While taking the yearly "otter count" at a marsh near Gunn Landing Harbor, California, zookeeper Theodora Bentley sees Maureen, her favorite otter, swimming around clutching someone's expensive smartphone. When Teddy rescues the device, she discovers a photograph of a murder-in-progress. A hasty search soon turns up the still-warm body of Stuart Booth, PhD, a local Marine Biology instructor.
Booth was a notorious sexual harasser of young female students, so the list of suspects is long enough to make Teddy wonder if the crime will ever be solved. But when her friend, Lila, one of Booth's original accusers, is arrested and charged with his murder, Teddy begins to investigate. This creates considerable tension with Teddy's fiancé, Sheriff Joe Rejas. He believes the ever-inquisitive zookeeper might be putting her own life at risk, and so orders her to butt out.
Concerned for her accused friend, Teddy ignores Joe's ultimatum. She questions not only members of Gunn Landing's moneyed social elite, but also the other side of the financial spectrum—the financially strapped young women willing to do almost anything to pay for their college tuition. Alarmed by Teddy's meddling, Booth's killer fights back—first with a death threat, then via gunshot.
In this fifth Gunn Zoo Mystery, Teddy is torn between living a peaceful life on her Monterey Bay houseboat with her three-legged dog DJ Bonz, or moving inland to marry Joe, who comes with kids and a mother who has her own mysterious agenda. The choice is scary for Teddy—who has barely been managing her own many-times-married mother, and her imperious employer, Aster Edwina Gunn, overlord of the famed Gunn Zoo. Teddy's life is further complicated by a wayward snow monkey named Kabuki, taunter of teenage boys. The zookeeper's dedication to her charges—including the anteater, the koala, the llama, and Magnus, the polar bear cub from Iceland (met in Teddy's last adventure, The Puffin of Death), never falters in a cleverly plotted series rich in characters and in animal lore.
Gunn Zoo series:
The Anteater of Death (Book 1)
The Koala of Death (Book 2)
The Llama of Death (Book 3)
The Puffin of Death (Book 4)
The Otter of Death (Book 5)
Praise for the Gunn Zoo series:
"'High Society meets Zoo Quest.' I've always been a sucker for zoos, so I also relished the animal details in this highly enjoyable read." —RHYS BOWEN, New York Times bestselling and award-winning author
"Webb skillfully keeps the reader guessing right to the dramatic conclusion." —Publishers Weekly for The Puffin of Death
"Teddy's second case showcases an engaging array of quirky characters, human and animal." —Kirkus Reviews for The Koala of Death
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Other than a few remaining wisps of fog, the morning was your standard California morning: perfect. The warm Pacific nuzzled at the Gunn Landing breakwater, while overhead snowy gulls swooped through a soft westerly breeze like noisy angels. Even better, it was a Monday, and my day off. Knowing me, though, after I finished my walk around the Gunn Landing Slough, I would probably drive down to the zoo to say hello to my charges. With my new hours, I had too much to do, and too little time to do it in.
My overcrowded schedule meant poor old DJ Bonz had come up on the short end today. After giving my three-legged terrier a short walk through Gunn Landing Park, I'd returned him to my boat, the Merilee, and ordered him to keep Miss Priss company. Bonz never behaved well at the Slough and snarl-barked at any otter as if it were a marauding Viking intent upon carrying off every liveaboarder in the harbor. I sighed an "I'm sorry" sigh, not that the little terrier could hear me from here. This end of the Slough — a fifteen-hundred-acre marsh near Gunn Landing Harbor — was a good mile from my boat as the crow flies, not that I'm a crow. My slog around the Slough's many inlets added another mile to my hike, but today I was supposed to turn in my portion of the local otter count to the Otter Conservancy, the marine life rescue organization.
With my count up to fifteen, I rounded the southern edge of the Slough, another reedy area where sea otters sometimes gathered. They didn't disappoint me today. I stopped to watch several females floating on their backs while their pups snoozed on their mama's bellies. Nineteen. Two pupless otters paddled by mere feet away, not bothering to give me a second look. Twenty-one. With their dog-like black eyes and noses, and golden brown coats, they appeared healthy. So far, I'd seen no sign of toxoplasma gondii, the disease that had felled too many of their kind in the past few years.
