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Toxic Octopus is an interestingly informative novel wrapped in fun - I loved it!

Synopsis

A popular marine biologist is dead. An octopus named Fred is accused of killing her. Can Xena interrogate Fred and solve the crime before more people die?

Xena Cali is a somewhat overzealous investigator with a passion for poetic justice. Her latest case takes her to the Biological and Aquatic Research Labs (BARL) in Galveston, where Dr. Jane Moore is found dead in a tank with a large octopus wrapped around her body. When Dr. Ari Pani (42 and very handsome) doesn't accept the police's conclusion of death by octopus, he hires Xena to find the truth before Fred is lethally injected in two weeks.

The investigation tests her mental and athletic prowess, her stash of spy shop gadgets and her assumptions about octopuses. She'll need all that and a commandeered Segway to stay alive.

Toxic Octopus is the first book in the Spy Shop mystery series. If you like fast-paced crime novels, clever satire and gritty beach towns, then you'll love this humorous mystery.

Toxic Octopus

By Lisa Haneberg


Xena Cali is a private investigator. She also owns Paradise Lost Spy Shop on Galveston Island. Conveniently, she employs Sparky and Dora, the other members of her team. When a member of a local privately funded non-profit organization BARL is murdered Xena and her team are called in after the police determine Fred, a male octopus killed Dr. Jane Moore. Ari, the manager of the cephalopod lab, is sure Fred is not guilty and Xena agrees with him, especially after meeting Fred.


So begins the bizarre investigation including spy cams, Segway Personal Transporters and more danger than Xena could imagine when she agreed to take the case. Soon there is an additional murder that is linked to the case. She will have to use every trick in the book and several of the items she sells in her Spy Shop to catch the real killer and keep herself from being the third victim.


Toxic Octopus is an interestingly informative novel wrapped in fun. I learned more about octopuses than I could have imagined. Yes, the plural of octopus is really octopuses. I also found out that sadly, after mating, the male octopus dies and after laying her eggs the female octopus dies. I also learned all about freerunning, which is also called parkour. Xena practices this art of efficient movement adding ninja like fun to some very dangerous situations.


The plot moves along quickly, building tension until the killer is revealed. One of vehicles carrying the book is the characters’ quick wit and humor. Haneberg made me laugh out loud more than once, especially when Xena gives everyone she meets a different reason for the fashion choice she wears to a gala. There are times when Xena talks directly to the reader, much like the characters in the TV series Scrubs, and it absolutely works.


If you are a fan of Christopher Moore, you will love Toxic Octopus. Haneberg’s style is fun and informative – perfectly balanced with a solid plot and intriguing whodunit. This is the first book in the Spy Shop Mystery Series. The second book, Dead Pelican is available now. I cannot wait to read it.



DISCLOSURE OF MATERIAL CONNECTION: I have a material connection because I received a review copy for free from Reedsy Discovery in exchange for a fair and honest review. Copyright © 2019 Laura Hartman

Reviewed by

I began reviewing books on a now defunct website, GenReview in 2011. I now review books on my website, as well as for Penguin First To Read, Netgalley, Maryglenn McCombs, book publicist, Bookish First and Killer Nashville. I also review books for various authors that send me their books.

Synopsis

A popular marine biologist is dead. An octopus named Fred is accused of killing her. Can Xena interrogate Fred and solve the crime before more people die?

Xena Cali is a somewhat overzealous investigator with a passion for poetic justice. Her latest case takes her to the Biological and Aquatic Research Labs (BARL) in Galveston, where Dr. Jane Moore is found dead in a tank with a large octopus wrapped around her body. When Dr. Ari Pani (42 and very handsome) doesn't accept the police's conclusion of death by octopus, he hires Xena to find the truth before Fred is lethally injected in two weeks.

The investigation tests her mental and athletic prowess, her stash of spy shop gadgets and her assumptions about octopuses. She'll need all that and a commandeered Segway to stay alive.

Toxic Octopus is the first book in the Spy Shop mystery series. If you like fast-paced crime novels, clever satire and gritty beach towns, then you'll love this humorous mystery.

Day 1, Tuesday

On a muggy Tuesday morning in Galveston, Texas, a young aquarist working for the Biological and Aquatic Research Labs – or BARL – entered the dimly lit home of an octopus named Fred, who lived in the cephalopod tank area. The aquarist was intending to get high on Gorilla Glue before his boss got to work, but instead he found a dead body.

The body was that of Dr. Jane Moore, a marine biologist whom Fred the Octopus had appeared to have pulled into his tank and drowned.

The young aquarist found Dr. Moore’s body tightly wrapped in Fred’s pulsating tentacles. Every suction cup on the octopus’s multiple arms was gripping her, as if in a passionate embrace.


***


“Xena! There’s been an incident at BARL.” Sparky stormed into the meeting room at my spy shop. Sparky, looking a lot like the Big Lebowski in a long cotton jacket that might’ve been a pajama robe, is my wunderkind chief technology officer and knows more about spy and surveillance apparatuses than I could imagine learning.

Dora poured a cup of coffee. “What happened?”

