The day had been chosen as much for the weather as anything else. Bright and sunny, on a weekend, it was the perfect time for parents to bring their kids to the zoo. It wasn’t too crowded, as many families were on vacations, but there were still enough visitors that the two men on the bench in the big cats section didn’t stick out too much.
Joe had the briefcase between his feet as he sat, watching the crowd. Kids walked by frequently, pointing at animals or sipping milkshakes or fighting with siblings. It made him miss his own child, living with his mother as part of the aftermath of the divorce, but he pulled his mind back to what was about to happen. Beside him, Frank leaned back against the bench.
“Think this will satisfy the man in the wheelchair?”
“Could be.” Joe didn’t like to speculate. “Could also be that it’s not worth the trouble.”
“He shouldn’t have hired us to acquire it in the first place, then.”
That, in and of itself, had taken some doing. Several cars, a sat-nav system, a couple unfortunate civilians, and a great deal of gunfire had gone into stealing the case. It was after losing Donalee that Joe had doubled the asking price. Donalee had been a good asset. Working with her and Frank reminded Joe of better days, more legitimate days, but those were over now. He grimaced as he thought of the girl bleeding out by the road. The worst part was, what else was he suited for? Flipping burgers? Answering phones? Making nice at company parties? No. This was his life, making shady deals with shadier men in places like this.
Two men approached through the crowd, carrying a briefcase of their own. As agreed, one of them was holding a map of the city with a zoo circled in yellow highlighter, and an arrow drawn on in red. Joe and Frank stood. The other men stopped a couple feet away, and the two pairs faced each other. The sky darkened as the sun dipped behind cloud cover. Neither of the newcomers spoke.
“Here’s how this works.” Joe held up his case. “I’m going to count to three. On three, we step to each other, I hand you this case-” He gestured to the man across from him. “-and Frank gets handed the money. Then we all walk away happy. Questions?”
There were none. Joe took a deep breath and counted. The four men moved like clockwork, and if the sun hadn’t peeked out from behind its cloud, Joe would never have seen it.
A glint of metal in the other man’s hand.
Joe stopped immediately but Frank hadn’t seen it. He was reaching out for the money. The man across from him swung his arm up into Frank’s torso from the side, under the arm, and Frank gasped. He didn’t cry out, though. Funny thing about the human lung: stab it in one place, you can still scream. Stab it in another, you can’t make a sound.
Joe brought the case up, hard, punching the other man in the stomach with it. He backpedaled quickly. A flowerpot shattered under his foot and he lost his balance. Momentum kept him going backwards, over the railing, and down the seven foot drop into the enclosure below. Years of practice before and after recruitment had him twisting and moving his body as he fell, his knees bending at just the right time to absorb the impact. He looked up, case still in hand, fingers ready to go for his sidearm.
The men at the railing weren’t looking at him.
He turned, then, and saw the tiger approaching.
He’d landed on the far side of the small, artificial river that allowed the cats to bathe at their leisure but also kept them from getting a good start on the wall. The jungle cat was moving slowly, carefully, not taking her eyes from the intruder. Joe didn’t look up again. He heard people making noise, probably pointing at him, but he knew if he so much as glanced away, he was done for. These cats were not docile or domesticated. They were wild animals kept locked away from the open spaces they loved.
Joe made no sudden movements, kept his gun in its holster under his jacket, the case at his side. He moved as slowly, as quietly, as the tiger approaching him. Every step the tiger took, he took. It was like a very quiet, very deadly dance. The keepers had to have little doors or other ways to enter the enclosure, and Joe intended to find one. The tigress growled softly, a sound less threatening and more curious, as she kept pace with him. Joe couldn’t help but smile. Most prey probably tried to flee by this point.
“Hey, mister! Over here!”
Joe didn’t look. The sound came from his right, and he moved towards it at the same agonizing pace. The tiger, for her part, paused at the sight of the zookeeper, even more uncertain of what was going on. Joe inclined his head to the tiger in a respectful way, and felt hands on his right arm. He took the hint and stepped that way, into a small concrete hallway as the concealed door closed behind him.
Before the poor zookeeper could say a word, Joe smacked him with the case across the jaw. He was out cold before he knew what happened.
Minutes later, he emerged wearing a zookeeper’s uniform under his jacket, case in hand. Losing Frank bothered him more than he liked to admit. He’d been alone in the cold before, after he’d been burned, but this was different. This felt far more personal. Paying the money was cleaner, but this double-cross meant the man in the wheelchair wanted the case even more badly than Joe had realized.
He found a public phone, and made a call.
“Hello, Natalya. Joe here. Are you free for lunch?”