Approximately fifty yards further, I discovered that my earlier optimism had been in error. Two otter carcasses lay half-hidden among the reeds. Growing closer, I found no blood, no signs of attack. Possibly toxo. Not having anything to bag and tag the animals with right now, I took several photos and e-mailed them to Darleene Bauer, president of the Otter Conservancy. We would pick them up later and take them into Monterey for autopsy.
Troubled, I headed toward the northern edge of the Slough, where my sector of the grid ended. There I spotted a single otter, perhaps a male. That brought my count to twenty-two live, two dead. This otter had a rock the size of a softball tucked under his arm. Unlike other mammals — primates excepted — otters use tools. Their usual prey was the shellfish that proliferate near the shore; oysters, abalone, and whatnot. Somewhere during their evolution, the animals had learned to use rocks or other hard objects to crack open shells to get at the soft meat inside. Cunningly, they held onto their favorite tools, and it wasn't unusual to see them swimming by clutching metal ship fittings, belt buckles, or pliers. Once I had even seen a large male attempting to open an oyster by using an old glass Coke bottle.
My own territory covered and notations duly made, I was about to return to the Merilee when I saw a familiar face lurking in the reeds. Maureen. Number twenty-three. Her thick coat, a prize sought by hunters for generations because of its water-repellent properties, was a brighter gold than most otters, making her easy to spot. Today she was busy opening the hard shell of a clam. As a zookeeper I knew the dangers of treating wild creatures like domesticated pets, but long ago she had stolen my heart with her nightly scratchings and chirpings at the hull of my boat, begging for treats.
Maureen loved herring.
After gulping down whatever it was she'd killed, Maureen spotted me. Perhaps thinking I carried a herring in my pocket, she tucked her tool under her arm and swam toward me, and in her rush, nudged aside a fat male — twenty-four — who had floated into her lane. Upon reaching me she looked up with hopeful eyes.
"No herring today," I whispered, to avoid disturbing the nearby otter mommies.
Maureen can be stubborn. She waggled her head and chirped.
She chirped again, this time louder. Waved a webbed paw. When she did that, I could see the tool tucked under her other arm. It was black. Shiny. No rock.
"What's that you've got, Maureen?"
Another chirp. Another paw wave. She did this dance every night at the Merilee. It had always worked there, and she didn't understand why it wasn't working now. One more paw wave dislodged the object so that I could see it better.
A cell phone. Wrapped in kelp.
"Oh, Maureen, you didn't!"
Those of us who lived in the harbor were alert to such thievery, and Maureen wouldn't be the first otter to make off with some poor tourist's dropped cell phone. Whenever possible we rescued the phones and traced them back to their owners, careful not to injure the thief in the process.
I reached out my hand. "Give me that."
Maureen sniffed. Where is my herring? Her following chirp sounded more like a warning ack-ack than a plea.
"You're threatening me now? I'll have you know I've handled bigger bullies than you. Rhinos. Tigers. Even a mean cockatoo."
Another thing about Maureen; she's entranced by the human voice. That's down to me and my nightly conversations with her, but hey, words sometimes work. Maureen was so intent on translating my words into "otter-ese" that she was unprepared for the quick grab that snatched the cell phone out from under her arm.
"Aka-aka-aka!!!" she shrieked, and with teeth bared, made a dive for my hiking boot.
No dummy me, I fled, leaving her behind.
Once on higher, drier ground, I turned my attention to the kelp-wrapped phone, an expensive, water-resistant Zeno-7. To my surprise, it was still on and in camera mode, which meant it had only recently been dropped. Scanning the horizon, I saw no one. I carefully brushed the kelp away to better see the picture on its mud-spattered screen. At first the image made me smile, because the owner — Stuart Booth, whose otter count area included the northern dogleg of the Slough — appeared to have dropped his phone in the act of taking a selfie. It was an odd selfie, though. A dark spot marred his temple, and splatters of reddish-mud half-covered his face. The image was blurry, too, as if he had forgotten to hold the phone still. And there was something ... something about the look on Booth's face that made me uneasy. Was it surprise? I pulled my tee-shirt out of my cargo pants and wiped at the screen again. Squinted. Tried to read his expression through green smears of kelp and red mud.