Dora’s my chief operating officer. A former City of Galveston historian and researcher, she takes obsessive care of every detail in the spy shop as well as my private investigator practice.

“Dead body. Heard it on the police radio.” Sparky paused to catch his breath. He put both hands on the table. “Special circumstances.”

I knew that special circumstances was the code phrase to alert the Galveston PD’s Level Three Crime Scene Team that something strange or messy had happened ... separated body parts, bloated decomposing, weird positioning ...

“OK, let’s go,” I said. “Dora, handle things here and I’ll text you with what we find.”

“You better! I’ll monitor the news stations.” Dora clicked on the large TV.

I grabbed my bag and keys and we drove to BARL, a privately funded, non-profit research think tank on the northeast side of the island in an old building where the US Coast Guard used to be. It was a city treasure, along with the University of Texas Medical Branch, anything named after the Moody family, and the dilapidated Mardi Gras arch the city was too lazy to fix or remove.

We are not ambulance chasers, by the way, readers. We’ve worked with BARL on several occasions. Two years ago, they asked us to provide them with tiny cameras they could mount onto dolphins they were training to be government assassins. No, they did not tell us that’s what the dolphins were doing, but everyone in town knew and most didn’t care. This is Texas. We love arming things.

BARL needed smaller cameras because the dolphins were crushing and knocking off the ones they had been using during their mating rituals, which apparently involve body slamming. Who knew?!

That particular species of dolphin, selected for their ability to be trained for complex tasks, happened to also be one of the horniest, which had presented an unforeseen challenge for researchers. Luckily, the Nano Cam XT worked beautifully, so after the BARL job, we’ve always kept those cameras in stock for newlyweds who like to film their underwater sex scenes.

We also provided and helped BARL install a network of new security cameras about a year ago, so we were curious to learn what was going on.

When Sparky and I arrived at the compound, we saw a fire truck, several police cars, an ambulance, and a few dozen employees gathered by the back entrance of the main building. The employees were held back about thirty feet from the door by a taped-off area and a police officer standing guard at the door. We parked, got out, and moved into the crowd. Several people were crying. I asked what had happened.

“Dr. Moore is dead,” one said.

“Awful way to go,” whispered another.

The door opened and the group let out a collective gasp

when they saw who was on the other side. A man walked outside, took a few steps to the left, leaned against the wall and slid down on the asphalt. He began weeping.

“Who’s that?” I looked for someone willing to talk.

“Dr. Pani,” a woman with nametag – Roberta – said. “He’s our research manager. Dr. Moore worked for him.”

“How’d it happen?”

“Octopus,” she whispered, and then turned to hug her coworker.

After talking to several onlookers, Sparky found me and pulled me aside.

“I talked with the security manager. He confirmed that a biologist was found dead in one of the tanks this morning.” “Octopus,” I muttered slowly as I stared at Dr. Pani on

the ground, holding his head. Rocking.

“What? The manager didn’t tell me about an octopus.” I needed to know more about what happened, so I ducked

under the tape barrier and walked to the police officer I didn’t recognize.

“Is BJ in there?” As the captain of the Criminal Investigations Bureau, if anything major happened on the island, BJ Rawlins was there.

“Yeah,” the officer replied.

“Tell him Xena would like to talk to him.”

The officer scowled at me but went inside using one foot

to hold the door open a crack. I heard him call to BJ and have a brief conversation in a hushed voice. I’d helped BJ nail a violent perp on a nasty case the month before, so I knew he’d pay attention when he heard my name.

Sure enough, a moment later, BJ came through the door. He was wearing a crumpled gray suit, scuffed brown shoes, and his usual frown.

“I’m kind of busy here.”

“I know. BARL is a client of ours. We’ve sold them security and other cameras. Can I help with anything?”

“Nope. The cameras were off, but I don’t need them anyway.” BJ walked closer. “It was a tragic accident. Nothing more. Nothing you can do.”

“Accident?”

“Octopus drowns woman. Can’t prosecute the dumb creature. Case closed.”

“Wait a minute ... What about—”

“I gotta go,” he interrupted and then went back in the building.

I turned around to walk back to where Sparky was standing, but stopped when I heard a soft voice.

“Fred didn’t do it.”

I looked down and saw that Dr. Pani had lifted his head and was staring up at me. He was still sitting on the ground, his long dark hair falling backward except for a few wet strands that were stuck to his face.

“Fred didn’t do it,” he repeated. His eyes were dark, reddened, and glassy.

I walked over and sat on the pavement with him. “Who’s Fred?”

“An octopus.”

“They think Fred did it?”

“Yes, but he didn’t. I know Fred and I know Jane.” “Did you tell the police?”

“Many times.”

“Why do they think Fred did it?”

He was quiet for a moment, before speaking again. “Why

were you talking to the police captain?”

“My company has provided security cameras for BARL

and we’ve worked on cases with Captain Rawlins before. I own a spy shop in town and am a private investigator.”

“You’re an investigator?”

I nodded.

He took out his phone, found a photo and showed it to

me. The picture was dark but I could make out a body in a tank with an octopus wrapped around it.

“Wow,” I whispered.

