Chapter 1: First-Class Freight Delivery
To twenty-year-old Russell S. Gibbens, life was but a joyride behind the wheel. The constant stream of events was akin to that of the fast-paced traffic on a highway, which was partly why he had taken the job of a truck driver in the first place.
Plus, jamming his head to the sick beat on the radio while riding on the interstate and getting paid for it? Now that was the life. He wouldn't trade it in for anything.
He continued to bang his head as he drove until he reached his destination and saw a sleek Porsche parked to his front, realizing with a sinking feeling that his boss was already impatiently waiting outside the black car for him. The instant Russell saw that the man was standing by his sedan in anticipation of his arrival, he gulped and brought the truck to a stop.
As he did, his boss turned to his vehicle and proceeded to mouth at him. Even though Russell was behind the windshield and the words were inaudible from his position, he could make them out from intent alone.
"You are late."
Valentine Howell was a very imposing man when he was angry. The man's pale-white skin was only juxtaposed by his entirely jet-black outfit — trench coat with silk trousers and topped by a fedora. In fact, he looked more like he was part of the mafia than a business tycoon, and it certainly showed in his intimidating aura.
For crying out loud, he even had a black briefcase in one hand! If that didn't scream 'mafia', nothing else will.
The sharp glare that Russell received from Valentine caused him to quickly remember his place. He hurriedly jumped out of the driver's seat and blustered out a sincere apology.
"Sorry, Mr. Valentine!"
Valentine glanced at his watch, his finger rhythmically tapping against the Rolex fastened on his wrist. "I explicitly told you to be here by four in the morning. And in spite of that, it is now ten past four. That's ten minutes late." He clucked his tongue in displeasure. "Not a good first impression, Mr. Gibbens," he reprimanded, causing Russell to deeply bow his head in apology.
That said, his thoughts were far from apologetic.
Oh, come on! I reckon that ninety-five percent of the country's population is asleep right now… especially those living on the West Coast! Russell grumbled in his head.
The businessmen stomped his feet against the snowy ground, causing Russell to jerk to attention. "Enough of that. Since this is your first infraction, I will close one eye. Just keep in mind that our guests mustn't be kept waiting."
"What guests?" Russell furrowed his brow in confusion. "There's nobody here, sir! This whole place is abandoned and like, uh, twenty miles from human civilization!"
"And that's the way I like it."
Russell paused mid-rant at his boss' cryptic response. "Wha…"
As if sensing his new employee's unease, Valentine gestured his free hand towards the hangar, before strutting towards the open shutters. "We are not alone in this wilderness, Mr. Gibbens."
"…indeed you aren't."
Both men focused their attention on the source of the new voice, which had been projected from within the hangar.
W-Wait… there's somebody in there? Russell was shocked by this tidbit of information, to say the least. After all, the whole locale seemed like it could pass off as a horror movie set.
"Ah, right on schedule." Valentine curled his lips upwards as he stepped into the hangar. "Stay behind me and don't do anything stupid," he said to Russell in a conspiratorial whisper. "Now, I would like you to meet my good friend from Brazil." He lazily waved a hand at a shady man with dreadlocks who was wearing a Hawaiian shirt. "The man standing over there is Matt. He is my point of contact. Or perhaps, you can say… my dealer."
The truck driver felt himself running short of breath. "Dealer…?" Before he could comprehend the meaning behind this specific term of reference, Matt spoke in a heavily accented voice.
"Pleasure to do business with you again, Mr. Howell." The informally-dressed man strode forward and shook the tycoon in the hand.
"Drop the formalities, will you not? Please, call me Valentine."
Matt released his grip. "Pardon me. It has been so long since I have seen you in person. To think that the CEO of Exotic Pets Corporation would personally come down to meet with a wretched man like me. I must say, I'm quite flattered." Despite Matt's words, his voice was impassive and didn't give the impression of deference that words of those stature would normally imply.
"Same to you." Valentine tapped his foot on the ground, a slight bit of annoyance creeping onto his visage.
