I awoke during a pearly dawn to hear something bump against the Merilee’s hull. A brief glance at my bunkside clock gave the time as 5:24. Before I could pull the covers back over my head, DJ Bonz, my three-legged dog, slapped a wet tongue across my face, while at the foot of the bunk, Miss Priss mewed, Feed me, feed me, feed me.
“I can’t have just six more minutes?”
No, you can’t, they thought at me.
Miss Priss, a mostly Persian who had weighed a whisker-thin three pounds when I rescued her from the same shelter I’d rescued Bonz, marched up my leg, across my stomach, and onto my chest. Now a whopping ten pounds, she shoved the small terrier mix out of the way so she could glare down at me through her one remaining eye. Feed me, feed me, feed me.
“I can take a hint.” With a groan, I threw off the eiderdown comforter—even in June, Gunn Landing Harbor mornings can be chilly—and rolled out of the bunk. “Now you guys just settle down for a minute while I…”
There it was again, the sound that had wakened me. Portside. Surely not Maureen. The sea otter never showed until 5:45 a.m., so punctual I could set a clock by her. Maybe, like me, she’d had a rough night. Ignoring my pets’ ever-louder demands, I slipped on some sweats before removing a herring from the galley’s small refrigerator. Thus steeled against the chill, I stepped out on deck and drew a deep breath of Pacific Ocean air. Sounding only yards away, gulls shrieked, but I couldn’t see them.
Grayness swirled around me in a fog so thick that only the outline of the boat next to mine was visible. A blue and white CrisCraft twice the size of my Merilee, the Gutterball bobbed gently in the harbor’s calm water. The night before, its owners, Doris and Sam Grimaldi, had thrown a noisy party that lasted far too late. I’d stayed until ten, then came back home to the Merilee to get some sleep, but found myself still awake at one, listening to a boat full of drunks guffaw at jokes so ancient they should have died with the dinosaurs.
Casting a dirty look at the now quiet Gutterball, I leaned over the Merilee’s rail, herring in hand. For a moment, the fog parted just enough that I could see, in the oily water below, a patch of sable brown fur heading for the boat again. Then the fog closed in.
“Early today, aren’t you, Maureen?” I held the herring out, waiting for her to break surface. Even if she couldn’t see the fish, she would smell it.
Feeding resident wildlife was just one of the joys of harbor living. My quarters on the Merilee, a 1979 thirty-four-foot CHB trawler—or “powerboat,” to landlubbers—might be cramped, but the view was terrific. Once the mist cleared, anyway.
Despite my waving the herring around, Maureen didn’t respond. The otter just thunked into the Merilee’s hull, eighteen inches below the final “E.” That was odd, too. She usually surfaced under the “M.”
By rights, she should have already stuck her head out of the water, chattered at me, then executed a flirtatious belly roll to earn her breakfast. Not today, which gave me some concern. In the past few years, the Central California coast had seen a rise in sea otter deaths due to Sarcocystis neurona, a protozoan found in innkeeper worms and clams, which were among the otters’ favorite meals. Could Maureen…?
Truly alarmed now, I leaned farther forward, intending to grab Maureen by the scruff of the neck and haul her aboard, to be followed by a quick trip—if it wasn’t too late—to the vet. But as the fog parted again, I saw something that a clear day would have revealed earlier: otters don’t wear pink dresses or tie their long hair back with festive silver ribbons.
“Help!” I yelled. “Anyone! Woman overboard!”
Without waiting for an answer, I plunged into the dirty harbor water and hooked my arm around the woman’s neck, tipping her blue-tinged face out of the water. Although my soaked sweats weighed me down, I was able to maneuver her over to the Merilee’s ladder. I tried not to fasten on the phrase “dead weight,” but as she dangled limp and cold in my arms, I suspected that the rescue had already been too late. Yet I couldn’t let her go.
“Help!” I yelled again. “Someone get a rope or boat hook!
She’s too heavy for me to lift! Call 9-1-1!”
The Gutterball remained silent, but from the boat slip on the other side of the dock, a woman called out, “On my way with a rope!” It was Linda Cushing, the owner of the Tea 4 Two. Then I heard hurried footfalls. Seconds later, the Merilee rolled to starboard as Linda stepped on deck. “Damned fog, can’t see a thing. Where are you, Teddy?”
