“Alejandro, you spit in my face!” He didn’t answer, just glared.
I tried reasoning with him, keeping my voice steady while I wiped the spittle away. “Look, I know you’re unhappy, but I’m unhappy, too. After all we’ve been through together there’s no reason for you to treat me like this.”
I ducked before he let fly again.
There’s nothing more irritating than an irritated llama, but there’s also nothing faster than a ducking zookeeper, so Alejandro’s second spitball missed the top of my head by at least an inch. “Losing your touch, big fella?” Straightening up, I saw that the expression of disgust on his face had morphed into one of pure sweetness. What…?
“I only weigh thirty-five pounds, so can I have a ride?” piped a tiny voice.
By the gate stood a tow-headed child who barely reached my waist. “Llama rides costeth two yellow tickets, my lady,” I said, my tongue cramping as it curled around the sixteenth-century phraseology the organizers of the Gunn Landing Renaissance Faire insisted upon. “Plus you musteth have your kind lady mother’s permission.” Musteth? Was that even a word?
The little girl’s mother, who’d missed the llama spit-fest, smiled. “The jousting knights scared her, so I thought a llama ride would be more her speed. Llamas are calming, so I’ve heard.”
Alejandro’s ears, formerly laid back on his head, pricked forward. If I hadn’t known better, I’d swear he was smiling.
Llamas play favorites. Alejandro adored children, but he wasn’t crazy about adults, especially adults wearing outfits as ridiculous as mine. Billowing pink cotton skirt with too much lace and too many flounces, a plunging neckline that barely missed being X-rated, and a steel-ribbed bodice that would probably turn my face blue long before the day was over. And that net thingy the seamstress had called a “snood”? The only thing good about the contraption was that it kept my corkscrew red hair out of my eyes. Earlier this morning, after taking one look at me in my borrowed outfit, the seamstress—Maid Lucinda, she called herself—said, “Guess that will have to do.” Then she’d turned her face away, but not before I heard her snicker.
So here I was, dressed up like some deranged sixteenth- century tart, working as a llama wrangler on the opening day of the Gunn Landing Renaissance Faire, when I should have been a mile away up the hill, tending to my usual rounds at the Gunn Zoo. I missed my friends: Lucy the giant anteater and her baby, Ricky; Wanchu the koala; even Marcus Aurelius, the mischievous lemur. Disgusted by my fate, I would have sworn a blue streak, but I couldn’t remember the proper curses. Zounds? Forsooth? Earlier, I’d heard one of the knights—Sir Roland, I believe, although it was hard to tell under all that armor—snarl something pithy about a spotted toad wed to a warted hog, but the rest of his insult escaped me.
Trying to look as delighted as Alejandro now did, I smiled at the innocent little face looking up at me. “The llama’s name is Sir Alejandro, my lady. If you’re nice to him, he’ll be nice to you. Uh, zounds.”
She reached up a tiny hand and patted him on the nose. Alejandro closed his eyes and hummed with pleasure. “He’s purring!” the child exclaimed.
“Most llamas make that sound when they’re anxious, but he’s different. He only makes it when he’s happy, my lady. It doth appear you have truly stolen Sir Alejandro’s heart. Forsooth and all that.”
She beamed from ear to ear.
“Up you go, my lady.” I heaved her onto Alejandro’s saddle. As soon as she settled in, we set off around the paddock. Alejandro continued to hum contentedly while I silently cursed my boss, Aster Edwina Gunn. Thanks to the old tyrant, I was up to my ankles in llama droppings, sweating like one of the Queen’s royal swine in the hot California sun. Not to mention ducking spit.
# # #
“Quit glowering, Teddy,” Aster Edwina had snapped a week ago, after delivering my marching orders. “The Faire only runs four weekends and all the proceeds go to the San Sebastian County No Kill Animal Shelter, a cause dear to your heart.”
