I would never have been accused of stealing the koala if Vance Jessup hadn’t made me drop a human arm in the shark tank.
It wasn’t a real human arm. It was a plastic one Vance had stolen from a department-store mannequin. But it looked real enough through the glass of the tank, which was how all the trouble started.
Vance was the toughest, meanest kid at my middle school. He was in the eighth grade, but he’d been held back. Twice. Which made him a fifteen-year-old eighth grader. Plus, he was big for his age, nearly six feet tall with biceps as thick as Burmese pythons. Every other kid looked like a dwarf next to him.
There was a very long list of things I didn’t like about Lyndon B. Johnson Middle School, but Vance was at the top of it. He’d been bullying me since my first day of seventh grade—and it was now mid-December. I didn’t know what he had against me. Maybe it was because I was new at the school and thus fresh meat. Or maybe it was that, having spent most of my childhood in the Congo, I was different from all the other kids. Whatever the case, Vance homed in on me like he was a lion and I was the weakest wildebeest in the herd.
Vance stole my lunch. He gave me wedgies. He flushed my homework down the toilet. I reported these incidents to my parents, who angrily informed the school principal, Mr. Dillnut. Unfortunately, Mr. Dillnut was afraid of Vance himself. So he merely threatened Vance with detention—and then ratted me out as the kid who’d squealed. If anything, this made Vance even more determined to harass me. And now he warned that if I ever got him sent to the principal again, he’d hurt me.
So I fought back the only way I knew how: I played pranks on him. Covertly, of course. I filled his locker with aerosol cheese. I submerged a dead roach in his chocolate pudding. I caught a king snake and hid it in his gym bag. That one worked out the best. Vance was changing in the boys’ locker room when the snake popped out and scared him silly. Vance shrieked like a girl and fled into the gym, forgetting that he was only in his underwear until he found himself face-to-face with the entire cheerleading squad.
Unfortunately, the snake tipped my hand. I’d kept my identity as the prankster secret until that point, but I was well-known at school for being good with animals. My mother was a world-famous primatologist, my father was a world-famous wildlife photographer, and I lived with both of them at FunJungle, the world’s largest zoo. Vance quickly deduced that I’d planted the snake and came looking for payback.
He found me in the cafeteria on Monday, having lunch with Xavier Gonzalez. Xavier was my best friend at school. In fact he was my only friend at school. He was an outsider too, a smart kid who’d once made the terrible social error of admitting that he actually enjoyed his classes. Before I’d come along, Xavier had been Vance’s favorite target.
There was a distinct hierarchy to the seating in the school cafeteria. The coolest kids, known as the Royals, sat in the center, where they could be seen and admired. These were the eighth-grade jocks and cheerleaders, plus a few rich kids. They were surrounded by the Lower Royals: the younger jocks, cheerleaders, and rich kids who would assume the throne someday. Then came almost everyone else: the normal kids who hoped to be popular, but knew it would probably never happen. At the very corners sat the lowest of the low, whom even the normal kids looked down on: the losers, loners, and freaks who hadn’t mastered how to fit in.
I had spent every lunch so far in one of the corners with Xavier. So it wasn’t hard for Vance to find me.
As usual, Xavier and I were talking about FunJungle. Most of my fellow students liked FunJungle—after all, it was the biggest tourist attraction in all of Central Texas—but Xavier was a FunJungle fanatic. He had more than twenty different FunJungle T-shirts (not to mention sweatshirts, caps, pins, and other assorted merchandise) and claimed that the day the park had opened was the greatest day of his life. He wanted to be a field biologist when he grew up and idolized my mother the way other kids revered rock stars. He’d read everything he could find about her, so he knew all about me before I’d even set foot in the school. He’d sought me out on my first day at Lyndon B. Johnson, wanting to know if I could introduce him to Mom.
Xavier generally spent every lunch peppering me with questions about FunJungle. The day that Vance came after me, we happened to be talking about Shark Odyssey, which was one of the more popular exhibits. It was a huge aquarium with a glass tunnel running through it, from which guests could watch sharks swimming all around them.
“Doesn’t that drive the sharks crazy?” Xavier wanted to know. “It must be like waving red meat in front of a bear.”
“Sharks don’t really eat humans,” I told him. “In fact, most attacks seem to be accidents. The sharks usually spit the humans back out after biting them.”
“I know,” Xavier said. “But still, they’re hunters, right? And now all these humans are moving right through their habitat. It must trigger some sort of primal instinct.”
I shook my head. “No. In the first place, the glass tunnel is lined with some kind of reflective surface, so the sharks can’t see the humans from inside. And even if they could, sharks don’t really hunt by sight. They hunt by smell—and by sensing vibrations in the water. You could drop a whole mannequin in the shark tank and the sharks probably wouldn’t even give it a second look.”
