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The Anteater of Death,
The Gunn Zoo mysteries
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