Reading sample from „East of Sunanada- Part I: The Penguin Cave and Haunting Memories“ (English Edition)
Chapter 1 – Ari and Junior
“Are you ready yet? Hello? Anna-Luise? Anni?” Impatiently, Michael taps the car’s hands-free system with his right index finger. “Hello, can you hear me?”
“Yes, Michael, I can hear you now. I’ve just been in the ‘Polar Dome’, there’s always a bad connection there.”
“Okay, I’ll be at the upper entrance at the Tirolerhof in ten minutes.”
“I need a few more minutes. I’m on my way to the Rhino House. The zebra van is still there. They’re not leaving until tomorrow morning. I want to take a closer look at the vehicle. Could you please fetch Ari from the gatehouse and take him for a walk?”
“From the porter? What has he done this time, the little rascal?”
“That was really bad today! Embarrassing. He is only allowed to join me if he stays in the office. What a shame, he’s been busy here all day. He obviously enjoyed all the smells of the zoo.”
“It’s time for your brother to return from rehab and work with Ari again. Otherwise the little dog will get too bored with us.”
“It won’t take long anyway. Everything has been running smoothly so far. Only today, today Ari went completely crazy with the zebra transporter. And when he didn’t even want to let Junior get into the car …”
“Ha ha, I guess the little Beagle has lived up to his name, Aramis means ‘lion’ after all.”
“No, no, not just like a lion. That was even worse.”
“Worse? Come on! The little dog with the beautiful chestnut eyes. He’s no bigger than a Pocket Beagle. He couldn’t hurt a soul!”
“Not really,” Anni agrees and continues excitedly. “At first he was barking madly at the bales of hay being loaded into the transporter. He even jumped on one bale. And then he wanted to dig into it. As if there was something inside. It took a lot of effort to get him down again.”
“There must have been a little mouse hiding in there. Ari wanted to get it out. Typical Beagle, his hunting instinct must have kicked in,” explains Michael with a smile.
“I wasn’t amused! My colleagues were already whispering about it. Then it got really embarrassing! When a little Beagle is wagging its tail between people and then suddenly sits motionless in front of Junior, stares at him and won’t let him get into the car, that’s ….”
“A passive indication. That can’t be! Nonsense! Ari may be a sniffer dog, but no, you must be mistaken,” Michael says, shaking his head. “Say, who the hell is Junior? You mean the boss’s cousin? The, er, what’s his name again? TM, I think. I’ve forgotten what it stands for. You know, the unfriendly, bald-headed, beer-bellied one?”
“T stands for Thorsten.”
“Yes, that’s him. He always reminds me of Goethe, ha ha, loosely based on Goethe: There he stands, the poor fool…”
“Hey, that wasn’t politically correct,” Anni replies with a hint of indignation. She continues with an annoyed undertone: “Exactly, I was talking about that guy. Ever since he started acting like he’s the junior boss, everyone just calls him Junior. And he seems to like it.”
“Yeah, yeah, you and your political correctness,” Michael sneers as he parks the car at the Zoo visitor car park. “I’m already at the car park. The snacks for Ari are in the boot, right?”
“Yes, the treats are in the back left pocket with the water bowl. Don’t let him off the lead, the way he’s on it today … aahh …”
“Yes! I don’t want to spend hours in the woods looking for him. Please hurry, it’s getting dark. Hello? Anni? Are you there? Anna-Luise, hello? There is a lot of noise … Anni, are you still there? Damn, bad signal again!”
Annoyed, Michael taps the red button on the screen of his mobile phone and disconnects the call. This meant he could no longer hear Anni’s desperate cries for help, which grew fainter and fainter, mixed with the excited chirping of birds. After a few minutes, all that can be heard in the Rhino Park is a soft whimper and the bleating of Sunanda, the one-horned rhino.
