At the time of the heist, the lemur was thirty-two years old. It was, in fact, the oldest of its species in the world. Upon seeing it that afternoon in the zoo, Cye Bender felt that he simply needed it. Cye was attracted to rare things. As a kid he’d collected sea glass and animal bones and things buried in the yard, no matter how banal: rusty screws, a toy soldier, a belt buckle, old spectacles, a bullet. There was something about an item entombed and hidden from view that gave it a special power, a mysterious resonance that was hard for him to ignore. As a boy, such discoveries had always thrilled him. In the zoo, passing the lemur enclosure, Cye’s pulse quickened with that same devilish rush. A child psychologist had once written beneath his name: obsessive/impulsive.
His newly desired prize was crouched in the entranceway of a small hut, keeping away from the others of its kind, gnawing a mango. A sweetly odor of compost suffused the air around the cage. Its matted fur was colored tinsel, its thick tail streaked with bands of licorice-black. There was a sign giving its name, Anton, and proclaiming its age. Cye thought, the oldest in the world?
As daytrippers wandered by with greasy taquitos and panda-shaped ice cream bars, pausing to gawk into the leafy enclosure, Cye’s mind turned to scheming. He wondered how he might acquire it, this rare old primate.
At nineteen, Cye was at that dangerous age where one possessed both the conniving, unreflective imagination of a child and the physical and intellectual dexterity to follow through on an outrageous plan. He was of middling height with a lean but muscular build. He had short blonde hair and wide, pockmarked cheeks that he chewed when bored. Standing there with his eyes fixed coldly on the slumbering old lemur, the enclosure’s netting tickling his nose, Cye chuckled to himself. He thought, Piece’a cake.
It would not be Cye’s first foray into grand larceny. There was the Wheeler house down the street from his own, the cash drawer at the public library, a bounty of booze from the liquor mart, several car break-ins, the countless items from school–all pilfered with ease. Cye had discovered, in his early teens, that gaping vulnerability in collective security: the assumption that most obey the law. Like a doberman that has discovered where the treats are hidden, he happily exploited it.
And he had realized, if not fully consciously, another gap, too: the unspoken but communal understanding that people who look like him–amiable, well-dressed, white–do not commit crimes. Every neighborhood had those scrupulous residents who kept a perpetual eye out for evil-doers. But no one looked for criminals like Cye.
By his own self-satisfying calculations, Cye had nabbed upwards of twenty-thousand dollars in property since his fourteenth birthday. Money wasn’t the main motivator. He lived comfortably in an upscale enclave of Applewood, a downtempo Tucson suburb, with a little sister, still beneath the wings of his parents. Though Cye certainly didn’t mind the money, he mostly just enjoyed the rush. Craved it with a near religious intensity. And he took particular pride in the fact that never once had he been suspected. It only added to the fun, his sense of play-acting the crook.
Though not particularly brainy, Cye certainly knew how to keep up appearances (in a neighborhood as well-heeled as the Benders’, such know-how was liberally imparted). High school graduation had come a year earlier and, though his parents hoped he would eventually attend college, Cye held no such ambitions. To put off the matter, he had conjured up a noble, heartfelt desire “to acquire real world experience first.” The ruse seemed to have satisfied his hands-off parents, who only required him to find a job. He netted one at Petco in the reptile section.
Cye believed himself so skilled in his secret pastime, so preternaturally gifted in the illicit arts, that some years ago, one of his burglaries had been blamed on another.
It was around Christmas time. Cye had plundered a trove of unwrapped gifts from a Tesla: three laptops, a new iPhone, a smartwatch and jewelry. A neighbor of the Benders–the supposed witness–had pinned it all on a lanky first-generation Bengali named Jagat, one of Cye’s classmates. The neighbor’s testimony was all that prosecutors had against him but it stuck. Jagat was sentenced to two years.
That didn’t bother Cye. A year earlier, rumors had circulated that Jagat had roofied a middle schooler. As far as Cye was concerned, getting Jagat canned was a community service; he had helped rid the streets of a predator. What was wrong with a little compensation?