“They said there was no sign of foul play. That it must’ve been an attack or accident. That’s not what happened. I know it.” He pulled back his phone and extended his hand. “I’m Ari. I manage the cephalopod lab.” He noticed that I was about to say something. “Octopuses, squid, nautilus, and cuttlefish.”

We shook hands but stayed seated. “I’m Xena. I’m sorry for your loss.”

Ari wiped his face and pushed back his long bangs. Our hair looked to be a similar color – dark brown – but his was longer and more rock star than my straightened pageboy cut.

“Thanks.” He dropped his head for a moment before looking at me again. “I need to go back in there. They’re wrong about Fred.”

“Tell Captain Rawlins again. He may be a bit hardheaded, but he’s a good man and trustworthy.”

Ari stood up and I followed suit. He extended his arm to shake my hand again and then pulled me into him. He towered above my five-and-a-half-foot frame.

“If the police won’t listen,” Ari whispered into my ear, “will you help me find out what happened?”

“Absolutely,” I said without hesitation while pushing back from him.

“I’d have to get it approved.”

“Of course.” I grabbed a card from my bag and handed it to Ari. “Call if you need anything.”

He stared at my card and rocked back and forth. “How about now?”

“Now?”

“Can you wait here for a while? I’ll come back for you.” “Of course.”

This was getting interesting.

“Thanks.” Ari turned to leave. “Don’t tell anyone I

showed you the picture, OK?” “Sure.”

He put my card in his pocket and went back inside.

I found Sparky consoling one of the employees. He’s a hugger. I, on the other hand, believe in the sanctity of personal space. Twenty-four inches, please. As the most sensitive member of our team, Sparky has a wonderful and effective way of making people comfortable. Within minutes they’re sharing life stories in rich, juicy detail.

I gave Sparky a look to join me as I walked back to the car.

“This is some heavy shit.” He leaned against the trunk. “Did you find out anything?”

“BJ thinks the octopus named Fred killed the biologist. The lab manager says no way.”

“Who do you believe?”

“I’ve no idea yet, but I’m pretty sure we have a new case.” I flashed him a smile.

Sparky checked the video camera he’d set up and then talked with a few more employees while I sat in the car and took notes about my conversation with Ari. The Level Three Team arrived and were rushed inside to, I assumed, get Dr. Moore’s body out of the tank. I called Dora with an update and asked her to start researching a few things in case BARL hired us to investigate.

“Boo!” investigative reporter Steve Heart proclaimed loud enough to make me drop my phone.

“What the hell?!” I picked up my phone and opened the car door.

“I just got here. Sparky mentioned you talked to the victim’s manager.”

I got out of the car. “Nice to see you, too.”

Steve and I had partnered on several cases, going all the way back to the glorious incident that changed everything. Maybe I’ll tell you more about that investigation later, readers, suffice it to say that his reporting of this unusual case and others had earned him several awards and industry accolades. He could’ve picked any crime beat job in the country but he chose to get off the bureaucratic hamster wheel and take the top reporter job at the smaller but well- respected Galveston Post Intelligencer, or GPI, a year after I moved to the island and opened my spy shop. Get your minds out of the gutter, readers, Steve and I were never lovers. I know you were wondering. Steve is an awesome guy but not my type, and likewise I’m not his. He likes big boobs and smaller brains. I’m proudly the opposite.

“Catch me up?” Steve implored while flashing his bright boyish smile. Standing about five-ten, his tanned body, blond hair, mustache, and soul patch could turn some heads.

“All I know is that BJ thinks it’s an accident and Dr. Pani doesn’t believe it.”

“That the octopus killed her?”

“Yes. The octopus is named Fred.”

“No way!”

“I kid you not.”

“What else did Dr. Pani tell you?”

“That’s it. Our conversation was two to three minutes,

tops. He seemed nice. Kinda cute, too. Long brown hair. More Yanni than Fabio.”

My phone buzzed with an incoming text. It’s Ari. You still here? Can we talk right now?

Yes, I typed, and hit SEND.

“You mean like that?” Steve pointed toward the door. Ari and another man walked away from the taped-off area. They passed the crowd and headed in our direction. Sparky saw them and followed.

“Can we talk in private?” Ari motioned us to move away from Steve and Sparky. “This is Dr. Mark Larson. He’s the lab director here at BARL.”

Dr. Larson glanced up and down at me. He looked like a GQ model who had aged well with some professional help.

His clean-shaven skin glowed and his eyebrows looked manicured. I felt underdressed in my khakis and Life is Good T-shirt.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said.

“Thanks. This is a tragedy for our labs and for the entire community.” Dr. Larson crossed his arms.

Ari cut in. “The police are convinced Fred caused Jane’s death. They’re closing the case and won’t be assigning a detective, but they’ve agreed to have the coroner do an autopsy. I’ve asked for and received Dr. Larson’s approval to have your firm investigate the case.”

“To be clear,” Dr. Larson advised, “I’ve agreed to a limited scope and timeframe of two weeks. The police are probably right about this being a tragic accident, but Dr. Pani disagrees and I respect his expertise.”

