Joe pulled tight his jacket around him, the biting chill of the autumn air creeping into every crevice of his body and making him shiver. The cold grey of the sky seemed to drizzle down to earth and coat everything with its dullness to the point where it seemed that colour no longer existed in the world. But the dreary weather was not enough to dampen Joe’s spirits. Today was a good day. He was spending the day with his son.
Danny was standing nearby, peering through a set of bars at what looked to be the zoo’s famous Silverback gorilla exhibit – but the leafy enclosure was empty, vacant of its illustrious inhabitant.
Must be getting fed, Joe thought as he watched his son’s disappointed face. Danny loved animals and would be disappointed that such a rare and magnificent creature was not available for him to see. But, like most eight-year old boys, his attention span soon reset itself, and it wasn’t long before he was running off in a separate direction entirely.
“Dad! That man over there is being attacked by a snake.”
Joe stared down at his son, amazed, as always, that his watery-blue eyes could look so much like his own. “Don’t be silly, Danny,” he said, his warm breath turning to steam in the crisp October air around him. “That’s just the zoo’s snake handler. He’s about to do a show, I think.”
“I wanna go see!” Danny tugged at his father’s arm, deceptively strong for such a slender child wearing a Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart t-shirt and Velcro trainers. “Hurry, before we miss anything.”
Joe allowed himself to be dragged toward a three-sided lean-to shelter erected besides the zoo’s moss-covered WORLD OF VENOM building. It had been designed to look as if it were made of bamboo reeds. A uniformed man entered the structure from a rear access and began positioning plastic crates onto a wooden table – all of them containing reptiles of various sizes and descriptions. The man’s tanned-leather skin matched his khaki clothing and was weathered, brown and loose. He had a boa constrictor the length of a scaffold pole wrapped around his bony shoulders.
Danny jumped up and down excitedly. “Sweet! I bet that thing could squish him to death, real easy!”
Joe frowned at his son. “Don’t be so morbid!”
“Sorry, Dad. I just think it’s cool.”
“It’s okay. I just want you to think nice things. Come on, let’s get closer.” Joe took his Danny’s hand – half the size of his own – and pushed through the gathering crowd of adults and their children. It wasn’t difficult to get to the front when you were as freakishly tall as Joe. People tended to get out of his way long before he had to ask them.
“Look at the size of that thing, Dad!” At the front of the growing audience – now close to a dozen people – Danny started jumping up and down again, his wispy, blond hair flopping around in the must-smelling breeze. Childish glee oozed off him in ribbons.
The snake handler turned his attention to them both and Joe cringed, waiting for his son to get a reprimand. A noisy nuisance. Fortunately, the uniformed man smiled at them instead.
“Hey there, young un. You like snakes?”
Danny nodded. “Jake the Snake used to have one called Damien.”
The snake handler wrinkled his forehead, readjusted the slithering reptile in his arms, and then said, “Isn’t that a wrestler from years back?”
Danny nodded enthusiastically. “My dad has lots of old tapes and I watch ’em every weekend when I stay over. My bestest favourite is The Undertaker. Check it out!” He spun around to show the man the design on his backpack.
“Undertaker rip?” said the handler, confused.
Danny spun back around and giggled. “No, silly! Rest in peace. It’s what The Undertaker says to everyone right before he beats them up with his tombstone.” He rolled his eyes back into his head, so that only the whites were showing, and repeated the words in his best attempt at a gravelly, adult voice. “Rest…In…Peeeaaaace.”
The crowd laughed. So did the snake handler, struggling with his giant brown reptile between each chuckle. He pulled the animal down, away from his face, and then smiled over at Joe. “Fine little lad you have, sir.”
Joe smiled back. “Thanks. He’s a handful though. Just like your snake.”
“You can say that again! She’s really unsettled today. Won’t keep still for a minute, bless her.”
“Sounds just like my son.”
Danny bopped him on the arm. “Hey! I’m nothing like a snake. I’m gonna tell Mom on you.”
The crowd laughed again, this time giving a collective “Oooooooo!” Joe knew his son was just showing off, but it was nice to see him come out of his shell. After the last few years, with the divorce and everything else, it was good to see that Danny had any confidence at all.
Joe rustled Danny’s hair, messing it up more than it already was. “We best be moving on, little dude, or we won’t fit everything in. Say goodbye to the nice man and his snake.”
Danny twisted his face into a frown, but did as he was told. His shoulders slumped as he spoke. “See ya, Mister. Thanks for letting…Hey Mister…are you okay?”
Joe was alerted by the tone of his son’s voice before he actually saw anything was wrong. The snake handler was writhing around, struggling beneath the weight his huge reptile. It coiled its way around his ribcage and was slithering up toward his neck.