A dangerous thing about the young: they can always find ways to play the hero.
When the law came for Jagat, he was not home. He was at his friend Roger’s house, playing Xbox and hoovering Chex Mix and his phone was out of battery. His mother, Keerat, answered the door. As they waited, she entertained the two officers with masala tea and cheery photos of Jagat hung around the house, her only child.
The officers were evasive. They told her they merely wanted to talk with Jagat, something concerning a mild incident at school. With ready, aseptic smiles, they’d made it sound completely innocent, “nothing to worry about, ma’am. We just think your son could be a big help here.”
So she was just as surprised as Jagat was when, after he strolled through the door, the officers shoved him against the wall, enraging her terrier, Dimple, and knocking her photos down, splitting cracks through the glass, her homemade masala soaking the carpet.
As they marched Jagat to the street, Keerat berated them: “You have the wrong boy! This is the wrong boy!” And though Jagat, in normal circumstances, would have felt infantilized by such a reference, at that moment, being man-handled out by two armed strangers, wrongly accused, the neighbors rubber-necking in their yards, he felt absolutely like a boy. For the first time in years, Jagat’s gut hummed with a helpless, infantile fear. He wanted, deeply, to cry.
Neither Jagat nor his mother could afford a lawyer so he was assigned a public defender. The court-appointed attorney was worryingly young, seemingly fresh out of law school, a soft-spoken, bespectacled milksop named Ashley. She seemed tense throughout the trial, skittish and slow, so clearly intimidated by the wide, regal courtroom. In her agitation, she repeatedly took a cleaver to Jagat’s surname, Attariwala. “My client, Mr. Addy-wah-wah…”
Jagat stood accused of breaking into a Tesla in the upscale Applewood neighborhood of Woodbury Hills and ransacking its contents. On top of the four grand-worth of damage to the vehicle–the window had been smashed and the door handle scraped–there was an additional eight grand in stolen merchandise.
Though Jagat and his mother lived on the other side of town, he had, in fact, been in Woodbury Hills at the time of the break-in, purchasing headphones from a Craigslist ad. After news of the theft spread through the neighborhood, secretly thrilling the residents, who were tickled to believe they were under siege, the Craigslist seller had contacted the police.
Testifying on the stand, her leg bouncing anxiously beneath the desk, the seller had huffed and said, “He was awkward and super fidgety. He kept looking in the living room. It was, just–I don’t know–weird.”
The Craigslist seller added that she remembered seeing Jagat drive towards the home of the ransacked Tesla, which was in the opposite direction one would travel if leaving Woodbury Hills. “Why would he want to go that way?” she ominously posed.
And the prosecution brought up an earlier infraction. It was during Jagat’s junior year, when he damaged the window of another student’s car in a parking lot scuffle. The other kid had been spreading rumors that Jagat had roofied a middle schooler–another false accusation–and they had reached his mother. The reckless gossip had enraged him.
The prosecutor hit hard on this last incident, “the gangland-style fight in the parking lot.” Throughout the trial, she repeatedly referenced it, seeding the jury with the suggestion that Jagat harbored some deranged, personal vendetta against car windows and knew exactly how to shatter them.
“Let’s remember that in that gangland-style fight in the parking lot–his own high school parking lot–Mr. Addy-wah-wah destroyed that window like a practiced vigilante!” she orated.
The jury was captivated. Ashley’s half-hearted defense–that Jagat was poor, that he was a confused child of immigrants, that he lacked a stable father figure–made little headway.
When the verdict was announced, two years without parole, Keerat screamed.
Stealing Anton would be Cye’s most challenging stunt yet. That was chiefly what attracted him to the scheme. Cye had become jaded by the run-of-the-mill jobs, the car break-ins and booze hauls. An endangered primate? Old, and one of its kind? Now that was a thrill. The fact that he could probably get good money for it was syrup on the cinnabun.