“In the water near the stern. Hurry! Just in case.” Just in case, what? Just in case the dead could rise again?
A splash next to me as Linda threw down one end of the rope. “Slip it under her arms, tie it tight, and help me ease her up,” she ordered.
With much grunting and gasping, we two women pulled and pushed our helpless third up the chrome-slick ladder and onto the Merilee’s deck, where she flopped across the teak as if boneless. Linda cocked a critical eye. “If you’re thinking about giving her CPR, forget it. That’s about as dead as I’ve ever seen.” Although dismayed by Linda’s seeming heartlessness, I had to agree. The woman was indeed dead, her body slightly swollen from an hours-long immersion in the water. And now that tendrils of dark brown hair no longer covered her face, I recognized her, too.
Kate Nido, also known as Koala Kate. The new koala keeper at the Gunn Zoo.
“Are you telling me you didn’t hear Ms. Nido go into the water?” Sheriff Joe Rejas asked, his blue eyes searching mine.
I hated it when my boyfriend became official with me, but in this case it was understandable, so I repeated myself for the third or maybe fourth time. “As I’ve been saying, Joe, the noise from the party kept me up past one, but after that, I fell dead…” I swallowed. “…fell asleep. I didn’t wake up until she bumped against the Merilee.”
An injury to Kate’s head must have accounted for the thin red smear across my soaked sweatshirt, which for some reason, Joe demanded I turn over to him along with my sweatpants. His request left me standing on the deck wrapped only in a terry cloth robe that had seen better days. I tried not to watch as two hefty EMT’s casually zipped Kate into a body bag, then just as casually carted her off toward a waiting ambulance. This just-another-day-at-the-office attitude seemed all wrong. Now that the fog was beginning to dissipate, I saw that the tourists gathered at the rail overlooking the harbor didn’t seem particularly disturbed, either. When had the world become so indifferent? Remaining in sheriff mode, Joe asked, “Ms. Nido’s the one they call ‘Koala Kate,’ isn’t she? Has that TV segment on Good Morning, San Sebastian? Called ‘Koala Kate’s Kuddly Kritters’ ?” “The zoo hired her two months ago, just before the new koala exhibit opened up,” I explained. “That TV show was only part of her duties.”
Who would call the station to tell them Kate wouldn’t appear tomorrow or ever again? Zorah Vega, the zoo director? A former zookeeper herself, Zorah was great with animals, but social niceties seemed beyond her. She’d delegate the job, perhaps even to me, since the owner of the TV station was an acquaintance of my mother’s. Oh, God. That meant…
“Who was there?” For some reason, Joe had taken out a note pad and was writing in it.
I pulled myself together. “Who was where?” “At the Grimaldis’ party, Teddy.”
“Liveaboarders from the harbor. And zookeepers.”
He looked up from his note pad. “Why would zookeepers—besides yourself, of course, since you live here—attend a harbor beer bash?”
I swallowed again. The fact that I’d just pulled a coworker out of the water was beginning to hit home. Kate had felt so cold. So…so dead.
“Teddy? Answer me.”
“They…uh, Sam and Doris Grimaldi are hosting this years’ Bowling for Rhinos fundraiser at their bowling alley, and they wanted…they wanted to treat the committee volunteers. They don’t live at the harbor, so they probably left for their house in S-S-San Sebastian once the p-party was…was…”
“Sit down.” Joe eased me onto a deck chair and hovered. “Take deep breaths.”
I followed his advice, and as soon as my head cleared, stood back up. “I’m fine, don’t fuss. This thing, it’s just a shock, that’s all. Nobody expects to…” Get a grip, Teddy. I forced my voice to sound steadier than I felt. “The party. You want to know who was there. Besides the BFR committee, there was Linda Cushing, whom you just met. Linda’s lived at the harbor for ages and can tell you anything you need to know about anyone. Besides Linda, there was Walt MacAdams, Larry DuFries, myself, and a couple of other liveaboarders from around here.”
“I need the zookeepers’ names, too, Teddy.”
One by one I counted them off on shaking fingers. “Buster Daltry. Since he’s the rhino keeper, he’s also Chairman of Bowling for Rhinos. And there was Robin Chase, big cats; Jack Spence, bears; Myra Sebrowski, great apes. Oh, and Lex Yarnell, the park ranger. He’s on the committee, too. And Zorah, of course.”
