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It's All Happening at the Zoo

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Dragon City Zoo is pretty small. Not a lot of fancy animals. Regular tigers, but not white tigers. Red pandas, but not the big black-and-white ones. Doesn't seem to bother the little kids who visit. It's a good zoo; the animals live in areas that resemble their habitats. And the zoo participates in some conservation programs with other zoos. Nice to know that some Haixingren don't take the surface world for granted.

We learned from an informant that a new gang of Dixingren smugglers was using the Dragon City Zoo as a place to store contraband. There's a hidden portal there somewhere, and they were sneaking stuff into the zoo and then planning to move it down to Dixing through the portal. Not talking luxury goods like fresh fruit or roast duck; these bastards were going to bring down cigarettes, hoping to turn our own people into nicotine addicts.

Lin Jing got surveillance footage from the zoo and also hacked into some nearby cameras; he noticed that some "unsavory" people (his words, not mine) were spending a lot of time in the reptile house. It's a pretty cool place, but it isn't as popular as the other areas. Makes sense these lowlifes would use it as a rendezvous.

Chief Zhao contacted the zoo and got permission for us to conduct an undercover operation, keeping it vague so they wouldn't panic. Somehow he even convinced them to close the zoo to the public for a few days.

Zhu Hong was assigned to be the primary investigatior in this case, since she could hang out in the reptile house in snake form and no one would be the wiser. It seemed obvious to me, at least. Not to our resident nerd, though.

    "How are you going to eavesdrop in that form?"asked Lin Jing. "Snakes are deaf, aren't they?"

    "Right, and cats can't talk," said Da Qing, who was lazing around in cat form. Lin Jing looked puzzled. Da Qing sighed and continued, "Yashou don't take on the limitations of their animal form."

    "Besides, snakes aren't deaf," added Zhu Hong. "They just don't have ears."

    Lin Jing looked confused, but she was close enough to swat him. She does that with excellent speed and gets a maximum stinging-pain result for a minimal expenditure of energy, very admirable. So he didn't say anything.

    Professor Shen added something about the molecular DNA of Yashou that I didn't follow—actually, I don't think anyone understood it.

    Chief Zhao thought it was adorable and batted his eyes. I'm working on my self-discipline, so I didn't snort at him in disgust. It was hard, though.

Guo Changcheng was also placed at the zoo to keep eyes on the other animal areas, posing as an assistant keeper in a laughably oversized pair of overalls. As we were getting ready to leave the SID office, Wang Zheng giggled and told Changcheng he looked cute, but I didn't see it. More like awkward. Maybe ... well, maybe sort of puppyish. Anyway. I came along as backup and general lookout. It took some convincing. Chief Zhao thought I might stand out too much. Lin Jing, of all people, pointed out that I'm good at lurking unobtrusively. I guess anyone who talks that much has to be right sometime.

Changcheng managed to get himself into serious danger on the very first day. Of course. And landed on his feet. As usual.

The tiger exhibit doesn't have walls around it; instead, it has a steep structure like a cliff that the tigers can't climb down, and a safety net around it just in case. The cliff bottom is well below the level of the ground outside the habitat, but that wouldn't stop idiots from trying to climb in, so the safety netting is there to keep stupid people out. I'd rather just let the tigers eat the stupid people, but Chief Zhao said that wouldn't be a sufficient deterrent, and the stupid people would just keep coming.

Professor Shen also pointed out that it would also be inhumane. As if that was more important. I honor and respect the Envoy deeply, but in this case I agree with Chief Zhao.

On the first day of our undercover operation, I was keeping an eye on Guo Changcheng. Let's face it, of the two of them, Zhu Hong is the best equipped to take care of herself. Guo Changcheng had just finished shoveling elephant poop--a job I did not envy him--and had moved on to the tiger habitat, where he was going to release some raw meat using a remote system, since no one in their right mind would ever go in there. Especially since the mother tiger had just given birth to two cubs a few weeks earlier.

Well, like I said, no one in their right mind would go in there. But one of the tiger cubs—puny little things at this stage--had belly-flopped down that cliff face and gotten tangled up in the safety net. The cub was crying and its mother was pacing back and forth at the top of the artificial cliff. Naturally Changcheng headed straight for the emergency staff entrance.

"What do you think you're doing, moron?" I hissed. I didn't like to give away my presence, but there was no one else around to spot me and this was a situation where cooler heads needed to prevail. Changcheng set his jaw in that determined way he has, pulled out his keys, and opened the door.