And Cye believed, not entirely unreasonably, that his work experience at Petco further qualified him for the caper. Though it was true that in the reptile section–all sedate chameleons and over-indulged snakes–he had never dealt with a particularly threatening specimen. But he had watched his colleagues elsewhere in the store handle plenty of menacing mammals, from snarling Schnauzers to beastly chinchillas.
In the presence of a paranoid pet, he learned, one had to be quick and assertive. Second-guesses could be catastrophic. “Ninety-nine percent of human-animal accidents occur when the human doubts himself,” Cye’s manager Rico had warned during training. “You have to take control!” It was true that some creatures could smell fear.
By the end of the week, Cye had arranged a lucrative deal through his coworker, Gene, who had a “hook-up” in the exotic animals trade. The buyer was eager for the lemur, Gene informed Cye, an exceedingly rare product in the Tucson area. He was offering ten grand for it.
Using Google Maps in his bedroom, Cye scoped out a game plan. At Home Depot, he bought bolt-cutters.
At the dinner table the night before the heist, dining on grilled salmon and asparagus with his family, Cye felt beyond well-prepared. He was nearly sick with excitement.
Jagat adjusted poorly to prison. There were only a dozen or so Indians in his cell block and immediately they absorbed him into their clique. One of the older members, a portly, gruff Phoenix man named Somi, was the de facto leader. Healthcare fraud had put him away for seven years. He had called out to Jagat his first day in the yard and filled him in on the workings of the prison.
Jagat was already afraid. But Somi further terrified him with horror stories of nighttime assassinations and neo-Nazi gang-rapes. He pointed out the killers, the rapists, the pedophiles, the neo-Nazis. When Somi asked Jagat about his charges, Jagat mentioned his innocence. Somi guffawed.
“Young brother,” he smirked, laying a flabby, sweat-slick arm across Jagat’s shoulders. “There are no judgements between friends.” Jagat never mentioned it again.
Jagat was one of the youngest detainees in the prison. By far he was the youngest Indian. And even though he had turned eighteen before the Tesla theft in Woodbury Hills, he still felt like a child. He longed to be home with his mother, to dine on her lentil stew, to play Fortnite with his best friend, Roger, to go for a run through Lyndon Park.
In prison Jagat was perpetually tired. Yet he couldn’t sleep. The stiff bed hurt his back. Nightmares haunted him. During the day, allergies irritated his eyes and clogged his nose.
For his adolescent lankiness, his bumbling innocence and his poorly concealed sense of superiority, Jagat was ridiculed by the other prisoners. A disparaging nickname developed: Apu, like the cartoon convenience store clerk. “Apu!” they’d taunt, passing in the yard or the mess hall. “Where’s the curry?”
Initially, in a show of solidarity, Somi and the other Indians rebuked the taunters. But after a while, hoping Jagat would learn to stick up for himself, they stopped.
The bullying escalated. His tormentors slapped his head, tripped his feet, flicked his ears. None of them harbored any real resentment towards Jagat. They knew nothing about him. But prison was relentlessly dull and he was easy entertainment, unusually unguarded.
One day, Somi gave Jagat a stern reprimand. Jagat was giving all of the Indians a bad rep, Somi reproved, wagging a nubby finger in his face. Appearances were everything and Jagat appeared exceptionally weak.
“You’re putting all of us in danger!” Somi chided. “All of them”–and he pointed into the yard. “They will start to think we are all pushovers. Like you!” Somi had a point: nothing mattered more in prison than deterrence.
During the next bout of harassment, Jagat fought back. The chief instigator was a young tough named Mack: messy hair, bad teeth, a scorpion tattoo over his eye. Jagat plunged a fist into his belly.
A wave of catharsis overtook him, a warm surge that melted his fear. This was what empowerment felt like.
But Jagat was unprepared for what came next, when Mack’s crew threw him to the ground and landed kicks into his side, swarming like catfish to sausage cuts. Three ribs cracked before guards intervened.