“I bet it’d freak the guests out, though,” Xavier laughed.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “It would be pretty funny.”
Xavier stopped laughing at that point, which I should have taken as a sign that something was wrong, but I was too caught up thinking about the prank. I kept rambling on, unaware that Vance Jessup was bearing down on me. “Know what would really freak the guests out? If you only put part of a mannequin in the tank. Like just an arm. So it’d look like the sharks had already eaten the rest. That would be hilarious.”
Now, Vance decided to make his presence known. He grabbed my chair and spun me around to face him. “What would be hilarious?” he demanded. “Are you planning another prank on me?”
I gulped, terrified, and did my best to lie to Vance’s face. “What are you talking about? I’ve never played any pranks on you.”
“I know you put that snake in my gym bag, Monkey Boy. And you’re gonna pay for it.” Vance held up a clenched fist the size of a grapefruit.
I recoiled, aware this wasn’t an idle threat. Vance got in fights almost every day—and usually won. He was covered with bruises, scratches, and scrapes, though his opponents generally looked far worse. He was currently sporting a half dozen Band-Aids dappled with blood that was probably someone else’s.
Meanwhile, I’d never been in a fight in my life. I wouldn’t stand a chance against Vance.
“Teddy wasn’t talking about playing a prank on you,” Xavier said quickly, trying to bail me out. “He was talking about playing a prank at FunJungle. Dropping a fake human arm into the shark tank to make all the guests freak out.”
Vance lowered his fist. His sneer faded and he made a strange noise. At first I thought he was choking—but then realized he was laughing. “That would be funny,” he said. “When are you going to do it?”
“Er . . . never,” I said. “I only meant it would be funny in theory. I would never really do something like that. It might start a panic—”
“Exactly,” Vance said, and then laughed again. “Let’s do it after school tomorrow.”
I shook my head and tried to come up with a believable excuse. “Sorry, but it’s not possible. There’s a ton of security at FunJungle. They’d catch us if we tried to sneak the arm inside.”
“No, they’d catch me if I tried to sneak the arm inside,” Vance corrected. “Not you. You don’t have to go through the main entrance.”
I winced. I hadn’t expected Vance to know that. I struggled to come up with something else. “We don’t have a fake arm, either . . .”
“Leave that to me,” Vance said. “I can steal one from the department store in town.”
“You know, now that I think about it,” I said, “I don’t think this would be that good a prank at all. But I’ll tell you what might be a lot more fun. Maybe I could get you a backstage tour of the shark exhibit. It’s pretty fascinating. . . .”
Vance’s eyes narrowed in anger. “I don’t want a tour of some dumb shark tank.”
“Oh, it’s not dumb,” Xavier put in, trying to be helpful. “It’s actually quite amazing. In fact, it’s the largest shark tank in the world, housing over thirty different species—”
“Shut up,” Vance told him.
“Okay,” Xavier said, backing down.
Vance clamped a hand on my shoulder. “I want to play this prank,” he informed me. “And I need your help to do it. So you’re going to help me, right?”
I wished I’d had the nerve to stand up to Vance right then and there and tell him what I really thought of him. But my shoulder was already in terrible pain, and Vance wasn’t even squeezing that hard yet. I got the sense that if he wanted to, he could snap me like a twig. And yet I still hesitated before giving Vance an answer.
That didn’t please him at all. “Trust me on this,” he said. “You don’t want to be my enemy. Before I heard about this shark-tank thing, I was about to pound your face in. I’d still be happy to do that.”
“No!” I said desperately, wanting to keep my face the way it was. “I’ll do it!”
“Okay, then.” Vance released me and flashed a cruel smile. “See you tomorrow afternoon.”
So that’s how I ended up dropping fake body parts into Shark Odyssey.
Vance cornered me right after school the next day. True to his word, he’d obtained the arm of a mannequin—and a foot as well. “The more body parts the better,” he explained. Just in case I’d managed to work up the nerve to say no to him—which I’d been working on for the past twenty-four hours—he’d brought along two bullies-in-training: Jim and Tim Barksdale. The Barksdales were identical twins in the eighth grade. They were so dumb and mean that everyone, even their parents, had trouble telling them apart. Since they were rarely without each other, everyone simply called them TimJim.
Vance had hidden the mannequin parts in a large backpack, which he insisted I take with me on the school bus. “Don’t even go home,” he threatened. “Take it right to the sharks. We’ll be waiting for you there. If you try to chicken out—or tip off security—we’ll come find you.”