No, that expression wasn't surprise.
It was horror.
And the red drops splattered all over his face?
I was looking at a murder.
The San Sebastian County Sheriff and two deputies arrived twenty minutes after my call, and were now wading through the Slough. I stood well back on the dry bank, watching as they poked at the murky water with long sticks. The phone thief was long gone, as were her twenty-three cohorts, but some of the liveaboarders from the harbor had wandered over to join me. We liveaboarders are a nosy lot.
"You sure it's not some dumb kid's idea of a joke, Teddy?" asked Darleene Bauer, just returning from completing her own otter count at the eastern sector of the grid. Darleene lived on the Fleet Foot, a Union 36 cutter berthed near my Merilee. "That's the kind of thing a teenager would think was funny."
Although the mother of three and the grandmother of six was superior to me in her knowledge of child goofiness, she had not seen the image. The horror on Booth's face had appeared all too real. "No teen would sacrifice a Zeno-7 just for a joke," I told her. "Too expensive."
"Stolen, maybe, or —"
She was cut off by a shout from one of the deputies. "Over here!"
Joe — that's Sheriff Joseph Rejas, the San Sebastian County Sheriff, who just happens to be my fiancé — slogged his way through the marsh to join the deputy. He studied something in the water, then motioned for the other man to step back along with him. As the two retraced their footsteps, Joe grabbed his radio and barked out orders. Then he took his personal cell out of his back pocket and made a call. He spoke for a few minutes, then shoved the phone back into his pocket and made his way over to me, leaving the deputy standing sentinel over whatever it was they'd found.
After chasing Darleene off, he took out a pen and notepad. "When's the last time you saw Professor Booth?"
"Did ... did you find him?"
"Please answer the question, Teddy."
Usually the most patient of men, Joe was all business when it came to his job, so I wasn't offended by his testiness. "Last week sometime."
"How well did you know Professor Booth?"
Did. Past tense. "I've always tried to avoid him."
"You didn't see him earlier this morning? Before finding this?" He held up the bagged and tagged Zeno 7.
"Like I told the 9-1-1 dispatcher, I was the only person around when I got out here, so no, I didn't see him or anyone else. Six a.m. is too early for tourists. It'd be too early for me to be out here, too, but I was doing the otter count when I found the ..." I motioned to the phone, "... uh, and I ..."
"You've been a member of the Otter Conservancy for how long now?"
"Is that relevant?"
"It might turn out to be important later on."
I had to count on my fingers. "Four years, I think. Maybe five. But this is only my second year helping with the count."
A worry line appeared between his eyebrows. "When and where did you last see him?"
"You found his body, didn't you?"
Joe didn't say anything for a moment, then sighed. "He'll have to be formally ID'd, but yeah, it looks like him. As soon as the techs get here, I'll drive up to the Betancourt compound and give the bad news to his wife, which I'm not looking forward to. Now help me. When did you see Booth last? And this time, please be specific."
More finger-counting. "Tuesday ... No, Wednesday morning, when I visited Betancourt College to give a talk on the effect of pollution on local wildlife. I passed him in the Marine Sciences Building and waved hello. He didn't wave back. It was just before, ah, ten. I don't know if he was headed to his office or to a class. Maybe a class, come to think of it, because he seemed to be in a hurry. That's only a guess. And he had a young woman with him."
Joe frowned. "A student?"
"She was carrying books."
"Would you recognize her if you saw her again?"
"What did she look like?"
"Young. Pretty, if that's what you're getting at. Blond, blue-eyed. Perfect features. Boob job." Stuart Booth was known for his affinity with female students. Especially pretty blondes with big boobs.
"I meant, did she seem happy or ...?"
"Happy, I think. They went by pretty fast."
"How about him?"
"He looked happy, too."
I wondered if he was thinking the same thing — that Booth's liking for the young and beautiful could have resulted in him lying dead out here in the Slough. He was, after all, a married man. And Booth's wife ... I shivered.
"You okay, Teddy?"
I swallowed. "I'm fine."
"Good, because we have to get on with this. Now tell me, did you ever —?"