“But my job at the zoo…”
“You’ll miss four Saturdays and Sundays, that’s all, and your duties will be taken care of by other zoo staff. On week days you’ll stick to your normal schedule and even appear on that TV show of yours, Teddy’s Terrific something or other. What name did we decide on?”
“Anteaters to Zebras, as you well know, since you’re the one who roped me into doing it in the first place. But like I said, I’m much too busy at the zoo to play around as llama wrangler at the Renaissance Faire. We have that new orangutan fresh out of quarantine who’s just started trusting me and the Grevy’s zebra with the bad hoof. I’m the only person he’ll let touch him.”
She waved my protests away. “Costs on the No Kill Shelter have risen dramatically and we need the extra income the Faire will bring in. You’ll make the perfect llama wrangler.”
“What if it rains?” “I won’t let it.”
Aster Edwina was only half joking. The wealthy old lady—she was somewhere in her eighties—was powerful enough to bully the weatherman. As head of the mighty Gunn Trust and doyenne of one of the wealthiest families on the Central California coast, she ruled over the Gunn Zoo, Gunn Castle, Gunn Vineyards, and dozens of other San Sebastian County properties and businesses, some of which included land my family owned. Or, rather, used to own before my felonious father, for reasons he alone knew, embezzled several million dollars, which allowed the Feds to swoop down and gobble up everything we held title to. Acreage, houses, boats, jewelry…Only my mother’s subsequent remarriage to another multi-millionaire had saved us from living under a bridge with the rest of the homeless. I was a child when it happened, but the scandal taught me humility. Which is probably why I eventually gave in and allowed Aster Edwina to bully me into working the Faire.
# # #
By the time the little girl finished her llama ride, it was past one o’clock and I was overdue for my lunch break, but Deborah Holt, my relief llama wrangler, still hadn’t arrived. I couldn’t leave Alejandro alone. For some reason the llama had developed a major hate-on for Henry the Eighth, or rather, for the Reverend Victor Emerson, who played the part of the much-married Tudor king. Given Alejandro’s current mood, I wouldn’t put it past him to jump the fence and gallop over to the Royal Pavilion and drown the roly-poly reverend in saliva.
Behind me, Alejandro grumbled.
“Don’t start that again,” I told him. “You’re not the only person around here who’s unhap…”
“Sorry I’m late,” Deborah Holt’s voice rang out. “But the leper twisted his ankle and I had to help him to the First Aid tent.” Deborah looked even more miserable than I. One of the zookeepers who worked the Friendly Farms enclosure at the Gunn Zoo, she was a near-beauty with honey-colored hair, clear skin, and bright blue eyes. Her ample bosom, almost shockingly revealed by her low-cut Renaissance gown, brought out the wolf in every man at the Faire. The lace hanky she’d sewn into her neckline during a fit of modesty hadn’t helped. “How are you bearing up?” I asked.
Her scowl was a perfect match for Alejandro’s. “My breasts are thinking about bringing a class action suit for sexual harassment against every man at this God-forsaken place, that’s how I’m doing. Has Alejandro calmed down yet? I hear you’ve had trouble with him.”
“He really dislikes adults.”
When she bobbed her head, her ample litigants-to-be bobbed along in time. “That’s to be expected. We rescued him from a Carmel couple who were keeping him as a ‘pet’ in their tiny backyard. Whenever they threw a party, which from what I hear was almost every weekend, drunks would go out there and mess around with him, try to get him to drink beer, stupid stuff like that. His owner actually chipped the poor thing’s front tooth ramming a beer bottle into his mouth.”
I winced. No wonder Alejandro was so temperamental. “You ready to take over here? I’m starved. Any suggestions?”
“The Steak on a Stake is good and so are the turkey legs at Ye Olde Peasant’s Place, but stay away from Dame Polly’s Porridge Pot. Several people who ate there wound up heaving in the Royal Privies. The Health Department’s on its way to check out Dame Polly’s kitchen.”