I considered briefly following him in, but ... I figured his only chance was that impossible innocence of his. Maybe the creature would somehow sense it. The odds were pretty low, but they'd be exactly zero if a criminal from Dixing was following behind him. So I hovered just out of sight, but still in range in case I needed to use my strings to hold back an angry tiger.

Changcheng marched straight to the cub and grabbed it in a hold that I recognized from when he helps his aunt clip her dog's toenails. With the cub immobilized, he untangled it from the netting very very slowly. Frustratingly slowly.

I mean, patiently and carefully. And slowly.

He kept on talking softly to the baby tiger while he was untangling it, and what do you know--it settled down and stopped crying. Then he opened a hidden zookeepers-only door, climbed up to where the adult tiger was still pacing, and held the baby out to its mother. I got my strings ready. Calming a cub is one thing, but this was a grown-ass adult, and moreover it was a mother with her protective instincts fully aroused.

I could make out the words "Mama, here's your baby," as Changcheng set the cub down right in front of her. She sniffed it all over, licked it, and then wrapped herself around it, making a chuffing noise. She ignored Changcheng completely. Kid was born under a lucky star. Not that I was worried about him or anything, but I did feel a lot better when he came out of the tiger habitat safe and sound.

The rest of the day was, thankfully, boring. Zhu Hong came out to talk to us later that evening. She had made a lot of progress by the simple expedient of slithering around the reptile house in snake form and eavesdropping.

"They're storing the goods near the hidden portal, which is in the cassowary habitat, next to the tigers," she reported

"Cassowary?" I asked.

Zhu Hong shrugged. "Some sort of exotic bird. This one has been away for some time, visiting another zoo as part of a breeding program. It's coming back tomorrow or the next day."

"Will they try to move the goods now, while that habitat is still empty?" I asked.

"That was the original plan, but they've had some setbacks and they have to delay a day or two. They don't seem very concerned about it." She looked disdainful. "To quote one of the gang, 'it's just a stupid bird.'"

I scoffed. "They probably also think that you're just a stupid snake."

She nodded. "They're not the brightest smugglers we've ever dealt with."

Changcheng looked concerned. "I don't want them to hurt the bird when they move the contraband," he said, little wrinkles gathering in a semi-circle between his eyebrows.

Zhu Hong chuckled. "Don't worry, Xiao Guo," she said. "When they come to get their stash and start moving it to Dixing, that's when we'll arrest them."

I patted his shoulder. "We won't give them a chance to hurt any of the animals. Not even the stupid ones." Changcheng lost his worried look. It was like the sun came out. I mean, he was back to his usual self.

The next day, Changcheng was excited about the return of the cassowary. It arrived in a large crate, which was placed inside a shelter within the habitat and opened remotely. So, he didn't actually get to see the bird. He was happy enough just putting new informative signs up around its habitat. Later that day, Zhu Hong confirmed that the gang was preparing to enter that habitat to start moving their stash through the portal at nine o'clock the following morning. She was also pretty sure she had learned the whereabouts of their hideout elsewhere in the zoo, but as she said, we weren't looking for it. We wanted to catch them redhanded trying to move the goods.

So, at six-thirty the following morning, I was walking the perimeter of the zoo, as we'd established, to make sure no unexpected people – additional smugglers, civilians, or local police—were trying to get in. Changcheng, I knew, was already in place puttering around in the general area near the cassowary habitat. I was startled around six forty-five by a phone call from Zhu Hong. Since she can't handle a phone in snake form, she must have shifted--and that meant it was an emergency. I answered immediately.

The news was bad. The smugglers had decided to move up their schedule and start moving their stash at 7:00. Most of them were already at the site, and the others had just left for it. And I was a long way away.

I told Zhu Hong to stay put and pelted back down the route that led to the cassowary habitat. Soon I spotted the smugglers gathered outside it. As I got nearer, I heard an agonizing scream coming from the bird's shelter. Moments later, one of the smugglers crawled out and lay still on the ground. He looked as if someone had attacked him with a machete. Even at this distance I could tell there was no hope for him.

The remaining smugglers, meanwhile, were calling over Guo Changcheng. They looked suspicious. I saw Changcheng pointing to a new sign, presumably a warning, but they were having none of it.

I wasn't quite fast enough. I was almost there when one of the gang members struck Changcheng, who fell to the ground. One of the others lifted him with startling ease and flung him into the air– I watched as Changcheng flew, limp as a rag doll, over the barrier around the tiger cage and into the grassy area where the tigers spent most of their time. The tigress came over to him and opened her mouth. The gang cheered.

