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.