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 overcrowded 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 e-mailed 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 toward 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 toward 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.