“Lost satellite reception.” DellaStreet spoke in crisp, unapologetic tones. I made the only possible response, a muttered but intense, “You useless piece of—”
DellaStreet, named after Perry Mason’s secretary, had gotten us into this wilderness before abandoning her GPS duties. The paper map of Washington State was equally useless. We were deep into secretive back roads, dipping in and out of forested canyons— Sasquatch territory with no long-range visibility, no road signs, and no other traffic. I pictured hikers discovering our skeletons in the zebra-striped zoo van years from now, picked clean by insects and rodents, me still at the wheel and Denny Stellar seat-belted next to me. The Vancouver Columbian headlines: “Remains of animal keepers found at last!” My parents would be raising my son. And DellaStreet would still be stuck to the windshield with a question mark on her worthless little screen.
The van smelled of mud, animals, and frustration. The Finley Memorial Zoo education staff always cleaned it after they brought animals back from a school class or park demonstration, but a vague essence of red-tailed hawk, king snake, and opossum lingered. Windshield wipers beat against a fitful rain, the heater throbbed, and something loose in the back rolled and clanked annoyingly.
We were on a rescue mission and, so far, we couldn’t find our ass with both hands.
This trip was supposed to be a break from my routine of cleaning and feeding the bird collection, or, in Denny’s case, the reptiles. “I haven’t had this much fun,” I said, “since I last got poison oak.”
“You were just trying to suck up to Neal,” Denny said. “Unpure energy, negative results—guaranteed.”
“Unpure? That’s not a real word.” Denny invented the word, but not my motives. The plan was to showcase my flexibility and cooperative attitude, thereby earning points with our boss.
Not that he had offered me a choice. This morning, I’d found a note from Neal Humboldt, the zoo’s curator, on my timecard asking me to come to his office first thing. He’d spun his chair to face me when I stood before his desk, his compact body dense with energy, intense blue eyes already looking past me to the next item on his list. “Oakley, need you to go pick up some exotic pets from a farm somewhere north of Battle Ground. The owners got themselves busted for drugs and hauled off to the slammer. Animal Control wants us to park the animals. We’ll keep them in quarantine until the trial. Won’t hurt us to do the agencies a favor. Take Denny and the Education van.” He twisted back to his computer.
“Um, where? Exactly…”
His hands froze over the keyboard. “Oh, right. Here’s the address.” He shoved a piece of paper toward me.
“What kind of animals? We’ll need carriers.”
“They said parrots and reptiles. That’s all I got.” Back to the keyboard.
“Just a day trip?” I asked and kicked myself. The subtext was, “because I have a kid and can’t go kiting off on unplanned overnight trips.” Not good to remind him of my limitations. Iris Oakley, able to leap tall exhibits in a single bound.
“Yeah, yeah. Get back by four. Shouldn’t be any overtime.” So I’d found Denny and the van and plugged the address into the GPS and here we were, with the morning ticking away. I stretched my shoulders and neck, aching from the tension of peering through a rain-pelted windshield looking for a mailbox or driveway. Also from the tension of not talking to Denny about breaking my best friend’s heart. I couldn’t face that conversation when we were cooped up together with no escape.
“We’ve been sucked into a parallel universe with a road shaped like a torus,” Denny said. “It’s a continuous loop until the end of time.”
I was tempted to agree, but I caught movement in the rearview mirror and flinched as a patrol car closed in swiftly on our bumper. It swept past us on a blind curve.
We were saved.
# # #
I pulled through a wide-open metal gate and parked between the patrol car and a Clark County Animal Control truck, hoping that our van could extricate itself from the mud when necessary. Other trucks and cars advertised the Clark County Sheriff ’s Office, Washington State Patrol, and the electric company. One had a little satellite dish on top and TV station call letters on the side. We climbed out of the van into chilly air and stretched.
Two big dogs barked and paced behind us with more anxiety than aggression, a black dog with some Boxer in him and a Chow mix. Directly to our right was a muddy vegetable garden punctuated with stumps and fenced with hog wire. Tall trees, mostly young Douglas firs, surrounded the house and barns and crowded in along the driveway. How did the garden get enough sun to survive? Lichen-frosted trees stood evenly spaced down the fence line, a few apples clinging to their crooked branches. All the open spaces were churned-up mud, mud everywhere. Currier and Ives it wasn’t.
“A stump farm,” Denny said, his dark blond hair bare to the weather. “Log the trees and starve trying to farm it, then give up and let the trees come back. Must be animal hoarders hiding out here so they can have all the dogs they want. Might have rabbits in that barn. Maybe a donkey somewhere around or pygmy goats. Not real farm animals. Pets.”
