(12) We Take a Zebra to Vegas
The war god was waiting for us in the diner parking lot.
“Well, well,” he said. “You didn’t get yourself killed.”
“You knew it was a trap,” Percy said, and was rewarded with a wicked grin from Ares.
“Bet that crippled blacksmith was surprised when he netted a couple of stupid kids. You looked good on TV.”
Percy shoved his shield at him. “You’re a jerk.”
Grover and I caught our breath. Ares grabbed the shield and spun it in the air like pizza dough. It changed form, melting into a bulletproof vest. He slung it across his back.
“See that truck over there?” He pointed to an eighteen-wheeler parked across the street from the diner. “That’s your ride. Take you straight to L.A., with one stop in Vegas.”
The eighteen-wheeler had a sign on the back, which I could read only because it was reverse printed white on black, a good combination for dyslexia: KINDNESS INTERNATIONAL: HUMANE ZOO TRANSPORT. WARNING: LIVE WILD ANIMALS.
Percy said, “You’re kidding.”
Ares snapped his fingers. The back door of the truck unlatched. “Free ride west, punk. Stop complaining. And here’s a little something for doing the job.”
He slung a blue nylon backpack off his handlebars and tossed it to Percy. I peered over his shoulder. Inside were fresh clothes for all of us, twenty bucks in cash, a pouch full of golden drachmas and a bag of Double Stuffed Oreos.
Percy said, “I don’t want your lousy –”
“Thank you, Lord Ares,” Grover interrupted, giving Percy his best red-alert warning look.
“Thanks a lot.” Percy gritted his teeth and reluctantly slung the backpack over his shoulder.
I looked back at the diner, which had only a couple of customers now. The waitress who’d served us dinner was watching nervously out the window, like she was afraid Ares might hurt us. She dragged the cook out from the kitchen to see. She said something to him. He nodded, held up a little disposable camera and snapped a picture of us.
Great, I thought. We’ll make the papers again tomorrow. I imagined the headline: TWELVE-YEAR-OLD OUTLAW BEATS UP DEFENCELESS BIKER.
“You owe me one more thing,” Percy told Ares. “You promised me information about my mother.”
“You sure you can handle the news?” He kick-started his motorcycle. “She’s not dead.”
Percy froze. “What do you mean?”
“I mean she was taken away from the Minotaur before she could die. She was turned into a shower of gold, right? That’s metamorphosis. Not death. She’s being kept.”
“You need to study war, punk. Hostages. You take somebody to control somebody else.”
“Nobody’s controlling me.” He laughed.
“Oh yeah? See you around, kid.”
Percy balled up his fists. “You’re pretty smug, Lord Ares, for a guy who runs from Cupid statues.”
Behind his sunglasses, fire glowed. I felt a hot wind in my hair.
“We’ll meet again, Percy Jackson. Next time you’re in a fight, watch your back.”
He revved his Harley, then roared off down Delancy Street.
I finally spoke, “That was not smart, Percy.”
“I don’t care.”
“You don’t want a god as your enemy. Especially not that god.”
“Hey, guys,” Grover said. “I hate to interrupt, but...”
He pointed towards the diner. At the cash register, the last two customers were paying their bill, two men in identical black coveralls, with a white logo on their backs that matched the one on the KINDNESS INTERNATIONAL truck.
“If we’re taking the zoo express,” Grover said, “we need to hurry.”
I didn’t like it, but we had no better option. Besides, I’d seen enough of Denver. We ran across the street and climbed in the back of the big lorry, closing the doors behind us.
* * *
The first thing that hit me was the smell. It was like the world’s biggest pan of kitty litter. The trailer was dark inside until Percy uncapped Riptide. The blade cast a faint bronze light over a very sad scene. Sitting in a row of filthy metal cages were three of the most pathetic zoo animals I’d ever beheld: a zebra, a male albino lion and some weird antelope thing I didn’t know the name for.
Someone had thrown the lion a sack of turnips, which he obviously didn’t want to eat. The zebra and the antelope had each got a polystyrene tray of hamburger meat. The zebra’s mane was matted with chewing gum, like somebody had been spitting on it in their spare time. The antelope had a stupid silver birthday balloon tied to one of his horns that read OVER THE HILL!
Apparently, nobody had wanted to get close enough to the lion to mess with him, but the poor thing was pacing around on soiled blankets, in a space way too small for him, panting from the stuffy heat of the trailer. He had flies buzzing around his pink eyes and his ribs showed through his white fur.
“This is kindness?” Grover yelled. “Humane zoo transport?”
