Vik, Iceland: August 7
As he snapped yet another photograph of the black, yellow, and white bird, Simon Parr congratulated himself. God only knew why the bird had flown all the way from Egypt to this rough Icelandic clifftop overlooking the North Atlantic, but there it was, pecking its way toward the puffin burrow. Although the morning was chilly, what with that damp wind freezing the tops of his uncovered ears, he had to smile. By sneaking away at four-thirty—the sun was almost up, for God’s sake!—and leaving the rest of the group back at the hotel, he would be the first, and perhaps only, person on the tour to snag the hoopoe. So what if he’d forgotten his hat.
Note to self: even in August, mornings in Iceland were frigging cold.
But this trip was working out in more ways than one. First, the conversation back at the airport, where he’d told a certain someone exactly how things were, now the hoopoe. And afterwards…Well, better things were yet to come.
The morning hadn’t begun well, what with that stupid hotel clerk blasting away with a rifle at some fox. Simon had been afraid the noise would scare away every bird in the vicinity, but no, after a brief flutter, they all came back. Now all he had to do was wait.
He heard a squawk.
The puffin, another visual weirdo with its oversized red, yellow, and blue-black beak, had stuck its head out of its burrow and was sounding a warning. It wasn’t happy with the hoopoe’s incursion, but who cared what a puffin thought? Especially that particular one. Instead of the standard, unblemished black crowning its head, this one sported a white streak down the middle of the black. Ugh. Besides, there were millions of the nasty things up here, so if the hoopoe fouled some freak puffin’s living room, well, too bad. Parr didn’t like puffins, never had. Rats with wings, he’d once called them, bringing down the wrath of the other birders at last month’s disastrous meeting of the Geronimo County Birding Association. But had they ever smelled a puffin rookery? It was enough to make a person gag. The stench was worth it. Same for the damp north wind numbing his fingers. He’d have gone through all kinds of hell to get those shots of the directionally challenged hoopoe.
All things considered, the hoopoe was a gorgeous bird. Not stubby and ungainly, like the poorly marked puffin, but sleek, built for flight and speed. Black-tipped yellow crown. Long, narrow black bill. Dramatic black-and-white-striped wings and tail. Bright yellow body. Given its extraordinary plumage, he could understand why there’d been such excitement when word of its arrival reached them. But in the end, a bird was just a bird. Another notch on his belt, nothing more.
Speaking of belts, another note to self: hire a private trainer and get rid of that incipient pot belly. He had the money now, didn’t he? Money to do a lot of things he couldn’t do before— dress the way he wanted, smoke what he wanted, wear his hair how he wanted. Don’t like my Cubano Cohiba Esplendido cigar? Hold your breath, wimp. Don’t like my sideburns? Babe, if they were good enough for the King, they’re good enough for me. Maybe I’ll even buy a gold lamé sports coat, a big purple Cadillac, go the Full Elvis.
Money meant freedom. Money meant no limits.
Simon Parr was so busy gloating over his glorious future that he forgot about the hoopoe. He also didn’t hear the footsteps approaching behind him. He didn’t even hear the gunshot, because by the time the sound reached his ears, he was already falling toward the puffin’s burrow, unaware of sound, sight, or any other sense.
He would never hear another thing. Or see another hoopoe.
Gunn Landing, California: Four days earlier
When Zorah radioed me that Aster Edwina wanted to see me in the zoo office immediately, I was knee-deep in giraffe droppings. Not that I minded, since that’s my job. Most people think being a zookeeper is glamorous work, but the truth is that seventy-five percent of my time is spent shoveling a pile of fecal matter from one place to another. The animals enjoy watching, though.