Joe stopped writing. “Zorah Vega, the zoo director?”
“I’m afraid so.” Not that long ago, Joe had arrested Zorah for suspicion of murder. Someone else had been proven guilty of the crime, but I knew she still carried a grudge against him for the time she’d spent in jail.
“Anyone else at the party besides the neighbors and the zoo folks?”
I searched my mind, but it refused to cooperate. “If I think of anyone else, I’ll let you know. But what difference does it make? It was an accident, wasn’t it? Kate probably had too much to drink, then slipped and fell into the harbor. I guess she hit her head and that’s why she didn’t call for help, even though you’d think…”
“How much did you have to drink last night, Ms. Bentley?” He’d become official again, and I hated it.
“You didn’t hear anything unusual?” “No.”
“Cries of distress? Anything that sounded like a struggle?” “Hey, what’s all this…?”
“Thank you, Ms. Bentley. That’ll be all.” He stepped onto the dock and walked toward his deputies, leaving me standing on the Merilee’s deck with my mouth open.
# # #
My name is Theodora Esmeralda Iona Bentley, but most people call me Teddy. I’ve been a zookeeper at the Gunn Zoo for around a year, mostly working with the giant anteater and various small primates, sometimes helping out with the Mexican gray wolves and the marsupials in Down Under, the zoo’s Australian section. As work places go, the Gunn Zoo is ideal. Located four miles inland from Gunn Landing Harbor, it escapes most of the coastal fog, so my workdays tend to be sunny and bright. But every now and then, Aster Edwina Gunn, administrator of the Gunn Family Trust, which founded the privately-owned zoo decades earlier, limos over to spread fear and gloom among employees and animals alike. Given what had happened to Kate, today would be one of those days.
Despite the sad business of the morning, I arrived at work well before seven and was zipping along one of the wider zoo paths in my zebra-striped cart toward Down Under. When I had phoned the zoo director to tell her about Kate’s death, she’d told me to start my day with the marsupials before taking care of my own charges.
“I’ll call Bill, but you know how he is,” she’d said. “He was probably tending bar at the Amiable Avocado last night and has his phone turned off. In the meantime, the less the marsupials’ routines are disturbed, the better off they’ll be, so get down there first thing.” Known to zoo visitors as “Outback Bill” because of his heavy Aussie accent, Bill was a part-time keeper who at one time had dated Kate. Recently their relationship had ended, and Bill had been seen around the local bars with a series of other women. Given their estrangement, I doubted Bill would grieve too hard over her death, especially since it meant that Zorah might now hire him full-time. Originally a keeper at the Sydney Zoo, Bill could tell the difference between a nail-tail wallaby and a rock wallaby. Even better, the koalas liked him almost as much as they’d liked Kate.
When my cart screeched to a halt outside the service entrance to the koala enclosure, I at first didn’t see them. Normally, Wanchu, the female, would be sleeping in a tree, with her mate, Nyee, snoring nearby. But when I climbed out of the cart, I saw Wanchu waddling across the enclosure toward me.
“Morning, cutie!” I called. “Ready for some fresh eucalyptus browse?”
She looked up with those big brown koala eyes. Yes, she thought at me. Hurry up so I can get back to sleep.
Koalas look adorable with their Teddy-bear builds and goo-goo eyes. The Aboriginal people of Australia believe koalas are the reincarnation of lost children, a belief that—given the animals’ sweet dispositions—makes sense. Even wild koalas allow strangers to pick them up. Part of their docility stems from not only their temperament, but from the fact that koalas are almost always drowsy. If they’re not already asleep, they’re thinking about sleeping, because their diet of eucalyptus leaves is so poor in protein that they have to eat a pound of leaves per day merely to stay alive. All that chewing exhausts them so much that they wind up sleeping 75 percent of the time.
Wanchu was one of the only Gunn Zoo animals we keepers were encouraged to touch. Zoo-born and orphaned only days after she’d left her mother’s pouch, she had been hand-raised by an overly doting zookeeper. Now full-grown, she still loved to cuddled.
“Come to Mama, sweetness,” I cooed, grasping her by her forearms.
Wanchu pulled herself up and curled around my torso much as she would have around a tree trunk. Because of her heavy eucalyptus intake, she smelled like cough drops. After nestling against me for a few minutes while I sang a few bars of “Waltzing Matilda,” she lifted her head, gazed soulfully into my eyes, and chirped, “Eeep, eeep, eeep!”
