The Gunn Zoo mysteries
The Otter of Death
Other than a few remaining wisps of fog, the morning was your standard California morning: perfect. The warm Pacific nuzzled at the Gunn Landing breakwater, while overhead snowy gulls swooped through a soft westerly breeze like noisy angels. Even better, it was a Monday, and my day off. Knowing me, though, after I finished my walk around the Gunn Landing Slough, I would probably drive down to the zoo to say hello to my charges. With my new hours, I had too much to do, and too little time to do it in.
My over-crowded schedule meant poor old DJ Bonz had come up on the short end today. After giving my three-legged terrier a short walk through Gunn Landing Park, I’d returned him to my boat, the Merilee, and ordered him to keep Miss Priss company. Bonz never behaved well at the Slough and snarl-barked at any otter as if it were a marauding Viking intent upon carrying off every liveaboarder in the harbor. I sighed an I’m-sorry sigh, not that the little terrier could hear me from here. This end of the Slough – a fifteen-hundred-acre marsh near Gunn Landing Harbor -- was a good mile from my boat as the crow flies, not that I’m a crow. My slog around the Slough’s many inlets added another mile to my hike, but today I was supposed to turn in my portion of the local otter count to the Otter Conservancy, the marine life rescue organization.
With my count up to fifteen, I rounded the southern edge of the Slough, another reedy area where sea otters sometimes gathered. They didn’t disappoint me today. I stopped to watch several females floating on their backs while their pups snoozed on their mama’s bellies. Nineteen. Two pupless otters paddled by mere feet away, not bothering to give me a second look. Twenty-one. With their dog-like black eyes and noses, and golden brown coats, they appeared healthy. So far, I’d seen no sign of toxoplasma gondii, the disease that had felled too many of their kind in the past few years.
Approximately fifty yards further, I discovered that my earlier optimism had been in error. Two otter carcasses lay half-hidden among the reeds. Growing closer, I found no blood, no signs of attack. Possibly toxo. Not having anything to bag and tag the animals with right now, I took several photos and emailed them to Darleene Bauer, president of the Otter Conservancy. We would pick them up later and take them into Monterey for autopsy.
Troubled, I headed towards the northern edge of the Slough, where my sector of the grid ended. There I spotted a single otter, perhaps a male. That brought my count to twenty-two live, two dead. This otter had a rock the size of a softball tucked under his arm. Unlike other mammals -- primates excepted -- otters use tools. Their usual prey was the shellfish that proliferate near the shore; oysters, abalone, and whatnot. Somewhere during their evolution, the animals had learned to use rocks or other hard objects to crack open shells to get at the soft meat inside. Cunningly, they held onto their favorite tools, and it wasn’t unusual to see them swimming by clutching metal ship fittings, belt buckles, or pliers. Once I had even seen a large male attempting to open an oyster by using an old glass Coke bottle.
My own territory covered and notations duly made, I was about to return to the Merilee when I saw a familiar face lurking in the reeds. Maureen. Number twenty-three. Her thick coat, a prize sought by hunters for generations because of its water-repellent properties, was a brighter gold than most otters, making her easy to spot. Today she was busy opening the hard shell of a clam. As a zookeeper I knew the dangers of treating wild creatures like domesticated pets, but long ago she had stolen my heart with her nightly scratchings and chirpings at the hull of my boat, begging for treats.
Maureen loved herring.
After gulping down whatever it was she’d killed, Maureen spotted me. Perhaps thinking I carried a herring in my pocket, she tucked her tool under her arm and swam towards me, and in her rush, nudged aside a fat male – twenty-four – who had floated into her lane. Upon reaching me she looked up with hopeful eyes.
“No herring today,” I whispered, to avoid disturbing the nearby otter mommies.
Maureen can be stubborn. She waggled her head and chirped.
She chirped again, this time louder. Waved a webbed paw. When she did that, I could see the tool tucked under her other arm. It was black. Shiny. No rock.
“What’s that you’ve got, Maureen?”
Another chirp. Another paw wave. She did this dance every night at the Merilee. It had always worked there, and she didn’t understand why it wasn’t working now. One more paw wave dislodged the object so that I could see it better.
A cell phone. Wrapped in kelp.
“Oh, Maureen, you didn’t!”
