Chapter 1: Mezool
It was another beautiful, sunny day at the Kougami Foundation Zoo & Animal Park. Morning feedings were done, animals had been turned out for the day, and holding areas were being cleaned. The sky was a particularly beautiful shade of blue and Eiji Hino, zookeeper, stopped to stretch and appreciate the warm sun that would soon grow hot. A salty breeze off the sea ruffled his shaggy brown hair, whipping sun bleached strands around playfully.
The view from the top of the stairs that led down to the sea pen was magnificent. It would’ve been a beautiful day for a swim if today’s job wasn’t probably the most potentially deadly of his duties. There was a reason his unofficial title was “Head Monster Keeper.” He was in charge of what the zoo officially called the “Irregular Collection.” An assortment of seemingly melded together creatures that, by all rights, should not be. No one seemed to know where they came from or how President Kougami obtained them, but they were indisputably the pride of his collection.
Today Eiji was spending most of his day at one of the largest sea pens in the world, housing the largest and possibly most dangerous member of the Irregular Collection. It’s check up day for Ms. Mezool and Eiji’s job is to keep her calm and cooperative for the vets and researchers who would be poking, prodding, scraping, drawing blood, weighing, and generally irritating the hell out of her. That’s a hard enough job with a regular orca, with Mezool it was bordering on a death wish. Until Eiji showed up, anyway.
Eiji had stowed his stuff back at the staff room and only brought his walkie talkie and the shorty wetsuit he was wearing down into the sea pen area. Not that the walkie would help if he got eaten, nor could he leave if there was another Irregular incident, but he brought it anyway. At least his staff knew to call for Hina if Ankh got out. She had no compunctions about grabbing the big bird by the throat and marching him right back into his pen like a recalcitrant goose, and he tended to sulk afterwards giving the keepers time to figure out how the hell he got loose this time.
Eiji snagged the handle of the large wheelie bin parked at the bottom of the stairs and towed it along to the edge of the concrete quay. Usually he’d whistle to get her attention, but today Mezool’s snout broke the surface as soon as his shadow hit the water. From here, most of her concealed by the dark ocean water, she could pass for a normal orca. Eiji knew better. Even 6 feet above the water level he was well within the death zone, she could kill him without moving an inch.
“GOOD MORNING! How are you today you big, beautiful girl?” Eiji shouted exuberantly. “C’mon. Let me see that beautiful smile, huh?” Mezool rose higher in the water and her mouth opened to reveal not the conical teeth of a porpoise but row after row of glassy looking, fine, needle like teeth. Long and sharp and wicked, like the teeth of a moray eel writ large. He could just make out the shape of the pharyngeal jaw in her throat that could snap out to help her control and swallow prey. She made an expectant clicking noise and tossed her head a little bit.
“Yeah, you know I have treats for you.” Eiji beamed. “Let’s see what we have today- oof” He grunted, pulling a nearly 4 foot salmon out of the bin and hefting it up so she could see. “Nice, juicy, fresh pacific salmon! I know you like that. And if you’re really good for the doctors today, then I have an extra special treat for you tonight.” He had to use both hands to dangle almost 40 pounds of salmon over the edge by its tail. Mezool bobbed a little, eyes on it. Salmon was generally a good bet for treats, and buttering her up seemed to be the best way to get her to behave. He dropped it and she snatched it out of the air before the tail had even passed his bare feet, rising high enough to expose her gills and the multitude of extra limbs no whale on earth possessed.
Eiji pulled the second fish out of the bin, another hefty salmon, and heaved it out across the water with all his might. Sleek black limbs snatched it before it could ever hope to touch the water, two smooth black arms with mottled dark blue undersides rife with suckers held it in place. Two thicker limbs with baggy flesh sporting eel like mouths tore great chunks out of the fish, making short work of the treat. If she decided to turn those octopus like arms on him, Eiji didn’t stand a chance.
“Alright, Mezool.” Eiji wiped his hands on his wetsuit and stretched again. “We got a big day, today. I know you don’t like check-up day, but you’re really going to like the treat I got you for after. I had to pull a lot of strings to get this, you know.” Mezool made a sound Eiji would swear was a scoff. He was dead certain all of the chimeras understood what he was saying, although Mezool tended to be most conversational.