Yet, within the delicate ecosystem of the prison, Jagat’s pluck did not go unnoticed. The provocations tapered off, even if sometimes Mack still called him, “Curry boy.”
About a year into Jagat’s sentence, a young man named Lance Wendle arrived at the prison. Peppy, good-humored and nearly as tall as Jagat, he had curly hair the color of butterfly weed with a face splattered in orange freckles. Lance had been caught dealing opioid pills. He was also from Applewood and the both of them had attended high school together two years apart. Though they had never met, his arrival at the prison was a tonic for Jagat.
The pair reminisced about school and Applewood. They shared laughs at the memories of mutual friends and quirky local characters. Inside jokes blossomed, secret references to Applewood that only they understood. Lance became Jagat’s confidant–at long last, someone he could relate to.
One afternoon, strolling in the yard after a basketball game, Lance became uncharacteristically quiet.
“J, my man,” he said. “I’ve gotta tell you somethin’.”
Jagat was taken aback at the solemnity in his voice, so usually sarcastic and sanguine. He had never seen Lance so somber.
“I know you’re innocent,” he continued, biting his lower lip. “I mean, I know for real. I know you didn’t sack that Tesla.”
“So what? I know I didn’t do it.”
Lance gazed towards the gravel. “I mean I know the guy who did.”
Lance told Jagat what he knew. That Cye was one of his clients. That they had often popped pills together. That one time, laid on the floor in Lance’s bedroom with their limbs turned to noodles, Cye bragged about the Tesla theft. That Cye had a laughing fit over Jagat’s imprisonment in his place.
“At the time, I thought you were a pedo,” Lance explained. “I thought you had roofied that middle schooler. I didn’t know you, J. I thought it was kind of hilarious, actually, that you were in here.
“But now I know you, man. You’re no pedo. Anyone can see that. And no thief either.”
They had come to the wall at the end of the yard. They stood in the shade it threw. “Sorry, J. I would’ve told you sooner. Was afraid you’d be mad.”
That night Jagat hardly slept. Though his fear never fully left him during his remaining year in prison, after some time, the outer rim of it hardened, quietly, into rage.
On the day of the heist, at four o’clock in the afternoon, Cye drove to the zoo. Crowds of beaming children and yawning parents were flooding into the parking lot. “Mommy, can we get a hippity-ho!” a child bawled. “I want an iguana!” yelled another.
There was no line at the ticket booth and the attendant warned him time was running out. “Are you sure you want to buy a ticket? This is usually when people start leaving the zoo,” the attendant cautioned. “We close in an hour.”
Greeting visitors inside was a giant signboard with a map of the zoo grounds. Cartoon tigers, an orangutan, some elephants, bougainvillea licking the edges like flames. Cye marched by without even a glance.
At the far end of the zoo, some yards past the hippo enclosure, was a small storage building. It was built up against a perimeter fence and a line of euonymus bushes. In his half-baked planning, stoned and grinning like a yogi at his computer screen, Cye had rated it as a safe place to hide until the zoo closed, in the space between the bushes and the fence.
For the next several hours, Cye waited there. He waited through the calls over the loudspeaker for “All visitors to exit the zoo!” and he waited through sunset. In his childlike eagerness to pull off the operation, Cye had not fully appreciated how excruciating the waiting would be, sitting there cramped on dank earth, batting away gnats and spiders, the soil wetting the seat of his trousers.
Cye passed the time, with one ear piece in, watching YouTube videos on his phone. Some were about lemurs and how to care for them. “I feed my lemurs a diet of, almost exclusively, Purina Monkey Chow. Soak this in water for the babies,” advised one. “Lemurs are pretty hardy and can put up with cold weather. But they are not from Antartica. They’re from the rainforest.”
He devoured a turkey sandwich as he watched, finished off with Oreos. Cye was so well concealed he didn’t worry about being found. But his mind ached with boredom.
