The zoo is lit by blue flashes. Birds squawk, monkeys scamper and howl, not used to crowds this late in the evening. My breath forms vapour clouds. The police wear padded fluorescent jackets, stamp their feet, and rub their hands. Their radios chatter and hiss. There’s been an escape. My jaguar has gone.
‘There’s no damage to the lock,’ a policewoman says. ‘Are you sure you locked up properly?’
‘I’ve been a zookeeper for twelve years. I know how to lock a gate,’ I say.
My jaguar's name is Sombra, Portuguese for shadow, rescued as an abandoned cub in the Amazon.
Through his oil-slick black coat, you can see the same patchwork markings of his non-black relatives. His fur is thick, greasy. Sombra no longer cleans himself with the intensity of his younger days. Too old. No female to impress.
‘How dangerous is the jaguar?’ the policewoman asks.
‘Oh, very,’ I say.
Sombra’s big. Solid. When calm, he looks cuddly, like he’d sidle up to you and let you stroke him like a tabby cat. But when hungry, when aggravated, he turns into a demon. He bares his teeth, growls, swipes his great paws at me. Nine years together and we’re still not friends. I carry a stick to jab him if needed. I don’t use it too often.
The zoo manager is telling a tall detective in a smart suit the few details he has of the escape. I recognise the detective: we’ve met before. We once spent an hour together in an interview room at the police station.
‘She doesn’t want to press charges,’ the detective had said. ‘She just wants you to leave her alone.’
I protested, ‘I’ve never been near her.’
‘Will you stay away?’ he asked.
I’d nodded and agreed. I’ve not seen the detective again, until this evening.
I think about Sombra. He must be getting hungry by now. Every lunchtime, I throw Sombra raw chicken carcasses. The bones shatter between his jaws. Squelching, crunching, and he rolls over and sleeps: docile, like a dozing kitten. His tail swishes and I wonder if he’s dreaming of running free, away from his tiny, dank enclosure. He’s due another feed now.
Each morning, before work, as I eat breakfast in the high street café, a woman often stops by for a takeaway skinny cappuccino, always in tight leggings and white trainers, blonde hair tied in a ponytail, tanned orange, flawless make-up, looking good for a woman in her forties; some might say perfect. We’re about the same age, only I’ve not kept myself looking so good.
She usually chats to the handsome young barista, just a boy, about her plans for the day: friends to meet, things to buy, children to ferry to clubs and the dentist. He’d laugh and wish her a good day.
Thoughts of this perfect woman crept into my day: as I swept cages, prepared food, talked to visitors, waited at traffic lights on the way home picking Sombra’s loose hair off my uniform. And then one day, I followed her, to find out where she lived.
The zoo manager points in my direction and the detective walks towards me. I pull my cap low to hide my face. I grow hot, I twitch.
‘I know you, don’t I?’ he asks, smiling.
‘Don’t think so,’ I say.
‘You look familiar.’ He pauses, searching his memory for recognition.
He lifts the cap from my eyes.
One day, to my surprise, the perfect woman from the café visited Sombra’s enclosure. Blonde hair loose around her shoulders, floral summer dress. She didn’t recognise me.
Sombra’s huge golden eyes watched her. She stepped two paces to the left and Sombra’s eyes followed. He turned his head to her as she skipped to the right. She pressed her flawless face to the glass and Sombra leapt, banging one of his huge paws on the surface in front of her nose. She jumped. I could see the great leathery pads on his paw, but he didn’t bare his claws.
‘He’s playing with me,’ she said, laughing. A beautiful laugh.
She placed her palm on the glass and slid it to the right. Sombra moved his paw to mirror her manicured hand. He followed her hand as she raised it higher. She moved her hand down, quicker this time, and Sombra gave a tired look as if to say, ‘enough’, and slumped to the ground facing her.
She crouched down and watched Sombra a while. He watched her, blinking occasionally, ears twitching, tail swishing.
‘He looks sad,’ she said.
‘Sombra's lonely,’ I said.
The look in the detective’s eyes changes: something’s clicked. He remembers me from the interview.
He turns to the policewoman.
‘I want you to send a car to this address.’ He scribbles something in his notebook, tears off the page, and gives it to her. ‘Hurry.’
He turns to me.
‘You better not have done what I think you have.’
The day after her visit to the zoo the perfect woman visited the high street café for her skinny cappuccino.
I said, ‘Hello’.
She didn’t recognise me at first. I reminded her about Sombra.
‘How funny to bump into you here,’ she said.
I tried to start a conversation. My skin prickled. My face flushed warm. I spoke in clipped sentences, able to piece only a few words together at a time.
‘Okay, bye,’ she said.
She noticed me now. She noticed me following her, noticed me watching her house. Twice. Maybe three times. She called the police. That’s when I’d met the detective for the first time.
At the zoo, all eyes turn on me. There’s a strange, cold silence. The zoo manager looks at me with concern.
‘You need to come with me,’ says the detective, grabbing my arm.
I pull free from his grip and flee. I run towards the World of Birds. Boots of several police officers slap on the path close behind. I jump a metal barrier and skirt around the edge of the flamingo lake. The birds remain still, balanced on one leg, heads down. Only a high wooden fence separates me from the carpark. I scramble up but can’t reach the top. On my second attempt, I sit astride the fence, feeling a giddy sense of freedom, when two pairs of strong hands grab my leg and pull me down. I land with a smack, face in the cold, wet grass.
‘Where were you off to?’ one of them says.
In the interview room, they show me pictures of Sombra. The detective says Sombra died, curled up in a corner of the kitchen, licking the gunshot wound in his side. He bled out. They’d first shot him in the head, he said, but it didn’t even stun him.
Claw marks are scratched deep into the floor boards, kitchen cupboards, and table. The blood will stain the wood, the scratch marks too deep to sand down.
Sombra had been through the fridge, eaten a chicken planned for dinner. Raided the cupboards, eaten the cat’s food. The cat is missing.
When the woman arrived home Sombra wasn’t in the mood to play like they had at the zoo. The detective believes Sombra knocked her out with one blow. She must have been unconscious or neighbours would have reported the screams as Sombra gnawed at her cheeks and the meat of her shoulders.
I think about the mess. Did she still look perfect with blood covering her flawless, tanned face?
Someone knocks on the interview room door and the detective goes to speak to them. He disappears, leaving me with the young policewoman, blonde hair tied in a ponytail.
I sip at my water.
She stares intensely at me, eyes probing my thoughts. I can tell she wants to say something. Perhaps hit me. I wink at her.
The detective bursts into the room. He’s pale, shaking.
I smile at him. I know what he’s going to say.
‘What have you done with the lion?’ he asks. ‘Where’s the fucking lion?’
He’ll find out soon enough.