“Yes, and I’m glad to see you, too, Wanchu. You’re my favoritest female koala.” I didn’t want to make Nyee jealous.
“You’re hungry? Well, your wish is my command. A large serving of eucalyptus browse coming right up.”
She snuggled again. “Eeep?” “Yes, I’ll give Nyee some, too.” “Eeep.”
Putting a koala down can be difficult, not only because you don’t want to, but because koalas cling. Wanchu finally allowed me to place her in the crook of her tree so I could return to my cart for a large bundle of wrapped eucalyptus leaves. I was tying them to her tree when I heard another cart screech to a halt on the other side of the fence.
Seconds later, Bill, all six feet four, two-hundred-and-twenty pounds of him, charged through the gate. “Rack off on your own bizzo, Teddy, and leave the walla to me.”
Fortunately, due to once having an Australian stepfather, I could translate: Go mind your own business, Teddy, and leave the koala to me.
“Hi, Bill. Zorah told you about Kate?”
“That she carked it? Yeh.” Translation: That she died. Yeah.
He flapped his hand in a go-away gesture and started toward the koalas, but not before I saw a haunted look in his eyes. Did he still care for Kate?
Before I could ask, another cart pulled up. When the brakes didn’t squeal, I guessed it was Zorah, glorying in her recent promotion to zoo director by requisitioning the zoo’s newest cart. My guess proved right. A big woman, both in height and breadth, Zorah’s arms were covered with tattoos of the animals she’d cared for prior to her promotion: a Bengal tiger, a black-maned lion, a jaguar, and various and sundry great apes. Zorah was nothing if not colorful.
“Teddy, I need to talk to Bill. Privately.”
To offer him a full-time job, I hoped. God knows the man needed the work. Besides his three-nights-a-week stint as bar- tender at the Amiable Avocado, he was also bagging groceries at a Monterey supermarket. Strange, considering he’d resigned from a full-time job as marsupial keeper at the San Diego Zoo to move up here. Not to follow Kate, I hoped, because if that had been his motive he’d shown more heart than brains, since their relationship hadn’t survived the move.
“Okay, I’m gone,” I said to Zorah. “If either of you need anything, call me on the radio.”
She didn’t answer, just started talking to Bill in a low voice.
I steered my cart out of the Down Under enclosure and headed toward Tropics Trail.
The three hundred-acre Gunn Zoo is always beautiful, but in the early mornings it is pure magic. Surrounded by twenty-five hundred acres of blue gum eucalyptus forests and vineyards, the zoo is further buffered from the outside world by a ring of hills high enough to hold back most of the coast’s fog. No sound of civilization’s hubbub intrudes. Instead, we fortunate zookeepers are treated to the serenade of waking animals: the lilting music of larks and jays in the aviaries, the eerie calls of New Guinea singing dogs, and from the large animal sanctuary that encircles the entire zoo, elephants trumpeting their joy at just being alive.
How anyone could work in an office was beyond me.
By now visitors were trickling in, so I drove with care in order to keep from mowing them down. Most were headed toward the giant anteater enclosure. Thanks to recent publicity, much of it generated by Kate, who had also taken care of the zoo’s PR, Lucy and her baby had become celebrities.
A few tendrils of morning fog had unexpectedly made their way over the surrounding hills, and wisps of it clung to the tall eucalyptus trees that ringed the grounds. I loved these rare mornings, when fog hushed the visitors’ chatter, thus encouraging the animals to venture away from their resting spots and get closer to the fence. As I passed through Tropics Trail, I noticed Willy, one of the Andean bears, waving a furry paw at an admiring crowd as he sat on his rump at the edge of his moat. He was looking one teenager in the eye, a most un-animal thing to do. “Look, he’s saying hello!” said one woman to another, as she nibbled on a bag labeled Poppy’s Kettle Korn. “Isn’t that sweet?” Willy was merely begging. Since visitors didn’t always obey the signs telling them not to feed the animals, the bear had developed a taste for popcorn.
More begging was going on in the iguana exhibit. Lilliana, the female, flicked her tongue at the crowd in the hopes that they would toss her big fat bug. From time to time she’d attempt a wave but an iguana isn’t as agile as a bear, so the effort failed. Her elderly mate, Reynaldo, ignored Lilliana’s act and continued his snooze-fest by a rock.