She gave me a wry smile. “Just another day in Renaissance paradise.”
Forewarned, I headed for Ye Restaurant Row. It being Saturday and the California weather as perfect as perfect gets, the Faire—spread over forty acres of pasturage downhill from the vast Gunn estate—was packed. Tourists and Renaissance-costumed characters wandered together along the High Street, the sawdust-covered main drag. High Street was lined on both sides with vendors hawking books, sculpture, garden gnomes, T-shirts, coffee mugs, blown glass, and all sorts of pseudo-medieval and Renaissance ware. Scents from the various stalls wafted to me on a gentle breeze: apples and cinnamon from Dame Dorothy’s Dumplings, attar of roses from Sir Pompadour’s Potpourri, the sour smell of beer from the King’s Ale House.
Some of the stalls, such as the Royal Armory, which hawked replicas of medieval and Renaissance weapons, were owned by locals, but most businesses were run by professional vendors who travelled the rapidly growing Renaissance fair circuit.
At the far end of the High Street sat the wooden enclosure of the Royal Joust Arena, where I could hear the clangs as knights bashed each other with broadswords. Near the Faire’s gated entrance rose two wooden entertainment stages, each featuring an assortment of musicians, magicians, dancers, and jesters. Located in a dogleg loop behind the Middleshire Stage were the rides and amusements such as the Flying Dutchman, Castle Siege, William Tell’s Archery Range, DaVinci’s Flying Machine, the Royal Maze, and the Throne Carousel. Although not historically accurate, there was no denying the Faire offered everyone a good time.
Everyone, that was, except we Gunn Zoo animal keepers who’d been roped into volunteering.
After purchasing a turkey leg the size of Arnold Schwartznegger’s bicep from Ye Olde Peasant’s Place, I slipped through a nearby door cleverly disguised as a castle wall and into the backstage area. This had been dubbed the Peasant’s Retreat, a place where Faire workers and volunteers spent their off-hours and nights in individual tents or communal RVs. Back here courtly manners slipped away and contemporary speech replaced formal King’s English. The gratis entertainment in the Peasant’s Retreat wasn’t half bad, either. Rumor had it that this evening, the Faire’s musicians would perform an uncensored concert featuring songs popular with medieval and Renaissance peasantry. Aster Edwina had barred the more ribald of these from the day’s public perfor- mance because their lyrics made gangsta rap sound sissy.
For now, Renaissance porn was the furthest thing from my mind. All I wanted was a quiet spot in the food tent where I could eat. Most of the picnic tables in the big tent were already full up with monks, wizards, and wenches, but I found a space at a table toward the rear. I settled myself on a wooden bench and began to gnaw.
“Well, if it isn’t little Teddy Bentley!”
The chatter at the other tables ceased. I looked up to see King Henry the Eighth—a.k.a. Reverend Victor Emerson, all three hundred pounds of him—hovering over my shoulder. With his big moon face, hair even redder than mine, and belly the size of a water barrel, Victor bore such a strong resemblance to portraits of the old Tudor king that several fair-goers had queried him about his ancestry. Today he looked even more kingly in purple velvet robes, a garish crown, and a faux (I hoped) wolf fur-lined cape. He brandished a half-eaten turkey leg that made my own look spindly.
“Behead anyone lately, Your Majesty?” I asked.
Ignoring my frown, he sat down beside me. “You sound as sour as your mother.” A mail-order reverend only, Victor was the proprietor of the San Sebastian Wedding Chapel. He had officiated at two of my mother’s marriages, once in his basic minister’s cassock, the other time dressed as Fat Elvis.
“My mother has a right to be cross,” I told him. “Aster Edwina gave her the impression that she could have the role of Anne Boleyn, but you talked her out of it and turned the role over to Bambi O’Dair.”
Victor gave me a smug smile. “Bambi wanted the part more.
Besides, Caro’s much too old to play Henry’s second wife.”
