About the Author
Stuart Gibbs is the author of the FunJungle series, as well as the New York Times bestselling Spy School and Moon Base Alpha series. He has written the screenplays for movies like See Spot Run and Repli-Kate, worked on a whole bunch of animated films, developed TV shows for Nickelodeon, Disney Channel, ABC, and Fox. Stuart lives with his family in Los Angeles. You can learn more about what he’s up to at StuartGibbs.com.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
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...
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