I felt privileged to work here, surrounded by friends both human and animal, spending my time outdoors under the California sky instead of some stuffy office. As I drove along, the scents of animals, popcorn, and salt air blended together in a pleasant potpourri and helped ease the sting of the morning’s tragedy.
Monkey Mania was a quarter-acre open-air enclosure where twenty squirrel monkeys named after various movie stars mingled freely with zoo visitors. Such an arrangement could never have worked if it weren’t for the many volunteers who kept human hands away from monkey tails, and in turn, monkey teeth from nipping at human hands. Bernice Unser, one of those volunteers, met me at the exhibit’s entrance gate, her face creased in concern.
“Why’s the zoo so weird this morning?” she asked. “I can’t get anyone to talk to me or even look me in the eye. On my way through the parking lot, I saw Aster Edwina’s limo pulling up, too. What’s going on?” The other volunteers crowded around her, eager to hear my answer.
I had three choices: tell the truth, play dumb, or plead the Fifth. I chose the latter. “There’ll be an announcement later, but for the time being, sorry, I can’t say anything.”
“Did somebody escape?” another volunteer asked, one of the high school seniors enrolled in our ZooTeen program. From his avid expression, he hoped somebody had. Somebody big, like a lion or a rhino. Oh, the thrills.
“Nothing like that. You’re all perfectly safe. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to release the monkeys.”
As the boy’s face fell in disappointment, I slipped past him and took the service road path down to the monkeys’ night house. Marlon, the troop’s alpha male, stood shrieking inside, with the females and adolescents providing an atonal chorus. Lana, a new mother whose baby clung to her back in a milk-induced stupor, plucked at the leg of my cargo pants as if to say, “Hurry up!” while I unlocked the door. As soon as it swung open, they scampered toward the red feeding buckets that swung from the enclosure’s trees. All except for Marlon, who stayed near the door until I fetched a bag of Purina monkey chow from my cart.
“Is this what you’re waiting for, handsome?”
He flashed his teeth, a gesture which people not familiar with primates often mistake for a smile. Experience had taught me better. “Bite me, Marlon, and I’ll visit First Aid before I feed you guys, which’ll take, oh, maybe a half hour.”
While he didn’t understand the words, he did understand my warning tone, so he spun around and chased after his troop, complaining all the way.
It doesn’t take long to feed squirrel monkeys. After I’d piled monkey chow pellets into the red buckets and topped off each with portions of fresh fruit, I waded through the monkey swarm and returned to their night house.
A zookeeper’s job consists largely of sweeping up poop, poop, and more poop, but I didn’t mind. Especially not today, because concentrating on mundane tasks was preferable to remembering what had happened to Kate. She had barely reached her thirties, but now her family would be making her funeral arrangements. Come to think of it, where did her people live? In the few conversations we had shared, she’d never mentioned parents or siblings.
As soon as I finished cleaning the night house, I set off toward Down Under again. When I arrived, I saw Wanchu perched in the crook of Bill’s arm, her forearms wrapped around his massive bicep.
“Ooo’s my good sheila?” he cooed.
Wanchu appeared more interested in searching for fleas in her coarse coat than conversing with Bill, but he didn’t seem to care, not even if a stray flea hopped over from Wanchu to visit. In that, he was much like Kate. A bit stand-offish with humans, she’d been a bleeding heart with her koalas.
When I alit from the cart and started down to the enclosure fence, Bill looked my way. His eyes, usually a clear blue, now looked wary. “You, again.”
Who had he been expecting, Godzilla? “How are things going?” “Bonzer.” Great.
“How much did Zorah tell you?”
He focused on Wanchu, who had doubled around on herself and was licking her behind. “Just that Kate drowned in Gunn Harbor and you fished her out. Yabber like that.”
“Yeh. She asked if I wanted to accept a full time position.” “And?”
“Told her yeh on the animals, no on the telly thing. Not that she asked about that.”
No, Bill wouldn’t have been asked. For various reasons, he was unsuited to the task. Kate had been a natural, which was why she’d been hired in the first place. On TV, her eyes sparkled and the words flowed. Her Tuesday Koala Kate’s Kuddly Kritters segment was one of the most watched portions on Good Morning, San Sebastian. So far, she had showcased no amphibians, no invertebrates, just the most cuddly and photogenic of mammals. The standard people-pleasers. “Too bad about the TV show,” I said. “It brought the zoo a lot of business.”