The talk at the other tables had resumed, but it paused again as everyone waited for my answer. Ignoring them, I leapt to my mother’s defense. “Chronologically, perhaps, but Mother doesn’t look a day older than Bambi.”
“Only thanks to your mother’s many cosmetic surgeries, which they didn’t have back in the fifteen hundreds. Don’t you think a queen’s body should be as God created it?”
“Bambi’s chest never saw an implant she didn’t like!”
Two nearby monks snickered as Victor patted my hand condescendingly, tempting me to bonk him over the head with my turkey leg. “Your mother’s a beautiful woman, Teddy, and an ambitious one, too, but young she’s not. Anne Boleyn was little more than a teenager when she married Henry Tudor and not quite thirty-five when she died. But have no fear. I gave your mother the role of a lady-in-waiting. She’ll still be part of the Royal Court.”
“As if she’d be satisfied dancing attendance on Bambi. Where’s your sense of customer loyalty, Victor? Doesn’t the fact that my mother is a returning client at your wedding chapel count for anything?”
Grabbing a salt shaker from the middle of the table, he poured what appeared to be a half cup of salt on his turkey leg. “I officiated at Bambi’s wedding to that Max Giffords person.”
“And it lasted, what, ten months?”
He took a big bite out of the leg, then added more salt. “Don’t go all prissy on me. That was one month longer than your mother’s fourth marriage. Besides, I’m certain that Bambi will marry again, which would also make her a returning client. And she’s a lot easier to work with.”
“I’ll grant that Mother can be a handful, but regardless, you shouldn’t have cheated her out of the Anne Boleyn role. It disappointed her terribly.”
“I’m not responsible for other people’s feelings.”
With no adequate comeback for such insensitivity coming from a reverend, albeit only a mail-order one, I turned away and concentrated on my turkey leg. Victor took the hint and did the same with his own. The lowered conversations behind us resumed to normalcy as we munched, if not companionably, at least without sniping at each other. Eventually Victor wiped his greasy face with a velvet sleeve and checked the time on his iPhone. New-fangled inventions such as watches were forbid- den on the Renaissance Faire grounds because even the longest sleeves could slip and reveal them. Cell phones, however, could be safely tucked away in pockets.
“It’s almost time for the Royal Progress.” His manner and inflection segued into Renaissance-speak. “Best I be going, fair maid. It wouldst not do to keep the beauteous Bambi waiting. Adieu, ‘til anon.”
He kissed my hand, and before I could smack him, waddled off.
I wish I could say Victor’s unwelcome visit put me off my feed but that would be a lie. Returning to my turkey leg, I found something primitively satisfying in tearing off long strips of meat using teeth as my only utensils. I was reflecting on the fact that we might not be as far from our Neanderthal ancestors as we thought when a soprano voice interrupted my gastronomical greed.
“What did that slug Victor Emerson say to you, Teddy? And for God’s sake, wipe your mouth and hands. You look like something that crawled out of a cave.”
The conversation behind me ceased again because the voice had belonged to Caroline Piper Bentley Hufgraff O’Brien Petersen. My mother. Although the wannabe queen looked gorgeous in her topaz satin gown, and her expensively highlighted chestnut hair swept back into a bejeweled snood, she didn’t sound happy.
“How many times do I have to tell you not to call me that?
It’s Caro, remember. Caro! Answer my question, please.” “What was Henry the Eighth talking about? Hmm. Politics.
Religion. The usual blather you’d expect from a Tudor.” When her face darkened, I added, “Look, Mo…uh, Caro. I was sitting here minding my own business when Victor walked over and started in. And please, let’s not have this conversation in public unless you want to make the gossip column of the San Sebastian Gazette again. That pirate over there is a reporter.”
She ignored the warning. “Did my name come up?” Reluctantly, I answered, “Yeesss…”
“In what context?”
“It was my own fault, really. I told him how wrong he’d been to…”
“He compared me to that cheap Bambi woman, didn’t he?” The monks began to giggle.
