Jacob the mountain lion lies comatose in his cell, thinking. He wants to do something drastic. He can't move, though, and stays slumped in the corner, watching. Waiting. His computer, which he has been using since becoming literate some months ago, hasn't been switched on for days. The zoo keeper has worked very closely with the zoological consultant, Fluffy Oakes, but neither can diagnose him. Jacob, sprawled on the floor of his enclosure, lies still, breathing slowly. His heartbeat is regular; he's eating steadily in small measures. The two employees suspect diabetes, although it is unusual for his species.
When he was in Newcastle, Jacob says, he bought an instant cold pack, a flu remedy. It set his head straight. He tried an energy drink that gave him the strength to stay alert the whole trip. It was incredible. Without that strength, the trip could have descended into anarchy.
It did, Fluffy reminds him. But regardless, says the consultant. I'll give it a go. Let's get you some meds.
Days later, the order arrives. The zoo receives a delivery of a large quantity of instant cold packs and energy drinks. The staff move a kettle into Jacob's lair. He's taught to use it safely- part of his freedom training, even though the release scheme is still on hold.
A zoo porter, a young, enthusiastic lad, tentatively enters Jacob's enclosure and begins emptying a bottle into a steel trough.
“Young fella,” Jacob mumbles.
The porter looks into Jacob's sad eyes. The cat still has all his muscle. His groomed coat shows no sign of wear or infection. The lad pours the last of the bottle into the trough. His shaking hands let every drop fall out.
“You've got to help me,” says Jacob pitifully, his pride stinging him. “I'm gonna need more than that. This calls... for some serious... sugar.”
“I can only give you one bottle,” says the boy.
“Have you ever had a cat die on you?”
The boy slouches slightly. His eyes narrow, like he's concentrating.
“Happened to me once,” says Jacob. “Before you joined us. Horrible feeling. They just didn't listen to her. She needed sugar for type 2 diabetes, but they didn't believe the cat family were prone to it. She was a wonderful woman.”
The boy has backed to the door, facing the sprawling, giant feline.
Jacob moves his head for eye-contact. “You wouldn't want that kind of guilt on your shoulders, boy. Not at your age. I can administer it myself. Just haul it all in here. I'll take full responsibility.”
The boy looks over his shoulder through the enclosure's window. The pallet of drinks is on a pump-truck. It's narrow enough for him to wheel it straight in through the enclosure's entrance. He does so nervously, banging the pallet's edges on the corners of the door.
“God bless you,” whimpers Jacob.
The boy, damp with sweat, leaves and locks the door with a sigh.
Jacob lies listening to the boy's footsteps echoing down the corridor, followed by the cold, metal slam of the enclosure's door.
That's when he leaps to his feet. He blows the dust off his computer and fires it up. Behind the rocks and branches in his cell, he pulls out a makeshift laboratory of sorts- tubes, beakers, a Bunsen burner and gas supply- all mail-ordered black-market packages the zoo never thought to check on. He assembles the work station. He sparks the Bunsen. He mixes solutions and breaks down compounds. He develops formulas and reforms elements to new compounds. He evaporates, distils, and purifies until- from the litres of energy drinks and flu remedies- only a dribble remains. It looks like a shot of vodka. This liquid has a much bigger kick, however, than any other spirit you'd find in a bar- even a Russian one.
If his science is right, Jacob has made enough ammonium nitrate to blast through his enclosure wall.
He picks a brick near the bottom of the wall and, where the top ledge of the stone meets the mortar, he takes the pipette and adds droplets in a row. He works quickly to avoid evaporation. He picks up the kettle. He turns it upside down, still holding it by the handle, and closes his eyes. Jacob slams the appliance into the cold, concrete floor. He rips off the remaining plastic and extracts the heating element. He paws at the component and watches it spark. The solution is evaporating, so he works quickly. If this doesn't work, his entire plan will fall through. He pulls the work station noisily to the rock and stands behind it for shelter. He mimes a couple of throws, then crouches behind the rock, the table a makeshift roof.
The gate CLANGS again at the end of the enclosure. The staff are onto him. He takes a deep breath, and launches the element at the wall.
The blast is deafening. The alarms trip, shrieking into every area of the zoo. Brick fragments and mortar fly past him, slamming into the opposite wall. A cloud of dust fills the room. Animals in neighbouring cells screech and hoot and roar. Jacob bounds over the table, through the smoke and ashes, into the new cavern formed by the explosion. The lights are on inside the zoo but the daylight, breaking through from the other side, still dazzles him. The outside Manchester air is colder now, much colder than Newcastle was a few months previously. He enters the tunnel, loosening bricks with his shoulders, widening the cavern and broadening the beam of light. He prowls forward. Freedom is a lunge away-
It's gold, or looks like it. It's some kind of plaque, buried deep into the wall.
Jacob has stopped. His bladder swells. Why was it built over? He thinks. And when? This zoo was a mill before it closed. Even if this was an extension, it would have been built before the Internet was available in Britain. When these bricks were set, the Web was handled only by a group of tech geeks in the States. This is too weird, thinks Jacob.
A shadow passes over him. He looks back to the cell. A man in a gas mask fires a tranquilliser gun. There's a thump as the dart lands in Jacob's thigh.
He pauses, looks at the dart, then looks at his exit. He makes a lunge for the opening, but slumps in sudden exhaustion, his nose a whisker away from the outside world, his tail just touching the plaque, which reads:
Additional published work by Matt Tuckey:
Stakeout in Thrillers, Chillers and Killers
Winter Canons- a short fiction anthology to which Matt has no recollection of submitting
An advert for The Knife Job, a script Matt wrote, on the website for the now-disbanded Northern Film Network http://www.northernfilmnetwork.com/blog/are-you-looking-for-a-script