I watched and listened, calm on the outside, but buzzing with excitement on the inside.

Dr. Larson was taller than Ari but he bent forward and looked down at me over his glasses. “Dr. Pani tells me your firm has done business with us before and that you’re a vetted vendor. Is that right?”

“Yes. We supplied various cameras to BARL for security and other purposes.”

“What’re your rates for this type of work?”

“My rate is $350 per hour and $200 per hour for my team members.”

Ari’s eyes got wide but he didn’t say anything.

Dr. Larson was unfazed. “Two weeks. That’s all I’m authorizing. Dr. Pani is your primary contact, but I expect to be briefed on any findings before they’re made public or shared with others.”

He shook my hand again, turned, and walked back through the crowd and into the building.

I looked at Ari and exhaled. “You don’t mess around, do you?”

“Jane was my friend and colleague and she loved Fred. I want to know what happened.” Ari’s eyes welled up a bit as he talked.

“I understand. My team and I look forward to helping you.”

“How does this work?”

“I’d like to schedule time with you tomorrow or the day after to learn more about Dr. Moore, Fred, the tank area, and octopus behavior in general. I need to understand why you think Fred wouldn’t have killed Dr. Moore. In the meantime, my team and I will review the police report and collect some initial information.”

“I know where Jane kept journals in her office. She wrote everything in those books. Should I get them for you?”

“Yes, that’d be helpful.”

Ari sprinted to the front of the building and through the main entrance. He was attractive, although soft and underdeveloped. His olive skin made me guess his family roots included the Middle East or India. His thin, six-foot frame and long hair bounced when he walked.

A couple of moments later, Ari came back out the front door with a bag filled with bound journals. He handed the bag to me and then went back inside through the side door.

Slower this time, hugging several people as he worked his way past the guard and into the building.

Sparky and I looked at each other with knowing eyes. We lived for opportunities like this.

I held up the bag of journals. “I’ve never interrogated an octopus before!”

“No doubt,” Sparky said, “I think animals know more than we give them credit for.”

We walked back to the car, locked the journals in the trunk, and talked to a few more BARL employees. Steve and his photographer interviewed several people while a competitor reporter from a Houston TV channel filmed a live shot for the evening news. BJ came out and made a quick statement, telling everyone it was a tragic accident and encouraging people to go home.

Sparky and I watched the police, fire and rescue personnel, and most of the BARL employees leave. We packed up our video equipment and were about to leave when Ari came back out from the front entrance and walked up to us.

“Follow me.” Ari glanced around to see if we were being watched. He walked up to Sparky. “I don’t think we’ve met.”

“Sparky’s on my team, but he’s just leaving.”

“I am?” Sparky sulked, looking kind of hurt.

“Go back to the shop and start going over the case with

Dora,” I said. “Take my car, I’ll taxi back.”

“Uh ...” Sparky held out his hand for my keys. “Call me

if you need me to pick you up. There aren’t many taxis out this way. Might be faster.”

Ari then led me on a circuitous route around the big, old building to an unmarked door, which he unlocked. He brought me into the tank area and we stood in front of Fred.

Wow!

I was starstruck.

Fred’s body was a lovely mottled sable color with a pinkish underside and light purple markings on his grapefruit-sized head. Ari pointed at Fred. “Fred’s siphon, gills, heart, digestive system, and reproductive glands are all crammed into his

mantle – what non-scientists would think was his head.”

It was cool the way this mantle expanded and contracted with each watery breath. Meanwhile, Fred’s tentacles moved in separate directions. Two stuck to the tank’s glass and

several others explored above, below, and around his head. “So many tentacles.” I traced his shape on the glass with

my finger. “It’s hard to count.”

“Six arms and two legs.”

The suckers on each arm were about an inch wide close

to the center and thinned out to the width of a pencil’s eraser at the tips. I stood close to the tank and watched how each sucker probed the glass independently and flexibly. He was in a constant state of movement and flow.

Fred was strange and magnificent.

“He’s a large Octopus vulgaris, or common octopus, about nine months old.”

“What’s their average life span?”

“Around twelve to eighteen months. Not long.”

“Oh no.” I held my hand over my mouth and mumbled.

“Why so short?”

“Fred has a special arm, a kind of cephalopod penis that he uses to transfer spermatophores, these little packets of sperm, into the female’s mantle. Once he’s done that, he’ll die within a few months.”

“That’s awful.” I felt like crying, but of course would never do that in public, because it would spoil my tough lady image. “What does the female do without him?”

“He’ll serve no further purpose for her.” Ari was nonchalant. “She can keep his sperm alive inside her for weeks until her eggs are mature, then she lays about two hundred thousand eggs that fasten themselves to rocks and coral. She tries to cover them up and defend them from any predator that wants to eat them, never leaving, never eating, and by the time the eggs hatch, she’s starved to death.”

I was speechless.

Fred looked around four feet long, including his tentacles, and his head and mantle were about the same size as a frozen chicken from the grocery.

Fred’s tank, which he shared with several anemones and starfish, appeared to be ten feet square. A rocky outcrop covered the back wall and left side of the tank, and there was a fake piece of ship wreckage in the center.

