The Anteater of Death: A Gunn Zoo Mystery #1

The Anteater of Death: A Gunn Zoo Mystery #1

The Anteater was framed! 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 ...

About The Author

Betty Webb

Betty Webb is the author of the acclaimed Lena Jones mystery series, which includes "Desert Cut" and "Desert Wives." A ...

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Intrigued by the commotion underneath the banana palm, Lucy curled her four-inch claws under her leathery pads and moved forward on her knuckles to investigate. It wasn’t time for the human-thing with the soft voice to arrive with the morning meal, so what could the noise be?

Ah, there was the cause of the trouble. A strange human- thing had fallen into Lucy’s enclosure and now thrashed among the weeds as if it belonged. What nerve! All the ants and big juicy termites in this place were Lucy’s, and Lucy didn’t share. One swipe with her claws and the human-thing would limp off squealing.

She grunted a warning. Get out. If you don’t get out, I’ll uncurl my claws and give you a rake down your belly. Out, out!

The human-thing ignored her, just kept flailing in the weeds.

Lucy extended her long nose and poked at it. Better listen to me.

The human-thing made a rattling sound, slowed its thrash- ing to a twitch, then lay still. Did it think it could fool Lucy by pretending to be asleep? A sly move, but Lucy was slyer. She knew if she allowed the human-thing to stay it would gobble up all the lovely grubbies as soon as she went back to her nest and fell asleep. Furious now, she flicked out her tongue and slapped the human-thing in its open eye. I said to get out, out, out. Now, now, now. If you don’t, I’ll show you what hurt feels like.

No reaction from the human-thing. Refusing to be taken for a fool, Lucy glared at it for a moment more, then slowly and with great show uncurled her dagger claws. Here comes trouble. When it remained motionless, she darted forward and gave it a swipe, little more than a scratch, really, but enough to let the stupid creature know she meant business.

It stayed where it was.

Her tongue flicked out again. Blue and almost two feet in length, it slapped the human-thing here, there, around its head, and in the folds of its dark clothing until it found a sticky spot, a different kind of wet.

The scent rising from the human-thing was different, too. Usually the creatures smelled like fruit, sometimes like flowers—especially the females. But this one reeked musky and sharp, almost like the metal around her enclosure.

And the sticky-wet on its front? Lucy vaguely remembered an encounter with a big spotted cat shortly before the human-things caught her and brought her to this place. The cat had flashed claws even sharper than Lucy’s, and when they raked along her shoulder, this kind of smell leaked out. When in self-defense Lucy opened the cat’s belly with her claws, curly dark ribbons tumbled onto the ground. After a while, the cat stopped twitching. Like this human-thing.

Oh, she understood now. That sharp scent was the smell of death.

Too bad, human-thing. I told you to leave and you didn’t. Point made and the human-thing no longer a threat, Lucy started to walk away, but as she began to turn, she noticed movement out of the corner of her eye. Now what? Yes, there was another intrusion into her enclosure, this time a happy one. Ants—juicy, sweet-flavored ants, were now crawling across the human-thing, splashing through its wetness.

Lucy wheeled around, flipped out her blue tongue again, and gave a lick.

Mmm, yummy.

Chapter Two

Zoos are little pieces of Eden. In the morning, before the gates open and the crowds stream in, the groundskeepers trim and sweep so that the scent of greenery blends with the odor of fresh urine as the animals indulge in their first pee of the day. It’s the fifth day of Creation all over again, when only animals populated the Earth and God was pleased with his handiwork.

Of course, this was before the Sixth day, when God created Man and Man began tossing his Diet Coke cans around.

For the past year, I’ve been a zookeeper at the Gunn Zoo, a large private zoo five miles inland from Gunn Landing Harbor, a tiny village located halfway between Santa Cruz and Monterey. I arrive a half-hour before my shift begins, just to spend a few quiet moments meandering through the paths.