“Uh, he kinda, uh, did.” “And?”
“He, uh…He, uh…”
“Stop stuttering and tell me exactly what he said.”
“That you were too old to be Anne Boleyn.” I waited for the eruption.
One good thing about Caro; she never disappoints. “That ageist twit! I look every bit as young as Bambi and he has a nerve…”
She spewed on for the next few minutes, questioning the parentage of both Bambi and Victor, their rumored mating habits, and their possible congenital physical and mental deformities. Behind us, a collection of monks, minstrels, pirates, wizards, and wenches looked on, rapt.
“Furthermore,” Caro finished, “Victor and that social-climbing hussy are lucky the Royal Armory’s at the far end of the High Street, or I’d walk over, grab a sword and hack off both their heads.”
With that, she flounced off.
“Nary a dull moment with yer lady mum, eh, Teddy?” called a nearby minstrel, still in character.
“Sometimes I miss dull,” I muttered, dutifully separating the turkey leg from its wrapping paper. After tossing the remnants of my meal into the proper recycling barrels, I composed myself and re-entered the High Street.
It was too early to go back to Llama Rides so I walked toward the Royal Joust Arena, hoping to catch the last few minutes of one of the Faire’s most popular events. Nothing was more exciting than seeing a fully-armored horseman ride full gallop toward another in an attempt to knock him off his horse with a long lance. By the time I arrived, however, the last joust of the program was over, and the arena was being set up for a medieval weapons demonstration. That sounded interesting, so I took a seat next to a large group of fellow Faire workers.
An array of wicked-looking weapons of slaughter were brought out one by one as an announcer explained their purpose over a loud speaker. For the mace demonstration, two armored knights from an earlier joust returned and flailed away at each other for a few minutes with spike-studded metal balls. Bangs, clangs, oohs and aaahs. Then came the pikes and halberds, long lances with hooks on the end used for unhorsing mounted knights, then stabbing them as they lay helpless on the ground. “My, my, doesn’t that look like fun,” said Deanna Sazac, who was dressed as a female pirate. She and her husband Judd owned the Chugalug, which was berthed near my Merilee at Gunn Landing Harbor. Today they were taking turns manning the Gunn Zoo Information Booth.
“I’m surprised we don’t see more broken bones,” I answered. She winced as a pike-wielder used the hook to drag the Black
Knight to the ground. “Say, isn’t that Yancy Haas?”
Once the Black Knight had been properly slaughtered, he came back from the dead to take his bow. When he raised his visor I saw that, yes, it was Yancy. Originally from nearby San Sebastian, he had moved to Los Angeles to work as a stuntman. While here visiting his parents, he’d apparently decided to make a few extra bucks as one of the Faire’s paid actors. Not that the money could compare to Hollywood’s.
The most popular demonstration turned out to be archery. First we saw an English longbow, wielded by Cary Keegan, who ran the Royal Armory booth, and then a crossbow. The crossbow may not have been as loud and flashy as the mace, pike, or broadsword, but it proved just as lethal. It also had the advantage of being a unisex weapon, as was obvious when Cary’s wife, the frail-looking Melissa, hit the bull’s eye on a target thirty yards away.
“Something like that might make Judd behave,” Deanna said to me. The edge to her voice took the humor out of her comment. Were she and her husband fighting again?
Whatever was going on with the two, I took it as my cue to leave.
“Maybe I’ll see you at the next joust,” I said. “When is it?” “Two-thirty,” she answered. “But I’m coming back for the joust at four, that’s when most of the other people working the Faire will be here. There’ll be another weapons demonstration then, and I’m really interested in that crossbow.”