“The design helps ensure that Fred feels both comfortable and stimulated,” Ari said.

There were three similar tanks in this section of the lab connected by a walkway of metal grating, presumably for feeding and maintenance.

“Those are cuttlefish being studied to learn more about their ability to camouflage even though they’re colorblind like octopuses.”

And YES, that’s the correct plural for octopus, readers, I know you were questioning this. Octopus has been an English word for centuries and comes from ancient Greek, not Latin. But there’s a connection to scientific Latin, so that’s OK, too. Two octopuses were chatting about their three friends, also octopodes. That’s five octopi all day! All correct!

The third tank looked empty, aside from a few starfish. “Interesting.” I scanned the area.

“And there’s another octopus in that last tank. Ethel.

She’s not as social as Fred.”

“Fred and Ethel. Cute.”

“We try to have fun with names.”

I pointed to chairs and tables set out like in a classroom

across from the four tanks. “Do you allow the public in here?”

“No. We occasionally conduct academic symposia and we’ve hosted the media when our research piques their attention. As a privately funded non-profit organization, we’re always seeking grants and donations. On occasion, we host birthday parties for rich donors’ kids in the more popular areas of the lab, like the stingray and river otter tanks. Not as much here.”

“Otters are cute.”

We walked around Fred’s tank. I looked up and down the tank surface and remembered the picture Ari showed me and imagined Jane’s body inside.

“Yes, but their tank is open, they smell like rotting shellfish, and they often splash and snivel at people, and this presents a challenge to the staff who have to run the parties. Their parents are willing to shell out millions to support conservation but expect us to tame and sanitize the same wild animals they help us save. I hate pandering to rich people, but it comes with the territory.”

I walked back up to where Fred clung onto his tank and stared in amazement. Fred’s arms twisted continuously, and the tips curled and unfurled like an ancient exotic dancer.

“Did you do this, Fred?” I whispered.

Ari walked over to the staircase next to the tank. “This is the first I’ve seen him out since we had to use the fresh water to get him off Jane. Looks like he’s calm. How about we open the tank so I can introduce you to Fred, up close?”

“Really?” I was excited and scared. “Let’s do it.”

Ari made a call to his assistant and escorted me up the set of stairs that had a grating platform large enough for three or four people. The top of the tank came to my hip level.

“Xena, this is Roberta.” Ari pointed to his research assistant, who now stood at the bottom of the stairs. “Xena is a private investigator. She’s helping us figure out what happened.”

I waved, recognizing her from the initial scene.

“Roberta is here as my backup. We never open the octopus tanks without one.”

“Why?”

“You’ll see. Octopuses are escape artists and surprisingly strong.”

Ari opened a portion of the heavy lid covering the tank and plunged his forearms in the water with his hands open and faced up. Like a bullet, Fred rushed to the top of the tank, then, as he clung to the side of the tank, three of his tentacles rose out of the water and wrapped around Ari’s arms.

“We’re good buddies, Fred and me. Not as close as he was with Jane, but we have a good bromance going.” Ari stood a little straighter to bring Fred’s head and mantle close to the top of the water.

I shuffled a few steps toward Ari, unsure of how close I should get. “It’s like he’s saying hello or welcoming you.”

“That’s exactly what he’s doing. Touch is an important sense for an octopus and ours is a real relationship. It feels caring, while at the same time alien.”

“He’s not still angry about all the commotion or Jane’s death?”

Ari pulled off one of the tentacles.

“I’m sure he’s missing Jane. That’s why connecting here today is so important to him. He’s lonely. It took him a good hour to get over being blasted with fresh water – he hates that – but we had to do that to get him to move away from Jane’s body. After the police left, I fed him a couple of blue crabs. They’re his favorite.”

Ari paused and used his head to encourage me to move closer. “Let’s see if Fred would like to meet you.” He then motioned for me to stick my arms in the water.

“He won’t bite me? What if he doesn’t like me?”

Ari wriggled his arms and moved them deeper into the tank to coax Fred off him. It took some work. “You’re not his favorite food.” He smiled at me. “If you offer yourself to him, he knows you’re not attacking. His parrot-like beak could do a lot of damage if he chose to attack, but he won’t. Jane didn’t have any bites on her body, by the way.”

I slowly placed my arms in the cold water and held them there for a minute. Fred unfurled his tentacles from Ari and moved in my direction. He turned red.

I stepped back but kept my arms in the water. “What does that mean? Is he angry?”

“He’s excited or interested. He also turns red when he’s angry, but that’d be a much deeper red color, accompanied by flashing and making himself thorny.”

“Horny?”

I heard Roberta giggle.

“No, thorny. He’d transform his skin and it would look

bumpy and prickly.”

Ari stood watching Fred, ready to assist if needed. Fred

explored my arms with his soft, gelatinous suckers. He intertwined his arms and mine starting from the thin tip of his tentacle inward toward thicker and stronger suction cups. It was like he was walking up my arm. The suction cups really sucked!

Ari came closer and watched Fred’s movements carefully. “He likes you. What do you feel?”

