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Zero At The Bone    by Mary Willis Walker order for
Zero At The Bone
by Mary Willis Walker
Order:  USA  Can
Bantam, 1997 (1991)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Katherine Driscoll's well-ordered world is in danger of collapsing. She will lose her dog training and kennel business, also her home. After years of nose-to-the-grindstone, her once-healthy business is crippled by the financial burden of her mother's illness. Her mother is dead now, and Katherine faces losing her beloved dog as well. Dual Champion Radiant Sunrise's Amun-Ra (Ra for short) is considered one of her more valuable assets, to be sold with the rest of her property if she cannot raise $91,000.00.

With foreclosure only three weeks away, her hopes are bleak. She receives a letter from her estranged father, whom she has not seen nor heard from in over thirty years. The letter promises her the money she needs, in return for a service only she can render. It is a curious and surprising letter. Katherine decides to go see him. After all, surely he owes her something after thirty-one years of neglect.

However, when she arrives at the Austin Zoological Gardens where her father has worked for all these years, she finds a police presence and a media circus. Her father is dead, apparently attacked and partially eaten by a Siberian tiger. After seeing evidence of his feelings for her, Katherine is surprised to feel loyalty to him, the man her mother had sworn was faithless and unreliable. Out of a desire to discover the truth behind his death, plus her dire financial situation, she takes a job at the zoo. She ends up in the reptile house, in a dirty and rather dangerous job.

The police find evidence that her father was murdered (the tiger is innocent of the kill). Katherine finds a secret cache of photographs of rare and exotic animals, taken by her father and meticulously annotated. Is this a clue to the service he meant? She discreetly questions her new colleagues and the relatives she has never met: her uncle Cooper, her aunt Lucy, and cousin Sophie. However, she is unable to meet Anne Driscoll, her stiff-necked grandmother, who is ill. She also finds more mystery in her family. It seems her mother was disowned and fled Austin, and the husband she abandoned is described as reliable and careful.

When the family lawyer is found dead, hooked on the antler of a deer, both killed by hunting arrows, it is discovered that both human victims had received threatening notes from 'The Pointman'. Katherine receives a similar note, as does the head of the reptile department. None of the men reported these threats; Katherine is the only one who will discuss hers, and unlike them, she has no idea of what lies behind it. Her father's elderly dog Belle is murdered, and Katherine herself is locked in a cage of poisonous bushmasters by her unknown enemy. Plagued by these dire events, Katherine frets still about the impending foreclosure on her property.

Zero At The Bone (the title is taken from a poem by Emily Dickinson) is an engrossing tale. Mary Willis Walker sketches an intriguing cast of characters and provides vivid glimpses into life at a zoo (sometimes a bit too vivid for the squeamish, as in the feeding habits of snakes). Katherine is an appealing protagonist, tough, determined, sensitive, and courageous. The author deftly balances the twists and turns in Katherine's personal life and the tangled intrigue in which she is caught. Katherine is kept busy juggling her emotions, financial woes, and her investigations. At the end, she finally gets to meet her grandmother, and unravels the truth behind the murders and the ugly scheme that her father had discovered.

Zero At The Bone is apparently a first novel. It is written with great skill and introduces people I would like to meet again: Katherine herself, soft-hearted cousin Sophie, iron-willed Anne (who has met her match in her grand-daughter), and of course the animals that are featured in the story.

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