“I’m serious! Well if you’re going to be that way I’ll just have to tell you, I got you a whale.” She rose up again making an excited noise. “Half a Minke whale, AND the observation deck is going to be closed.” Guests could only observe Mezool through binoculars from an observation point built for that purpose, way outside the sea pen where there was no way she could get at them. Mezool sank a little and expelled air from her blowhole.
“Half is still a lot of whale! You can play with it as much as you want and you’ll probably still be eating it tomorrow, too. So what’d you say, we have a deal?” Eiji was leaning over the edge, hands on his knees, beaming his biggest smile at her. Mezool appeared to consider the offer for a while, gently swaying back and forth in the water. Finally she made a weirdly sarcastic chuckling noise and slowly started moving along the quay towards the gate for the med pen. Eiji followed along.
“That’s a girl, you know the drill. No biting, no shocking, no crushing. If they’re getting rough you give ‘em a little shove and let me know. It’s my job to keep the loveliest lady in the zoo as comfortable as possible, after all.” Eiji said, swaggering along the quay. Mezool blew a big cloud of vapor as if mocking him.
It was a decent walk from the stairs where he’d started to the entrance to the med tank, and Eiji’s mind wandered to the first time he’d been included on check-up day. He’d been a junior keeper and Mezool had already been suspended in the sling for the scale before they entered the room. He’d immediately felt bad for her, she was obviously heavily sedated and so limp she looked like 5 tons of jet black mop more than any kind of animal. The eel heads had been restrained with broad canvas straps looped around them and tethered to the crane hook above. As the newest keeper he’d been delegated the least desirable job, hosing down her head and keeping her gills wet.
He was never entirely sure what he’d been reacting to, but he’d started moving before he was aware he was doing it and knocked the doctor out of the way right before a lot of very very sharp teeth closed on his shoulder. He remembered exactly how sharp those teeth were. He’d frozen utterly still, he wasn’t sure for how long, and then suddenly the eely mouth let him go and flopped heavily into the pool alongside him.
There had been a lot of yelling. And a lot of blood. Someone had slapped a towel on his shoulder and hustled him out of the building and into a car. The Foundation’s private doctor was picking needle like teeth out of him in what was probably actually a veterinary facility when President Kougami himself had shown up. Just strode into the room like he owned the place. Which he did. Eiji remembered that thought being immensely funny at the time, probably because of the shock.
He didn’t remember the conversation very clearly. Dr. Date picking through what felt like a million pinholes in his shoulder for broken off pins was very distracting. He’d been taken to a proper hospital afterwards, and put on leave while he recovered. Mezool was given a reprieve from medical procedures and sample taking while a great many videos were reviewed.
When he’d been cleared to work again, after a course of antibiotics, a few more teeth extracted, and several weeks of rest, he’d been called straight to President Kougami’s office downtown. He’d been sure he was going to be fired for assaulting that doctor. Instead there had been a great many x-rays. There just seemed to be more and more of them as the President held each film up to the light in turn. X-rays of Mezool’s many limbs showing at least one broken off hypodermic needle, sometimes several in a single area.
The Head Keeper of the Irregular Collection had been terminated as soon as the review of the footage of the med tank room was completed. Most, although not all, of the “incidents” she’d been involved in were preceded by clear signs of pain or distress. Given the President’s clear anger, Eiji wasn’t entirely sure “terminated” just meant “fired.” At the moment it didn’t seem impossible for it to mean “fed to an angry sea monster.”
“I’m having incident reviews conducted for the other animals in the section.” The President was saying and Eiji started to focus again, the videos had been rough even if they stopped short of showing the actual deaths. “I trust you will find the information generated very helpful for the changes you make.”
“Um…” Eiji started to say something, but stopped suddenly when Kougami pointed at him.
“You showed that beautiful animal compassion, and in turn she spared your life.” President Kougami said in his distinctive, excited fashion. “That’s twice, TWICE! In your first month that one of these creatures had you in its grip- and let you go.” He whipped the lid off the beautifully wrapped box he’d set in Eiji’s lap at some point during the meeting. The cake inside was an exquisite creation of thick cream, delicate curls of chocolate, and the plumpest, ripest strawberries he’d ever seen.