Those of us who lived in the harbor were alert to such thievery, and Maureen wouldn’t be the first otter to make off with some poor tourist’s dropped cell phone. Whenever possible we rescued the phones and traced them back to their owners, careful not to injure the thief in the process.
I reached out my hand. “Give me that.”
Maureen sniffed. Where is my herring? Her following chirp sounded more like a warning ack-ack than a plea.
“You’re threatening me now? I’ll have you know I’ve handled bigger bullies than you. Rhinos. Tigers. Even a mean cockatoo.”
Another thing about Maureen; she’s entranced by the human voice. That’s down to me and my nightly conversations with her, but hey, words sometimes work. Maureen was so intent on translating my words into otter-ese that she was unprepared for the quick grab that snatched the cell phone out from under her arm.
“Aka-aka-aka!!!” she shrieked, and with teeth bared, made a dive for my hiking boot.
No dummy me, I fled, leaving her behind.
Once on higher, drier ground, I turned my attention to the kelp-wrapped phone, an expensive, water-resistant Zeno-7. To my surprise, it was still on and in camera mode, which meant it had only recently been dropped. Scanning the horizon, I saw no one. I carefully brushed the kelp away to better see the picture on its mud-spattered screen. At first the image made me smile, because the owner – Stuart Booth, whose otter count area included the northern dogleg of the Slough -- appeared to have dropped his phone in the act of taking a selfie. It was an odd selfie, though. A dark spot marred his temple, and splatters of reddish-mud half-covered his face. The image was blurry, too, as if he had forgotten to hold the phone still. And there was something… something about the look on Booth’s face that made me uneasy. Was it surprise? I pulled my tee shirt out of my cargo pants and wiped at the screen again. Squinted. Tried to read his expression through green smears of kelp and red mud.
No, that expression wasn’t surprise.
It was horror.
And the red drops splattered all over his face?
I was looking at a murder.
From PUBLISHERS WEEKLY
Webb’s satisfying fourth Gunn Zoo mystery (after 2013’s The Llama of Death ) takes California zookeeper Theodora “Teddy” Bentley to Iceland. Her mission to pick up an orphaned polar bear cub for the zoo’s new northern exhibit takes a detour when she stumbles on Simon Parr—a loud-mouth womanizer who won millions in the lottery and has treated his Arizona bird-watching club to a trip to Iceland—lying face down in a puffin burrow with a bullet in his head. While Chief Insp. Thorvaald Haraldsson warns her to back off when another bird-watcher is found dead, Teddy lies her way into the club and, at the urging of Parr’s famous romance-author wife, investigates the shady pasts of its members. Iceland’s rugged and sometimes dangerous landscape provides atmosphere, while Magnus, the polar bear cub, appears just often enough to remind us why Teddy’s in Iceland. Webb skillfully keeps the reader guessing right to the dramatic conclusion. (Nov.)
And now... the first two chapters of THE PUFFIN OF DEATH
Thursday, August 14
As he snapped yet another photograph of the black-yellow-and-white bird, Simon Parr congratulated himself. God only knew why the dumb thing had flown all the way from Egypt to this rough Icelandic hilltop overlooking the North Atlantic, but there it was, pecking its way towards the puffin burrow. Although the morning was chilly, what with that damp wind freezing the tops of his uncovered ears and bald head, he smiled. By sneaking away at four-thirty – the sun was almost up, for God’s sake! -- and leaving the rest of his group back at the hotel, he would be the first, and perhaps only, person on the tour to snag the hoopoe. So what if he’d forgotten his hat.
Note to self: even in August, Iceland is frigging cold.
But this trip was working out in more ways than one. First, the conversation back at the airport, where he’d told a certain someone exactly how things were, now the hoopoe. And afterwards… Well, better things were yet to come.
He heard a squawk.
The puffin, another visual weirdo with its oversized red, yellow and blue beak, had stuck its head out of its burrow and was sounding a warning. It wasn’t happy with the hoopoe’s incursion, but who cared what a puffin thought? There were millions of the nasty things up here, so if the hoopoe fouled the puffin’s living room, well, too bad. Parr didn’t like puffins, never had. Rats with wings, he’d once called them, bringing down the wrath of other birders at last month’s meeting of the Geronimo County Birding Association. But had they ever smelled a puffin rookery? It was enough to make a person gag.