Mondays find me in California Habitat with condors and otters; Tuesdays, Tropics Trail with the giant anteater and the spectacled bears; Wednesdays, Africa Trail with rhinos and lions; Thursdays, Down Under with wallabies and emus; and Fridays, at Friendly Farm with llamas and chickens. Saturdays—yes, I work six days a week and would work seven if they let me—I visit the giraffes on Verdant Veldt.

Then I hike down to the commissary and shovel worms onto the food cart.

Today being Tuesday, I finished my early-morning stroll around Tropics Trail by looking over the moat for Lucy, our giant anteater from Belize. She was nowhere in sight. I figured she was sulking somewhere toward the back of the exhibit, maybe near her holding pen.

Lucy had good reason to be in a bad mood. Not only was she pregnant, with a tendency to suffer upset stomachs, but yesterday a visitor had ignored the DANGER: DO NOT FEED THE ANTEATER sign and threw a bag of popcorn over the moat. Before I could grab my safety board to enter the exhibit and retrieve the bag, Lucy snaked out her blue tongue and tried a kernel.

Have you ever heard an anteater gag?

Anteaters have no teeth, so Lucy spit out the hard-bodied kernel immediately, but there was nothing she could do to rid her mouth of salt. Enraged, she reared up on her hind legs, propped herself kangaroo-like on her thick tail, and slashed at the offender. Good thing for him he stood ten feet away behind the enclosure’s fence. With their extended noses and oversized tails, giant anteaters may appear cuddly-funny on the ground, but when they stand up they’re almost the size of bears. Five feet tall, weighing in at one hundred-and-fifty pounds, with massive shoulders and four-inch claws designed for tearing open logs, they can eviscerate a jaguar in one swipe. In fact, giant anteaters are so lethal zoos everywhere have designated them Code Red animals.

In zoo parlance, that means if one gets loose, run for your life.

The popcorn-thrower, a wobbly-bellied man of around fifty, had jumped back with a frightened squeak but by then the damage was done. In full-bore anteater rage, Lucy swatted the bag back and forth across her enclosure with her muscular forearms, scattering popcorn from one end to the other.

“Get a grip,” I’d told her, as I angled around with my safety board, careful to keep it between us. “Be a good girl or you’re going off-exhibit until you calm down.” Such an extreme decision would be left to Zorah Vega, the zoo’s head keeper, but Lucy didn’t know that.

I’d eventually corralled her in the chain link holding pen where she continued her tantrum, slashing out at the world in general. Lucy wanted a piece of me. She wanted a piece of everybody. She especially wanted a piece of Popcorn Man. After I’d spent the rest of Monday afternoon picking up popcorn kernels saturated with anteater dung, I wanted a piece of him, too.

But today, on this sun-drenched California May morning, Lucy should have returned to her more-or-less cheerful self. Across the way, the orangutans huhu-huhued cheerfully as they threw feces at each other. Macaws squawked for joy. Everyone was happy, so why not Lucy? Why didn’t she trot out to welcome me as usual?

Then I remembered the Gunn Zoo Guild black tie fundraiser, which had started at sunset the previous night and continued on until the wee hours. The noise had probably disturbed her, and sleepy anteaters were cranky anteaters. Especially when pregnant.

Scanning the area more carefully, I spotted Lucy in the far corner of the public enclosure, her nose sticking out of the large, rattan-covered dog house she used for a nest, her diagonal black-and-white shoulder stripes hidden in its shade. “Lucy not say good morning to Teddy?” I crooned in the baby-talk many zookeepers use with their animals. She grunted once and turned over, but refused to emerge.

“Be like that.”

I left her to her sulks and drove my electric zoo cart down to the commissary to fetch breakfast. Mashed Purina Monkey Chow mixed with wiggling termites always cheered her up.