“And then maybe we’ll feed you to the sharks,” either Tim or Jim said.
The boys all laughed at this.
I felt like throwing up, but I didn’t really see that I had a choice. So I left my regular backpack in my locker, took my homework and Vance’s backpack, and hopped onto the school bus. Xavier, who rode the same bus as me, volunteered to come to Shark Odyssey as moral support—although I suspected he was actually more interested in getting to sneak into FunJungle the back way with me. “Thanks,” I told him, “but I should probably do this alone. Maybe I can trick Vance into doing it himself and get him busted for it.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” Xavier warned. “If Vance catches on, it’ll only make him angrier at you.”
“He won’t catch on,” I said. “He’s a moron. The guy’s flunked eighth grade twice.”
Xavier shook his head. “Vance didn’t flunk because he’s stupid. He flunked because he’s lazy. In fact, Vance is smarter than most people realize. If he put as much thought into studying as he does into being cruel and mean, he’d be graduating college by now.”
I thought back to my many nasty encounters with Vance and realized Xavier was right. Vance was actually quite clever; he just used his gifts for evil. For example, he knew how to make his own cherry bombs with chemicals he’d pilfered from the science lab. “So what should I do?” I asked.
“Pull the prank as fast as possible,” Xavier advised, “and pray you don’t get caught.”
My bus stop was the last one, as FunJungle was located several miles from town. Technically it wasn’t located in any school district; a special exemption had been made for me, the only child living there, to attend Lyndon B. Johnson.
FunJungle was so big it actually qualified as its own city. The park had been built by J.J. McCracken, a local billionaire. He claimed he’d done it for his daughter, Summer—but the fact that 175 million people visited zoos in America every year had certainly influenced him as well. FunJungle was officially a zoo—the world’s biggest, by far—though, to attract tourists, it was also part theme park. There were thrill rides, stage shows, themed hotels, and plenty of innovative exhibits, like a massive African habitat where you could go on a safari and several pools where you could swim with dolphins. Despite the gimmicks, however, FunJungle was committed to providing top-quality care for its animals. J.J. had hired lots of distinguished biologists (like my mother) and had shelled out big bucks to make the animal exhibits state-of-the-art. The whole park was nearly ten miles square, with its own police department, fire station, and hospital. (Technically it was an animal hospital, but it was nicer than most human hospitals and had a physician on staff for any FunJungle employees who got sick.)
I didn’t really live at FunJungle per se. There was a trailer park behind the safari area that served as free housing for the distinguished biologists and their families. As Vance had ordered, I didn’t go home once the bus dropped me off. But then I never did. There was no point in sitting in our trailer all by myself. Not when Mom’s office was nice and cozy and had windows that looked into the gorilla exhibit. Many days I went straight there to do my homework, but if anything interesting was happening at FunJungle—and there often was—I’d go there instead. Thus Mom didn’t really expect me to show up at any specific time. And as for Dad, he was generally roaming the park taking pictures—if he was even at the park. His contract allowed him to accept freelance jobs as well. He’d just returned from photographing anacondas in the Amazon for National Geographic a few days earlier.
I entered the park through the rear employee entry booth, which was next to the employee parking lot and the trailer park. Darlene, the guard posted inside, barely gave me a glance as I entered. She was watching a downloaded movie on her iPhone, which was probably a violation of sixteen different security directives, but on that day I didn’t care. I didn’t want any scrutiny.
The entry booth wasn’t much bigger than a storage closet. On one side a door led in from employee parking. On the other side a door led into FunJungle. Darlene sat between them next to a metal detector. “Hey, Teddy, how was school?” she asked.
“Same as usual.” I set the backpack down by Darlene, passed through the metal detector, and grabbed the pack again without giving her the chance to rifle through it. Not that she tried. Darlene hadn’t examined my things once in the last six months. However, she did stare at the pack a little bit longer than usual.
“That new?” she asked.
“Yeah. Mom just got it for me.”
“It’s awful big.”
“They give lots of homework at my school,” I explained.
“Yuck.” Darlene made a face of disgust, then returned to her movie.
I exited into FunJungle and made a beeline for Shark Odyssey.
The rear employee entrance was on the opposite side of the park from the main gates, hidden behind a thicket of trees so that tourists wouldn’t notice it. A narrow path brought me out onto Adventure Road, the main route through the park, right between Carnivore Canyon and the Land Down Under.
The park was eerily empty. During the summer, capacity crowds had come every day and Adventure Road had been as crowded as a Manhattan sidewalk. But now the tourists were few and far between. The reason, everyone claimed, was the weather, which had been far worse that year than anyone had expected.