"I mean no offence," Matt hastily added. "It is just that, normally, you send… wait just a minute! Who's that guy there!?"
Russell let out an eep when he saw Matt glaring daggers at him. "Well…" he twiddled his fingers, trying to come up with a coherent sentence, "you see… I, uh…"
"Do not fret," Valentine dissuaded the man from taking further action when he saw that Russell couldn't speak to save his life. "This man is my driver."
"…Driver?" Matt stepped forward, eyeing Russell cautiously. Russell couldn't help but to shrink under his piercing gaze as the imposing man roughed him up. "Don't you usually send Howard to do the job?"
"Unfortunately, we had to let him go." Valentine's voice went cold as he reached into the breast pocket of his suit, pulling out a lighter and a pack of cigarettes. "Russell… sorry, Mr. Gibbens," he corrected as he lit a cigarette, using Russell's last name to refer to his subordinate, "is his replacement."
"Hmph. I see," Matt muttered. "What's with the red shirt, amigo?" the shady man curtly prompted, causing Russell to flinch. "Are you trying to stick out like a sore thumb?"
"No!" he hurriedly replied, "I always wear this—"
"Enough of this." Valentine interjected. "Let's get down to business."
Matt grinned and reached for the briefcase, unlocking it by entering the four-digit code built into the case. When he opened the lid, Russell felt his eyes bulging out.
There were banknotes neatly bundled up and stuffed into every nook of the briefcase.
Russell shivered, placing his hands inside his jeans pockets. This was incredible… absolutely absurd! He had never seen so much money before in his entire life!
"As discussed," Valentine's voice reverberated throughout the hangar. "Non-sequential banknotes in varying large denominations. Change them to your local currency over the next few weeks. Don't do it all at once though… you can never be too careful."
Matt continued to inspect the jet-black briefcase personally, verifying its contents and quantity before the corners of his lips curled upwards to reveal a crooked smile.
"Alright… payment received." He clicked the briefcase shut. "You will now get your goods, Valentine."
It was at this point where Russell decided that he had had enough.
"Can someone tell me just what the blazes is going on?!"
As the echoes of his indignant cry died down, a hint of something that almost resembled a laugh escaped Matt's lips. "Did you tell him nothing, Valentine?" he proceeded to ask.
Valentine glowered, staring at his polished shoes. "One can't be too careful in this line of work…"
Matt laughed at the hangar ceiling, before walking to a plane—an aging soon-to-be-decommissioned plane model, a Short SC.7 Skyvan—and slipping the briefcase in the pilot's seat.
Russell snapped out of his stupor to ask another burning question. "And for that matter, why is that plane even here? Isn't this aircraft hangar restricted?"
"Your boss owns this hangar and the airstrip," Matt replied, relishing the expression of shock on the dark-skinned Russell's face. He then followed it up with an even bigger whammy. "And I happen to own this Skyvan plane."
A plane, an airstrip, and a hangar. It was steadily dawning on Russell that what he had just stepped into was a literal web of conspiracies.
"But as to why I came down…" Valentine broke the silence by answering one of the unspoken questions buzzing in Russell's mind, "…this job is a big one. I wish to personally verify it."
Matt's lips held a straight line. "Do you not trust my guarantee, Valentine?" he growled, subtly threatening the businessman.
Valentine placed the cigarette in his mouth. Moving his lips minimally to hold the stick in place, he murmured a response back. "Trust but verify, Matt. As a man who has gotten himself significantly far in this cutthroat business, there is no one whom I trust entirely…"
From behind his tinted shades, Matt's eyes flashed dangerously for a split second, causing Russell to cower at the impromptu staring match between the two. But almost like a switch was flicked, the tension was immediately diffused as Matt let out a chortle.
"You are a sick and depraved man, Valentine. You really are."
Valentine simply remained silent at Matt's accusation, the glowing tip of the cigarette enough of a non-verbal response.
"Very well, then… I cannot deny my client's wishes." Matt's glasses glinted as he barked out an order. "Marcel! Bring it here at once!"
