Chapter 12 (also Novel Ch 12) Tuesday 1930 hours (7:30 PM)
An hour after dark, Derek and Jeffrey began their escape. Derek went first, on his stomach, feet first out the window. After flailing a bit, his foot found the first rope loop. He put his full weight on it and felt a little give as the knot drew tight. The loop did not shrink, a testament to Jeffrey’s skill. Derek made it to the ground and steadied the rope for Jeffrey’s descent. The boy scooted out the window and without hardly stopping to use the foot loops clambered down like a squirrel. They stood for a moment looking back up the way they came.
"They’re going to have one hell of a time untying those knots," said Jeffrey.
"You say ‘hell’."
"Maybe, but don’t you say it. It doesn’t sound right when a little kid swears."
"I’m not a little kid."
"We'll talk about it later." Derek squinted into the darkness.
He realized it would have been better if they had stayed in the room for a few minutes with the lights off before coming down. Now they'd have to wait until their eyes dark adapted.
Derek pointed to a copse of trees. "That’s our first destination. Wait until the tramway car gets to the other side."
They stayed in the concealment of the building until they couldn’t see the SkySafari car, and then they ran.
Derek, breathing heavily, reached the cover of the trees. "Good." He looked up towards the aerial tramway. "I don’t think anyone spotted us."
"How could anyone see us? It’s dark."
"They have night goggles."
"Okay, now we’ve got to go to Wild Asia," whispered Derek. "There’s an exit turnstile there,"
They found a zoo direction sign at the edge of the cluster of trees, and crept towards it.
"There’s the path to Wild Asia," said Derek, pointing. "Now we'll rely on speed. Let’s run. You ready?"
"I don’t think it’s the right way."
"What do you mean? Look at the sign."
"I studied the zoo guide like you told me," said Jeffrey, "I think the sign is wrong."
"Are you sure?"
"Well no, but it doesn't look like the right way."
"Things can be confusing at night," Derek peered at the sign. "Let’s go by the signs, okay?"
"Okay." Jeffrey sounded skeptical. "But it’s hot. Could you hold my coat?"
"Sure." Derek took hold of Jeffrey’s jacket while the boy squirmed out of it.
They jogged off down the path. At the next intersection there was another direction sign. They checked it by flashlight and ran down the indicated path. They did the same at each intersection. After jogging for a pretty long time, Derek realized that although the zoo was big it wasn’t that big. They should have been at the Wild Asia exit long ago. Derek stopped for breath.
"You were right. This isn’t the right way," he whispered hoarsely.
"Told you so."
"All right smartie pants, Which way do we go, then?"
Jeffrey turned in a slow circle. "I don’t know anymore. I’m lost. You should have listened to me before."
Derek began to worry. They were lost and despite his logic, the zoo might well have hungry carnivores prowling around, as well as armed and nervous Calfers. He looked skyward for inspiration and noticed not only the starry sky, but also a diffuse light. His eyes had become dark adapted and he could see what could only be lights from the outside world, outside the perimeter of zoo, the lights of civilization.
Derek decided that they’d sprint directly toward the light. If the path veered from that direction, they’d follow the light and bound through the shrubbery if need be. He explained the plan to Jeffrey and they set off running. Derek took the lead to break trail.
The path did veer off in the wrong direction, so Derek leapt over the eight inch path edging and bounded through the brush. Derek heard Jeffrey do the same. Ahead, Derek saw another path and prepared to jump its edging. Instead he stopped short, put out his hand to stop Jeffrey and pointed.
Across the path, completely blocking it, a lion stretched out, asleep.
Derek and Jeffery moved slowly back, holding their breaths for silence.
"I thought you said the Calfer's didn't let out the animals," whispered Jeffrey as they reached a tree to hide behind.
Derek realized he was shaking. "This makes no sense."
"Why is he sleeping on the path? He should be in the woods," Jeffrey whispered.
"I don’t know. Maybe it's because the path is more like the concrete floor of his cage. Come on. Let’s keep going. Walk slowly." Derek tried to keep his voice free of fear and marveled that Jeffrey didn't seem afraid.
When they thought they were far enough away from the lion, they modified their escape direction and started running again, this time even faster.
"We have to be careful." Derek stopped to catch his breath. "It seems the paths are even more dangerous than the woods."
At last they came to the path to the exit. They could see the metallic exit turnstile dead ahead. Derek, without breaking stride, scanned the path for carnivores and finding none leapt over the path edging. He had run a few paces more when he heard a cry of pain behind him. He turned and saw Jeffrey sprawled flat on the path. He had evidently caught his foot while leaping the edging. Jeffrey sat up and whimpering softly in pain, clutched at his ankle.
Derek had barely started running back to the boy when, for the second time, he froze motionless seeing there was another spectator to the event. This time it was a hyena loping along the path. Derek knew hyenas were scavengers but knew nothing about their habits. In particular, he had no idea whether a hyena would attack a human, especially a small human, obviously injured. He assumed it would not. Hyenas should be afraid of people.
He was wrong. The hyena began to stalk the boy. Derek had just opened his mouth to shout and to run out to intercept the animal, when the Hyena stopped, looked back the way it came, and ran off into the woods. Derek, relieved but confused, jogged softly to his son but stopped yet again when he saw the moving lights.
An electric zoo maintenance cart came fast down the path. Derek barely managed to melt into the undergrowth ahead of the cart's bright lights.
Derek had no time to formulate a plan before the vehicle reached Jeffrey who was still nursing his ankle.
From behind a tree, Derek watched as one of the Calfers in the cart reached down and hauled Jeffrey inside.
"Close call, kid," Derek could hear the voice clearly, cutting through the silent zoo. "It’s good you were spotted from the tramway."
"Well, at least we’ve found one of the missing kids," came other voice.
They drove off, leaving Derek, still holding Jeffrey’s jacket and wondering what to do next.