“Step away, Danny.” Joe moved in front of his son, keeping him back from the wooden barrier that separated the crowd from the lean-to shelter. The slithering reptile had begun to form a noose around its keeper’s neck and was slowly tightening with each convulsion of its muscular body. The crowd started to murmur, the first gentle stages of panic taking hold.
The snake handler began to choke and threw out his arms out in desperation. Joe jumped the barrier, dashed toward the shelter just as the struggling man dropped to his knees on the plank-wood flooring. The fragile walls of the bamboo shelter shook beneath the impact.
“Stay calm,” Joe shouted in a voice that was the exact opposite. He reached out to grab the snake, but recoiled immediately.
Whoa! Do I really wanna put my hands on this thing? Can it bite me? Joe allowed himself to hesitate only a moment longer then gave himself a mental shove. Come on! There’s a man’s life at stake. Do something!
He snatched at the thick reptile and pulled back hard, fighting away revulsion as his fingers made contact with the rough, quivering flesh – cold to the touch. Several seconds of yanking and tugging made no difference. The snake’s grip became even tighter. The desperate handler turned a deep purple as the pressure pushed his eyeballs a half-inch out of their sockets, making them bulge like a squid’s. Joe felt a roiling wave of sickness crash through his insides.
I can’t do anything. I can’t get this thing off of him and he’s going to die. I never watched a man die before...
Joe turned to the anxious crowd and checked that his son was nearby. “Don’t just stand there!” he shouted at them. “Someone go get help, now! Danny, you stay where you are and close your eyes. Everything is okay.” He could tell by his son’s fearful expression that he didn’t believe it. Moving back around, Joe saw that blood was now trickling from both of the snake handler’s nostrils. The beast wrapped around the man’s throat was glaring at Joe, malevolent eyes boring into his flesh. Its forked-tongue flicked back and forth, tasting the air.
People in the crowd started backing away, as if somehow the snake handler’s peril was infectious. Some of them scattered immediately, crying out for help as they fled in all directions, while others retreated in silence, unable to take their eyes off the harrowing scene in front of them. Joe didn’t go with either group. He was rooted to the spot.
Locked in a death stare with a nine-foot Boa Constrictor.
The sound of Danny’s voice allowed Joe to regain control of his senses. He turned around to find that his son had approached the wooden barrier and was about to crouch underneath it. Joe flung out an arm and shouted. “Stay there! I’ll handle th-”
From the corner of his eye, Joe sensed the movement of the snake, and turned just in time to see it strike. The adrenaline in his body pumped his reactions just enough that he was able to lunge aside of the attack, a mere split-second before the murderous reptile sliced its fangs through the air. The snake handler flopped face down on the floor, the boa constrictor slithering out from beneath the body. The man was dead.
“Dad, I’m scared!”
Joe sprang into action, exiting the shelter and vaulting the barrier. He scooped Danny up in his arms and chased after the fleeing crowd. Help still had not arrived, but it hardly mattered anymore now that the snake handler was dead.
Someone still needs to grab that damn snake though.
And then destroy the fucking thing!
Joe kept his lanky strides fast yet steady, not wanting to trip and fall on the unforgiving pavement whilst carrying his son. Blood pounded in his eardrums as, all around him, people scattered in all directions. It was strange to see just how many people were panicking. There had been perhaps a dozen men and women at the snake handler’s hut, along with a handful of children, but as Joe looked around now, he saw at least three times that many.
So what else is happening? Why are so many people in a hurry to get their asses out of here?
Joe slowed down and eventually stopped, turning to look back where he’d come from. The huge boa constrictor was still inside the lean-to shelter, slithering over the lifeless body of its ex-handler. It was reason enough to panic, for sure, but Joe was certain that only those nearby would have noticed. He looked around the zoo, examining the multiple animal enclosures and exhibit buildings that lined the grass-edged pathways. A racket was coming from each of them, as if the caged specimens inside were agitated by something. The hoots and howls from the monkey compounds were particularly loud and Joe could see the various primates rattling their bars with unbridled fury. Joe could feel the vibrations in his teeth.
What the hell is happening?
He decided he wouldn’t wait around and find out. He needed to make sure his son was safe (from just what exactly, he did not know). Danny was rigid in his arms, making no sound other than the wet panting of his breath.
“Everything’s going to be okay, Danny,” he said soothingly. “Let me get you somewhere safe and we can sit down and have a Coke.” Joe started moving again, a sense of urgency seizing his internal organs and pumping them like pistons. Some deep-buried instinct told him he needed to get away from the area as quickly as possible. Up ahead was the zoo’s brand-new visitor’s centre, RAVENCROFT ZOOLOGICAL CENTRE AND CONFERENCE SUITES. The lengthy, glass structure’s recent grand opening was advertised all over the park and it looked like as good a place as any to find some authority.