The homicidal rage I felt spurred me to one last burst of speed. That idiot was mine to protect. They had no business doing him harm.

Maybe I should have stayed back and used my strings, but I charged right into the gang, taking them all on at once. They fell before me, one after the other—some of them two at a time. The bully who had struck Changcheng fought back the hardest, but I was more angry with him than the others, and he went down with a thud. The one who had tossed Changcheng into the tiger habitat was the easiest to knock down; apparently his super strength only applied to throwing, not fighting.

When the dust had settled, I saw that Zhu Hong had shown up, and was on her phone, staying well back of the group. I could hear her talking to the Chief, asking him to send the Envoy. Finally, I brought myself to look at the tiger habitat. I wasn't afraid of what I might see. Not in the slightest. I just ... I didn't want to think about what it would be like, going on without Changcheng.

The tigress had curled herself around Changcheng, chuffing softly and licking his face. It took me a moment to recognize why her posture looked so familiar, and then I remembered that it was exactly how she treated her cub when Changcheng returned it. Both cubs were nestled up against him. His eyes were open and he was petting the nearest cub. It sounded like he was talking softly to the tigress. I found myself smiling with relief and shook my head. I can't believe I was ever worried about that dumbass.

I was still watching Changcheng and the tigers, and Zhu Hong was keeping an eye on the gang, when the sky crackled with a welcome burst of thunder and the Black Cloaked Envoy appeared. One of the gang members had started to get up, but he flung himself flat on his face as soon as he heard the thunder. The Envoy pointed his glaive at the group and said in his coldest voice, "Stay there until I'm ready for you. Don't get up. Don't move." They obeyed.

He came over and stood next to me, looking at the tigress, her cubs, and our very own idiot. "A slight logistical problem, I see," he said dryly. He extended one arm and, very precisely, sent a jet of dark energy to the tiger, then the cubs. They froze instantly in place.

Then he opened a portal. "Come with me, Chu Shuzhi," he said.

"Yes, Lord Envoy," I said, and walked through behind him.

We emerged a few yards away from Guo Changcheng and the tigers. Changcheng was staring blankly at the tigers, looking puzzled. "Mama tiger?" he asked. "Are you okay?"

"Chu Shuzhi, I think Xiao Guo could use a familiar face," said the Envoy, tilting his head toward the little group.

I moved immediately and knelt down beside Changcheng. "Hey, dumbass," I said. He looked at me and seemed to focus a little better. "The tigers are okay. They're just frozen for a few minutes. We need to leave before they snap out of it."

"Of course, Chu-ge," he said, and struggled to sit up. I pulled his arm over my shoulder and stood, pulling him to his feet along with me. I was a little surprised at how good it was just to feel his body leaning against mine. Warm. Alive. I told myself that I would've hated to have to start over training another newbie.

We walked over to the Envoy, who was waiting patiently. "Are you all right, Xiao Guo?" he asked. His eyes looked kind behind his mask.

Guo Changcheng said, a little more steadily, "I think I just got the wind knocked out of me."

The Envoy passed a hand over him, emitting just a trace of dark energy. Then he nodded. "You're right. You'll be fine. Let's head back down." He opened a new portal, and moments later we were standing on the ground outside the habitat.

Zhu Hong, Changcheng, and I headed back to SID headquarters while the Envoy took the smugglers back to Dixing to face trial. He returned shortly after we did, back in his Professor Shen persona. Chief Zhao got on the phone to give a highly edited explanation to the zoo as to why they had a dead guy in the cassowary habitat. From the way he raised his eyebrows at their response, I gathered they were far less upset than he had expected.

Apparently this wasn't the first time the cassowary had eliminated an unwelcome visitor. I never had a favorite bird before, but now I do.

When the chief got off the phone, he came over to where I was sitting with Changcheng on the couch. "Time for your reports!" he barked.

"Changcheng had a rough morning," I said firmly. "I'm taking him out for a restorative meal. We can write our reports this afternoon."

"Oh you can, can you?" he said in a tone that boded nothing good.

Before Chief Zhao could say any more, Professor Shen came up behind him and put both hands on his shoulders. "Yes," he said quietly. "They can." The chief immediately calmed down and nodded at us.

"C'mon, dumbass," I said, standing up and reaching my hand down to him. "Let's go. Where do you want to eat?"

"Anywhere is fine if it's with you," he said.

Once again, it seemed as if the sun came out.