Escape Pod 539: Squirrels, Foxes and Other Fine Specimens
Squirrels, Foxes and Other Fine Specimens
By Gareth D Jones
It was still dark beneath the trees, though the sun had risen half an hour earlier. It was cool too – even in midsummer the park woodland stayed shady. Yorick settled himself into a comfortable crouch leaning against the bole of a tree and enjoyed the peaceful sounds of the early morning. Birdsong and rustling leaves and the pattering of tiny, unseen feet. Hard to believe they were less than a hundred yards from the streets of central London. The streets would be almost empty at this early hour – the reason Sandy chose such an unsocial hour to take his clients into the park – but even in rush hour the sonic mufflers that encircled the park would keep that noise at bay. A grunting noise reached his ears and Yorick peered through the undergrowth to a large, dark shape that stood less than twenty feet away.
It was a wild boar. A massive, ugly brute of a boar that glared at him in a most unfriendly fashion. It grunted again, switched to a challenging snort. Saliva dribbled from its jaw as it thrust a pair of worryingly large tusks in his direction. Yorick had no idea if the creature was warning him off or saying hello, but it did not, on balance, appear too friendly. He had no real knowledge of wild boar behaviour. He only worked with dead animals generally.
The boar pawed the ground. Yorick glanced up. There were branches just about within reach. He was fairly sure boars could not climb trees. Where was Sandy? His clients were supposed to be hunting boar and wolves. Why weren’t they hunting this one?
With a final grunt and toss of its head, the boar charged.
Yorick leaped to his feet and jumped for the branch overhead. He could barely grasp the lower branches, scrambled up the knobbly trunk, heaved and pulled and dragged himself to safety. A broken-off branch dug into his side and his palms were scraped, but as he looked down at the salivating boar he decided it was a small price to pay. Annoyingly, he had a pack of boar bait in his pocket that Sandy used to coax his prey into the open if the hunters weren’t having any success. It was still sealed up so the boar hadn’t smelled it, but it had decided to seek him out anyway. It was easier to appreciate irony when not perched in a tree.
The proliferation of small parkland areas throughout London had led to the resurgence of numerous species of British wildlife making a home for themselves in the capital. Nobody had yet owned up – environmentalist or prankster – to relocating wild boar and wolves into the city. Their reintroduction into the wilds of Scotland and Cumbria had been great for tourism, and probably less great for farmers, but city life did not suit them. Numerous petrified, and sometimes mauled, city folk could attest to that. From his vantage in the low branches, the boar looked perfectly at home. It gave a couple of satisfied grunts and began nonchalantly to root in the undergrowth. It did not appear to be in a hurry to leave.
Yorick checked his bleeper was still working so at least Sandy could find him, assuming he had any reason to come looking. The tag was purely to make sure the hunters knew where he was so he didn’t end up getting shot, but Sandy would be busy taking care of his clients rather than worrying about Yorick. Sandy was more concerned about giving his enterprise an air of professionalism to make up for the questionable legal status that inner-city big game hunting currently enjoyed. It was not illegal, but Yorick was aware of several bylaws that were being contravened. While the RSPCA, the ZSL and the Office of the Mayor of London debated the ethics, entrepreneurs like Sandy made the most of the situation. Yorick’s relationship with Sandy was a purely business arrangement. Sandy put on a hunt experience for city business men who were too busy to go anywhere more exotic, and Yorick had first claim on the carcasses. There were more boars and wolves than there should be in London, but they were still rare enough that a finely preserved carcass would fetch enough money to keep his taxidermy business ticking over nicely.
A branch above him shook lightly and a red squirrel peered down at him. Bioengineered to resist disease and stand up to their bullying grey cousins, it chattered something friendly and leaped off through the boughs.
“Yeah, hi,” Yorick said and wished he could vacate the area as easily. It was difficult to keep a hunt entirely secret and he could almost guarantee another taxidermist or two would be lurking outside the park waiting for their chance. At least they didn’t have one of Sandy’s tags so they wouldn’t be close to the kill. Yorick looked down at the snuffling boar. At this rate, neither would he. He had lived in the countryside as a kid and thought he might return there one day, as many city inhabitants had. Ridiculous property prices had finally driven the long-foretold decentralisation and, as companies realised they really could do business from outside the city, property prices had gone into a long spiral that after a decade still had no end in view. For several years now brownfield sites had been redeveloped into parks instead of new high rises. With parks came wildlife, some of which failed to realise they lived in the middle of one of the world’s biggest cities. They poked their curious little noses into the outside work and trotted joyfully out to explore, only to discover traffic and buses. Most of those were too mashed to make good taxidermy subjects, but there was plenty of roadkill to provide a steady stream of carcasses for Yorick’s trade. He suspected the rise in popularity of stuffed wildlife was partly fashion, but while there were rabbits and squirrels, stoats and weasels, bats and owls, muntjak deer and badgers – not to mention wolves and boars – Yorick was happy to fulfil demand.