I bent a bit more and let my arms go deeper in the water. “I feel weird, but held by ... by a warm – warm isn’t the

right word because it’s cold, but warm or maybe loving embrace. Strong. Gentle. His suckers are pulling me a bit, but not too much. It’s like he’s exploring me, trying to understand me. Is this normal?”

“It depends on the person. I can see that he’s taken to you, which is special because he’s usually shy with people he doesn’t know. He likely can sense your genuine interest in and curiosity about him. He’s both touching and tasting you. Octopuses taste with their entire bodies.” Ari carefully pointed to Fred’s head. “Do you see how he’s looking at you with his eye? Octopuses have a dominant eye but they don’t see color.”

Fred moved his head close to the surface and looked right through me. I looked at him, too, and we held our position for a few minutes. The thin end of one of his arms moved toward my face and Ari grabbed it and pushed it away.

“Never let an octopus touch your face. He could easily pull your eye out of its socket.”

I stood straighter, pulling away. “He’d do that?”

“Maybe. Even a relatively small octopus like Fred could easily pop an eye out. It wouldn’t happen out of anger or aggression, but if one of his suckers got ahold of your eye, it’d be gone in a second if he pulled or if we tried to lift his arm off. The Giant Pacific Octopus is much stronger and that struggle would be a whole other ball of wax.”

My arms were going numb because the water in Fred’s tank was kept at forty-two degrees. The eyeball comment had unnerved me a bit, and Ari kept redirecting the squirmy tentacles away from parts of my body where they didn’t belong.

I didn’t know how to detach Fred from me. “Let’s stop here for today.”

Ari pulled each tentacle, some more than once, and several suckers made a popping sound as they released.

He pointed to the round red marks all over my arms. “We call those octopus hickeys. Some may leave a bruise, especially those bigger ones.”

Ari reached into the bucket next to him and held out a fish so Fred could see it. Fred immediately turned upside down and showed us where his eight tentacles came together and the soft area covering his mouth. Seeing all those suckers was cool, but I could imagine how hard it would be to break free if I were caught in Fred’s grip. Fred grabbed the fish with the slender end of a tentacle and walked it down, sucker by sucker, toward his mouth.

“He’s savoring it,” Ari said. “Tasting the fish all the way down his arm.”

Ari closed and latched the lid, and Fred took his fish into his dark lair in the corner of the tank.

I walked closer to Fred’s tank and took another look. He had charmed me with his direct stare and generous touch. The tank looked empty except for a few light pink anemones, two orange sea stars, and a single tentacle that was dancing, twirling, and swaying to a secret waltz.

“That was remarkable. Thank you.”

Ari smiled. “He’s pretty amazing. All octopuses are, though not all are as social as is Fred. He’ll remember you the next time you visit, especially because he has tasted you.”

Ari moved toward the stairs to leave, but I stopped him. “Tell me about the safety feature that you said Jane would’ve used if Fred tried to pull her under. I can tell he’s certainly strong enough to do it.”

“Yes, he is. To break the hold of an octopus Fred’s size would require about a quarter ton of force. Although octopuses are usually gentle, they’ve drowned a few people because their hold overpowered the diver’s ability to escape. But being physically strong enough to drown a human doesn’t mean that he would or did.” Ari moved back toward the tank lid. “I had a hard time conveying this to Captain Rawlins. Accidents have happened in the wild. Here in the lab environment we take precautions.”

“Can you show me?” I moved next to the tank and bent to look for Fred, who was still in his lair and out of sight.

Ari squatted and pointed. “See that black hose on the side of the tank near where we were interacting with Fred? If I grab that hose, fresh water will flow and drive Fred away. It works every time and pisses him off for a while, too, so we don’t use it unless necessary.”

“What do octopuses do when they get angry?”

“Suck in a lot of water and shoot it at you. Or if he’s pissed, he might squirt a cloud of ink at you.” Ari used his hands to mimic the octopus’s movements. “If we continued to annoy him, an octopus would attack, bite, and might kill. But that would be rare and entirely our fault.”

“Was there any evidence of ink or splashed water, or that Jane pulled the hose?”

“No, but she might’ve been in the tank for hours when we found her. I’m hoping the autopsy will help narrow her time of death.”

Ari stood still for a few moments, pressing his hands on the top of the tank lid and putting down his head on the glass. He looked like he might break down. He had held it together until he uttered the words time of death.

“Are you OK? We’re done for today. I know this is difficult to rehash.” I went down the stairs and Ari followed. “I know your interaction with Fred doesn’t prove that he didn’t drown Jane,” Ari said. “In fact, it might make the police’s theory more plausible. But I wanted you to get to know Fred, so when I tell you I’m certain that he wouldn’t have done this to Jane, you’ll have a better context for

believing it.”

I turned and locked onto his dark and glassy eyes. “Ari

... I’m on it. My team is already gathering information, we have an initial case review scheduled for tomorrow morning, and we should get the autopsy report soon.”

Ari gently clutched my arm. “I’m so glad we found you. This whole thing seems inconceivable, and yet it’s real and Jane’s gone. I don’t want to lose Fred, too.”