Chapter 2 – Searching
“It’s time for a new provider. It can’t go on like this,” Michael mumbles to himself as he takes a bag of snacks for Ari and a small bottle of still mineral water from the boot. As he closes the boot door, his eyes sweep across the almost empty car park towards the Zoo. Since he no longer works at the Zoo, he has to use this car park. A cold shiver runs down his spine. Is it the memory of what happened at the Zoo a year ago that makes him shiver? Or is it the evening air, which is getting colder in early summer? Michael sighs deeply. He takes an old, dark green work jacket from the back seat of his car. “I have to give it back. I completely forgot,” he says to himself. “It doesn’t matter. I’ll put it on now. I’m getting cold, I don’t want to catch a chill.” He carefully stuffs the snacks and the small water bottle into the large pockets of his old parka. The baggy pockets show that they have been used to store a lot of things over the years.
On the way down to the porter’s house a strange feeling creeps over him. Michael grows increasingly nervous. Could this be the return to his old workplace or just another one of his sixth senses? His sixth sense had never been wrong in the past. Some colleagues had called him a bit crazy for it. He could tell when an animal was unwell. Even when the others said there was nothing wrong. Michael was always one hundred per cent right.
Michael takes his mobile phone out of his pocket and dials Anni’s number. First he hears busy signals. Then a monotonous voice says: “The number you are trying to reach is not in service at this time.” At that moment he knew something was wrong with Anni.
Michael covered the last five hundred metres to the porters in one bound. The gate at the entrance to the property was still open. This gave him a straight shot at the small house behind the main gate. The door to the porter’s house was also open. Cautiously, he peered into the room. To his relief, he discovered an old acquaintance inside. A pale, short, gaunt man in his sixties was sitting in an old, worn office chair in front of a screen. His face showed the effects of decades of night shift work. The old porter seems to be alone. His favourite radio station is playing country music. The second office chair in the room looks abandoned. The room is filled with the delicious aroma of freshly brewed coffee. Michael announces his presence with a gentle tap on the door, which is slightly ajar.
“Hello, Michael, come in! Don’t worry, there’s nobody here anyway. Would you like some coffee? I just made a fresh pot. How are you? What are you doing here? I haven’t seen you for ages. You haven’t been here since …” The porter clears his throat and looks down in embarrassment. He is clearly uncomfortable that this has slipped out.
“Good evening! Hi, Markus! You’re right, since I’ve been fired by the new boss. I’m fine, thank you. I’m here to pick up Aramis.”
“Aramis. Ari. Anna-Luise’s dog!”
“Ah, the Beagle. He’s sleeping soundly in the box in the back. Why didn’t Anna-Luise take him with her when she went home?” Markus asks with raised eyebrows.
“What do you mean? She’s still here, isn’t she?” Michael replies in surprise. “No, she’s not. A few minutes ago, at the shift change, they said everyone had left. Only Junior’s still in his office. And the dog is still sleeping in the kennel in the back room.”
“Markus, please have a look at your wise computer. Anni must still be at the Zoo. I was talking to her on the phone, Anni was on her way to the Rhino Park. Suddenly the connection went dead. I haven’t been able to reach her since.”
“Look,” Markus points to an entry on the monitor, “she checked out 20 minutes ago.” Turning to Michael, he notices someone parking the large electric trolley in front of the porter’s house through the window. Panic sets in as he waves his arms frantically toward the adjacent room. “Jesus, quick! Junior’s on his way. You have to get in there. He mustn’t see you here! Just a few weeks away from retirement, I do not need this kind of trouble!”
He jumps up from his chair, rushes to the door and stands on the porter’s threshold. “Good evening, sir! Yes, I’ll close the gate for you. Goodbye, see you tomorrow – oh, I meant to say see you next week, you’re travelling with the zebra tomorrow. Have a good trip, Mr Vice-Director!” Then he presses the lock button for the automatic gate on the wall in the porter’s lodge. “You can come out now,” the porter calls, breathing a sigh of relief after double-checking that the gate is securely closed behind Junior.
Michael cautiously pokes his head out of the next room. “Is he gone? Phew, that was close. Thanks Markus. Thank you!”
“My nerves, my God. Yes, that was dangerously close. Now I’m starting to sweat,” grumbles the old porter, wiping a few beads of sweat from his forehead with trembling fingers.
“Did you say Vice-Director?” Michael asks incredulously. “Since when is this fool the Vice-Director? And what qualifications does he have?”