His question was interrupted by the arrival of two white vans, one filled with crime techs, the other, the van San Sebastian County used to transport the dead. Joe left to talk to one of the drivers, and since he hadn't told me to stay put, I made my way through a growing crowd of curious liveaboarders and headed back toward the harbor. As unpleasant a person as Professor Stuart Booth, PhD, had been, I had no desire to see his body hauled out of the Slough.
Just before reaching the Merilee, I was hailed by Lila Conyers, who was trying to shoo away a stubborn pelican from the deck of Just In Time, her decrepit houseboat. Despite the cheerleader-type good looks she had been born with, this morning the thirty-four-year-old Lila appeared almost as rundown as her houseboat. So thin it was worrying, she had dressed herself in a mismatched skirt and blouse she probably bought at the Salvation Army store. It's hard to look like a fashion plate when your only income is a part-time job at Tiny Tots, the local day care center.
"What's going on at the Slough, Teddy?" she called, once the pelican flapped off.
Since she would find out soon anyway, I told her, leaving out the part about the Zeno-7.
"You're sure it was Booth?"
"But you say you didn't see the body yourself."
"The sheriff did."
Her dull eyes livened. "So he's really dead!"
Without another word, she went inside.
Uneasy, I made my way along the dock to Slip No. 34, where the Merilee, my refitted 1979 thirty-four-foot CHB trawler, is moored. Now, a thirty-four-foot boat may sound roomy enough, but its actual walking-around room is less than twenty feet. The rest of the boat's interior was taken up by the bulkheads, cabinets, forward and aft bunks, and the galley with its built-in eating area. Living on a boat isn't for claustrophobes.
So why do we liveaboarders do it? In many cases, it's because rents in San Sebastian County have risen so high that the average person — i.e., Lila Conyers — can no longer afford them, whereas the monthly cost of a boat slip is far less onerous. That's if you own a boat in the first place, which Lila did, having inherited the rickety old thing from her grandmother. But other people live on their boats because life in Gunn Landing Harbor is so peaceful. Usually, anyway. For them there is nothing more wonderful than waking in the morning to the gentle rocking of the leeside Pacific, the call of gulls, and the occasional visits of sea otters.
Some of us live at the harbor for more personal reasons, and as I approached the Merilee, I spotted my own reason standing on the deck, dressed in something expensive whipped together by the Designer-of-the-Moment. Mother didn't look happy and I suspected why. Ever since she had married criminal defense attorney Albert Grissom, her fifth husband, she'd developed the bad habit of listening to his police scanner. My suspicion proved correct when I stepped aboard and saw three Louis Vuitton suitcases next to her.
"I'll help you pack," she said.
"I'm not going anywhere, Mother."
"Haven't I told you a million times to call me Caro?"
Caroline Piper Bentley Mallory Huffgraf Petersen Grissom hated it when I called her Mother, so I always make certain I use the term at least once a day. Irritating point duly made, I repeated, "I'm not going anywhere."
"Oh, yes, you are. I'm not having my only child live in a place that allows murderers to run around loose."
Here's the thing about Caro.
Ever since my father embezzled millions and fled the country, leaving us destitute, she has been determined to marry her way back up the social ladder. For a former beauty queen who maintained her beauty via countless cosmetic surgeries, marrying up came easy, and each succeeding husband had been wealthier than the last. Now firmly back on the Social Register's A-List, she felt secure enough to pay attention to areas other than financial portfolios, and kept herself busy poking into other people's business. In some cases, her efforts had had beneficial results, such as the mentoring she'd been doing with at-risk girls. In other cases, she was a royal pain in the derrière. Specifically, mine.
"There are no 'murderers,' plural, running around loose in Gunn Landing Harbor," I told her. "Just one."
"That's supposed to make me feel better? That there's only, as you put it, 'just one,' singular, murderer out there? Don't be foolish, Theodora. I want you off this boat and safe in Old Town with me, where I have alarms, security cameras, and a good guard dog."
"Are you talking about your Chihuahua?"
"Feroz has excellent hearing. Now let's get you packed." She turned away from me and faced the Merilee's cabin door. "Unlock it."
I crossed my arms in front of my scrawny chest. "No."
"Don't you tell me no." She crossed her own arms across her surgically endowed breasts.
Excerpted from "The Otter of Death"
Copyright © 2018 Betty Webb.
Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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