“Not my prob. Ready for more tucker, sook?” Ready for more food? This last comment was addressed to Wanchu, not me.
I kept waiting for Bill to ask me more about Kate: was I certain she’d been dead when I pulled her from the water: did I perform CPR; did I think she’d suffered; had the fish nibbled on her? But, no. Still cooing sweet nothings to the koala, he drifted away from the fence toward Wanchu’s favorite tree, where he’d replenished the eucalyptus browse I’d left earlier. He set her down on a limb and watched as she began busily stripping the leaves.
Bill dealt with grief amazingly well, I thought.
# # #
Later that morning Zorah put out a radio call for all keepers to assemble in the auditorium at noon, so at the appointed time I and around forty others sat hunched over our sandwiches, trying to gossip and eat at the same time as we waited for Zorah to show. “Kate got drunk and drowned, there’s nothing else to know,” sniped Myra Sebrowski, the darkly beautiful great apes keeper. She had never liked Kate, and the antipathy had appeared mutual.
“She didn’t look drunk to me,” said Buster Daltry, a rhino and elephant keeper almost as bulky as his charges. He had been an early arrival at the Grimaldis’ party, and even before I’d left, he’d put away numerous beers. Today his eyes were bleary and his hands trembled, but I imagined he could still whip Hulk Hogan in a body-slam contest.
“Oh, come on. Kate was lit.” This, from Robin Chase, the big cat keeper.
Myra’s physical opposite, Robin was an unattractive, big-boned woman who abstained from anything she considered unhealthy, which included non-vegan foodstuffs. I’d often wondered how she could bear throwing raw beefsteaks to her beloved big cats. “I watched her chug at least three beers,” Robin continued. “And I’m sure she had more. That’s probably why she fell overboard.”
“Three beers isn’t that much,” Buster said.
“Not for you, maybe, but for someone Kate’s size, it was a lot. Like I said, there’s a good chance she had even more.”
The conversation was interrupted when Zorah entered the room with Aster Edwina right behind her. The elderly president of the Gunn Trust looked sad, but she leaned calmly enough on her cane as Zorah walked up to the podium. The only other emotion she showed was the thin smile of recognition she threw in my direction. At least I think it was a smile. With Aster Edwina, it was hard to tell.
In contrast to her boss, Zorah’s round face was red, and a tic marred the standard placidity of her brown eyes. The tiger tattoo on her muscular forearm twitched, too. After fussing with the podium mike for a moment, she bluntly announced, “Kate Nido died last night.”
By now, most people had heard of Kate’s death through the zoo grapevine, so there were few utterances of actual shock, merely a few murmurs of regret. After all, Kate was a new employee and hadn’t yet made many friends. As Zorah led us in a moment of silence out of respect for her memory, I spotted Bill leaning against the back wall, his arms crossed over his chest. His face was so devoid of emotion that he could have been attending a used-car auction, not that he had the money to buy a car. His only form of transportation was the fourth-hand bicycle he pedaled to work from the nearby town of Castroville. When the moment of silence ended, Zorah began to describe the temporary staffing changes necessitated by Kate’s death. Aster Edwina had given her permission to offer Bill a full-time job as Head Marsupial Keeper. “This means there’s now an opening for a part-time keeper,” Zorah said. “Does anyone know someone who might be interested?”
While people shouted out names, I cast my mind back to last night’s party and its deadly aftermath.
Why hadn’t I heard Kate go into the water?
She must have hit her head pretty hard, either against a mooring or the edge of the Grimaldis’ boat, but the second she started her fall, she should have had time to cry out even if she’d been under the influence. Come to think about it, I’d never heard of Kate getting drunk. If anything, she’d been more like Robin, so tightly-wrapped she never seemed to have any fun. No, that wasn’t quite accurate. Kate had enjoyed her TV appearances, and she’d certainly enjoyed writing ZooNews, the zoo’s newsletter. My musings were interrupted when Zorah said, “To close this sad meeting with one happy announcement, I’m pleased to inform you that Aster Edwina has chosen Teddy Bentley as the new presenter of Koala Kate’s Kuddly Kritters, the weekly Gunn Zoo segment on Good Morning, San Sebastian…”
“What!?” Only my experience in working with easily startled animals kept me from shrieking the word. Zorah hadn’t said anything about the TV show to me, and I certainly hadn’t volunteered. “…as well as all of Kate’s PR work, so let’s give our Teddy a great big hand!”