Being summoned by Aster Edwina Gunn, head of the Gunn Zoo Trust, seldom meant good news, so it was with a certain amount of reluctance that I put my poop-scooping duties aside, climbed the long hill from African Trail, took the long way around Tropics Trail, then cut in front of the new Northern Climes exhibit and joined the crowd by the penguin enclosure. Anything to put off the inevitable. Rory, one of the Emperor penguins, was in the midst of another altercation with Ebenezer, a crested northern rockhopper. The two didn’t like each other much, but this was the first time I’d seen them actually go at it. The smaller Ebenezer pecked Rory on the chest. Rory squawked and bopped Ebenezer on the head. Ebenezer bopped back.
I was thinking about breaking it up when my radio hissed at me again. “Keeper Number Four,” I answered. “Over.”
“Leave those penguins alone and get your butt in here, Teddy,” Zora snapped.
“What makes you think I’m watching the penguins?” “Because that’s all you’ve done since they arrived.”
Got me there. It would take a more jaded zookeeper not to be fascinated by the little cuties. They were so people-like. Yet so not.
“Well, Zorah, I’m…”
“Theodora Esmeralda Iona Bentley, do I have to tell you again?” “Oh, all right,” I grumbled. “I’ll be there in a minute. But stop calling me by my full name. You know I hate it.”
“And I hate being the go-between you and Aster Edwina. She’s on a tear today, so make it half a minute. Zoo One, over and out.” While I was clipping the radio back onto my belt, Ebenezer’s and Rory’s spat morphed into a full-tilt brawl, and the two penguins tumbled butt-over-flipper until they fell off their rocky slope and splashed into the pool. Avian tempers duly doused, they swam to opposite sides of the pool, where they reduced their former physicality to mere glares. Action over, the crowd left. So did I.
“Well, hi, Aster Edwina,” I said, walking into the Administration Building. “What brings you here on this sunny California morning?”
The owner of the Gunn Zoo had to be well into her eight- ies by now, but age hadn’t dimmed her. Hints of her former beauty remained on her face, and her spine was still as straight as a West Point graduate’s. Age hadn’t tempered her irascibility, either. Glancing at her watch, she said, “It does not take eight minutes to walk from African Trail to Admin.”
“It’s hot today, so I was reserving my strength. It’s August. Happens every year. Plus I’m pulling a double shift, and I…”
“No, you’re not.”
“That comes as a surprise to me,” I said, “especially since you’re the one who arranged it.”
Keisha, one of the Gunn Zoo’s most popular bonobo apes, was about to give birth, and Aster Edwina had ordered that she be observed around the clock. Due to so many keepers on vacation or ill, Zorah, the zoo’s director, had pulled a double shift herself the day before yesterday, which meant that today was my turn.
Aster Edwina inclined her regal head. “Zorah has already made arrangements. You’re needed elsewhere.”
“And that would be?” With Lucy, the giant anteater, who was also about to give birth? Or Wanchu, the koala, whose joey should be emerging from her pouch any day?
Aster Edwina mumbled something I was certain I hadn’t heard correctly. “Pardon? Could you repeat that? Where did you say I’m needed?”
“Iceland!” she snapped.
I laughed. “Honestly, I really have to get my hearing checked, because I’d swear you said Iceland.”
“You’re leaving tomorrow. Zorah’s already made the arrangements.”
Zorah wouldn’t meet my eyes, which meant it was probably true, and she felt guilty about it.
“Iceland? Tomorrow? You can’t be serious.”
“I am perfectly serious, Theodora. As you know, Jack Spense, our bear man, irresponsibly broke his leg surfing Sunday—compound fracture, I hear—and his doctor won’t clear him to fly. You are the only person left on staff whose passport is up-to-date.”
At last an out. I began a lie. “But it’s not up…
She headed me off at the pass. “Don’t bother telling me it’s not, Theodora, because I am quite well aware you were in Costa Rica last month, visiting your runaway father. By the way, you should have gotten my permission before you flew off so cavalierly.” Here, a harsh stare at Zorah, who had enough sense to keep quiet. “As I was saying before you tried to pull the wool over my eyes, you’ll be taking an Alaska Airlines flight out of San Francisco to Seattle at 5:30 p.m. tomorrow, spend the night there, and the next day you’ll board the 10 a.m. Icelandic Air flight which lands, weather willing, at Keflavik Airport sometime early Wednesday. We’ve already arranged for a car to pick you up, and you’ll be sharing lodging with one of the Reykjavik Zoo people. The transfer paperwork will take around six days, I hear, because Icelanders move slowly in these matters.” She sniffed. “No sense of urgency, those people. Pack for weather.”