He probably would’ve gone right back outside to beat up the truckers with his reed pipes, and I would’ve helped him, but just then the truck’s engine roared to life, the trailer started shaking, and we were forced to sit down or fall down.
We huddled in the corner on some mildewed feed sacks, trying to ignore the smell and the heat and the flies. Grover talked to the animals in a series of goat bleats, but they just stared at him sadly. I was in favor of breaking the cages and freeing them on the spot, but Percy pointed out it wouldn’t do much good until the truck stopped moving.
I found a water jug and refilled their bowls, then Percy used Riptide to drag the mismatched food out of their cages. He gave the meat to the lion and the turnips to the zebra and the antelope. Grover calmed the antelope down, while I used my knife to cut the balloon off his horn. I wanted to cut the gum out of the zebra’s mane, too, but we decided that would be too risky with the truck bumping around. We told Grover to promise the animals we’d help them more in the morning, then we settled in for the night.
Grover curled up on a turnip sack; I opened our bag of Double Stuffed Oreos and nibbled on one half-heartedly. I tried to cheer myself up by concentrating on the fact that we were halfway to Los Angeles. Halfway to our destination. It was only June fourteenth. The solstice wasn’t until the twenty first. We could make it in plenty of time.
On the other hand, I had no idea what to expect next. The gods kept toying with us. At least Hephaestus had the decency to be honest about it – he’d put up cameras and advertised us as entertainment. But even when the cameras weren’t rolling, I had a feeling our quest was being watched.
“Hey,” I said, “I’m sorry for freaking out back at the water park, Percy.”
“It’s just...” I shuddered. “Spiders.”
“Because of the Arachne story,” Percy guessed. “She got turned into a spider for challenging your mom to a weaving contest, right?”
I nodded. “Arachne’s children have been taking revenge on the children of Athena ever since. If there’s a spider within a mile of me, it’ll find me. I hate the creepy little things. Anyway, I owe you.”
“We’re a team, remember?” Percy said. “Besides, Grover did the fancy flying.”
I thought he was asleep, but he mumbled from the corner, “I was pretty amazing, wasn’t I?” Percy and I laughed. I pulled apart an Oreo, handed him half.
“In the Iris message... did Luke really say nothing?”
He munched his cookie and thought. The conversation via rainbow had bothered me all evening. There was no way he wouldn’t say anything important.
“Luke said you and he go way back. He also said Grover wouldn’t fail this time. Nobody would turn into a pine tree.” In the dim bronze light of the sword blade, it was hard to read their expressions.
Grover let out a mournful bray.
“I should’ve told you the truth from the beginning.” His voice trembled. “I thought if you knew what a failure I was, you wouldn’t want me along.”
“You were the satyr who tried to rescue Thalia, the daughter of Zeus.”
He nodded glumly.
“And the other two half-bloods Thalia befriended, the ones who got safely to camp...” Percy looked at me. “That was you and Luke, wasn’t it?”
I put down my uneaten Oreo.
“Like you said, Percy, a seven-year-old half-blood wouldn’t have made it very far alone. Athena guided me towards help. Thalia was twelve. Luke was fourteen. They’d both run away from home, like me. They were happy to take me with them. They were... amazing monster-fighters, even without training. We travelled north from Virginia without any real plans, fending off monsters for about two weeks before Grover found us.”
“I was supposed to escort Thalia to camp,” he said, sniffling. “Only Thalia. I had strict orders from Chiron: don’t do anything that would slow down the rescue. We knew Hades was after her, see, but I couldn’t just leave Luke and Annabeth by themselves. I thought... I thought I could lead all three of them to safety. It was my fault the Kindly Ones caught up with us. I froze. I got scared on the way back to camp and took some wrong turns. If I’d just been a little quicker...”
“Stop it,” I said fiercely. “No one blames you. Thalia didn’t blame you either.”
“She sacrificed herself to save us,” he said miserably. “Her death was my fault. The Council of Cloven Elders said so.”
“Because you wouldn’t leave two other half-bloods behind?” Percy said. “That’s not fair.”
“Percy’s right,” I said. “I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for you, Grover. Neither would Luke. We don’t care what the council says.”
Grover kept sniffling in the dark.
“It’s just my luck. I’m the lamest satyr ever, and I find the two most powerful half-bloods of the century, Thalia and Percy.”
“You’re not lame,” I insisted. “You’ve got more courage than any satyr I’ve ever met. Name one other who would dare go to the Underworld. I bet Percy is really glad you’re here right now.”
I kicked Percy in the shin.