“Good luck,” I said, as I walked away. And good luck to Judd. I had time left before returning to Llama Rides, so I went in search of my mother. Guessing she had gathered at the Royal Pavilion with the other members of the court, I muscled my way through the crowd toward the tent. If I hadn’t been pressured into working the Faire, I would have enjoyed it as much as everyone else. Actors in costumes ranging from dragons to dancing bears to wizards to the green-painted, twig-sprouting Green Man mingled with the crowd. Entire families, all the way from babes in strollers to centenarians in wheelchairs, thronged the main thoroughfare. Smiles were the order of the day as jesters dressed in bells and motley danced alongside them, while bringing up the rear, ragged beggars thrust out their wooden bowls, whining, “A ha’ pence for porridge, Sire, a ha’ pence for porridge!” Little girls wore bright ribbon streamers in their hair; boys play-battled with plastic swords.
But being surrounded by so many happy families gave me a pang.
For the past three days my fiancé, Sheriff Joe Rejas, had been thousands of miles away in Virginia, taking part in a ten-day Homeland Security refresher course offered to various law enforcement agencies. Before leaving, he’d warned me that as soon as he arrived at HS headquarters, his cell phone would be confiscated. He would have no access to television or the Internet, either.
I missed him desperately. As I walked along I conjured up Joe’s deep voice, his handsome face, his strong arms, his…
“Zounds, Maid Theodora, watcheth where thou treadeth!” I snapped out of my X-rated fantasy starring the San Sebas- tian county sheriff to realize I had almost run down a leashed pair of greyhounds being walked by Speaks-To-Souls. The animal psychic was dressed as a medieval abbess. Almost six feet tall, with prematurely gray hair and pale blue eyes, she was more magnificent than pretty. Saving greyhounds from being euthanized when their racing days were over was her passion, and she’d brought these two to the Faire in hopes of finding them permanent homes. A dedicated rescuer of all species, she was the prime mover and shaker behind the No Kill Animal Shelter.
Stepping back before I trod on a delicate paw, I gave her an apologetic nod. “Sorry. Daydreaming.”
She smiled. “About that good-looking boyfriend of yours, I’ll bet.” Seeing a little girl staring at her, she hastily corrected herself, “Ah, I mean, about that gallant shire reeve to whom thou hast pledged thy troth.”
I felt my face redden. “Nay, Maid Speaks-To-Souls. Ungodly thoughts of the shire reeve ne’er enter my chaste mind.” As soon as the little girl moved off, I lowered my voice and said, “Okay, you caught me. Leaving aside my mental misbehavior with the sheriff, did you by any chance see Caro pass by a minute ago?” “She was headed toward the Royal Pavilion, and if those folks have any sense they’ll hide in a friendly dungeon when they see her coming. What’s up with her? I’ve never seen that woman
look so angry. She’s usually the soul of graciousness.”
Speaks-To-Souls had once cured my mother’s Chihuahua of an advanced case of nerves, but she was unaware of my mother’s true nature. “Caro has her, ah, off moments,” I told her.
“Don’t we all?” Seeing another group of civilians approach, she added, “Then good morrow to thee, Maid Theodora. My coursing hounds grow restless. But hark! Near the Royal Armory stands none other than Her Majesty the Queen, sweetly attended by her gallant ladies-in-waiting. Your lady mother must be among them. Hie thee hither, fair maid. Your quest mayeth be at end.”
It wasn’t-eth. Mother was nowhere to be seen, a fact that Her Royal Highness Bambi O’Dair wasted no time in pointing out when I ran into her. “You’re mother’s late, Teddy, which is totally screwing up the Royal Progress. She’s doing it to spite me.”
The blond Bambi looked magnificent, from the impressive breasts thrusting out from under yards of ecru lace, to the toes of her tiny pearl-studded slippers. Her burgundy gown and long matching cape showcased her hourglass figure. She didn’t look like a Renaissance Faire queen; she looked like the real thing, and an unamused one, at that.