A lanky teenager hurriedly wheeled out a cage from the cargo hold of the plane before taking his leave. Russell simply blinked at the sight — he hadn't even known that there was a fourth person in the hangar. He must have been hiding in the plane, he deduced.
But all of that paled in comparison to the moment that Russell laid his eyes on the cage and saw a creature within its bars.
It was at this exact point which he realized exactly what was going on. He didn't even need to hear Matt's delighted words to Valentine a moment later to visualize his sticky predicament.
"Here it is… a prime specimen of what you've requested! My men have scoured the jungles of my country in search of it, and now I can cordially present to you one of the rarest birds still alive in the wild — a Spix's Macaw!"
In spite of the cold temperature, Russell felt a bead of sweat trickling down his neck. Though he didn't know the specifics of what a Spix's Macaw was, seeing the blue chick inside the cage was the clincher as to what was happening.
Damn… these people were smugglers! His boss was socializing with criminals!
He didn't sign up for this… he signed up for jamming on the radio while driving! This wasn't in any stipulation of the contract that he'd put his name on!
Not noticing Russell's sudden change in behavior, Valentine tugged on the rim of his black fedora and exhaled a huff of smoke from his mouth as he knelt down to admire the captive hatchling quivering from within its metal prison. "Hahahaha… just as I'd demanded. A young Spix's Macaw adorned with elegant cobalt feathers, its body primed with a pristine sapphire-blue color that allows it to shine like the azure surface of the ocean…" He got back on his feet, dusting himself off as he looked the man with the sunglasses in the eye. "You never disappoint me, Matt. Very good work."
Matt smirked in response. From prior experience with talking to this particular client over the phone, 'very good' was the highest praise that Valentine could confer.
A subtle nod as thanks was all he could give in response. Any more than that would show submission, and Matt was not going to let his reputation crumble by showing a sign of weakness.
In response, Valentine's eyes slid over to the shivering chick, the man laughing as he placed a finger against the iron grating, the motion causing the macaw within to let out a shrill chirp in fright. "Hello, little birdie. Welcome to America, the land of freedom and opportunity…" he greeted the bird, who could only stare silently at the man in front of him with large eyes.
"Chirp…?" it cooed, its relaxing face making Russell melt. Gosh, the little macaw looked so cute!
With a wry grin, Valentine concluded his greeting with seven words that completely changed the meaning of his prior salutation on a whim. "…for the rich and powerful, like me!" he said, bowing extravagantly at the caged bird.
"C… Chirp!?" The macaw performed a double-take as it let out a disconcerting caw, backing away until his body was literally against the back of the cage.
With a cackle, Valentine took his lit cigarette from his mouth and callously flicked some ash at the macaw, who quickly ducked to dodge the burning embers. "What a stupid bird," he commented, "He actually thought I was going to befriend him… to help him! Pssshhh!"
Valentine spat as he turned back to Matt. "Nevertheless, I do not wish to waste any more of my valuable time on checking the usual shipment. The blue macaw is all that I care to see for today."
"As you wish."
Valentine barreled on without pausing. "In a week's time I intend to auction him off to the highest bidder at my flagship store. A rare specimen of his caliber will certainly be able to fetch quite a hefty sum from wealthy collectors. And then, we'll all walk away from this many times richer," he preened, rubbing his hands together as though he was counting a stack of imaginary notes.
"Now that's what I'm talking about. Glad you feel this way. And as you already know, the risk is virtually nil. We smuggled these exotic babies on a private plane straight out of Rio de Janeiro. Stealthy, efficient, and virtually untraceable. Unfortunately, there is an inherent weakness with this method." Matt fiddled with the collar of his shirt. "There isn't enough fuel on this dinky plane to take us directly to the north."
Russell couldn't help himself. "Then why not put them on a commercial jet?" he asked, before clamping his mouth shut.
Matt let out a cruel laugh. He walked towards Russell, his footsteps clacking on the cold hard floor. "Do you think that I am an idiot? I'm not stupid enough to put these things on a commercial flight coming out of Galeão International Airport when these precious birds could be screened and potentially noticed by airport security. Can you imagine the losses if they get confiscated and are released back into the wild, or worse, traced back to me?!"