After I’d fed the squirrel monkeys, the capybaras, and the Chacoan peccaries, I waited by Lucy’s fence for the head keeper to turn up. Zorah had mentioned that she wanted to check on the anteater herself this morning, but when she hadn’t appeared after ten minutes or answered my radio calls, I finished the routine on my own. With the same caution other keepers used with the big cats, I entered Lucy’s holding pen at the rear of the enclosure.

Hearing me, Lucy stuck her long nose out of the dog house, lifted it high for a good sniff, then trotted over to the chain link fence that separated her public enclosure from the much-smaller holding pen. While she watched through the links, I poured her breakfast into the Wellington boot we used for her food bowl and turned it on its side so it would look more like a log. Then I picked up the safety board and held it in front of me. Thus assured she couldn’t take her bad mood out on me with her lethal claws, I opened the gate to the pen and stepped aside. With a happy chortle she rushed past me, stopping once to give the safety board a perfunctory swipe, then stuck her snout in the boot and began to lick up termites.

Once again I wondered about Zorah’s absence, but guessed she had been held up in a meeting with Barry Fields, our new zoo director. Or perhaps she was helping another keeper with a difficult animal, a common occurrence.

I’d saved some of the Monkey Chow mixture for Lucy’s public area, and after exiting the holding pen and locking its gate securely behind me, I stuffed the rest of her breakfast into various hollow plastic “logs” placed in several locations around the enclosure. That accomplished, I picked up my bucket and broom and set about the least fun part of a zookeeper’s job: picking up poop.

For a giant anteater, Lucy is relatively tidy. She always relieves herself in the deep brush near the banana tree, so I started my cleanup there. But when I leaned over to pick up the first pile, I saw a man in a soiled tuxedo lying half-hidden in the weeds. A drunk left over from last night’s fund-raiser?

When the man didn’t move at my approach, I gave him a poke with the broom. “Party’s over, sir. Rise and shine. And just between the two of us, you shouldn’t be in here. Lucy’s…well, Lucy’s not much of a hostess.”

Nothing. Not even a groan. I poked harder. “Sir, didn’t you hear me? Lucy’s a Code Red animal. If she decides to, she’ll rip the skin right off your bones! Let me escort you to safety.”

The man still didn’t move. “Sir, you need to…” I stepped closer and pushed the weeds out of the way. “Oh!”

Lucy had already ripped the skin off his bones.

I made it all the way to the moat before I vomited. It wouldn’t do to soil Lucy’s enclosure.

# # #

The first argument that morning was over how much of the zoo should be shut down while the San Sebastian County crime scene techs did their jobs. Sheriff Joe Rejas wanted the entire zoo closed for the day but the zoo director and Zorah, who’d finally turned up, held fast for Tropics Trail only. Attempting to forget the mess the anteater had made of the dead man, I listened to them argue while I sat on a rock under a eucalyptus tree at the trail’s entrance.

“I’m sure you understand, Sheriff, that the Gunn Zoo is a private establishment and as such, receives no government fund- ing,” Barry Fields snapped. The zoo director’s high voice made him sound like the dingos in Down Under. With his sleek build, pointy nose, and California tan, he resembled a dingo, too, albeit one dressed in Armani. “Besides relying upon the good graces of our benefactors, we must also keep an eye on gate receipts. Two thousand-plus visitors a day adds up, you know, and I can’t allow you to cut those numbers. There’s staffing, upkeep…”

“Sir, there’s been a death.” Sheriff Rejas towered over the director, his own bronze skin owing more to genetics than Fields’ obviously obsessive tanning rituals. He moved a lot more like a stealthy mountain cat than some scruffy Australian canine, too. If Fields was wise, he’d watch his step.

But Fields had all the self-confidence of the truly ignorant. Dismissing the sheriff ’s frown, he stroked his sports jacket’s expensive lapel. “Oh, something’s always dying at a zoo.”

The zoo’s park rangers, who had come running when I radioed them, gave him a disbelieving stare.

The sheriff looked disgusted. “I’m sure your animals are all very healthy, but this is a special situation. A man is dead.”