Obsession sustained him. Laid there under the euonymus bushes, he longed for Anton. He imagined himself with him, the old lemur clambering up his leg in his room, munching banana off his hand, curling up at the foot of his bed. He imagined Gene’s face bursting with admiration in the Petco parking lot when he revealed Anton inside his car. He pictured Clarissa, an attractive coworker, and her happy surprise, her wide eyes flashing from the lemur to his, alit with adoration.
Nabbing Anton, Cye was certain, would be the single biggest accomplishment of his life. And there was that sweet icing to come afterwards–ten grand, cash. Cye licked his lips, slobbering for victory. He was baby-hungry for lemur.
By eleven o’clock, the zoo was silent. An earlier racket of listless ungulates had given way to the tinfoil wail of crickets. Cye arose from the bushes. Fighting inner butterflies, he dusted his arms and legs of grime.
He crept through the hushed zoo. That morning before sunrise, he had dug a shallow hole outside the fence across from the lemur enclosure. He had buried the bolt-cutters there, which were too large for his backpack, tunneling them under the fence so that he could retrieve them from the inside. He had marked the spot with a small white flag.
When he reached the enclosure, it lay in total darkness. Any number of beasts could have occupied it: hyenas, jaguars, crocodiles, a tiger. But Cye felt assured at the sign: Ring-Tailed Lemurs, Lemur catta, Madagascar, endangered.
Approaching the fence, Cye used his phone’s flashlight feature to find the flag, cupping the light with his hand to narrow the beam. When he spotted it, he pulled a hand-shovel from his backpack and pushed it into the black dirt. A pang of delight tickled his spine as he unearthed the tool.
Cye turned back towards the enclosure. He strained his ears for interlopers. But all was still.
Fear began to dribble through his system now, like water from a dog-chewed hose. There in the face of his much-dreamed-about prize, now so intimidatingly in reach, his confidence wavered.
Cye had never stolen a living thing. A living thing presented unique concerns. Could he really pull it off?
Cye tried to revive his nerve. He had done the research. He’d come prepared. He knew animals: he worked at Petco. You’ve never been caught, he reminded himself. You don’t get caught. Cye was young. He was invincible! Piece’a cake.
And all that stood between Cye and Anton was some wire netting. With his bolt-cutters, it proved simple to penetrate, splitting like spiderwebs.
Cye was at the precipice now. He peered inside.
The enclosure was the size of a living room. Though cavernously dark, he could make out the trees and the little huts and the little wooden bridge strung between the trees. His light revealed glowing winks of yellowy silver: all eyes were upon him.
Directing his beam at where he had previously spotted Anton, Cye found the old primate, balled up and motionless inside his hut, as still as a sack of hay, the only lemur undisturbed.
Cye ducked his head under the ruptured netting. His breathing grew heavy with fright and strained mettle. So long to the human world: it was Cye and the lemurs now.
He moved towards his prey. As he crept, he could feel them following from the treetops, that age-old system of surveillance: lemur eyes.
And very slowly from his pocket, Cye extracted a syringe.
Jagat had always liked animals. But besides drug hounds and the occasional bird that flapped into the yard, he didn’t see a single one in prison. What a sad, strange misfortune it was to be so long severed from the natural world; it was inhuman.
Finally returning to his mother’s house in Applewood, Jagat was genuinely pleased to hear that the job she had secured for him was at the zoo.
It was as a night-shift security guard. Keerat had found the gig through a sympathetic cousin. It was one of the happiest states Jagat had ever seen her in, when she told him of the job, teary-eyed and pressing hot wet kisses into his cheeks, as if trying to revive a frostbitten mountaineer. But she was only elated to see her son moving on.
After two years of early bedtimes, the hours would be difficult for Jagat. But it was honest work, so often such a rare find for ex-cons, and he was enthusiastically grateful.
The company provided him a black duty-jacket with SECURITY written on the back and a matching hat. He received a truncheon, a taser, handcuffs and a walkie-talkie that routed to the nearest police station. Though Jagat adjusted quickly to the sense of authority that the get-up afforded, he never got used to the handcuffs.