“HAPPY BIRTHDAY! Head Keeper Eiji!” The President shouted. “WONDERFUL!”
Eiji had been rather stupefied, but the cake was very good.
He’d basically been thrown in the deep end, but against all odds he thrived. It was hard, and dangerous. He was down a few fingertips and had some very interesting new scars. Worker injuries were down. There hadn’t been a death in the section since he’d been put in charge.
It had taken a lot of concerted effort to build trust with these animals. They were used to being handled roughly. Some of them just seemed to have shitty attitudes to begin with, on top of whatever unpleasant experiences they’d had with the previous head. He’d altered enclosures, radically changed handling procedures, and ruthlessly expelled researchers causing any more than the bare minimum of discomfort to his charges. Physically, if necessary.
Two years later he was standing here at the gate controls, watching Mezool wait patiently to be let into a pool she’d had to be massively sedated for when he started. Even if her attitude suggested a lot of eye rolling, even if she only trusted him enough to take bribes, it was entirely worth it.
Chapter 2: Learning to Swim
Eiji is sure he's in over his head, but maybe he's more capable than he thinks.
Eiji Hino found his surprise promotion, from probationary animal poop scooper directly to head of the section, extremely overwhelming. He was sitting in the head keeper’s office (he couldn’t quite process it as his office yet.) with documents spread all over the desk. Incident reports, enclosure blueprints, diets, cleaning schedules, handling guidelines, and god knew what else. He put his head in his hands and combed his fingers through his shaggy brown hair again.
“You’re going to change everything to make those animals happy.” The flamboyant President of the Kougami Foundation had told him, but he felt utterly out of his depth. The way Mezool had been handled was obviously a problem, and he had some ideas for how to improve that. For the rest, he had no idea where to start. He didn’t have a degree in anything, he didn’t know much about the kind of diets these animals needed, or anything about enclosure design. He was entirely unqualified and absolutely should not be sitting here.
“I can’t do this.” Eiji said, standing in front of the President’s desk in his palatial office. “I’m really sorry, but you need experts for this and I just don’t have the knowledge to even start at it.” Eiji shifted nervously as President Kougami calmly continued whipping cream.
“Mr. Hino, I could have the best experts in the world here tomorrow.” President Kougami pointed at him with his whisk. “But what I need is a head keeper who will work with those experts to ensure the welfare of these animals. Expertise can be taught, compassion cannot. And that is what you have.” He gestured again, flicking whipped cream around the room.
“SATONAKA!” The President shouted, making Eiji jump. His aide looked up from her tablet and cake. “Help our new employee get started and get him any experts he desires.” Kougami resumed whipping and turned to the window. When he started humming the “Happy Birthday” song, Eiji got the feeling his audience was over and his resignation summarily rejected.
“Of course, boss.” The impeccably dressed woman with the long brown hair stood up from the plush sofa and approached Eiji. “Let’s go get started.” She said as she passed him on the way to the door. He hurried to catch up, at a loss for what else to do.
Her name was Satonaka Erika, and she was President Kougami’s personal assistant. She drove them both back to the zoo from the Kougami Foundation headquarters in her convertible. She was brusque, making little conversation, and Eiji’s impression was of someone very precise and somewhat cold. Her outfit, her hair, and even her nails seemed flawless and Eiji felt a bit conspicuous in his khaki shorts and old desert boots, even if it was his work uniform.
The walk across the zoo towards the office that Eiji now used (he still couldn’t think of it as “his”) was quiet until they’d nearly reached the entrance to the Irregular Collection. Satonaka stopped short and Eiji nearly collided with her. When he looked up there was no mistaking why. Ahead of them, wings blocking off all the wide paved path despite being only partially opened, stood a blazing crimson monster of a bird. Stretching upwards his head came up to Eiji’s chest and his charcoal black beak looked like it could snap his hand off without issue. Ankh was loose, again.
Eiji’s hand went for his walkie-talkie, but he didn’t have time to call for help before Ankh charged him. The huge bird leaped and hit him in the chest, he went down trying to cover his face with his arms. As he tried to get his breath a black taloned foot wrapped around his forearm and yanked his arm forwards. Ankh hissed at him through the gap between his arms.