The main reason J.J. McCracken had built FunJungle in the Texas Hill Country was that it was supposed to be warm all the time. This would be good for the animals, most of which came from warm climates, and better for the tourists, who would theoretically flock there year-round. (This was the same reason that Disney and Universal Studios had built their theme parks in Southern California and Florida.) Unfortunately, this particular winter had been the nastiest anyone could remember. Ever since mid-November, a freak cold front had stalled over the Hill Country, pelting the park with an incredible array of horrible weather. There had been hail, freezing rain, record cold temperatures, and even a few tornadoes. (Thankfully, these had all been quite small and done little damage, although one had uprooted a jungle gym in the Play Zone and flung it into the World of Reptiles.)
Thousands of guests who’d booked for Thanksgiving and the Christmas holidays had canceled their FunJungle travel plans. This was terrible luck for the park, which had finally rebounded from its previous crisis, the murder of its mascot, Henry the Hippo, that summer. If anything, this was worse. Henry’s death had at least sparked interest in the park; tourists had streamed in to see the notorious murder site. But few people had any interest in spending their vacations shivering in a sleet storm, staring at animal paddocks that were empty because the animals themselves had had the sense to go inside.
The stretch between Thanksgiving and Christmas should have been a low-tourism time anyhow, but now it was far worse than expected. So J.J. McCracken had resorted to a few desperate moves to lure people to the park. The first was to drastically slash ticket prices.
The biggest deal FunJungle now offered was on annual passes. For only five dollars more than the cost of one visit, people could upgrade their FunJungle FunPass and come for free all year-round. McCracken’s idea was that the park could make back the money by gouging repeat visitors for expensive food and park merchandise—although most people quickly caught on to this and started smuggling in their own lunches. However, virtually everyone within a fifty-mile radius had bought the passes. FunJungle, no matter what the weather, was still the most exciting thing to happen in that area in decades, and the discount deal was simply too good to pass up.
Vance Jessup and TimJim had annual passes. And at fifteen, Vance had his learner’s driving permit. This meant he was only supposed to drive with an adult in the car, but he drove himself all the time anyhow—and since he looked like an adult, the police never stopped him. The boys had all come to FunJungle directly from school and were waiting inside Shark Odyssey for me.
Normally, Shark Odyssey was one of the most crowded exhibits at FunJungle. In the summer there had often been hour-long waits to get inside. Now almost no one was there. It wasn’t hard to spot Vance and TimJim in the sparse crowd.
Shark Odyssey was designed to display its inhabitants from many different angles. You began at the top of the massive three-story tank, from which you could look down into the water and watch the sharks from above. From there you moved down a long ramp that spiraled around the tank, allowing you to see the sharks from the side. And finally you ended up in the big glass tube with sharks swimming all around you.
Vance and TimJim were at the first viewpoint, above the surface of the tank. Vance checked his watch as I approached. “Took you long enough,” he groused. “I figured you’d chickened out. We were about to come looking for you.”
“I got here as fast as I could,” I said. “The bus has a lot of stops to make before mine.”
“Whatever,” Vance said dismissively, as if this explanation didn’t make sense. “We’ve waited long enough. Security’s already started to pay attention to us.”
“How so?” I asked, trying to hide my concern.
“Some big woman guard with a ton of attitude’s been giving us the stink eye,” Vance explained.
Large Marge, I thought. Of course. Marge had been a constant thorn in my side since I’d come to FunJungle; she’d always been far more concerned with busting me rather than catching any park guests disobeying the rules. Originally this had been a mere annoyance, as Marge was only a grunt in the security force, but after she’d helped catch Henry the Hippo’s murderer, she’d been promoted to head of park security. In truth, I’d done almost all the work catching the killer, with some help from Summer McCracken. I’d found all the leads, taken all the risks, and finally solved the crime. All Marge had done was punch the bad guy as he was trying to escape. But she’d done that right in front of J.J. McCracken, who’d been impressed and promoted her. Now Marge had an entire security force she could order to keep an eye on me—although she still preferred to try to catch me red-handed herself.
“Where is she now?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Vance admitted. “She came over a few minutes ago and warned us not to cause any trouble, but then someone called her on her radio and she took off.”
“Why’d she think you were going to cause trouble?” I asked.
“What do I look like, a mind reader?” Vance demanded. “She was just being a jerk.”
“Yeah,” either Tim or Jim muttered. “All we did was spit in the shark tank.”
I turned on Vance, unable to control my annoyance. “You spit in the shark tank?”
“What’s it matter?” Vance asked. “It’s not like it’ll hurt the sharks or anything. They live in water—and that’s all spit is.”
