Call me Snake.
I picked the nickname up in grade school because of Arnie, a pet garter snake I emancipated from my grandma’s basement. The name stuck. So did my love for creepy crawly things. Much to Mother’s horror.
My real name is Lavender. Lavender Clark Jones. I don’t know what Mom was thinking, giving me a name like that. Maybe she had visions of me decked out in billows of lace and crinoline, floating down the aisle on the arm of Lance Millionaire, Industrial Tycoon. Sorry, Mom.
My husband, Jeff Jones, is a Top Ender, growing up in the Northern Territory of Australia. His idea of formal wear is to tuck in his shirttails. He’s a dear, though. And a tad bit crazy. What else do you call a guy who willingly jumps into the mangroves to rescue a giant saltwater crocodile who doesn’t want to be saved? And what do you call a woman who thinks that’s an acceptable way to spend a honeymoon? Guess that makes me a little nuts, too.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m told I clean up pretty well. Still, I’m a lot more comfortable waiting out a downpour in the Venezuelan rainforest while tracking jaguars than I was dressed in the floor-length sequined gown I was forced to wear for the evening’s Beastly Ball, the black tie fundraiser at the Minnesota Valley Zoo. Both scenarios are part of my job description as zookeeper and co-host of Zoofari, the zoo’s very own cable program.
The trouble is, when I’m introduced as Lavender Jones, some people think I’m an exotic dancer. No, the name is Snake, just Snake.
Gary Olson popped his mop of dirty dreadlocks through the doorway of the cramped office I shared with an assortment of frogs, geckos, an arthritic fruit bat named Buster and the other zookeepers who worked on the Tropics Trail.
I looked up from the computer where I was logging in Buster’s feeding schedule. Gary’s face was flushed, eyes snapping with excitement behind rimless glasses. His style screamed hippie, an era of rebellion that seemed out of fashion these days. But what did I know? My last act of adolescent mutiny was lying about my age and having my ears pierced.
A sophomore at the University of Minnesota, Gary was earning college credits as Zoofari’s first intern. Though he was an earnest young man, I wasn’t convinced he had been the best choice of the candidates that had applied, but his eagerness to play gofer for the summer had made him an instant hit with our crew.
“Didn’t you hear?” He held up his Zoofari crew radio in lieu of an explanation, his oversized watchband slipping on his wrist.
I nodded down at the tight lines of my black sequined dress. “Not a lot of room to carry a radio in this get-up.”
“Jeff—” Gary gulped in a breath, trying to contain his excitement. “Jeff fell in the water with the crocodiles.”
I sprang up from my chair, elbowed past Gary and made a mad dash through the exit and into the service tunnel that comprised the inner circle of the Tropics building, part of an elaborate system of access corridors that threaded its way behind the zoo exhibits.
As I picked up speed, the sequined prom dress and hooker heels proved problematic. I managed a fancy toe dance and shuffle past the tapirs’ holding area, nearly colliding with a trashcan before pausing long enough to kick off the shoes and hike up the skirt. Then I went into high gear.
“Wait up!” Gary labored after me, his five-foot-ten, two-hundred-pound frame not designed for quick sprints. “He’s the Crocodile Wrangler. He knows what he’s doing.”
I stifled the urge to stop and cuff him across the ears. Jeff Jones had been wrangling crocodiles since he was twelve, but that didn’t make him impervious to sixty stabbing teeth and a jaw that could snap shut with a pressure of two thousand pounds per square inch. Yesterday Zoofari lost a camera to Sebastian, our fifteen-foot male. The camera, mounted on a crane for an overhead shot, had come in too close and the croc exploded out of the water and demolished it in one chomp.
I darted forward, taking a shortcut through the building’s kitchen....