After three months of regular nightly patrols, Jagat came to know the zoo with an intimacy of detail that he’d only ever had with his prison cell. He knew that in the twenty minutes it took from the Hippo Trail to Treetop Way, one passed African spurred tortoises, hyraxes, pangolins and hartebeests. He knew that the steepest path was along the Tiger Trail, in the middle of the Asian Passage. He knew that several paving stones outside the aviary were out of place because they rattled when stepped on. Few living souls understood that zoo better than Jagat.
When not patrolling, Jagat was in the security room, studying surveillance footage on his monitors. Once he adjusted to the hours, he found that he was exceptional at the work. If he had learned anything in prison beyond how to manage his fear, it was patience.
By Jagat’s assessment, the zoo boasted a top-notch security system. Over two hundred cameras covered nearly every inch of the place. Each enclosure, down to the smallest toad’s, had a silent alarm which triggered if disturbed after-hours (the zoo had splurged on the installation some years earlier, after a squad of macaques broke free in the middle of the night and ransacked a nursing home).
But there was one small flaw in the system that Jagat could not help but notice. The only bathroom available to the security guard was outside the security building. This meant that one had to walk out and across the pathway to reach it. With so much coffee consumed throughout a shift, bathroom breaks were frequent. Jagat calculated that each trip took around seven minutes. Without eyes on the monitors during this time, the zoo was left unguarded.
Not that anyone was particularly concerned. In all its years, no one had ever attempted any late-night funny business at the Applewood Zoo. Still, Jagat took his duties seriously. Better than most, he understood life as a crapshoot of random, sometimes deranged events. It was better to be prepared for mayhem.
And so it was that he cursed himself when, returning from the bathroom late one night, an alarm bell was ringing. Jagat bolted to his chair. A small light by one of the monitors was flashing yellow. He squinted at the screen.
Jagat interrogated the live footage. Nothing seemed to be out of place. But it was too dark to see details. He rewound the tape.
With anxious astonishment, Jagat watched helplessly as a shadowy figure cut into the netting, ducked into the enclosure and emerged minutes later with one of the lemurs, unmoving, in his arms. The thief, clad in a balaclava, stuffed the animal into a backpack and jogged out of frame. He had headed towards the entranceway, towards Jagat.
Fear tightened Jagat’s gut like a monkey wrench. If the scoundrel escaped, Jagat would lose his job. He thought about his mother and the helpful cousin and his best friend Roger and the parking lot brawl and Ashley the attorney who couldn’t bother to get his name right and the Craigslist seller in Woodbury Hills, those damned headphones, and his long, frightful years behind bars.
In that brief instant before the security monitors, Jagat remembered the litany of misfortune that had befallen him. The memories sped across his mind like a cloud of smoke seen from a shinkansen, all of it leading so neatly, so maddeningly, to his current predicament.
He steadied himself. He zeroed in on his fear. He gathered it up. He squeezed it into a tiny, tight sphere. He could sense the tiny ball of fear in his mind, could feel its oppressive weight, like a magnet, constantly pulling, constantly nagging.
Jagat took it into his hands and kicked it into infinity. He felt it soar. Jagat Addariwala was done losing.
He sprinted out to the pathway. In the shadow thrown by the toucan coop, he crouched into position.
It was a fifteen minute walk from the lemur enclosure to the entranceway. Based on how far back he had rewound the security footage, Jagat estimated that the thief would arrive any minute.
He reached for his walkie-talkie to radio the police. But then came the sound of footfall. Jagat tensed. He peered into the pathway.
The figure had slowed to a fast-walk, his head on a swivel. He appeared fit, if a little awkward in his backpack and balaclava, carrying some clunky tool. He was shorter than Jagat.
He was nearly within striking distance now. Ten meters. Five meters. Jagat prayed he was unarmed. Three meters. One…
Jagat pounced. He collided into the crook’s side. The thief grunted loud as he hit the walkway. There was a sound of metal striking rock. Pang!