I’d known Denny a long time and had no trouble tuning out his stream-of-consciousness guesswork. He took off toward a barn fifty yards in front of us with long strides, tall and hunched forward. “Wait up,” I called. “We need to talk to the cops first.” Denny stopped and jittered in place, then swung toward the single-story gray house to our left. Three homemade plywood dog houses near the front of the house had no door flaps, no bedding. All they provided was a partial windbreak. Next to the front porch, the traditional frayed blue tarp sheltered a heap of firewood, chunks spilling out at the edges.
A Clark County deputy sheriff on the porch looked perturbed by our arrival. His uniform was way sharper than our dark brown shirts and pants. He wore a khaki shirt, olive-green pants, and thick-soled black shoes that had picked up a lot of mud. He got to wear a star on his chest and an ear bud with a coiled tube down to a pocket, plus a belt with a gun. I felt underdressed.
“I’m Iris Oakley from Finley Zoo,” I said. “This is Denny Stellar. We’re here to remove the exotic animals. The zoo agreed to hold them.”
The crew-cut deputy relaxed, nodded, and led us through the rain toward the closer of the two barns. I scanned the place as I dodged mud puddles in his wake. Both barns were roofed in rusted metal and sheathed in weathered wood siding. Feral blackberry canes arched along their sides. A green Vanagon camper with moss-edged windows sat composting alongside the closer barn. A man in a black wool jacket and knit cap pointed a camera at us. We stepped out of cold, wind-driven rain through a sliding wood door into the barn. I paused, startled by heat and busy- ness. Nothing in the weathered exterior hinted of this warm, bright space. The moist air smelled of marijuana sap. People stood on ladders removing grow lights; they snipped off bushy plants and hauled them out of the barn; they photographed everything. Thick batts of insulation bulged along the walls and ceiling, their shiny aluminum surfaces reflecting the peculiar orange glow from the fixtures still hanging. A boxy heater roared. Thin black water tubes dangled everywhere, their ends in white dirt-filled buckets.
Bird keeping could be surprisingly educational.
“The Tiptons kept most of their birds back here,” our guide said.
“Tiptons?” I said.
“The people who lived here and presumably set all this up.” Denny, often oblivious to expectations, veered off. The deputy led me to the rear of the barn and opened a door. I heard wings beating, shrill cries, and soft thuds. He flicked on a switch. I stepped into the narrow, harshly lit room and stopped short. At least two dozen parrots fluttered and cried out from a chicken-wire cage stretching to our right. The birds flew to the far end where they clung to the wire or other birds’ backs, wings beating frantically. Three of them weren’t frantic—they were dead on the floor. An aisle ran along the interior wall. The deputy walked unheeding down this toward the massed birds. “Hey!” I said. “Don’t go down there. They’re already scared to death.”
He stopped, looking surprised and then offended. I moderated my voice. “We’ll take it from here.”
“Fine by me. Get them out of here so we can shut off the electricity. And try to stay out of our way.” He took his hurt feelings and left.
I backed out of the little room and closed the door so the birds would calm down. Staring unseeing at the crime scene technicians bustling around, I tried to reorganize my thinking. What on earth was this mass of ill-kept birds all about?
Denny swung back from a far corner of the barn. “Are the reptiles back there? I don’t see any.”
I shook my head. “Parrots. Lots of them. We don’t have enough carriers. They look terrible.”
Denny bounced on the balls of his feet. “I need to check the other barn.”
“Go take a look. I’ll be there in a minute.”
I slipped into the back room again as unobtrusively as I could and took a second look. The birds didn’t thrash around as wildly this time. Most stayed where they were, hanging from the wire sides or clinging to the few perches. Their bodies and wings were green, with yellow, red, and blue markings on faces and shoulders. Amazon parrots. A couple different species—lilac-crowned, red-crowned, and one or two others. I’d have to look them up. Two of them flew toward me and veered back, clumsy in the tight space. They settled on a dowel in mid-cage, hyper alert.
Both had broken wing and tail feathers, probably from bashing into the walls.
Focus on the basics: fill the empty food and water bowls. I found a plastic bucket and carried it out into the grow operation, looking for a water tap.
Denny came charging back and nearly slammed into me. “Ire, they won’t let me into the other barn. They say it’s got turtles, but the meth lab is in that barn and they won’t let me in. Come talk to them. Please.” He wheeled and headed out the way he’d come.
Meth lab? “In a minute.” I found the tap and carried the bucket back, moving slowly and avoiding eye contact with the birds. They stirred, but didn’t flush. I spotted a bag of parrot food behind the door, a brand I didn’t recognize. The guano thick on the floor said the birds were eating it when they had the chance. After filling the water bowls and setting out the crummy food, I gathered dead birds off the floor and put them into the bucket. Bright wings spilled over the edge. This cage was filthy, too small, and badly designed. No natural light, no decent food, not even good perches. No wonder birds were dying.