The stench was worth it, though. Same for the damp north wind numbing his fingers. He’d have gone through all kinds of hell to get those shots of the directional-challenged hoopoe.
All things considered, the hoopoe wasn’t a bad-looking bird. Not stubby and ungainly, like that stupid puffin, but sleek, built for flight and speed. Black-tipped yellow crown. Long, narrow black bill. Dramatic black-and-white striped wings and tail. Bright yellow body. Given its extraordinary plumage, he could understand why there’d been such excitement when word of its arrival reached the hotel. But in the end, a bird was just a bird. Another notch on his belt, nothing more.
Note to self: hire a private trainer and get rid of that hint of pot belly. Well, he had the money now, didn’t he? He had the money to do a lot of things he couldn’t do before, including getting rid of…
Simon Parr was so busy thinking about his glorious future that he forgot about the hoopoe. He also didn’t hear footsteps approaching behind him. He didn’t even hear the gunshot, because by the time the sound reached his ears, he was already falling towards the puffin’s burrow, unaware of sound, sight, or any of the other senses typical of life.
In fact, he would never hear another thing.
Or see another hoopoe.
Four days earlier
When Zorah radioed me that Aster-Edwina wanted to see me in the zoo office immediately, I was knee-deep in giraffe droppings. Not that I minded, since that’s my job. Most people think being a zookeeper is glamorous work, but the truth is that seventy-five percent of my time is spent shoveling one pile of fecal matter from one place to another. The animals enjoy watching, though.
Being summoned by Aster-Edwina Gunn, head of the Gunn Zoo Charitable Foundation seldom meant good news, so it was with a certain amount of reluctance that I put my poop-scooping duties aside, climbed the long hill from African Trail, took the long way around Tropics Trail, then cut in front of the new Northern Climes exhibit and joined the crowd by the penguin enclosure. Anything to put off the inevitable. Rory, one of the Emperor penguins, was in the midst of another altercation with Ebenezer, a crested northern rockhopper. The two didn’t like each other much, but this was the first time I’d seen them actually go at it. The smaller Ebenezer pecked Rory on the chest. Rory squawked and bopped Ebenezer on the head. Rory bopped back.
I was thinking about breaking it up when my radio hissed at me again. “Keeper Number Four,” I answered. “Over.”
“Leave those penguins alone and get your butt in here, Teddy,” Zora snapped.
“What makes you think I’m watching the penguins?”
“Because that’s all you’ve done since they arrived.”
Got me there. It would take a more jaded zookeeper than I not to be fascinated by the little buggers. They were so people-like. Yet so not.
“Well, Zorah, I’m…”
“Theodora Esmeralda Iona Bentley, do I have to tell you again?”
“Oh, all right,” I grumbled. “I’ll be there in a minute. But stop calling me by my full name. You know I hate it.”
“And I hate being the go-between you and Aster-Edwina. She’s on a real tear today, so make it half a minute. Zoo One, over and out.”
While I was clipping the radio back onto my belt, Ebenezer’s and Rory’s spat morphed into a full-tilt brawl, and the two penguins tumbled butt-over-flipper until they fell off their rocky slope and splashed into the pool. Avian tempers duly doused, they swam to opposite sides of the pool, where they reduced their former ire to mere glares at each other.
Action over, the crowd left. So did I.
“Well, hi, Aster-Edwina,” I said, walking into the Administration Building. “What brings you here on this sunny California morning?”
The owner of the Gunn Zoo had to be well into her eighties by now, but age hadn’t dimmed her. Hints of her former, although hawk-like, beauty remained on her face, and her spine was still as straight as a West Point graduate’s. Age hadn’t tempered her irascibility, either. Glancing at her watch, she said, “It does not take eight minutes to walk from Africa Trail to Admin.”
“It’s hot today, so I was reserving my strength. August, you know. Happens every year. Plus I’m pulling a double shift, and I…”
“No, you’re not.”
“That comes as a surprise to me,” I said, “Especially since you’re the one who arranged it.”
Keisha, one of the Gunn Zoo’s most popular bonobos apes, was about to give birth, and Aster Edwina had ordered that she be observed around the clock. Due to so many keepers on vacation, Zorah – even though she was now the director of the zoo -- had pulled a double day before yesterday, which meant that today was my turn.