“I understand and am sorry you have to go through this. It’s getting late and there are several things I want to look into before we talk again. Let’s meet Thursday morning if I don’t call you sooner.”


***


In September, the evening breeze coming off the Gulf of Mexico was neither hot nor cool – just a courier of sounds and smells from a beach town crawling with people who don’t want to let summer go. Given it was a Tuesday, the sounds were more grackle and less Pleasure Pier.

Fine by me. I loved the crackly, piercing songs that a plague of grackles cycled though as they jockeyed for bedtime positions. Many locals and visitors hated grackles because of their creepy and confident en masse movements. I appreciated their opportunistic and resourceful way of thriving in urban settings, like the Randall’s parking lot and the trees and power lines along the alley next to my house.

I bought my home on Twenty-Ninth Street two years ago in a moment of emotionally driven insanity that I’ve never regretted. Built in 1950 by an engineer who wanted to create a concrete-and-steel, hurricane-proof modern home, my house was the most practical and impractical home on the island – think steel and humidity equals RUST equals money pit.

I sat on my second-floor screened porch, sipped tea, and punched in BJ’s cell number on my phone. “It’s Xena. BARL hired me to look into Dr. Moore’s death. You got a minute?”

“They told me. I’m surprised.”

“Why?”

“There’s no real case here. But hey, if you want to earn a

few bucks making the researcher feel better, more power to you. But do me a favor and don’t do anything that requires my team’s time, because we’re already over budget for the month. The case is closed and we have a lot of work to do to get ready for the Shrimp Festival.”

I sat forward and looked at my notes. “Tell me why you’re convinced there was no foul play. The security cameras were off.”

BJ sighed. “Yes, that’s unfortunate. Trust me, if you had been inside, you would’ve come to the same conclusion. The octopus was wrapped around Dr. Moore and it wasn’t until Dr. Pani repelled him ...”

“Repelled?” Did I tell BJ that I’d already met Fred and knew all about the water hose safety feature? No, I did not.

“It took some creative efforts to pry him off her.” BJ paused. “It was one of the strangest things I’d ever seen. Other than the octopus and dead woman intertwined in a tank, nothing was out of place or unusual. No unauthorized entry. No signs of struggle outside the tank. None of the doors were messed with. It’s a secure area.”

I was quiet for a moment, slumped back, and took a drink. BJ was breathing heavier now, like he was walking up stairs.

“Ari – Dr. Pani – seems pretty sure that Fred wouldn’t have hurt Jane,” I continued.

“Yes, he told me that, too, but that’s not the story the scene is telling. We may never know why or how it happened.”

“I promised him I’d investigate. I hope that if we find something, you will work with us to reopen the case.”

“I’m always willing to hear what you find, but please be sure about what you have before you bring anything to us, OK? That Peeping Tom case you got us involved with is still causing me all kinds of grief.”

BJ’s comment caught me by surprise. I hesitated before calmly asserting myself. “But he was guilty, and you caught him, and he was convicted of felony voyeurism.”

“And he was the head of Internal Affairs, and he was peeping outside his ex-boyfriend’s house, and his wife had no idea he was gay.”

The line was silent. I stalled while I decided how far to go with BJ regarding the peeper case. We didn’t agree on how it went down but I empathized that it was awkward for BJ and others at the station. Like catching your dad masturbating.

“The bad guy lost,” I finally offered. “That’s what’s supposed to happen.”

“Let’s use common sense and focus on the very bad guys. That’s all I’m asking.”

With a year to go until he retired, BJ wasn’t hungry to investigate new cases. Even so, I knew he’d be there if we needed him. He was right. The most concerning aspect of this case was no signs of forced entry. If Fred hadn’t done this, someone else had to have been there. An intruder or someone from BARL.

“OK, Detective Rawlins. I’ll play by your rules and won’t mess up your budget unless I have a sure thing with real bad guys.”

“I appreciate that,” BJ replied.

I hung up the phone and headed inside to make another cup of oolong tea. It was time to dig into Jane’s journals. I settled into my reading chair in my first-floor office, stacked the eleven journals on my desk in reverse date order, and started reading from the end of the newest journal backward in time to see what I could learn about Jane’s final days.

Jane wrote three journal entries during her final week. One shared her excitement for seeing an old friend from college who was in town briefly to attend a meeting at the University of Texas Medical Branch. Another entry touted her frustration with politics and administration. It was the third entry that gave me pause:

Am I doing the right things by Fred? Will I ever know? We have a purpose – a set of instincts ... fortified with drive ... that shape who we should be and how our lives will unfold. Fred is a deeply feeling creature. Octos think and anticipate and are more adventurous than I’ll ever have the courage to be. Are my decisions satisfying my needs or his? It would be hubris at play if I assumed they were the same. I’d like to know how much he yearns to fulfill his destiny as a wild male octopus. Unfortunately, I may never know.

 

I didn’t know what Jane’s post meant but it gave me chills. It was clear that she was tormented about Fred’s life at BARL and that she was an intelligent, thoughtful professional. I made a note to ask Ari if she had mentioned being conflicted about Fred’s treatment.