Icelandic weather. A vision of glaciers and blizzards rose up in front of me. I’m California born and bred, and the thought of spending six days in freezing temps filled me with horror. “Six days? But, Aster…”
“Yes, yes, I know you’re worried about that adorable little bonobo, what’s her name, yes, Keisha, as well you should, but Zorah and I have already taken care of that staffing problem, and I assure you that everything will be fine.”
“But my own pets…”
“I took the liberty of calling your mother, and she agreed to take in your animals, so you see there’s no problem, no problem at all.” She gave me a beneficent smile, Lady of the Manor to Obedient Serf. “I’ve even given you several days off with pay so you can see the sights. They say Iceland is a major tourist attraction these days.”
“But…But why are you sending me to Iceland?” I hated the plaintive tone in my voice, but couldn’t seem to stop.
With a look of satisfaction, she said, “To pick up a polar bear, of course.”
Grinding my teeth, I drove home to Gunn Landing Harbor to pack. I’m normally an even-tempered person, but the fact that Aster Edwina felt she could disrupt my life any time she wanted enraged me. Still, if I wanted to keep my job, and I did, there was no way around it. The lush green California hills rolled by quickly, and twenty minutes later I arrived at the harbor. Due to severe zoning restrictions imposed by the California Coastal Initiative, the tiny village of Gunn Landing, population five hundred, has no apartment buildings and no rentals other than three already-taken fishermen’s cottages. Most of the village’s inhabitants, several zookeepers among them, live on boats. Mine is the Merilee, a refitted 1979 thirty-four-foot CHB trawler, berthed at Slip No. 34.
I do not live alone. My usual bunkmates are DJ Bonz, a three-legged terrier, and Miss Priss, a one-eyed Persian, both rescued from the same pound. We are sometimes joined by Toby, the unfaithful half-Siamese who adopted me after his previous owner was murdered. Yes, I use the word “unfaithful” advisedly. Neutering hadn’t changed Toby’s roaming tendencies, and after spending a week or two with me, he always moved on down the dock to whatever boat took his fancy at the time. Right now he was with us again, which presented a problem.
Should I take him to Mother’s with the rest of my menagerie? I realized the problem had already been solved the moment
I walked down the dock toward my Merilee and saw Cathie Kindler relaxing on the deck of the S’Moose Sailing, her refurbished houseboat. In her arms she held Toby, who was licking her ear and pretending he would never love anyone else, the little liar. “Look who moved in with me,” Cathie called, over the noise
of a Chris-Craft speeding out of the channel toward the Pacific. She was one of those women who could never say no to a homeless cat. “He spent last week on Deborah Holt’s Flotsam, but I guess they had a spat because here he is.”
“Did you feed him?”
“Just a smidge. Part of a salmon steak.”
I had to smile. “You’ll regret that, because he’ll expect it every day now.”
Briefly, because I could hear my other animals crying out for me, I told her my situation and asked her to look after Toby while I was gone.
“Of course. But Iceland! Hope you’ve got a parka. Don’t they have volcanoes? Maybe you should take an umbrella, too, what with all that fire and ash falling from the sky.” With that encouragement, Cathie disappeared into S’Moose’s galley to spoil Toby with more salmon.
I’d forgotten about the Icelandic volcanoes. It would be my rotten luck that one of the things would erupt while I was there, and all the flights would be grounded for a week or two, leaving me to babysit a polar bear on an ice floe where I’d end up as dinner. Muttering to myself, I opened the hatch and entered the Merilee.
Miss Priss wanted food. DJ Bonz wanted walkies, then food.
After I gave them both what they wanted, I began to pack.