing my hand and pulling me up into the Jeep. As Rambo
speeds away, I see one of the Backers picking up the infant.
"Those self-righteous assholes," Jim's saying.
"Cock-suckin' hippies," Rambo chimes in.
"What happened? The GPS showed you right there."
"I was," I say. "There was only time to
take one shot before they showed up. I missed."
"Missed? You never miss."
"Yeah, well, today I fuckin' did."
Jim eyes me. "Shit happens. You must've been rattled
by those Goddamn Backers." He sighs. "All that fuckin' work
for nothing. Two gorillas. Two gorillas. We woulda been rich."
I nod, my mind elsewhere. I have a phone call with Maya
tonight. She's been askin' more and more lately when I'm coming home.
I'll tell her soon, soon. Someday she'll understand.