The boar wandered off. At last. The city would be starting to wake up, the sun climbing the sky, filling the rooftop solar collectors and shining its rays into narrow, shadowed streets. Yorick preferred to have no audience while manhandling dead animals into his van. He slid down the tree trunk inelegantly and landed on a root, bruising the sole of one foot. He was starting to wish he’d stayed working at the zoo where there was no lurking involved. Turn up when you’re called, pick up the carcass, take it back to the workshop. Some real interesting specimens too: engineered, brought back from extinction, designed to look great but not necessarily live a long time. There was plenty of call for them too among taxidermy collectors, if he’d been willing to work for someone else rather than himself. He rubbed his sore palms together and daydreamed briefly about the zoo.
Now he was down from the tree, he realised there was nowhere to go until he heard from Sandy. A twig cracked nearby, then more. He looked around carefully, breathed a sigh of relief. Sandy was making his way cautiously through the undergrowth, three hunters close behind. He raised a hand in salutation. Or was it in warning. Sandy wore nothing that marked him as a hunter: jeans, boots, green jacket. Similar to Yorick’s outfit, he could as easily wear them out on the street. His three clients, however, had evidently spent a fortune on camo gear, gadgetry, helmets with integrated night vision goggles, bandoliers, rucksacks and hip flasks. They were so laden-down and padded out that he could not tell one from another.
Yorick stifled a snigger.
“We’re in trouble,” Sandy said quietly as they drew near. As he emerged from the gloom his features became clear: barely concealed fear, rapidly flickering eyes, sweat despite the relative cool. His three companions – two men and a woman, he could now see – looked like they might bolt at any moment.
“What?” Not wolves, surely; that’s what they came for. The police? Were they about to raid the park and make examples of the early morning expedition? Yorick was doubly glad of his innocuous clothing – he could slip back onto the streets and walk away.
“Tiger.” The word came out half strangled.
“From the zoo?” Yorick whispered. He’d seen tigers at the zoo. There was nothing they liked better than to climb trees.
Sandy shook his head, two swift, jerky movements.
Yorick attempted to smile at the jest, but three petrified faces behind Sandy changed it to a grimace.
Sandy pointed with two fingers to the edge of the woods behind Yorick, one of those jerky hand movements he’d copied from a war film. Yorick turned and started sneaking along with Sandy’s group.
“Thanks for coming for me,” he breathed.
“Luck,” Sandy said. “You were the opposite direction to the sabretooth.”
“Where’d it come from?”
“Who cares?” Sandy said.
The trees were thinning out. Sunlight glinted through the canopy. A patch of grassy hillocks could be glimpsed ahead, the black fencing several yards beyond.
A loud, bloodcurdling roar echoed from somewhere behind.
“Don’t. Run.” Sandy sounded like he knew what he was talking about.
Shouting and stamping behind him indicated the three hunters had paid equal disregard to Sandy’s advice.
He burst into sunlight, stumbled on rough ground, ran hard for the fence line despite his sore foot. It was not a high fence – climbable under duress. Yorick was at the top and throwing one leg over, thanking the park designers, when the thought struck him that it would also prove of little impediment to a sabretooth tiger.
The gate was thirty or forty yards to the right as he dropped to the ground. An early morning jogger in bright orange shorts and T-shirt jogged on the spot as she struggled with the catch.
“No!” Yorick yelled.
Of course she was listening to music. She swung the gate wide and jogged in. Yorick raced after her, along the fence, back inside. He glanced over his shoulder to see the three hunters crossing the street at a sprint. He caught up to the jogger twenty yards into the park where the path skirted the edge of the trees. She didn’t hear him until he grabbed her shoulder.
She screeched in fright and swung around to defend herself.
Yorick backed off, breathing heavily.
“You’ve got to leave the park,” he wheezed. “There’s a—“
He was cut off by another roar. Very close.
She heard that.
She turned to see what Yorick was staring at.
“Is that a tiger?”
Yorick tried to think of something amusingly sarcastic, but nothing came. He wondered if tigers were attracted to orange.