Who were these people who didn’t give a rip, who couldn’t be bothered to find out what parrots needed to stay alive? A small, hot fire of anger ignited. I left so the birds could relax enough to drink and eat and stepped outside the barn, back into the weather. I turned away from the house, rain peppering my face and hair. Outside the smaller barn, Denny paced in front of a woman deputy leaning against the exterior with her arms crossed. He was saying, “No, no, not tomorrow. The parrots are in bad shape and this might be worse. They could be dying in there.” “Like I told you, this is a meth lab,” the deputy said. “A serious hazard to your health, which is why I’m standing here in the rain to keep people out. You’ll have to wait until it’s cleaned up.” She was about my age and seemed too slight for law enforcement. Then again, she carried a gun.
I elbowed Denny to shut up. “Fish and Wildlife asked us to get these animals into safe situations. We wouldn’t want any trouble between Clark County Sheriff ’s office and another agency.”
The deputy looked me over and apparently decided a zoo uniform and the name label over my pocket were all the information she needed. She shook her head slowly and firmly. “Just so you know, you make meth wrong and you get nerve gas. Think about it.”
I did think about it. The people we’d seen entering the barn weren’t wearing respirators. No nerve gas. “People in there now are wearing protective gear. You could ask whether they have extras on-site. Then we could make a quick assessment of the situation.” I thought that last bit was a nice turn of phrase, and apparently it did the trick.
She sighed, straightened up, and walked inside. She returned in a few minutes and resumed her post. The barn door opened, revealing a white jumpsuit and hood. The figure pulled off a paper dust mask and became a woman. I made my pitch and learned that she was with the health department. Negotiations led to a determination in our favor, at least for a brief inspection. The price was jumpsuits, face masks, vinyl gloves, and disposable booties. “No one told me we’d have two more people to outfit,” the health department woman said. “We’re going to run out.” She sent the deputy off to the parking lot rather than ruin her booties in the mud. We waited in the drizzle until the deputy returned with an armload of packages and an even less hospitable attitude. I hoped the gear was top quality and we wouldn’t be poisoned for some theoretical reptiles. We suited up and walked in like astronauts exploring a new planet.
Inside seemed at first to be a typical farm barn. It was cold and smelled like motor oil. The inadequate light from a dirty window and a single bulb hanging from the ceiling revealed a room crowded with an aging tractor, shovels hung on pairs of nails, coils of hoses. That was the front room, maybe a third of the barn. We walked through an interior door into the main room. A few fluorescent fixtures, nothing like the banks of them in the first barn, threw a cold blue light. Another box heater kept it warm. Sharp chemical smells penetrated my face mask. I quelled the urge to hold my breath.
“Make it quick. Still dust and vapors in here,” said a muffled male voice from another astronaut outfit.
On the left was a kitchen—sink and stove, pale laminate counter top. Plastic litter overflowed a shiny galvanized garbage can. The counters looked like a classy high school chemistry lab. Tubing, an assortment of glass flasks and plastic bottles. Bunson burners, a digital scale that would be ideal for weighing baby birds, a box of Red Devil lye. A new fridge, nicer than mine. The perimeter was barricaded with red tape strung around the barn’s support posts. White figures worked inside the tape, photographing and fingerprinting and stuffing items into bags. I stopped gawking and pivoted to follow Denny. On the other side of the barn, a few heat lamps hung over a low plywood corral. Twenty or so tortoises of several shapes and sizes moved sluggishly over dusty straw bedding. Again, far more animals than anticipated and in equally primitive housing.
Denny stood with his hands resting on the plywood barrier. I could see only his eyes, but he looked to be wearing the blank expression he put on when he encountered something marvelous and desirable. “A grab-bag of expensive torts. No sulcatas. Radiated. Pancake? Damn—is that a spider?” he muttered into his face mask. “What the hell is that one?”
I gathered he was pawing through his mental catalog of tortoise species.
He leaned over the wall and picked up one the size of a baseball. The tortoise waved its stumpy legs in the air, then cried out shrilly and peed a surprising little flood. I jumped.
Denny put it back. “They urinate in self-defense, and they look dehydrated already.” He walked around inspecting the corral. “Water bowls are dry because they’re set under those cheap heat lamps, and the little ones couldn’t reach into them anyway. I’m seeing scraps of iceberg lettuce and that’s all, so crappy nutrition.” He waved an arm, encompassing the corral. “This is an amazing collection in lousy conditions. It makes no sense.”
The implications clicked. “These aren’t pets,” I said. “This is a wildlife smuggling operation.”