“Yeah,” he said, “It’s not luck that you found Thalia and me, Grover. You’ve got the biggest heart of any satyr ever. You’re a natural searcher. That’s why you’ll be the one who finds Pan.”
I heard a deep, satisfied sigh. I waited for Grover to say something, but his breathing only got heavier. When the sound turned to snoring, I realized he’d fallen asleep.
“How does he do that?” Percy marveled.
“I don’t know,” I said. “But that was really a nice thing you told him.”
“I meant it.”
We rode in silence for a few miles, bumping around on the feed sacks. The zebra munched a turnip. The lion licked the last of the hamburger meat off his lips and looked at me hopefully.
I started thinking about our quest. Something wasn’t right...
“That pine-tree bead,” Percy said, garring me out of my thoughts. “Is that from your first year?” I looked. I hadn’t realized what I was doing, fidling with Thalia’s bead.
“Yeah,” I said. “Every August, the counsellors pick the most important event of the summer, and they paint it on that year’s beads. I’ve got Thalia’s pine tree, a Greek trireme on fire, a centaur in a prom dress – now that was a weird summer...”
“And the college ring is your father’s?”
“That’s none of your –” I stopped myself. As long as I was stuck in this truck with Percy, I might as well try to get along with him. “Yeah. Yeah, it is.”
“You don’t have to tell me.”
“No... it’s okay.” I took a shaky breath. I didn’t open up to anybody.
“My dad sent it to me folded up in a letter, two summers ago. The ring was, like, his main keepsake from Athena. He wouldn’t have got through his doctoral programme at Harvard without her... That’s a long story. Anyway, he said he wanted me to have it. He apologized for being a jerk, said he loved me and missed me. He wanted me to come home and live with him.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad.”
“Yeah, well... the problem was, I believed him. I tried to go home for that school year, but my stepmom was the same as ever. She didn’t want her kids put in danger by living with a freak. Monsters attacked. We argued. Monsters attacked. We argued. I didn’t even make it through winter break. I called Chiron and came right back to Camp Half-Blood.”
“You think you’ll ever try living with your dad again?”
I wouldn’t meet his eyes. “Please. I’m not into self-inflicted pain.”
“You shouldn’t give up,” he told me. “You should write him a letter or something.”
“Thanks for the advice,” I said coldly, “but my father’s made his choice about who he wants to live with.”
We passed another few miles of silence.
“So if the gods fight,” Percy said, “will things line up the way they did with the Trojan War? Will it be Athena versus Poseidon?”
I put my head against the backpack Ares had given us, and closed my eyes.
“I don’t know what my mom will do. I just know I’ll fight next to you.”
“Because you’re my friend, Seaweed Brain.” My only friend. “Any more stupid questions?”
* * *
When I woke up, Grover was already shaking Percy’s shoulder.
“The truck’s stopped,” he explained. “I think they’re coming to check on the animals.”
“Hide!” I hissed. Luckily, I had it easy. I just put on my magic cap and disappeared. Grover and Percy had to dive behind feed sacks and hope they looked like turnips. The trailer doors creaked open. Sunlight and heat poured in.
“Man!” one of the truckers said, waving his hand in front of his ugly nose. “I wish I hauled appliances.”
He climbed inside and poured some water from a jug into the animals’ dishes.
“You hot, big boy?” he asked the lion, then splashed the rest of the bucket right in the lion’s face. The lion roared in indignation.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” the man said.
Next to Percy, under the turnip sacks, Grover tensed. For a peace-loving herbivore, he looked downright murderous. The trucker threw the antelope a squashed-looking Happy Meal bag.
He smirked at the zebra. “How ya doin’, Stripes? Least we’ll be getting rid of you this stop. You like magic shows? You’re gonna love this one. They’re gonna saw you in half!”
The zebra, wild-eyed with fear, looked straight at Percy.
Then Percy’s eyes grew wide, and he just stared back at the zebra.
I started knocking on the inside of the trailer.
The trucker inside with us yelled, “What do you want, Eddie?”
A voice outside – it must’ve been Eddie’s – shouted back, “Maurice? What’d ya say?”
“What are you banging for?”
I kept knocking.
Knock, knock, knock.
Outside, Eddie yelled, “What banging?”
Our guy Maurice rolled his eyes and went back outside, cursing at Eddie for being an idiot. A second later, I took off my hat, sitting next to Percy.
I said, “This transport business can’t be legal.”
“No kidding,” Grover said. He paused, as if listening.
“The lion says these guys are animal smugglers! We’ve got to free them!” Grover said. He and I both looked at Percy, who thought for a moment and then grabbed Riptide and slashed the lock off the zebra’s cage.