Joe picked up speed, his worn trainers wearing even thinner against the harsh grey cement of the pathway. All around him people were panicking, scuttling in all directions like frenzied ants. It was still unclear what was causing all of the chaos, but Joe knew it was more than just a snake attack. Something else was happening.
The visitor’s centre seemed to grow in size as Joe got closer and he could now make out the large glass doors of its entrance. Several people had already begun to move inside, but a vast majority were running past the building – likely heading towards the car park beyond. Joe wondered whether that idea was a good one.
I just want to get indoors. I don’t know what’s going on yet, but I know that a load of people panicking in their cars is gonna have a bad ending.
Joe broke off from the crowd and approached the visitor centre, hopping up a set of brick steps that joined with a landscaped patio at the front of the building. A middle-aged Black man with grey sideburns was standing amongst the potted trees and plants. He quickly moved aside when he saw he was in Joe’s way. Joe nodded ‘thank you’ to the man before moving through the building’s wide-open double-doors.
The fluorescent lights inside dazzled Joe as he left the bleak greyness of outside. The first thing his eyes finally managed to focus on was a large rectangular sign hanging from the ceiling. It declared the room to be THE EDUCATION HALL. The area was full of life-like exhibits of elephants, alligators, and many other creatures – each of them staring into the centre of the room with their soulless glass eyes. There were several other people inside the hall with Joe. Each of them looked as concerned and freaked out as he was. There was only a single zoo employee amongst them, given away by his bright-green waist-jacket against a khaki-coloured uniform. He wore the tatty, round spectacles of an intellectual man, and his neatly-combed grey hair only added to that impression. He looked as dumfounded as everyone else, but Joe still considered him the best person to speak to.
Nearby, several plush, cube-shaped chairs of varying colours were arranged in front of a wide plasma screen. Joe eased Danny down onto a purple one. “Just wait here one sec, little dude, okay?”
Danny nodded obediently and sat still.
Joe examined the boy for a few moments, saw how frightened he was, and then kissed his forehead. “I’m proud of you, Danny.”
The zoo employee had moved over to the far wall of the hall and was fiddling with a bright yellow, rubber-cased walkie-talkie. It didn’t seem like the man was having any success in gaining information, and his wrinkled brow gave away his frustrations. Joe approached slowly, trying to seem calm rather than agitated, somehow feeling that rationality would be at a premium right now.
When he got close enough, the zoo keeper looked up from the radio. “Sir, may I help you?”
“Hello,” Joe replied. “Do you know what’s going on?”
The man shook his head and his spectacles jittered on the bridge of his long nose. He readjusted them before speaking. “Not the foggiest, I’m afraid. I can’t reach any of the zoo keepers to find out. A couple of the visitors I’ve spoken to have mentioned animal attacks, but they were too distressed to provide details. Seems unlikely, though.”
Joe thought about the snake attack. “You don’t think an animal attack is possible?”
“Possible yes, but extremely unlikely. The enclosures are secure and the staff are dedicated, experienced professionals. There’s never been an incident of such a kind in the seven years I’ve worked here.”
“Sorry to disagree,” Joe said, “but I just watched a large snake kill one of your staff about ten minutes ago, over by the World of Venom building – a boa constrictor, I think. It squeezed him to death in front of a dozen people.”
The man’s face dropped. “Terry? I pray that you are mistaken, sir, I truly do. Terry has been with us many years and loved Betsy a great deal.”
Joe raised an eyebrow. “Betsy?”
“Yes, Betsy. She is the zoo’s Pearl Island Boa. She’s always been extremely gentle. I can’t believe she would ever attack anyone – least of all Terry. They had a…bond, for want of a better word.”
Joe nodded. He didn’t want to upset the man further, but thought he needed to wake up to whatever was happening. “Maybe he’s okay,” Joe supposed. “It did all happen suddenly.”
The other man thought about things for a moment and his expression seemed to get grimmer with each passing second. Finally, he looked back up at Joe and said, “I believe you. It doesn’t seem like you’re lying, and I see no reason why you would. Something is obviously going on, but I just cannot fathom the idea that any of our animals would attack their handlers. There are too many precautions.”
“Look, I don’t mean to be impatient, but you’re the only representative of the zoo I could find. You need to do something.”
“And what exactly would you have me do? I am a curator, not a crowd controller.”
Joe sighed. “Nevertheless, you have a responsibility.”
The man looked at Joe for several seconds before replying. “I suppose you’re right. I should find out what’s going on.” He pushed Joe aside, headed for the front of the hall, and spoke over his shoulder as he went. “I still don’t believe things are as bad as people are-”
Joe turned around to see why the curator had stopped mid-sentence. He could hardly believe his eyes as people started to scream. Four lions blocked the far entrance to the visitor’s centre and were snarling at the people inside. Each of their fangs was the size of a tent peg and syrupy-thick blood dripped from their jaws.
Joe had a feeling that he was about to have a very bad day.