Second Nature

birds_of_paradise2

If I have to watch another of his re-runs, I’ll sell the cat.

I was never all that keen on wildlife, despite being raised on Daktari and Wild Kingdom and all: too often I’d find myself rooting for the wrong side—cheering for the lion or the bear, when it was the antelope I should have been behind—and then when their hoofs are knocked out from under them and they disappear into a cloud of dust to become just another pile of guts and gristle I’d feel sour disappointment—childish I know. Anyway, these days his films make my skin crawl and I’ve gone off animals all together—put Shep in the pound, donated the hamster, off-loaded the fish and turned their tank into a terrarium. The cat’s still hanging around but she never expected much from me and that’s just fine; the disregard is mutual.

It started with his disappearance. On a shoot somewhere in the Moluccas he vanished into a grove of greenery. A week later a note arrives at his Canary Wharf offices, a note which no one can decipher (the animals told me later it was Adelie Penguin a fiendishly hard script) but given it was accompanied by a curl of his grey hair with a small piece of his scalp attached, the intention was clear. By this time the tabloids have got hold of the story and are howling out their worst doggerel —‘Mister Wildlife missing in Moluccas mystery’, ‘Brutal barbarians blamed: family frantic’, ‘Stalled search leaves loved ones languishing‘ and so on. That’s when they called me in: I have a reputation for difficult cases. I am, if you like, the detective of last resort.

‘He’s worth millions’ said Simon, the flack in the sharp suit wearing a track of worry into the charcoal carpet of a conference room thirty floors above street-level.

‘Tens Simon, tens,’ said Andy the other flack who’s sitting at the table holding his head.

‘Alright alright, tens of millions, not that that’s important right now, what is important is that we get him back in time to shoot Blue Blue World Two. We’ve got a submarine booked and everything.’

Andy slaps his hands down and groans, ‘Jeez, I just don’t know what to do.’ So, I put my notebook in my top pocket and started my reassure-the-client routine: told them not to worry and that everything was going to be all right. But then Simon turns on me and asks coldly whether I had any idea how much renting a submarine costs, with overheads and all. I said that I hadn’t but I’d guess it’d be pretty pricey. I was right there boyo.

So I said I’d get right on it and I left them there, picked up the dossier from the brunhilde at reception and headed for the lifts. The hallway was full of gumshoes, insurance investigators, hucksters, psychic poodles and mystical macaws all waiting their turn with Simon and Andy. So, I thought, maybe I’m not the very last resort.

I took the file to a smoky little bar I know, lined up a row of drinks and settled down for some serious passive smoking. The folder contained the usual fibre: forensics, 8 by 10s of the scene, sworn denials from personal and professional rivals, return phone numbers of last month’s threatening callers (a surprisingly long list—mostly animal welfare pooches and meat industry front men), insurance beneficiaries and profit and loss statements (there wasn’t much loss in those statements: being the world’s most loved wildlife guy pays very well). Who could possibly have a motive for harming everyone’s most-adventurous uncle? A man in a decent blue shirt who takes you around the world every Sunday night and explains how life evolved in a volcanic pond in Mexico or a worm colony attached to a chimney three miles below the surface of the Indian ocean? The mysteries of nature unveiled in neat 55-minute packages. Who indeed?

There at the bottom of the file was a spectrographic analysis of the ransom note as well as the atomic decay of tiny salt crystals in the paper. These showed unusually high levels of potassium 14 and nitrogen 11 which suggested only one or two possible locations on the globe: a now-closed organochlorine factory in Burbank or a particular island in the Atlantic Ocean famous for bird-poo fertiliser.

Next I’m winging my way to Ascension Island and from there south on the tramp steamer Voltaire to the Portuguese Protectorate of La Isla Bolon, the Island of Birds. I have never been able to sleep at sea, so for three days and nights as the ship sailed on I kept the dissolute skipper and his hirsute crew entertained with long stories while downing tall drinks. Then, on the morning of the fourth day, the island’s black cliffs rose out of the sea harsh and emphatic like my landlady on rent day.

The steamer made its way slowly past the crags, then turned into the channel of the island’s only river and there spread out before us was the ruin of Port Batchian.

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