"Not to mention, commercial cargo wouldn't work," Valentine followed up, looking at Russell with a look akin to that of disappointment. "As of now, commercial flights coming from Rio de Janeiro only fly to a select few southeastern US states without a stopover, which is troubling because those birds can be easily found in a check if things were to go awry on the ground." The black-suited man scowled at the nascent thought. "Yes, I would very much prefer for my company and I to avoid being the subject of a scandal from those persistent animal rights activist groups. We cannot send them over by domestic flight. And since their final destination is North Dakota… that is where you come in, Mr. Gibbens."
Russell gaped at his boss. "Me?"
"Yes. You," Valentine answered rhetorically, boredom laced in his tone. "You will load all of these exotic birds into your truck and drive them back to headquarters."
A truck emblazoned with the words 'Exotic Pets' and their company logo.
Of course. It all made sense now. The shipment of smuggled birds could be hidden in plain sight and passed off as legitimate pets while he traveled across states.
Russell also quickly decided that he wanted no part in this.
"B-B-But…" he tried to protest, but a sharp glare from his boss immediately silenced any insubordination. "I understand, sir…"
Valentine showed the barest flicker of a smile. "Good." Spinning on his heel, he gave a final instruction.
"I'm leaving to smoke outside. See to it that everything is loaded up on the truck."
Matt saluted before whirling back to the plane. "Marcel! The rest of the cages! Get them out of my plane and hand them over to Mr. Gibbens at once!"
As the teenager quickly obliged, Russell could only stare at the colorful assortment of caged avians that were soon piled up on the hangar floor.
"Say… you're new to this job, aren't you?"
Russell could only nod meekly at Matt — paralyzed with fear and apprehension to do anything else.
"One word of advice, then." Matt curled his hands around the metal grating on the cage that he'd shown off to Valentine earlier, causing the blue bird inside to cower away from the looming shadow in fear. "Take good care of this diminutive macaw." he chuckled at Russell, eyes gleaming as they slid over to Valentine. "As unassuming as it may look at first glance, he actually cost my client—your boss—a fortune."
Russell felt his lips parching up as he gazed upon the hatchling. "How much is this bird worth…?" he managed to ask, his heart pounding.
Matt rubbed his hands in exhilarant glee. "Oh, I don't know if I can tell you the specifics…" he glanced cautiously at Valentine before whispering in Russell's ear. "Valentine paid me close to one million American dollars for a single live bird… the blue macaw you see before your very eyes!"
Matt casually dropped the price like it was no big deal, causing Russell to visibly drop his jaw. "O-One million…" he stuttered as the smuggler promptly let out a disgusted snort at the novice truck driver's ignorance to the true scope of their operation and value of the imported birds.
"C'mon, pal. You shouldn't be surprised at all. The Spix's Macaws are a very rare and endangered species." He answered the truck driver flippantly, opting to use a tone which clearly showed that he felt as though what he was saying was obvious and thus any further explanation would be a waste of time. "To have a young and impressionable baby male captured directly from the forests of Brazil is simply put, a prime opportunity for resale."
His eyes narrowed as he used a finger to lower his glasses, revealing dangerous brown eyes hidden behind the reflective lens. "You know what I am referring to, right amigo? I take it that you heard your boss talking earlier on." Matt gestured to Valentine, who flicked the remains of his cigarette into the tarmac and ground it out using his heel. "And by reselling, I mean selling these birds off to unassuming customers through a legitimate pet business. Because as far as I know, you self-righteous Americans would never buy such precious beauties from lowlife smugglers such as us… without middlemen like you obfuscating the truth behind the supply chain."
Russell shakily nodded as he paled, gulping when he realized exactly what sort of conspiracy he'd gotten himself dragged into.
"Besides, you are but a small link in this chain. Did you know that I paid a hefty bribe just so I could take off from a private runway in the Rio rainforest? If you were to count all the logistics involved to get these birds into the country unnoticed, their total net worth is much, much more than its quoted price."