Aware of his gaffe, the director looked around for a scapegoat. Seeing me, he fired off a series of accusatory questions. “Why wasn’t that thing locked in its holding pen for the night? Did you forget? Idiot! Don’t you realize the lawsuit your incompetence has let us in for? What’s your name? I’m reporting you to Human Resources.”

I stood up and brushed away the eucalyptus leaves clinging to my butt. “I’m Teddy Bentley, and I didn’t forget to lock the gate. Since being impregnated, the anteater prefers to spend the night in her enclosure, not the holding pen. The man must have climbed over the fence and waded across the moat. It’s not as deep as the one the bears have.”

“Climb over the fence? Don’t be ridiculous! No one would do such a stupid thing. Especially not with that nasty aardvark.”

“Giant anteater, sir. Myrmecophaga treidactyla.”

“Whatever you call it, I want it shot before it causes us any more trouble.” Suddenly his face changed. “Wait a minute. Did you say your name is Bentley?”

Angered by his outrageous order, I gave my full name. “Yes, sir. Theodora Iona Esmeralda Bentley.”

Fields blinked. “Any  relation to Mrs. Caroline Bentley Petersen, of the Gunn Landing Bentleys, by any chance?” “She’s my mother.”

His abrupt manner segued to servile. He did everything but lick my mud-caked work boots. “Then I’m certain you were very careful, Ms. Bentley. And that you always are.”

What a jerk. “I was careful.”

At this point, Zorah, her big frame sunken in shock, spoke up. “Shoot the anteater? Oh, c’mon! Giant anteaters are on the Vulnerable Species list. We can’t go around killing them just because some idiot let himself get clawed. Besides, Lucy’s one of our most popular attractions, and if you send her to another zoo, our visitors will raise hell. The publicity for the Name-the-Baby-Anteater contest is all set to go as soon as she gives birth, and that’ll give us tons of media coverage.”

While the director mulled this over, Sheriff Rejas spoke again. “Here’s what we’re willing to do. We’ll keep the zoo closed until noon, then cordon off Tropics Trail for the rest of the day.

That way, the man’s death won’t cut into your gate receipts too deeply.”

Fields missed the barb. “It’ll cut them by half!”

Ignoring him, sheriff turned to me, his frosty eyes warming. “Teddy…ah, Ms. Bentley, perhaps you’ll show me what you were doing when you discovered the body? Without entering the exhibit again, of course.”

Relieved that my long-ago boyfriend had decided to keep our interaction on a professional level, I led him and his deputies back to Lucy’s enclosure and ran through my movements. “I didn’t notice the man until I…” I motioned to the bucket and broom I’d dropped on the way out of the exhibit. “…until I started cleaning.”

“Did you touch the body?”

I averted my eyes from the ongoing action under the banana tree. “When he didn’t wake up I poked him with my broom. He still didn’t move so I pushed the brush aside. That’s when I saw that he didn’t have much skin left. Especially on his face.” I swallowed hard.

“What did you do then?” “Got sick.”

“Teddy, that’s not what I meant.”

Back to first names. Not wanting to let our personal history sidetrack me, I said, “Sheriff Rejas, I’m not sure what I did then. It’s horrible, finding someone clawed to pieces.” I breathed deeply. “After I finished upchucking, I radioed the park rangers. And the head keeper.”

Zorah, who had followed us, looked up expectantly.

Joe ignored her. “When you called in the emergency, did the park rangers respond immediately?”

“As soon as they finished their Earl Grey and crumpets.” He shot me a look. “No point in getting smart, Ms. Bentley.

I’m just doing my job.”

“Yes, they showed up within seconds. With first aid kits and rifles.”

He glanced into the enclosure, where the crime scene photographer was packing up his camera equipment. “Has the anteater attacked anyone before?”

“Her former keeper, whom she didn’t like. But Lucy didn’t kill him, merely scratched him on the leg.” As far as zookeepers were concerned, anything less than twenty stitches was a scratch, and he’d only required nineteen.