Aster Edwina inclined her regal head. “Zorah has already made arrangements. You’re needed elsewhere.”
“And that would be?” With Lucy, the giant anteater, who was also about to give birth? Or Wanchu, the koala, whose joey should be emerging from her pouch any day?
Aster Edwina mumbled something I was certain I hadn’t heard correctly. “Pardon? Could you repeat that? Where did you say I’m needed?”
“In Iceland,” she snapped.
I laughed. “Honestly, I really have to get my hearing checked, because I would swear you just said ‘Iceland.’”
“I did. You’re leaving tomorrow. Zorah’s already made the arrangements.”
Zorah wouldn’t meet my eyes, which meant it was probably true, and she felt guilty about it.
“Iceland? Tomorrow? You can’t be serious,” I sputtered.
“I am perfectly serious, Theodora. As you know, Jack Spense, our bear man, irresponsibly broke his leg surfing Sunday – compound fracture, I hear – and his doctor won’t clear him to fly. You are the only person left on staff whose passport is up to date.”
At last an out. I began a lie. “But it’s not up…
She headed me off at the pass. “Don’t bother telling me it’s not, Theodora, because I am quite well aware you were in Costa Rica last month, visiting someone it’s best not to mention. By the way, you should have gotten my permission before you flew off so cavalierly.” Here, a harsh stare at Zorah, who had enough sense to keep quiet. “As I was saying before you so obviously tried to pull the wool over my eyes, you’ll be taking an Alaska Airlines flight out of San Francisco to Seattle at 5:30 p.m tomorrow, spend the night there, and the next day you’ll board the 10 a.m. Icelandic Air flight and land, weather willing, at Keflavik Airport sometime early Wednesday. We’ve already arranged for a car to pick you up, and you’ll be sharing lodging with one of the Reykjavik Zoo people. The transfer paperwork will take around six days, I hear, because Icelanders move slowly in these matters.” She sniffed. “No sense of urgency, those people. Pack for weather.”
Icelandic weather. A vision of glaciers and blizzards rose up in front of me. I’m California born and bred, and the thought of spending six days in freezing temps filled me with horror. “Six days? But, Aster…”
“Yes, yes, I know you’re worried about that adorable little bonobo what’s her name, yes, Keisha, as well you should, but Zorah and I have already taken care of that staffing problem, and I assure you that everything will be fine.”
“But my own pets…”
“I took the liberty of calling your mother, and she agreed to take in your animals, so you see there’s no problem, no problem at all.” She gave me a beneficent smile, Lady of the Manor to Obedient Serf. “I’ve even given you several days off with pay so you can see the sights. They say Iceland is a major tourist attraction these days. Just make certain you call me every day and let me know how everything’s going. Or Skype, whatever that thing is called.”
“But… But why are you sending me to Iceland?” I hated the plaintive tone in my voice, but couldn’t seem to stop.
With a look of satisfaction, she said, “To pick up the polar bear, of course.”
The critics are raving about THE LLAMA OF DEATH.
LIBRARY JOURNAL writes: "Zookeeper Theodora "Teddy" Bentley works her shifts at the local Renaissance Faire, but her heart isn't in it, especially since her fiance', Sheriff Jo Rejas, is out of town. The only pleasure she gets is seeing how children lovingly interact with her charge, llama Alejandro. Then, shockingly, Henry the Eighth (Victor Emerson, proprietor of the local wedding chapel) is found dead by crossbow in the llama's pen. Law enforcement makes a mess of the investigation by arresting Teddy's mom. Soon Teddy discovers that Victor was no reverend; rather, he was an escaped convict with plenty of enemies... VERDICT: Webb's third zoo mystery winningly melds a strong animal story with an engaging cozy amateur sleuth tale. Set at a relaxed pace with abundant zoo filler, the title never strays into too-cute territory, instead presenting the real deal."
PUBLISHERS WEEKLY writes: "Zookeeper Theodora 'Teddy' Bentley's human relationships prove more taxing than her animal ones in Webb's amusing third Gunn Zoo mystery... Animal lore and human foibles spiced with a hint of evil test Teddy's patience and crime solving in this appealing cozy."