A sharp whistle turned both their heads. Satonaka was standing down the path holding a popsicle from a nearby vendor’s cart. Eiji glanced back at the bird, but the long train of Ankh’s tail feathers dragged across his face as the bird dashed off. While he brushed himself off, Satonaka was impassively playing keep away with the huge bird. She kept the treat just ahead of his snappy beak and just out of his reach. Ankh’s hackles were up, and he was poised to lunge, totally focused on Satonaka’s hand and the popsicle, but kept pulling back at the last moment.
“I'll save you the trouble of trying to sort through all his injury reports; he goes for uniformed keepers.” She said. Ankh lunged for the ice pop again, and she deftly side stepped the huge bird. “I’ve got something he wants, but he’s not attacking me . Just trying to take it from me. Let’s walk.” She walked backwards despite the height of her heels, keeping an eye on Ankh who had his eyes on the popsicle and stalked along after her. Eiji followed.
“He took something from you the first time he knocked you down.” She stated flatly, it was not a question. “He’ll steal jewelry sometimes, shiny or sparkly things. That’s when he’ll menace guests, but he doesn’t attack to hurt them like he does with staff. What does that tell you?”
“Uh, probably the way he’s handled is rough, or hurts him?” Eiji offered, nervously. “He’s hostile towards keepers because he expects to be hurt.” They were almost at Ankh’s enclosure and the bird was still focused on the frozen treat in Satonaka’s hand.
“Bingo. Get the doors for me.” She indicated them with a jerk of her head, never taking her eyes off Ankh.
Eiji removed the simple board securing the outer door of Ankh’s pen and propped it open, then held open the inner door. Satonaka walked backwards into the enclosure, her high heels squelching in the muddy ground. Ankh followed cautiously, keeping a wary eye on the woman. Nearly at the opposite end she stopped and wedged the popsicle stick into a crevice on one of the big peeled branches that served as perches.
Ankh edged forward, and they passed each other cautiously, neither taking their eyes off the other until Satonaka had exited the enclosure entirely. Eiji latched the doors behind her and put the crude bar back on the outer door. When he turned around Satonaka was already cleaning her sticky hands with a wipe.
“That was amazing! If he can be lured like that then why-” Eiji gestured vaguely, thinking of the catch poles and net and Ankh’s deafening screeching the first time he’d seen the bird recaptured. He hadn’t even worked a full week yet before Ankh had knocked him down while he was sweeping the walkways. It had happened so fast he’d been too stupefied to actually be scared until the bird was barreling off in another direction with his jade pendant dangling from the beast’s beak.
“Mr. Ishikawa was adamant that there be no rewards for misbehavior.” Satonaka interrupted him. She walked around to the front of the enclosure where Ankh was now perched on a branch, popsicle stick almost comically clutched in one of his huge black talons. He was scraping off bits at a time with his beak and awkwardly licking it while melting juice ran down his scaly toes. Occasionally he glanced over at them to glare at Eiji, but mostly he was interested in his treat. They watched the weird bird eat his popsicle in silence for a couple minutes.
Ankh was beautiful, without question. The vibrant scarlet color of his feathers was eye-catching, handsomely accented with gold and green along cheeks and crown. A golden crest was assiduously groomed over his missing right eye, hiding the socket and giving the impression of a judgmental look. The remaining eye was orange-red, and if anything only added to his judgmental air. His graceful neck descended into a thick ruff of white feathers, leading into the black cape between his wings.
Fully extended he boasted a monstrous 15-foot wingspan, some of his flight feathers longer than Eiji’s arm. Shading again from red to gold and green at the tips, an awe-inspiring sight if he could have flown. His tail, extending fully 10 feet behind him, was dirty and bedraggled from being dragged in mud and along concrete. Even still, when he spread his fan and the sun brought out the iridescence of his tail feathers it was breathtaking. Like a peacock’s tail full of mysterious eyes.
“It seems so much easier to just… give him a popsicle to get him back inside. I don’t get it. And you’re right, about him stealing something from me. He snatched the necklace I was wearing.” Eiji smiled hopefully with his hand behind his head. “Is there any chance I can get that back? It’s not like, expensive or anything but it’s kind of a memento.”
“Dig around in the crevices in his holding area and you might get lucky, he hides his little treasures in there.” Satonaka said, lifting her pen from whatever she’d just written in her notebook. She gestured at the whole enclosure area with it. “Tell me what problems you see.”