Recalling his training, he threw his knees around the man’s torso and centered his weight. “I am detaining you for trespassing and theft!” Jagat shrieked.
The thief had fallen with one of his arms behind his back. Immobile, he swiped at Jagat’s face with his free hand.
“Get the fuck off me you fuck!” he bawled, knocking off Jagat’s hat. “You’re gonna kill him!” But he was stuck.
Clicking on his shoulder-mounted flashlight, emitting a blinding beam, Jagat tore off the balaclava. The thief squinted painfully against the light. His wide cheeks were purple with exertion, his chin glossy with spittle. Even in the pandemonium, Jagat’s recognition was instantaneous.
The face had occupied his mind for the last year. Here was the target of all of his fury and indignation during those long restless, incarcerated nights. Here was the face of a no-good, mollycoddled swindler.
Jagat was stunned. He was bewildered. He murmured, “Cye…Bender?”
Cye was freaking out. He had never been in a real fight before, to say nothing of the stakes. He wanted desperately to avoid jail: he could not even comprehend the possibility. But his strong arm was pinned. He couldn’t move. As he struggled, he could feel Anton’s body squashed between his back and the floor.
In the hubbub, Cye could not make out the guard’s face. But the guard seemed to know who he was. He had just uttered his name.
And as he said it, Cye felt the man’s weight lift. An opening! With a panicked heave, like a hooked marlin erupting from the sea, Cye freed his arm. Wildly, he thrust it out in search of the bolt-cutters that had fallen in the melee. Taking hold of them, he rammed them upwards.
The guard groaned. Cye threw him off. He jumped to his feet. Unthinkingly, he sprinted in the direction he’d come, into the unlit, empty expanse of the Applewood Zoo. He ran faster than he ever had before. He was overwhelmed with fear.
“Get back here, you fucking thief!” yelled the guard, taking off after him. “Fucking Cye Bender!”
Cye ran through the darkened zoo. He ran past the lemur enclosure. Through Rainforest Ruins. Through Safari Land. He was well ahead of the guard now, he thought, but not yet in the clear. The only way out was behind him through the entranceway. Cye needed to hide and figure out a plan.
He ran around a corner. He froze. Coming towards him, truncheon in hand, was the towering guard! How had he made it ahead of him? In terror, Cye fled down a side path.
The zoo was a horrific maze in the dark and Cye was hopelessly lost. And he could not shake his pursuer. He would run one direction, see the guard coming towards him, then go another and be foiled again. The guard was a phantom, materializing from the terrible blackness of the nighttime zoo. Never had Cye been so afraid.
He kept running. Past the wallaby pen. Past the emu garden. Near the kangaroos Cye turned a corner. “Christ!” he winced: the guard again. Now a taser was drawn. He fired. The shot sounded like hornet wings. Tzzzz!
But it missed as Cye took off once more into the night.
His legs were hot with fatigue. He could hear the guard’s steps behind him; hard, resolute. There was a sign ahead for the Tiger Trail, set before a steep hill. At the base of it was the Reptile House.
Panting like a dog, Cye ran to the door: locked. But there was a window ajar. Cye threw it up. He monkeyed in.
Stretched before him now were several long aisles with filing cabinets and shelves with boxes. Tip-toeing, careful not to bump anything, Cye cradled the backpack in his arms. His jaw shook with fear. His heartbeat was like cannonfire erupting across an open sea.
In a corner, Cye nestled in behind a box of veterinary supplies. Like an octopus camouflaging behind a rock, he squeezed his limbs in tight.
He tried to calm himself. He needed a plan, pronto. He blew out, sucked in. Soon, Cye knew, the cops would arrive. If he wasn’t gone by then, he was toast. But how? Desperately, Cye wracked his dim, adolescent mind.