I tamped down the urge to call Vince a moron. Spit isn’t just water. It carries all sorts of diseases, which could be spread to the sharks, for which reason there were dozens of signs posted around the shark tank telling people not to spit into it. The boys had blatantly broken park rules, getting Marge’s attention.
“We can’t do the prank now,” I said. “I know Marge. She wouldn’t just let you guys off with a warning. She’s probably still lurking around here somewhere.”
I started for the doors, but Vance seized my arm and squeezed it hard. Even through my heavy winter jacket it hurt. “You’re not weaseling out of this,” he told me. “Just do it. And put some of this on the body parts before you drop them in.” He yanked something out of his pocket and slapped it into my hand.
It was a squirt bottle of ketchup he’d filched from one of the FunJungle restaurants.
“What’s this for?” I asked.
“To look like blood. Duh,” Vance said, like I was an idiot. “If there’s no blood, everyone will know the body parts are fake.”
“It’s not going to look like blood,” I argued. “It’s going to look like ketchup. And we really shouldn’t put food that isn’t for sharks in their tank. It’s not healthy for them.”
“Know what’s not healthy for you?” Vance jabbed me in the chest with a thick finger. “Talking back to me. Wait thirty seconds for us to get down to the tube and then do the deed, okay?”
“Hold on,” I said. “You’re not doing it with me?”
“And take the fall if you get busted?” Vance asked. “No, thanks. Security’s already got an eye on us. But you’re the prince of this place. Your pal Xavier’s always going on about how you helped find Henry’s killer. So you’ve got immunity.”
I frowned. Xavier had been right; Vance was more clever than I’d realized. He’d figured out how to see the prank and still keep his hands clean. He was completely wrong about my immunity, though. In fact I was number one on Marge’s hit list. But I knew it’d be pointless to argue this. Vance wouldn’t believe me anyhow.
I glanced around the exhibit. There was no sign of Marge or any other security, and most of the tourists had headed down the ramp toward the viewing tube. If I was going to drop the body parts in, this was probably the best time to do it. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s go.”
“That’s the spirit!” Vance hustled toward the viewing tube with TimJim, all of them actually giggling with excitement.
I peeked into the tank and watched the sharks’ dorsal fins slicing through the surface below me. Although sharks provoke fear in most people, only a handful of the 360 different species are dangerous to humans. And even then they’re generally not hunting us. In the entire world, sharks kill fewer than ten people a year, while coconuts falling from trees take out 150. (Meanwhile, we humans slaughter sharks by the millions, mostly to make shark fin soup, which I’ve heard doesn’t even taste that good.) The tourists still want to see man-eaters, though, but they are notoriously difficult to keep in captivity. Aquariums have tried time and again to feature them—especially great whites—but have inevitably had to set them free. However, FunJungle had recently had some success with one man-eater: the bull shark.
Bulls aren’t nearly as renowned as great whites, but they’ve actually attacked far more humans, in part because they’re the only sharks that can survive in freshwater. They’ve been found as far up the Mississippi River as Indiana. FunJungle’s bull was a seven-foot-long male named Taurus who’d been caught in the San Jacinto River disturbingly close to downtown Houston. Taurus had only been in Shark Odyssey for a few weeks, but he seemed to be doing all right. Ironically, while the “man-eater” was a decent draw, most tourists couldn’t even pick him out. There were many bigger and far more ominous-looking sharks in the exhibit that were often mistaken for the bull.
I could see Taurus now, though. The torpedo-shaped fish skimmed below the surface right beneath me. A pair of nurse sharks, although significantly larger, split apart to give him a wide berth.
I figured thirty seconds had passed. Vance and TimJim would be in the glass tube by now. All the tourists were a good distance away from me, although I could hear a fresh batch outside the exhibit, approaching the entrance. If I didn’t do the deed now, I’d probably never do it, and eventually Vance would get tired of waiting and decide to pound my face in.
I unzipped the backpack, whipped out the fake arm, and dropped it over the railing. Then I tossed in the foot. I decided to pass on the ketchup, though. I was quite sure the sharks would ignore the plastic body parts, but one might accidentally inhale the condiment. If Vance wanted to beat me up for this transgression, then he was probably just looking for an excuse to beat me up anyhow.
The fake body parts didn’t make much noise as they hit the water. All the tourists were too distracted by the sharks to notice them. I figured I’d done my duty and decided to get out while I could. I slung the backpack over my shoulder and doubled back toward the entrance, as the exit was a long distance away. The doors flew open as I approached.
I ducked my head down, not wanting any of the tourists to get a good look at my face, just in case things went bad.
Only it wasn’t a group of tourists at all. It was a group of five security guards. And Large Marge was leading them.