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Excerpt: 'Zoo Story'

Cover of 'Zoo Story'

Above the waves and the clouds, the 747 soared on. Sunlight burned along the wings. A thin trail of exhaust tapered behind, etched across a canvas of perfect blue.

Inside the hold, some of the elephants drifted in and out of sleep. Others were more alert, the effects of their Azaperone and Acuphase injections slowly wearing off. Mick, beyond exhaustion by now, was still patrolling back and forth between them, talking softly in the human language they were most likely to recognize.

"Kahle mfana," said Mick, speaking in siSwati, the native tongue of Swaziland. "Kutwulunga."

Steady, boy. It will be OK.

A South African veterinarian named Chris Kingsley worked nearby, assessing the elephants. The vet watched their respiration patterns, checked to see if they responded to sounds, made sure that none were shivering or showing other signs of trauma.

Chris and Mick had been working for more than forty hours straight. They began their labors before dawn early that Wednesday morning, where the crew tranquilized the elephants inside the boma -- a fenced corral where the animals had been kept in preparation for the journey -- then lifted the animals via a conveyor belt and a crane onto flatbed trucks to be driven to Manzini, the nearest city with an airport. Loading them onto the trucks took all day, and then the drive to Manzini took most of the night. The airport didn't have a runway big enough for a 747, so the elephants were shifted onto a pair of Ilyushin IL-16s, and then when they flew into Johannesburg, they had to be unloaded from those two planes, with forklifts moving the crates, and reloaded into the hold of the 747. It was winter in that part of the world, and cold enough that night that Mick could see ice glinting on the tarmac. Despite the chill, there were formalities to be observed. They had to wait for customs officials to sign a stack of release forms. By the time the freighter jet accelerated down the runway, the sun was up, and it was Thursday morning.

Chartered for $700,000, the plane had more than enough thrust and weight capacity for the task at hand. A few more tons would have been no problem. Still, the pilots were not eager to cause their passengers any distress, so they eased their ascent, taking off at a gentle angle before heading across the tip of the continent toward the Atlantic.

As the 747 carried them across the equator and backward through eight time zones, the divide between morning and afternoon began to blur. Mick and Chris were enveloped in the hum of the engines and the breathing of the animals. Watering cans in hand, they checked on the elephants' progress, making sure that they had enough to drink and that the trays underneath their crates were not overflowing with urine. Elephant urine is so corrosive it can eat through metal.

All of the elephants were juveniles, between ten and fourteen years old. Four were headed for Tampa, and the other seven would travel on to San Diego. So far they seemed to be doing well. Early into the flight, Chris had been concerned about Mbali. Named after one of Mick's two daughters, she was the youngest and smallest of the group. After takeoff, Mbali wasn't eating or drinking. She simply lay in her crate. The vet had the impression she was depressed. A few hours later, the young elephant seemed to have recovered. She was back on her feet, drinking water with her trunk, responding to the humans' voices. The other elephants were vocalizing too, sending out waves of rumblings that Mick and Chris could feel in their chests. The two of them were startled when one of the males trumpeted. The bulls were more restless than the cows. Already, some strained at their confinement. Mick could see them leaning against the interior of their crates, pushing with their feet, testing the strength of the walls. A sickening thought occurred to him: What if one broke out?

His mind fixed on the image. He visualized the male elephant charging toward the front of the plane. He saw it bulldozing into the cockpit, trampling over the pilots, then finally bursting through the nose.

The bull would plummet toward the waves far below. The shattered 747 -- no more pilots, no controls -- would tumble close behind.

Excerpted with permission from Zoo Story by Thomas French. Copyright 2010 Thomas French. Published by Hyperion. All Rights Reserved.

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Thomas French