And how was Anton? The lemur had been easy to apprehend. Just a quick jab in the back with the sleeping agent he had procured from Petco, one of the needles they used for unruly cats. The other lemurs in the enclosure, so clearly accustomed to human trespassers, hadn’t caused a stir.
But Cye worried now that Anton may have been hurt in the scuffle with the guard–or worse. He unzipped the backpack and peeked in.
There he was, the world’s oldest lemur, still as sunlight. So still was he–more stuffed than live animal–that Cye feared the worst. His stomach lurched.
But then he noticed its chest–rising, falling, rising, falling. Hope, which at that moment had almost completely diminished, began rising up inside Cye like the disembodied globs in a lava lamp.
His mind returned to his daydreams: the lemur in his arms, the lemur in his room, the lemur snuggling him in bed. With doting care, Cye reached down and rubbed the creature’s smooth back, his optimism swelling in a warm glow.
But then Anton’s head craned up. His eyes blinked yellow. Cye pulled back his hand, startled by the unexpected movement.
With a tinny yowl, Anton burst to life. His arms sprung up out of the backpack like silly-string ejected from a spray-can. They scratched at Cye’s face. There was an awful wail: Ooooooo-ahhh-ooooo!
Cye rushed to shove the animal back into the bag. But Anton bit hard into his thumb. “Fuck!” he screeched.
Anton squirmed free onto the floor. With impressive speed, he scurried up a nearby shelf. The primate was in full meltdown mode now, as if awoken from a nightmare, shrieking and slamming his strong, prehensile tail against the shelves. Boxes spilled onto the floor. Shelves teetered. Cye let loose a flood of curses. “Jesus Christ! Fuck! Shit!”
His hope withered to dust. His thumb was bloody and throbbing. His fear had returned. Anton was gone from him now. He had to flee, he bitterly grasped, empty-handed.
Despondently, Cye switched on his phone light. As Anton rampaged through the room, littering the floor with toppled boxes, he sought out an exit.
Then he sniffed the air. That smell–he recognized it from work. A familiar dead-bug musk, a scent of soiled skins.
He shone his light downward. “Shit,” Cye murmured.
Strewn about the floor, slipping out from the fallen boxes like strands of wet soba, were scores of squirming serpents.
But Anton wasn’t through. From a high shelf, he hurled himself at his kidnapper. He landed on his head and pulled at his hair. Cye stumbled to the floor as another box came down, wailing in pain,
“Damnit, Anton!” Cye howled. He dug his fingers into the lemur’s soft torso, clawing for a grip. With grunting strength, Cye flung the elderly primate across the floor. Anton thudded against the wall. Ooooo-aaaa-aaaa-oooo! He scampered off.
Cye was laid out on his ass. Bunches of hair littered the floor. His head hummed with pain. His hand was dripping red.
There was a box turned over beside him. He took notice of the label: Manipuri Sleeping Snake, venomous. The lid had fallen off.
Cye looked to his lap. Coiled there, like a half-blanched green bean, was a thin string of black and jade. The head was raised over his belly-button. Before Cye could react, it flashed, tapping his exposed belly with a blood-drop prick. Cye shot upward onto his feet like an opened balloon. “Shit!”
Then he heard the door open. The lights flickered on. Cye’s breathing slowed. He could hear the slap of heavy boots. His legs began to wobble like skyscrapers after a quake.
His eyes went heavy. His thoughts melted into mush. Extending an arm to steady himself, he slumped to the floor.
And then there was Jagat, barrelling down the aisle like a torrent from a cracked levee. Never before had Cye seen an angrier face, its eyes fixed on his in outrage, its mouth agape with ire, its teeth clenched with wrath. Cye couldn’t feel his limbs.
Now Jagat was standing above him. There was yelling. There was a hand waving in his face. There were commandments.
But all Cye could make out was the silvery glint of Jagat’s handcuffs. They were twinkling there under the fluorescent lights, spilling across his sphere of vision like a star in a fast-blackening sky.
Brent Crane’s work has been published in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Economist and elsewhere. Here is a link to his clippings.