The sabretooth regarded them with unnerving interest from the edge of the treeline. Its head was huge and higher than Yorick’s. It looked like his own head could fit in its mouth with room to spare.
“Don’t run,” Yorick said. He had no idea if that was the right advice.
“Are you sure?” The woman reached out slowly and grasped Yorick’s arm tightly. Her nails bit in to his flesh. They were orange too.
“I used to work at a zoo,” he said. He had no idea why he said that either, but it seemed to offer some comfort to the jogger.
“I work in an office,” she said. “I’m Jana.”
“Great.” He thought hard about the tigers at the zoo. They liked to swim, so they couldn’t escape through water. Not that there was any. They could climb, run really fast, jump, were incredibly strong and had sharp teeth and claws. And this one was much bigger than a normal tiger. They were, basically, dead.
Where was Sandy?
Where were the police?
Where was the RSPCA?
He had once watched the zookeepers distract a tiger with some small, live prey to get it away from the inner cage door while someone worked on a seized lock. Now Yorick knew how the prey had felt.
The sabretooth swung its massive head back and forth as though checking what else was on the menu.
There was some movement off to the left, twenty or thirty yards away, behind the sabretooth’s line of sight. A tusked head thrust out of the undergrowth, snout rooting into the soil.
The jogger whimpered.
Yorick tried to say something encouraging but his tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth. He slid one hand into his jacket pocket, pulled out the sealed packet and opened it as quietly as he could.
The sabretooth’s piercing eyes fixed him with a hungry stare.
Yorick could not turn his head away from that gaze, but he looked sideways as far as he could.
The wild boar was also staring at him. They have legendary noses. It took a careful step forward.
Yorick trickled some of the boar bait onto the ground.
The boar could not resist. Tail in the air, it trotted gaily towards him.
The sabretooth’s head flicked round. The boar gained speed. The tiger pounced.
“Run!” said Yorick as the boar squealed and the sabretooth roared. He flung the packet as far away as he could and ran for the gate. Jana outpaced him and raced through the gate. It was a mere twenty yards, but the boar’s squealing cut off when he was only halfway there. Blue light and running men in black uniforms, waving arms and large vans filled the road beyond the gate. The sound assaulted him as he passed through the gate and breached the sonic mufflers. A helicopter droned overhead.
Two police officers in riot gear ushered them into the back of an armoured truck where a grinning Sandy sat holding his cap.
“Some hunt, huh?”
Through the armoured window Yorick watched a dozen well-armed men pour through the gate and over the fence and converge on the thrashing animals. The beast looked magnificent, from the safety of his new vantage point.
Moments later the door opened and they were let out, to a round of questions with police, press photographers and RSPCA inspectors.
“I’d like to claim the carcass,” Yorick said to the latter.
“Carcass?” The rather tall, extremely stern-looking woman echoed. “There’s no carcass. We captured the creature humanely and it will be transported to a nature reserve.”
“Great,” he said. “I’m glad.” Partly, he was. He looked around at the thinning crowd, sipped the coffee someone had thrust into his hands. Jana had disappeared with barely a ‘Thanks’. He’d not even had chance to give her one of his business cards, ‘Squirrels, Foxes and Other Fine Specimens’. Sandy was living it up with a group of reporters, making the most of the occasion. He peeled away moments later.
“I don’t suppose there’s much left of the boar either,” Yorick said.
“Nope,” Sandy said. He had a coffee too. He gulped the remains and tossed the cup expertly into a nearby bin. “I’ll be in touch.”
Yorick nodded, looked round to check nobody else desperately wanted to speak to him, and wandered off. What was the biggest animal somebody could smuggle into the middle of London? Would he meet a mammoth next time? Seemed unlikely but…
He walked home in the early morning sun, planning an extension to his workshop, just in case.
About the Author
Gareth D. Jones
Gareth D. Jones is an environmental scientist, writer and father of 5. His stories have appeared in over 40 publications and 26 languages.
About the Narrator
Andrew Clarke is a London-based musician, writer and actor who has created work for the stage, film and radio in an ongoing quest to work out how to make any money at all. He is currently writing the second series of The Lost Cat Podcast – which details the adventures he has had while looking for his lost cat – featuring monsters, ghosts, Old Ones, several ends of the world, some cats and lots and lots of wine. The first series can be found here: http://thelostcat.libsyn.com/ He is also currently demo-ing his latest album. The previous album, called ‘Bedrooms & Basements’ can be found here: Bedrooms And Basements, by A.P. Clarke