The photographer backed out of the enclosure, looking as sick as I felt.

Oblivious, Joe resumed his questioning. “What do you think brought on the attack?”

“It could have been anything. Merely intruding into her territory might have set her off. She doesn’t even like it when I enter, and she’s used to me. A stranger would be taking his life in his hands.” Oops. The dead man certainly had. “Do you know who he is, ah, was? I couldn’t tell from his face.” What was left of it.

Joe leaned toward me, lowering his voice. “I don’t want this to get around yet, but his driver’s license indicates that he’s Grayson Harrill. The deputy I sent up the hill to notify his wife radioed me a few minutes ago that she collapsed. Her doctor’s with her now.”

My nausea returned, but at least not to the retching point. “Oh, Joe, you can’t let Jeanette see him like this!”

“We’ll make the official ID from dental records. The condition he’s in, it’s the only thing possible for now. We can confirm with DNA later.”

Grayson’s wife was the great-great-granddaughter of Edwin Gunn, the zoo’s founder. Jeanette—who’d been my roommate at Miss Pridewell’s Academy—was a voting member of the Gunn Trust, the organization which ran the zoo.

Now I was more alarmed than ever on Lucy’s behalf. She was just an anteater being an anteater, and as such, blameless in the attack. But I doubted that the billion-dollar Gunn Trust or its insurance carriers would interpret her actions in such a benign manner. Regardless of her popularity with our zoo visitors, the Trust could order her traded to another zoo. Even worse, they might follow Barry Fields’ advice.

Grasping at straws, I said, “When you get through questioning everyone, it might be worth your while to find out what Grayson was doing up here. He wasn’t all that cuddly with animals.”

Joe frowned. “Isn’t he one of the Zoo Guild members? Like his wife?”

“Sure. So’s my mother and she doesn’t even own a cat. A lot of the Guild members see community service as their civic duty, others perform it for political reasons. Sure, the majority of them like animals. Grayson did, too, at least in the abstract, but he didn’t care for close encounters with them. You should have seen his face a couple of weeks ago when someone stuck an adolescent saki in his arms for a publicity picture. He looked at the poor little thing as if it were a bomb ready to explode.”

“Adolescent saki?”

“Small white-faced monkey. Weighs about a pound.”

“If he was uncomfortable with animals, why did he spend so much time at the zoo? People have told me he was here almost every day.”

“That’s because he’d taken over for his wife. As one of the Gunns, she did a lot of office-type stuff around here besides her Guild work, but her migraines, which she’s suffered from for years, started getting worse, so he jumped in to fill the breach. He’s always been good about helping her. And it kept him busy.”

“Didn’t he have a job?”

“He dabbled in real estate. Some, anyway. Other than that, I guess his job was being Jeanette’s husband.”

“Sounds like a kept man.”

A harsh epitaph, and unfair. Grayson worked harder for Jeanette than most men did at their nine-to-fives. In my mind, I could see his round, eager face turned toward her, anxiously awaiting her next request. Not my idea of the perfect husband, perhaps, but as they say, it takes all kinds.

“You’re being unfair. He didn’t just sit around counting Jeanette’s money. If the zoo needed anything, from a gross of paper clips to new plantings for the cheetah exhibit, he was our point man.”

“I’ll take your word that the victim earned his keep.”

We were both silent until I asked, “What’s going to happen to Lucy?”

“Since the San Sebastian County Animal Shelter doesn’t have suitable quarters for a giant anteater, we’ll have to leave her here until…Well, until the zoo makes up its mind.”

Which meant that the anteater’s ultimate fate lay in Barry Fields’ insensitive hands.

Unless I could prove Grayson was responsible for his own demise, Lucy was doomed.

Mystery Delivered Monthly

The Poisoned Pen Press Newsletter

FacebookTwitterEmail
Goodreads