Matt hauled up a wooden crate punctured with air holes before unlatching the cage and roughly tossing the macaw into it. The bird in question squealed in terror until a blanket inside cushioned its fall. Before it could even try to escape, the smuggler roughly slammed the top lid of the crate shut, trapping it within.
"Aren't you going to lock it shut?" Russell found himself inquiring as he looked at the crate. Had he not seen Matt callously toss the macaw inside it, he never would have suspected that it was used to transport birds within.
Matt sneered at Russell, quickly making the truck driver recall that he was dealing with a dangerous criminal and should stop speaking out of place. "That's your problem, amigo," Matt hissed. "It has always been done this way to avoid rousing any unwanted suspicion. I mean, regular pallet shipments aren't locked, are they?" The smuggler then proceeded to roughly kick the crate containing the macaw to silence its continuous cries. "Besides, it's a bird, and an infant to boot. It's too weak to pry the top open even if it flew."
Russell swallowed. "I see…"
"The weak will be systematically culled. That's just how this wretched world works, Mr. Gibbens. As a matter of fact, this adage applies to animals as well…"
The truck driver nodded at the merciless smuggler before going on autopilot, monotonously transferring all of the birds from the cages the two men had provided into inconspicuous crates. Famished, demoralized, and far from home, most of the birds didn't even put up a fight.
To Russell, it felt as though time had slowed to a crawl as he slowly loaded the captive avians onto his truck. As a result of being completely sucked into the task, Matt's announcement was when the distracted Russell finally realized that he had actually completed it.
"It is done, Valentine. Everything is on the truck."
"Good. Keep my Porsche free from those annoying birds." Valentine didn't even bother to glance back at their handiwork as he got into his car.
"Au revoir." Matt nodded as an acknowledgment to the deal being concluded, before shoving the boy who had been hovering next to him as he saw his client driving off. "Let's go, Marcel," he quickly dropped all formalities. "We are finished here."
The two smugglers hopped back into the pilot and taxied it off, leaving Russell to watch as it took off and soared to the skies.
Before he knew it, the first rays of dawn peeped over the horizon, the dark skies slowly being vanquished and illuminated by a rapidly lightening shade of blue as a new day was called forth from the depths.
The ascending sun sent a signal to Russell. It was time for him to go. The sooner he could leave this dreadful place, the better.
Without a moment of hesitation, he jumped into his truck and prepared to drive off, trying his best to not think about the precious cargo that he was carrying at the back of his vehicle. Sliding the key in the ignition, he started the engine and placed his foot on the accelerator.
It was just a simple trip. No biggie, right?
Oh, how wrong he was.
If Russell had known about the calamity that his life would end up spiraling into in the aftermath of this single trip across the country, he never would have taken Valentine's job. He could have feigned an illness and called in sick when Valentine had told him to meet at an airport hangar, pretended to get a flat tire on the way there… anything!
But he didn't.
As a result of that erroneous decision, the die was cast and his fate sealed like a deck of cards, and it was all thanks to the blue macaw who had been loaded onto the back of his truck.
Who could have thought that a minuscule bird no larger than the palm of his hand would end up turning his entire life upside-down…
Uh, hello! First time I'm on this specific archive. Literally wrote this chapter in the span of three days after a muse struck me like lightning on a rewatch of Rio.
Anyone remember that truck driver from the beginning of the first movie? It only struck me while watching the film again just how much of an impact his careless swerve in Moose Lake had on Blu — being the sole reason he was found by Linda and hence the catalyst to the demure and beguiling personality which he has now.
…but funnily enough, we know zilch about said truck driver. He appeared for forty seconds in the film, tops. Which to be fair, makes sense — he is but a plot device. Hence, as far as I know, I don't think I've read anything focusing on him at all. And for those who don't know me, I love to expand on ideas and concepts that no one has written prior… so, on with it!
The opening does appear to start out forebodingly, but not for long. Just you wait, this story will soon devolve into crack and stupidity. As the summary states, don't take anything within here too seriously! :P