The zebra burst out. It turned to Percy and bowed.
Grover held up his hands and said something to the zebra in goat talk, like a blessing. Just as Maurice was poking his head back inside to check out the noise, the zebra leaped over him and into the street. There was yelling and screaming and cars honking. We rushed to the doors of the trailer in time to see the zebra galloping down a wide boulevard lined with hotels and casinos and neon signs. We’d just released a zebra in Las Vegas.
Maurice and Eddie ran after it, with a few policemen running after them, shouting, “Hey! You need a permit for that!”
“Now would be a good time to leave,” I said.
“The other animals first,” Grover said.
Percy cut the locks with his sword. Grover raised his hands and spoke the same goat-blessing he’d used for the zebra.
“Good luck,” Percy told the animals. The antelope and the lion burst out of their cages and went off together into the streets.
Some tourists screamed. Most just backed off and took pictures, probably thinking it was some kind of stunt by one of the casinos.
“Will the animals be okay?” Percy asked Grover. “I mean, the desert and all –”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I placed a satyr’s sanctuary on them.”
“Meaning they’ll reach the wild safely,” he said. “They’ll find water, food, shade, whatever they need until they find a safe place to live.”
“Why can’t you place a blessing like that on us?” Percy asked.
“It only works on wild animals.”
“So it would only affect Percy,” I reasoned.
“Hey!” Percy protested.
“Kidding,” I said. “Come on. Let’s get out of this filthy truck.”
We stumbled out into the desert afternoon. It was forty degrees, easy, and we must’ve looked like deep-fried vagrants, but everybody was too interested in the wild animals to pay us much attention.
We passed the Monte Carlo and the MGM. We passed pyramids, a pirate ship and the Statue of Liberty, which was a pretty small replica, but still made me homesick.
I wasn’t sure what we were looking for. Maybe just a place to get out of the heat for a few minutes, find a sandwich and a glass of lemonade, make a new plan for getting west.
We must have taken a wrong turn, because we found ourselves at a dead end, standing in front of the Lotus Hotel and Casino. The entrance was a huge neon flower, the petals lighting up and blinking. No one was going in or out, but the glittering chrome doors were open, spilling out air conditioning that smelled like flowers – lotus blossom, maybe. I’d never smelled one, so I wasn’t sure.
The doorman smiled at us. “Hey, kids. You look tired. You want to come in and sit down?” I’d learned to be suspicious, the last week or so. I figured anybody might be a monster or a god. You just couldn’t tell. But this guy was normal. One look at him, and I could see. Besides, I was so relieved to hear somebody who sounded sympathetic that I nodded and said we’d love to come in. Inside, we took one look around, and Grover said, “Whoa.”
The whole lobby was a giant game room. And I’m not talking about cheesy old Pac-Man games or slot machines. There was an indoor water slide snaking around the glass elevator, which went straight up at least forty floors. There was a climbing wall on the side of one building, and an indoor bungee-jumping bridge. There were virtual-reality suits with working laser guns. And hundreds of video games, each one the size of a widescreen TV. Basically, you name it, this place had it. There were a few other kids playing, but not that many. No waiting for any of the games. There were waitresses and snack bars all around, serving every kind of food you can imagine.
“Hey!” a bellhop said. At least I guessed he was a bellhop. He wore a white-and-yellow Hawaiian shirt with lotus designs, shorts and flip-flops.
“Welcome to the Lotus Casino. Here’s your room key.”
Percy stammered, “Um, but...”
“No, no,” he said, laughing. “The bill’s taken care of. No extra charges, no tips. Just go on up to the top floor, room 4001. If you need anything, like extra bubbles for the hot tub, or skeet targets for the shooting range, or whatever, just call the front desk. Here are your LotusCash cards. They work in the restaurants and on all the games and rides.”
He handed us each a green plastic credit card. I knew there must be some mistake. Obviously he thought we were some millionaire’s kids.
But we took the cards and Percy said, “How much is on here?”
His eyebrows knit together.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, when does it run out of cash?”
He laughed. “Oh, you’re making a joke. Hey, that’s cool. Enjoy your stay.”
We took the elevator upstairs and checked out our room. It was a suite with three separate bedrooms and a bar stocked with candy, sodas and crisps. A hotline to room service. Fluffy towels and waterbeds with feather pillows. A big-screen television with satellite and high-speed Internet. The balcony had its own hot tub and, sure enough, there was a skeet-shooting machine and a shotgun, so you could launch clay pigeons right out over the Las Vegas skyline and plug them with your gun. I didn’t see how that could be legal, but I thought it was pretty cool. The view over the Strip and the desert was amazing, though I doubted we’d ever have time to look at the view with a room like this.