Next, I read journal entries from the two weeks prior to Jane’s death. No big revelations, but they painted an overall picture showing that Jane was troubled and dissatisfied with aspects of her work – mostly politics. Every few days she wrote about what Fred was doing and how he was getting along. She seemed taken with Fred’s animated and friendly behavior toward her and proud that she was able to help him get stronger.

Going back three weeks, two of the three entries focused on a project – “Project 67” – she was working on with a colleague named Ansel Homer. Jane was frustrated by his lack of follow-through and she believed he was driven by the trappings of success more than the quality of his work:


Frustrated. Ansel is dense, lazy, or manipulating me to further his career. Why must he take so long to analyze the source of the pollution? Has he already completed his report but kept it from me? Is he worried that I’ll take over the project and therefore any glory that might come his way at its end? Men can be so competitive! Call Ansel. Time for wine.

 

I agree, Jane. Men can be turds.

I spent the rest of the evening reading all the journals and marked entries that mentioned names of people or projects. No smoking guns, but it was too early in the investigation to know which pieces of information might become important.

I love that I’m paid to be a professional voyeur, readers. Please don’t judge me; we all like to look through the hole in the fence. Or maybe you’re jealous?

I walked upstairs, poured a Scotch, and sat in my rocking chair on the porch. It was my favorite place to reflect; still is. Surrounded by lush plants that soak in the island humidity and almost never need to be watered. No lights on, which makes it easy to eavesdrop on those walking by below on their way to or from the seawall. I looked down at the octopus hickies on my arm and searched for the meaning trapped underneath the day’s events. I liked Ari and admired his courage. I hoped he wasn’t the bad guy!

I topped off my Scotch, returned to the porch, and called Gregory, a friend and mentor from my corporate days in Houston. It might surprise you, readers, that human resources and compliance projects require some of the same techniques and approaches as police and private investigation work. In fact, we often contract with outside resources to assist with larger or complex cases. That’s how I met Gregory. He owned a successful spy shop and private investigation practice in Houston. He was my best outside practitioner and became a trusted ally and sounding board when I was trying to reduce corruption at my company, Granny’s Home.

A few of my business habits rubbed off on him, too. Gregory and I talked nightly, without fail, as part of a coaching process created by UCLA professor and author of management books Marshall Goldsmith. It went something like this: each person selected three questions that’d be the litmus test for whether they acted true to their goals and intentions. Gregory and I asked each other those questions each night or the following morning. It was a simple but effective process that we had been doing for the last three years.

The questions Gregory asked for me were: 1) Did you keep things in perspective? 2) Did you share something about yourself? 3) Did you show someone that you care? And Gregory’s from me were: 1) Did you live like a healthy person? 2) Did you get a bit more organized? 3) Did you spend quality time with your wife?

Although different, our questions shared an interest in creating great personal lives on par with our work. We believed it was possible but struggled in our own ways. Our nightly call lasted about ten minutes unless we talked about others things.

“You never answered number two,” Gregory persisted, after I assumed we had finished for tonight.

“I thought I did. I’d say that I shared something about myself with Ari today at BARL. I told him about my work and experience.”

“You don’t struggle to share your work-related skills with prospective clients. This is meant to be a personal question. Unless you’ve some personal interest in the biologist?”

“I’m a bit intrigued, but that’s all. You’re right, though, I didn’t meet my intention with number two. Can we talk about how you totally avoided your number three?”

“I got in a fight with Lynn today. She wants me to work less.”

“She’s right.”

“I know. The work we do is much more interesting than real life.”

“Yeah, I’m stoked about my current case. Maybe the octopus is innocent and Jane was murdered.”

“I saw the story online. Be careful, sometimes things are as they seem. Don’t go creating a case where there isn’t one because the client is a cute scientist.”

“I’m not overreacting, if that’s what you’re suggesting. A few things don’t seem right.” I stood by the porch screen and looked down. Two cats were lying in the middle of the sidewalk. Claiming their territory for the night. “If I’m smitten with anyone, it’s the octopus.”

“Fred?”

“Yes, I met him up close and personal, and I’ve been reading about him in Jane’s journals. He gave me hickies.”

“Don’t get too close. He might be a killer.”

“Maybe, but ... I doubt it,” I said. “Jane seemed happiest when thinking about Fred. She was perturbed about a lot of other things.”

“Aren’t all women bothered about something?”

“Yes, of course! And my gut is telling me something is wrong here.”

“Well, your gut is about as well-tuned as any I’ve seen.” “Thanks.”

“You’ve a special gift, so go forth and figure it out. Don’t

be too disappointed if it turns out to be nothing. You can date your new client after he stops paying you.”

“It’s not about Ari!”

“I have a gut, too, Xena.”

About the author

My love of mystery, adventure, and imaginative satire fuels my work. I earned an MFA from Goddard Collage to hone my writing skills and hang around poets and novelists. Toxic Octopus is the first full-length book in the Spy Shop Mystery Series (Ghost Rat, a novella, is the series prequel). view profile

Published on April 01, 2017

Published by

70000 words

Contains explicit content ⚠️

Worked with a Reedsy professional 🏆

Genre: Mystery & crime

Reviewed by

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