The Koala of Death
The second Gunn Zoo Mystery
When zoo keeper Theodora "Teddy" Bentley fishes the body of Koala Kate out of Gunn Landing Harbor, she discovers that her fellow zoo keeper didn't drown; she was strangled. The clues to Kate's kill implicate other keepers at the Gunn Zoo, including Outback Bill, Kate's Aussie boyfriend; and Robin Chase, the big cat keeper who's got it in for Teddy. Also displaying suspicious behavior are several "liveaboarders" at the harbor; Speaks-To-Souls, a shady animal psychic; and even Caro, Teddy's much-married, ex-beauty queen mother. But murderers aren't all Teddy has to worry about. Her embezzling father is still on the run from the Feds, and the motor on the Merilee, her beloved houseboat, is failing. To pay for repairs, Teddy agrees to host a weekly live television show featuring misbehaving animals that range from Wanchu, a cuddly koala, to Abim, a panicky wallaby -- and all hell breaks loose in the TV studio. To add to Teddy's woes, the killer zeroes in on her with near-fatal results. THE KOALA OF DEATH features all the social-climbing humans and eccentric animals that made the prize-winning THE ANTEATER OF DEATH so popular. Readers will enjoy this behind-the-scenes peek at zoo life, and learn that poor little rich girls like Teddy lead much more compolicated lives than they'd ever imagine -- especially when they're tracking killers.
"Webb warmly evolkes the unconventional worlds of zoo and marina. Readers don't even have to be animal lovers to enjoy watching, say, a pushy television host get her comeuppance from a mischievous lemus." PUBLISHERS WEEKLY
"The body of one zookepper provides a workout for the brain of another. Teddy's second case showcases an engaging array of quirky characters, human and animal." KIRKUS.
"Teddy's second adventure will appeal to animal lovesr who enjoy a bit of social satire with their mystery." BOOKLIST
"The author of the edgy Lena Jones mysteries softens her touch in this second zoo mystery (after THE ANTEATER OF DEATH) featuring an amateur sleuth with a wealthy background and a great deal of zoological knowledge and brain power. From mucking out the cages to carrying a lemur with a loose sphincter onto a TV set, Teddy's advetures will appeal to fans of animal-themed cozies." LIBRARY JOURNAL
In The Anteater of Death, an innocent anteater gets framed for murder.
But if Lucy, the pregnant giant anteater from Belize didn't kill the man found dead in her enclosure, who did? California zookeeper Teddy Bentley must find the real murderer before her furry friend is shipped off in disgrace to another zoo.
Then another human bites the dust, the monkeys riot, and the Mexican gray wolves go nuts. Things get even worse when the snooty folks at Gunn Landing Harbor attempt to evict Teddy from the Merilee, her beloved houseboat. And that's just the beginning of Teddy's woes. Her father, on the lam for embezzling millions, gets targeted by a local gangster; Caro, Teddy's socialite mother, a former beauty queen who loathes Teddy's dangerous job, starts introducing her to "eligible bachelors." But Teddy has already given her heart to Sheriff Joe Rejas, a migrant worker's son. Caro is not pleased.
Behind-the-scenes zoo life, animal lore, and the leaky ups and downs of Central Coast California houseboat living create a thrilling backdrop for murder -- and yes, a little romance.
The Anteater of Death is a surprising and warm-hearted series debut for Betty Webb, best known for her dark, best-selling Lena Jones series (Desert Noir, Desert Wives, Desert Shadows, Desert Run, and Desert Cut. But Lena Jones fans needn't despair. Desert Lost, the new Lena Jones mystery, was in December 2009. In the meantime, cozy up to The Anteater of Death and learn that even the grimmest of mystery writers has a lighter side. And stay tuned for THE KOALA OF DEATH, which debuts in August, 2010! If you thought Lucy the Anteater was great, wait'll you get a look at Wanchu the Koala!
"I've been impressed with Betty Webb's edgy mysteries about the Southwest, so I was surprised to find she has a softer side and a wicked sense of humor in a book that can only be described as High Society meets Zoo Quest. I've always been a sucker for zoos, so I also relished the animal details in this highly enjoyable read."
Giant Anteaters, Reid Park Zoo, Tucson