The porter looks at Michael, shrugs his shoulders and replies mockingly with a mischievous grin, “It’s enough that he’s supposedly related to the boss. Besides, he’s been hanging around her all day. He must have some qualities. I bet he’s not related to her at all. He’s her lover …”
“What are you talking about? He could very well be her son,” Michael interrupts before the old porter can start a discussion about Junior. Just then, Michael notices someone parking a small electric cart outside the porter’s house and approaching the door. “Is someone coming back? Who is it? I’d better go back next door!” Michael quickly retreats into the next room.
“Stay here, don’t worry! That’s Dirk, my new colleague. He’s a good guy, trustworthy. He’s not much of a talker and he’s excellent with the new computer system, just the way I like it. No need to hide from him,” Markus reassures Michael.
The young porter stands outside to smoke a cigarette. He knows very well that Markus can’t stand the smell of cigarettes in the porter’s house. Standing in the doorway, he takes a deep drag, holding out the cigarette with one hand and waving to Markus with the other. “Hey, Markus. Another trip to the Tirolerhof with no action, again a false alarm at the entrance. We’ve had more problems with the gate since they replaced the alarm system. By the way, who used the big electric trolley this afternoon? I had to go with the smaller one. It’s going to struggle up the hill to the Tirolerhof!”
“Hello, colleague. Don’t get too excited. I was wondering where you’d gone. The CCTV at the upper gate went down a while ago too. The new system is a mess, no wonder. It’s just what Junior had in mind, isn’t it? Speaking of Junior, he’s been driving around in that big car. He just parked it here,” Markus explains.
“The day shift cleaned the car in the afternoon. Now it’s all dirty and filled with hay. Listen, Markus! Something strange happened at the gate today. Someone left a bucket of hay and a keeper’s sweater inside. I’ve taken care of the bucket. I’ll finish my cigarette, then I’ll take the bucket inside and put it in the corner over there.”
“That’s all right, I’ll give it to the morning team. They can take the bucket and the sweater to the day room.”
“By the way, Dirk, you have a very good knowledge of the new system. Can you check the gate where people have checked out? Michael is here to pick up Anna-Luise and the Beagle. But the system says she’s already left. That’s a bit strange.”
“So you’re Michael, hello! I’ve heard a lot of good things about you,” the young porter says to Michael as he sits down in front of the monitor. “Well, let’s have a look. Well, Anna-Luise is checked out for the day.”
“Are you sure?” ask Michael and Markus at the same time.
“Yes, definitely. But, uh, look, she didn’t check out with the time card. That was done manually. That is quite strange. There hasn’t been a single error message on the time cards today. Why would someone check out manually? And it doesn’t say which gate she checked out at. Very strange, very strange. And even stranger, it doesn’t say who signed her out. I didn’t even know that was possible.”
The three men stare at the monitor, their eyes wide with concern. “There’s something wrong both front and back,” the old porter utters, his expression filled with horror. “I’m convinced Junior is involved. Since he’s been here, we’ve had all sorts of strange occurrences – strange accidents, missing items, even cases of forgotten connecting doors left open. Remember last week with the bison? The gate was wide open and the baby bison had already ventured out. The bull was just a few metres behind. Luckily there were no visitors around. I have no desire to cross paths with a bison bull outside the paddock, especially with a baby bison nearby.”
“That’s right, all sorts of strange things have happened,” the young porter chimes in.
“And the majority of these incidents occur in your former department, Michael,” Markus continues. “Half of your former team is either sick or on leave.”
“It’s not ‘leave’, it’s ‘suspension’ for dereliction of duty, whatever that means,” the young porter corrects, playfully using air quotes and repeating, “Suspended for dereliction of duty.” He adds, “Anyway, Michael, maybe you should call Anna-Luise again. It’s getting dark outside and she’s unlikely to be at the zoo at this hour.”
“Now I’m getting the voicemail again. Trust me, something’s wrong. She went to the Rhino Park and hasn’t been heard from since,” Michael states, his voice tinged with concern.
“Well, we’ll have to look for her then. You have the dog here! Maybe he can help. Anna-Luise once mentioned something about training him – he should be able to do it,” Markus encourages Michael.