“Caro tends to run late, Bambi. It’s nothing personal.” When Bambi turned up her nose in a huff, I studied it carefully. Yep, cosmetic surgery. Setting aside her bottle-blond hair, I counted three obvious procedures: breasts, lips, nose. King Henry would have been shocked to know he shared the throne with a queen whose body was every bit as manufactured as my mother’s. Then again, maybe he did know. His excuse for replacing Caro as Anne Boleyn sounded fishy to me. More likely, my mother had done something to annoy him. She was good at that. “If I see Caro, I’ll tell her you’re looking for her,” I told Bambi. “Fat lot of good that’ll do.” A group of Faire-goers approached with their eyes on the dazzling queen, so Bambi fell back into character. “See that thou doest convey the Queen’s royal commu- nication, Maid Theodora.” To her ladies-in-waiting she added, “Come, fair ladies. His Majesty the King awaits our presence.” In the world of Renaissance Faires, a Royal Progress is a big deal. While strumming lutes and singing about the king’s great- ness, a gaggle of court musicians lead the king, queen, lords, ladies, and assorted jesters on a stately stroll along the entire length of High Street. They make scheduled stops at various attractions, most notably the Royal Dungeon, shake hands with the Lord High Torturer, and applaud the screams emanating from the dungeon. Their sadism sated, the group continues their merry way toward the Royal Joust Arena to take their places at the canopied end of the arena to watch more carnage.
Ah, the gentle days of yesteryear.
I searched for Caro for the next ten minutes to tell her she was late for the Royal Progress, but never found her. Later, when the Royal court passed by Llama Rides, she still wasn’t with them. The only conclusion was that she was either off sulking behind a tent, or like a spoiled child, had picked up her toys and gone home. Either way, the situation had nothing to do with me. I was not my mother’s keeper.
The rest of the day sped by with one child after another clamoring for a llama ride. Feeling the way he did about children, Alejandro was in seventh heaven, walking briskly around the oval enclosure, humming and humming. His contentment spilled over to me. As if he finally recognized I was the person responsible for loaning him all those adorable children, he even stopped spitting at me, and when the Faire closed for the day at six, we were fast friends.
I took off his saddle and blanket and gave him a good grooming, which he seemed to enjoy almost as much as he had his little riders. We hummed together while I figured out where to spend the night. I could trailer him back to the zoo and let him sleep in the barn with the rest of the Friendly Farm animals, but ruled that out. Although Alejandro didn’t mind being ridden by a child, he hated being trailered, and after the hard day he’d put in I didn’t want to cause him additional stress. I could leave him in the Llama Rides enclosure—an earlier check proved it sturdy enough—and drive the four miles back to the Merilee, my houseboat in Gunn Landing Harbor. That didn’t appeal to me, either, because I didn’t want him spending the night alone in a strange place.
Then a more realistic solution occurred to me. “Hey, Alejandro, I bet I could cadge some tent or RV space at the Peasant’s Retreat. That way I’ll be close by if you get lonely. What do you think?”
He didn’t answer, not that I’d expected him to. One of the great things about talking to animals is that they’re such good listeners. His companionable silence helped me make up my mind, so as soon as I was through grooming him, I went in search of someone willing to share bunk space. Female, of course. For a sheriff, my fiancé was broadminded, but not that broadminded.
Neither was I.
After a few inquiries I found a berth with the Silly Slatterns, twin sister comediennes who had driven down from San Fran- cisco in their comfy RV. I’d gotten to know them while living up there with Michael, my then-husband. The two were bunked down in the back room, but they informed me that the dining nook could easily be re-assembled into a bed. Best of all, the RV was parked directly behind the castle wall, mere yards from the llama enclosure.
Cognizant of my own pets’ needs, I called Linda Cushing, the owner of the Tea 4 Two, a sailboat-turned-houseboat berthed next to my Merilee. A long-time friend as well as harbor neighbor, she volunteered to care for Miss Priss, my cat, and DJ Bonz, my dog, before I had time to ask.
“I’ll only be staying here tonight,” I said. “Tomorrow evening I’ll trailer Alejandro back to the zoo, then come home.”