The ensuing applause sounded genuine, although Myra Sebrowski’s hands remained in her lap. The look she shot me wasn’t congratulatory, either.
Zorah wasn’t finished. “Teddy, stop by my office so we can go over Kate’s notes for tomorrow’s program.”
Before I could argue, she put down the mike and exited the auditorium four paces behind Aster Edwina.
“How long have you been angling for this?” Myra said, stopping me at the door just as I was about to dash after Zorah.
“C’mon, Myra. It’s as big a surprise to me as anyone else. You think I enjoy the prospect of making a fool of myself on live TV?” “I’m sure you’ll pull it off with your usual aristocratic aplomb.” With that parting shot, she stalked up the hill toward her apes, her back stiff with anger.
Great. Now I had an enemy. Not only that, but an enemy who could handle a full-grown mountain gorilla easier than I could handle Miss Priss. But how to handle Aster Edwina’s command? Besides taking care of the koalas, Kate’s duties had included updating the zoo’s web site, posting to the zoo’s blog, writing the bimonthly newsletter, and appearing on the weekly television segment. A full workload. My own duties were already just as heavy. As a full-time zookeeper for several animals and a frequent fill-in for sick or vacationing keepers, there was no way I could handle extra work.
I caught up with Zorah at the top of the hill leading to the administration building. Aster Edwina was no longer with her. The old woman had limoed back home to plot more mischief. Butting up against the real wall of the administration building was the large enclosure where we kept the squirrel monkeys considered to old or “nippy” to be turned loose in Monkey Mania. They kept up a raucous chorus as I pled my case. When I began listing the impossibility of longer work hours, Zorah nodded sympathetically.
“A keeper’s life is a hard one, isn’t it, Teddy? Oh, how well I remember. Not that those days were all bad. Truth to tell, I miss them. But you’re not here to listen to my problems, are you? Let’s go inside and talk.”
Confident that I’d stated my case successfully, I followed the zoo director to her paper-strewn office, where photographs of her former charges lined the wall. Zorah had once been the zoo’s head keeper, with a special love for great apes, so I briefly admired the pictures she’d taken of hairy heads and huge hands. Cuddliness arrived via close-ups of various monkey, orangutan, and gorilla babies clinging to their mothers’ backs. From the room’s large, safety glass-plated window, I could see some of the photographs’ subjects staring in. They looked like they wanted to come in and play.
“I’m jealous of Myra,” Zorah said, pushing aside a stack of papers.
After my run-in with the snippy great apes keeper, Zorah’s comment startled me. “Why?”
“Because she spends most of her time with her apes, not behind a desk. For that matter, I’m jealous of you, too.”
“Then you understand why I can’t do the TV program. Speaking of Myra, she seems interested in the job. And she’s certainly more photogenic than I am.”
Well, there was that. On Myra’s best days, she wasn’t exactly sunny, so perhaps Zorah was right. “Outback Bill, then. Given his long experience with animals, especially marsupials, he’s Kate’s obvious replacement.”
“Mr. Sewer Mouth? Just the thought of that man discussing animals’ mating rituals on live TV gives me the shudders. Even if he could be trained to withhold the F–bomb, that thick Aussie accent of his would be indecipherable to most viewers. So, no, Teddy. Neither Myra nor Bill is the right person to take over for Kate. You are.”
I shook my head. “Frankly, Zorah, the idea of going on camera makes me feel ill. I’ll blank out and look stupid.”
“Don’t give me that,’ she chuckled. “I’ve seen you handle the school tours, and there’s not a question you can’t answer. Stop arguing about it, because Aster Edwina’s mind is made up, and you know how she is. Anyway, for tomorrow, here’s the plan. The station wants to do an animal-related tribute to Koala Kate, so here are the animals…”
Maybe I hadn’t made my point clearly enough. “Call Aster Edwina and tell her I don’t have any television experience, that I’ll screw everything up and make the zoo look bad.”