Michael shakes his head vehemently. “This is a Beagle! If I let him off the leash, he’ll be gone for hours. We won’t find him until morning. Yes, he’s trained! But he’s not a tracking dog. He’s an endangered species dog for the Customs Service. He sniffs out smuggled exotic animals in luggage, bush meat and rhino horn,” Michael replies. “And cash, smuggled cash, he’s just starting to learn that, he’s not very good at it yet. But he’s not trained to find people. He can’t do that.” Michael looks thoughtfully into the distance and mutters, half to himself, “We have to find Anni.”
“What’s bushmeat?” asks the young porter. “I’ve never heard of it.”
“You haven’t missed anything,” Michael replies and continues to explain: “Bushmeat is the smoked meat of poached wild animals from Africa and sometimes Asia and South America. It’s often the meat of protected monkeys and pangolins or even elephants and stuff like that. It is smuggled illegally from Africa to Europe and the USA. The meat is usually cut up and smoked on the spot. It’s not just that protected and endangered species are being poached. It can also be a source of disease transmission from animals to humans. There are a number of restaurants in African communities in Europe where bushmeat is considered a delicacy. And some voodoo stuff includes monkey bushmeat. They often use gorilla hands and monkey heads.”
“Whoa, whoa, stop that! I’m getting sick already,” the young porter interrupts with a look of disgust on his face. He almost vomits at the thought of monkeys being killed and chopped up.
Michael keeps trying to call Anni. The answering machine repeatedly reminds him that the line is not available. Michael’s voice is almost broken by the sinking feeling in his stomach. “This is certainly not right. We have to find Anni immediately.”
“You’re right, let’s go and look for her. We’ll take the big electric car. I have to do my first evening round anyway. Dirk will hold the fort here,” Markus tries to calm him down. “Don’t worry, if she’s still in the zoo we’ll find her! Maybe it’s just the battery and she’s already waiting for you at home.”
Meanwhile, the twilight outside has been completely replaced by darkness. The sky is eerie, unreal in a special way. Many low clouds hide the stars. It was just before the new moon. The narrow crescent of the waning moon was no longer bright enough to lighten the darkness. Only a few metres of the path directly in front of the electric car were illuminated by the cones of light from the two headlights. There is no wind. Like the calm before the storm. There was something menacing in the air. Not even the lions and tigers have made their usual evening roar.
The two men sit silently side by side in the electric cart. Markus steers the cart slowly and carefully. With all his concentration he tries to stay in the middle of the road. The onset of night blindness has been bothering him for a long time. His eye doctor advised him to switch to daytime work. But with retirement just a few months away, he is reluctant to give up his night shift. Every cent will count towards his future pension. He won’t be able to make any great leaps with his salary anyway. That’s why the old porter hides his nocturnal eye problems. To avoid being noticed when he’s out too long, he takes shortcuts on his prescribed rounds around the Zoo. Increasingly, he is skipping problematic paths. For example, he hasn’t gone up to the Tirolerhof for some time. On the way up, he can cope with the seventeen percent incline. But he is afraid of the slope on the way down during the day. And now, with his night blindness, it’s out of the question for the old man. When the alarm goes off at the gate, he sends his young colleague, who likes to drive the electric carts anyway.
Michael stares thoughtfully at the tarmac road reflecting the light of the headlights in front of them. Over the past twenty-five years, he has probably driven and walked along this road thousands of times. In all seasons, at all times of day, in all weathers. First as a trainee, then as a keeper, and for the last few years as a supervisor. Then there was a new director. And her alleged cousin. A few days later, a suitcase full of smuggled eggs from protected exotic animals was brought in by customs. Some of the lizards had already hatched, others were dead. As always, Michael’s department stepped in to help care for some of the animals. “I shouldn’t have come in early the next day. Maybe I was wrong and didn’t see the weird cousin and a stranger coming out of the Rhino House. Maybe I miscounted and none of the smuggled lizards were missing. I shouldn’t have reported it to the administration right away.” His head is buzzing with confused thoughts.
“Do you want to go to the Customs service, Michael?” Markus suddenly asks, breaking the unbearable silence.
Michael jerks in shock. “No, what makes you think I want to?”
“Because now you have the Beagle, a trained Beagle. He’s a bit small, but he’s a good dog.”