“Uh…” Eiji stammered a little as he was put on the spot. “Well, it’s obviously too small for a bird that size.” He suggested cautiously.
Satonaka nodded as she wrote it down.
“Not just wider but taller, he can’t really get off the ground and I think he’s supposed to be able to fly?” He continued with building confidence when his observations weren’t shot down. “His tail drags in the mud and I’m pretty sure it shouldn’t be so wet in there. That doesn’t seem good for his feet or feathers. He’s kinda raggedy around the edges, a lot of his tail feathers are damaged if he spreads his fan out.” He said, with growing confidence.
“You’re correct, he should be able to fly, and he could when he was first acquired. Without room to exercise those muscles they’re too weak to lift him anymore. He’s also gotten fat but I don’t expect you to know what that looks like in a bird, yet.” Satonaka said.
“Wow.” Eiji said, a bit of awe in his voice. “You know a lot.”
“I’m paid to know a lot. Keep going.” Satonaka gestured with her pen.
“OK. Besides being too small it’s also not secure. He gets out all the time and the doors should have real locks on them. There're all kinds of wire and zip ties and stuff that looks ugly and obviously isn’t working to keep him in.” Eiji rubbed his chin, thinking. “There're no toys or anything, he doesn’t have anything to play with. It’s probably really boring for him.” He more and more sure of himself as he continued speaking.
“So, he’s fat. He’s not getting enough exercise because there’s not enough room, but probably his diet should be changed, too. Maybe he’d like those toys you put the food inside, so they have to work to get it out? I think the bears have those, and sometimes they get food frozen into blocks of ice, so they play with it to get the food out? I think I’ve seen that.” Eiji was deep in thought now. Satonaka’s pen followed along.
“The way he’s handled has to change, it’s much better to lure him than stress him out and risk getting a bunch of keepers injured for no reason. But he already hates keepers. Maybe the uniforms could be changed? Even if it’s just for the Irregular keepers that might help. It’ll take a lot of time to make a new enclosure but if it was deep cleaned and something done about the mud that would help now. And we could get him some kind of toys a big bird would like, secure the doors properly, and review his diet.” Eiji trailed off uncertainly and looked toward Satonaka. She finished writing and smiled at him.
“That was good. I know you don’t have much work history, but you just identified a lot of problems and broke them down into immediate mitigation and long term solutions.” Satonaka said. “Boss and Chiyoko both seem to see something in you, maybe they’re right.”
“You know Chiyo- OH” Eiji bowed deeply. Chiyoko must have meant Satonaka when she’d said she knew someone at the Zoo who could get him a job. “Thank you very much! For getting me this job, I mean!”
“Don’t bow too much when you were just trying to quit.” Satonaka’s lips quirked into an amused smile. “I wasn’t expecting this either, I figured you were going to scoop poop for a couple months until you had enough to go travel again.”
“That was kinda my plan, yeah…” Eiji said, sheepishly.
“Well, give it a shot. At least until Chiyoko comes back from Mexico, she’ll be furious if I let her latest fix-it project get away.” Erika said.
“Ah. She takes people in a lot?” Eiji had kinda suspected he wasn’t the first to occupy the attic room above the cafe.
“She’s never met a human disaster she didn’t immediately want to adopt, and she’s never happier than when she’s helping someone.” She said with a hint of affection, but immediately switched back to business mode.
“Anyway. We’re gonna do the same thing for each habitat in this section. Identify problems and divide what can be changed quickly and what you’re going to need to consult experts on.” She showed him the list she’d been making while he talked, divided up by problem and short and long term solutions.
“It looks a lot less overwhelming like this.” Eiji said, thinking of the paper strewn desk he’d been poring over earlier.
“That’s the idea. Let’s get going, I don’t do overtime.” Satonaka walked off in the direction of the sea pen and Eiji hurried to follow.
That afternoon they hashed out lists for Ankh and Mezool, and managed to finish Kazari before closing time. Eiji went home to Cous Coussier feeling more confident about doing this job, even if it was just until they hired someone who was really qualified. Even if they were weird these animals deserved to be comfortable and if he was in a position to do something about it, how could he not?