A sly look crossed Zora’s face. “Sorry, but I’m with Aster Edwina on this. What about last year, when that KTSS-TV reporter got the jump on you outside the giant anteater enclosure? You did a great job on something that could have turned into a disaster for the zoo. Before that, how about the time you and that bay mare of yours won the open jumping competition in Texas and you wound up on the national news? Who interviewed you then? Was it Katie Couric?”
“Diane Sawyer,” I muttered, worried about the direction the conversation had taken.
“Then there was that debutante ball over in Monterey—bet you never guessed I watch that kind of coverage, did you? You were the only girl in the Simper Brigade who didn’t sound like a jackass.” “Okay, so I’ve been on TV before. But what I said earlier holds. With my work load…”
She ignored my protests. “Save your breath, Teddy. Aster Edwina asked for you personally. And the TV station owner seconded it.”
I groaned. Ford Bronson was a new neighbor of my mother’s, whom I frequently saw jogging around Gunn Landing Harbor where he kept his yacht. A dot-com billionaire turned media mogul, Bronson was used to getting his way. But not with me. “You’ll have to tell both Bronson and Aster Edwina both no, Zorah. My work load…”
“Not a problem. On your way down to the station every Tuesday, you’ll clock in here. If you need to add several extra hours to take care of your keeper duties, you’ll get paid time-and-a-half. You always did say you’d work here seven days a week if we’d let you. Now’s your chance to make good on that.” I started to say something about federal and state employment regulations, then remembered the condition of the Merilee’s engine. Long past overhaul territory, it needed to be replaced, and a new engine would cost thousands of dollars that I didn’t have. “Pay me double-time.”
“Done.” Her answer came so swiftly that I realized I’d been had. Sighing, I said, “How long will I need to continue this?”
“At least until you’ve bought a new engine for the Merilee.”
Zoos are just like small towns; everybody knows everybody’s business.
Conceding defeat by a superior adversary, I moved on. “You said the station wants this week’s program to be a tribute to Kate. I guess that means you want me to take a koala over there.” Zorah stretched out her muscular arms in a gesture that seemed to take in the entire zoo. “I envision a fuller program, with a koala, a wombat, a wallaby, and a numbat—just to add one nonmarsupial to the mix. No frilled lizard; too excitable. Same for the Tasmanian devil we have on loan from San Diego. He’s liable to chew off the anchorwoman’s head. Just give viewers some pertinent facts about each animal as you hold it, and talk about their disappearing habitats. Oh, and before the segment ends, be sure and get in a plug for our Name-the-Baby-Anteater contest. Thanks to all the publicity we’ve received, Mama Lucy’s a big star.” “Zorah, four animals are too much to handle. And a wombat?
They weigh around forty pounds!”
She waved away my concern. “We’ll give you an adolescent, one who weighs less than twenty. Besides, you’ll have two assistants with you. And every animal you’re taking is very well behaved. Wanchu, the female koala, is placid-to-comatose, and she’ll have eaten before you pick her up, so she might even sleep through the entire program. She’s sure to fart a lot, though, so make sure you turn her bottom away from AnnaLee what’s-her-name, the anchorwoman. Just lift Wanchu out of her cage, cuddle her for a minute—while hyping our Down Under exhibit and sounding terribly, terribly sorry about Koala Kate, of course—then put her away. The wombat might sleep through the segment, too, since they all have the energy of Rip Van Winkle. Malka-Malka, the striped numbat I saw you talking to the other day. He’s a different story. Very active, but he’s no bigger than a squirrel. He’s such a doll that the audience will fall in love with him. If he starts acting up, just give him a handful of termites, tell him he’s beautiful, and put him away. That’s it! I expect you here tomorrow at…”
“Aren’t you forgetting someone?”
A bland smile. “Noooo, I think I covered everyone.”
“The wallaby, Zorah.”
She smiled. “No problem there, I know you like the wallabies. I’ve even heard you singing to them! Nice soprano, by the way. Tell you what, I’ll give you Abim. He’s the smallest of the mob, less than two feet high. Looks just like a joey, a baby kangaroo. Big, big eyes and the sweetest expression you ever saw. He’ll be on a stretchable leash. Don’t worry, he’s been trained to it, and as long as you don’t drop the leash, you’ll do fine. Hey, if you can handle a thousand-pound horse, you can handle a wee wallaby, right?”
I frowned, remembering that the translations from Aborigine to English on the Down Under signage informed zoo visitors that Abim meant devil.
Maybe I was just being paranoid.