“No, no, that’s just our foster dog. Anni’s brother is a customs officer. He was injured in an operation and is in rehab.”
“Have you and Anna-Luise moved in together? Are you a couple? Yes?”
“Yes, no, I don’t know. We are good friends, yes, good friends.”
“The way her eyes light up when she talks about you, I would have thought you were together. But you live together, don’t you? If Junior finds out, Anna-Luise will certainly get the boot. He’s already banished her from the administration to the mice and rats barn. An administrative trainee at the feed farm. Just because he doesn’t like someone using the second desk in his office. Totally crazy, like Junior himself!”
“Yes, it’s crazy, absolutely crazy,” Michael agrees. “What is Junior responsible for?”
“I don’t know. He’s the Vice-Director. He butts in everywhere. He yells and screams a lot. And he lets himself be driven around on the animal transports. Only abroad, of course. He has never travelled within Austria.
“What a strange fellow. I’m glad I don’t have to deal with him anymore,” Michael replies.
As they approach the pelican pond, Michael wrinkles his nose and sniffs disgustedly out of the doorless electric car. “The pumps at the pond are clogged. They need to be cleaned as soon as possible. You can smell it from here!”
“Hey, you don’t work here anymore. But you’re right, the pond does stink. I’ll report it to the management tomorrow. But it’ll take forever to get anything done. If anything is done at all …”
“Oh, my goodness!” Michael interrupts him indignantly at the access road to the Rhino Park. “How can you park a van like that? If it starts rolling, it will end up in the rhinos’ pool. And nobody can pass by the way it’s parked! Anni mentioned something about transporting zebras. Why is the van here and not by the zebras?”
“Good question, I don’t know,” Markus replies thoughtfully. “There’s a zebra transport to Poland on the schedule, some small game park, I can’t pronounce the name. I also have no idea why the transporter is now at the Rhino Park.”
Suddenly Markus slams on the brakes. A few metres in front of the van, the headlights hit a small object on the ground, blinding Markus for a moment. Michael instinctively braces himself against the chassis to avoid hitting his head on the window frame.
“There’s something on the road!” Markus exclaims excitedly as he quickly gets out of the car. Michael follows and together they investigate.
“Look, there’s a mobile phone in the middle of the road! It’s definitely not a work mobile.”
“Oh my God, that’s Anni’s mobile. Anni must be nearby!”
“Anna-Luise!”, “Anni, where are you?”, “Anni!”, the two men call in hushed voices. They don’t want to startle the rhinos, as loud noises can panic them and they potentially get injured. Michael uses his phone’s flashlight to point towards the Rhino House, while Markus points his torch towards the other side, illuminating the area near the rhino pool.
“Ouch! Ouch! What’s this?” Michael suddenly hears the old porter muttering to himself. “Michael, come here. You won’t believe this. What’s going on? I almost tripped over it,” Markus calls to Michael.
Michael quickly runs to the other side of the van. “My God, this can’t be true! Markus, I’m going to film this. No one will believe us otherwise! If the early shift doesn’t see this, he could ride his bike headlong into the rhino pond. I shudder to think what could happen if there’s a rhino in the outdoor area.”
“Especially as the pool is to be cleaned tomorrow and the water has already been drained today. Utter madness! Unbelievable! And it happens again in your old department!” Markus adds excitedly.
The two men stare down at the ground. A thin, barely visible cable is stretched between the van and the grass verge in front of the rhino pond, a few centimetres above the ground. “You’re right, get a video of this, Michael!”
Just as Michael starts recording, slowly moving his mobile phone camera along the taut steel cable, they hear a strange noise coming from the rhinos’ outdoor enclosure.
“What’s that noise? The rhinos are supposed to be in tonight so their pool can be cleaned in the morning. Listen, Michael, what is it?”
“Suni? Suni-Darling? Jesus, it’s Sunanda! Sunanda’s in the pool!” Michael mumbles. He turns his head towards the pool in a panic. “Dear God, please don’t let Anni be in the pool! Anni, Anni, are you there? Anni, where are you?”
© Jola Belik, Extract from „East of Sunanda – Part I: The Penguin Cave and Haunting Memories„. Reproduction and distribution without prior written authorisation is prohibited.