After Linda promised my pets plenty of food, love, and walkies, I ended the call and made Alejandro a soft bed of hay.
“All the comforts of home,” I told him.
He hummed with pleasure, then began eating his bed.
Humming a similar melody, I headed back to the RV to enjoy an evening of mirth and bourbon with the Silly Slatterns.
# # #
A loud racket woke me just after two.
“Wha…?” I lifted my head, blinking away dreams of Joe.
The noise intensified: a high keening sound, punctuated by a snarl, then a series of bark-like yips. Thuds. More yips.
The Slatterns stumbled into the room as I was untangling myself from the sheets. “What the hell’s that, Teddy? Coyotes?”
“Dunno, but I’m going to find out.”
“If it’s coyotes, I mean, teeth and all that, shouldn’t you call Security?” worried Petra.
“Security’s got tasers,” Tina added.
“Call them.” I grabbed a cast iron skillet from the stove, and clad only in a borrowed nightshirt, ran out the door into the chill night air.
As I feared, the noise came from the direction of Llama Rides. Coyotes, which were common here in rural San Sebastian County, are solitary hunters, and the chances of one taking down a healthy llama weren’t good. This is why sheepherders often use llamas as flock guards. While protecting their sheep, llamas had been known to stomp coyotes to death.
Feral dog packs were another story.
Hoping that wasn’t the case, I almost knocked down the Faire’s plywood castle in my clumsy rush through its door and into the darkness of High Street. If a dog pack was on the attack, I was in serious trouble, but at the moment I was more worried about Alejandro’s safety than my own. Maybe the attacker was a lone dog. I hoped so because my only weapon was that cast iron skillet.
And my voice.
“Bad dog!” I yelled, my tone fierce. “Bad dog!”
Anyone experienced with dogs, even feral ones, knows that the human voice carries more weight than a frightened animal’s cries. “Bad dog! Down, bad dog! Down!”
The barking yips continued, ever-increasing in urgency. Not a coyote. Not a dog.
A terrified llama.
With no streetlights on the grounds and only a half-moon for illumination, the High Street was dark, but as I rushed up to Llama Rides I was able to make out a furry shape lying motionless inside the gate.
Tears sprang to my eyes, but when I approached the prone form the yipping didn’t stop. It continued even louder. Then, as if desperate for help, Alejandro emerged from the shadows and galloped to meet me.
Ipe-ack, ipe-ack! he barked. The second he reached me, he shoved his head into my chest, bleating out an almost human sob.
“Oh, Alejandro. Did my brave boy kill it?”
Normally, a llama will not go out of its way to kill an intruder, but he would use his strong, clawed feet in self-defense. If that’s what Alejandro had done, he couldn’t be blamed. Then I realized that the llama’s attacker, whatever type of canine it had been, might not be dead, merely stunned. To be desperate enough to tackle something the size of a full-grown llama, it had either been starved or rabid. I couldn’t see if Alejandro had any wounds, but the situation nevertheless called for caution. Taking him by his halter, I led him to the opposite end of the enclosure in case the animal got up again.
To my relief, I saw the bobbing of a flashlight and heard feet pounding toward me.
“Teddy! Are you all right?” I recognized the voice of Walt McAdams, the fireman who lived near me on the Running Wild. On vacation from the San Sebastian Fire Department, he had been hired as head of Faire Security.
“Yes, but be careful!” I shouted back. “We may have a rabid animal on our hands!”
Seconds later, Walt arrived with two more security guards armed with flashlights and tasers. They cautiously entered the llama enclosure and bent down to examine the still animal.
One guard gasped. The other turned away. Walt looked stricken.
“What is it?” I asked. “Coyote? Dog?”
Walt’s voice shook when he said, “It’s…it’s what’s-his-name, the Henry the Eighth guy. He’s dead.”
Aghast, I turned to the llama. “Oh, Alejandro, what have you done?”