“Oh, goodness,” I said. “This place is...”
“Sweet,” Grover said. “Absolutely sweet.” There were clothes in the closet, and they fitted me. I frowned, thinking that this was a little strange. Percy threw Ares’s backpack in the trash can. I guess we wouldn’t need that any more. When we left, we could just charge a new one at the hotel store.
I took a shower, which felt awesome after a week of grimy travel. I changed clothes and turned on the tv, feeling better than I had in a long time.
In the back of my mind, some small problem kept nagging me. Something was wrong... I needed to talk to my friends. But I was sure it could wait.
Percy came out of the bedroom and he had also showered and changed clothes, along with Grover who was eating crisps to his heart’s content, while I cranked up the National Geographic Channel.
“All those stations,” Percy told me, “and you turn on National Geographic. Are you insane?”
“I feel good,” Grover said. “I love this place.”
Without him even realizing it, the wings sprouted out of his shoes and lifted him a foot off the ground, then back down again.
“So what now?” I asked. “Sleep?” Grover and Percy looked at each other and grinned. They both held up their green plastic LotusCash cards.
“Play time,” Percy said.
I couldn’t remember the last time I had so much fun. We didn’t have many games at camp, usually ones that involve maiming and maybe death. A five-star Vegas hotel? Forget it. I saw Grover a few times, going from game to game. He really liked the reverse hunter thing – where the deer go out and shoot the rednecks. I was playing trivia games and other brainiac stuff. They had this huge 3-D sim game where you build your own city, and you could actually see the holographic buildings rise on the display board. Percy didn’t think much of it, but I loved it.
Percy walked up next to me. “Come on,” he told me. “We’ve got to get out of here.”
I didn’t respond. He shook me.
I looked up, annoyed. “What?”
“We need to leave.”
“Leave? What are you talking about? I’ve just got the towers –”
“This place is a trap.” I went back to my building but Percy shook me again.
“Listen. The Underworld. Our quest!”
“Oh, come on, Percy. Just a few more minutes.”
“Annabeth, there are people here from 1977. Kids who have never aged. You check in, and you stay forever.”
“So?” I asked, I didn’t see the problem.
“Can you imagine a better place?” He grabbed my wrist and yanked me away from the game.
“Hey!” I screamed and hit him. He made me look directly in my eyes.
“Spiders. Large, hairy spiders.”
Then, as if I was pulled out of a trance, I looked at Percy, as if right now was the first time I had seen him.
I said, “Oh my gods. How long have we –”
“I don’t know, but we’ve got to find Grover.”
We went searching, and found him still playing Virtual Deer Hunter.
“Grover!” We both shouted.
He said, “Die, human! Die, silly polluting nasty person!”
He turned the plastic gun on me and started clicking, as if I were just another image from the screen. I looked at Percy, and together we took Grover by the arms and dragged him away.
His flying shoes sprang to life and started tugging his legs in the other direction as he shouted, “No! I just got to a new level! No!”
The Lotus bellhop hurried up to us. “Well, now, are you ready for your platinum cards?”
“We’re leaving,” Percy told him.
“Such a shame,” he said, and I got the feeling that he really meant it, that we’d be breaking his heart if we went. “We just added an entire new floor full of games for platinum-card members.”
He held out the cards, and I wanted one. I knew that if I took one, I’d never leave. I’d stay here, happy forever, playing games forever, and soon I’d forget Chiron, and the quest, and maybe even my own name. I’d be creating my own virtual city.
Grover reached for the card, but I yanked back his arm and said, “No, thanks.”
We walked towards the door, and as we did, the smell of the food and the sounds of the games seemed to get more and more inviting. I thought about our room upstairs. We could just stay the night, sleep in a real bed for once... Then we burst through the doors of the Lotus Casino and ran down the sidewalk.
It felt like afternoon, about the same time of day we’d gone into the casino, but something was wrong. The weather had completely changed. It was stormy, with heat lightning flashing out in the desert. Ares’s backpack was slung over Percy’s shoulder, which was odd, because I was sure he had thrown it in the trash can in room 4001, but at the moment I had other problems to worry about.
Percy ran to the nearest newspaper stand, with Grover and I right on his heels.
Thank the gods, it was the same year it had been when we went in. Then I noticed the date: June twentieth.
We had been in the Lotus Casino for five days.
We had only one day left until the summer solstice. One day to complete our quest.
A/N: WHY ARE THERE SO MANY 4K WORD CHAPTERS OMG. also what a plot twist. I would’ve never guessed it.