MURDER WITH PUFFINS
My Puffin Lies over the Ocean
"I see land ahead," Michael said.
"I'm sure they said that often aboard the original Flying Dutchman," I replied, my eyes tightly shut.
"No, really; I'm sure of it this time," he insisted.
I kept my eyes closed and didn't relax my death grip on the rail while the ferry's deck bucked and heaved beneath my feet. The rain and spray had soaked me to the bone, but I wasn't going into the cabin unless the swells grew dangerous. Way too many seasick people inside. Of course, those of us on deck were seasick, too, but at least out here the wind kept the air fresh, if a little damp.
"The next time I have an idea like this," I mumbled, "just shoot me and get it over with."
"What was that?" Michael shouted over a gust of wind.
"Never mind," I shouted back.
"I really do think that's land ahead," Michael repeated. "Honestly. I don't think it's another patch of fog."
I debated, briefly, whether to look. My seasickness seemed a little less intense if I kept my eyes closed. But if an end to our ordeal was in sight, I wanted to know about it. I opened one eye a crack and peered in the direction Michael pointed. To me, the vague shape ahead looked like the same ominous cloud bank we'd been staring at for hours. Maybe it made him feel better to think he saw land. Maybe he was trying to make me feel better.
"That's nice," I croaked, and closed my eyes again, blotting out the gray sky, the gray sea, and the disturbing lack of any clear line of demarcation between the two. Not tomention the gray faces of the other passengers clinging to the rail.
"We must be getting close," Michael said, sounding less confident. "Monhegan's only an hour off the coast in good weather, right?"
I didn't answer. Yes, normally it took only an hour by ferry to reach Monhegan, where we planned to stay in my aunt Phoebe's summer cottage. But there was nothing normal about this trip. If Michael still believed we'd reach dry land soon, I wasn't going to discourage him. Even though deep down I knew that we really had boarded the Flying Dutchman and were doomed to sail up and down the coast for all eternity, or at least until we ran out of fuel and had to be rescued by the Coast Guard.
"Well, maybe not," I heard Michael murmur.
I pried my eyes open to check on him. He stared out over the water with a faint frown. I felt a twinge of jealousy. I probably looked as ghastly as I felt, but even in the throes of seasickness, Michael was gorgeous. A little paler than usual, and the hypnotically blue eyes were a bit bloodshot. But still, were I an artist, looking for just the right tall, dark, handsome cover model for a nautically themed romance, I'd look at Michael and shout, "Eureka!"
"I'm sorry," I said instead. "This was a bad idea."
"It'll turn out all right," he said with a smile. Only a faint ghost of his usual dazzling smile, but it made me feel better. "But next time we set out on an adventure, let's remember to check the weather first, okay?"
Well, that was encouraging. At least he was still talking about "next time." And next time I took off on a trip with Michael, I promised myself, we'd go someplace warm and tropical, where the nearest large body of water was the hotel swimming pool. Not on a boat in the middle of the Atlantic--well, several miles off the coast of Maine anyway. Hurricane Gladys had now headed out to sea and now subsided to a mere tropical storm, but if I'd bothered tocheck the Weather Channel before Michael and I set out for our weekend getaway, I could have picked a more promising spot. In fact, I could probably have done better just by sticking a pin in a map.
"It's a deal," I said, smiling back as well as I could. He put his hand on mine for a few seconds, until another wave hit the boat and he had to grab the rail again. But I felt better. Mentally anyway. Physically ... well, I was trying to ignore another set of warning signals from my stomach.
"Meg Langslow? Is that you?"
I opened my eyes and turned, to see two figures standing to my left, both wrapped from head to toe in state-of-the-art rain gear. They looked like walking L. L. Bean catalogs and were probably toasty warm and reasonably dry underneath. I tried not to resent this.
"Yes?" I said, peering through sheets of rain at the small portion of their faces visible under their hoods.
"Meg, dear, don't you remember us? It's Winnie and Binkie!"
"Winnie and Binkie?" Michael repeated.
I finally placed the names. Mr. and Mrs. Winthrop Saltonstall Burnham, aka Winnie and Binkie, owned a cottage on Monhegan Island and were old family friends. Childhood friends of my grandparents, if memory served, which made them fairly ancient by now. And yet there they stood, two sturdy round figures in yellow slickers, seemingly undisturbed by the driving rain, the frantic rocking of the boat, and the near-gale force winds.
"Bracing, isn't it?" Winnie said, throwing out his chest and taking a deep breath, which was at least one-quarter rain.
"Don't mind him, dear," Binkie whispered, noticing my reaction. "Rough weather always makes him a little queasy, and he likes to put a brave front on it."
"Oh, I don't mind the crossing," Winnie said. "I'm just hoping the weather doesn't spoil the bird-watching."
"Bird-watching?" Michael said. "You're going out to Monhegan in the middle of a hurricane for bird-watching?"
"Yes, aren't you?" Winnie asked.
"It's been downgraded to a tropical storm," Binkie said. "And this is the fall flyover season."
"Oh, of course," I said.
"The what?" Michael asked.
"The fall flyover season," Binkie explained. "Monhegan lies right in the path the birds take when they migrate north and south. There's a short time every spring and fall when the bird-watching reaches its peak, and birders come here from all up and down the Eastern Seaboard."
"We have a cottage on the island," Winnie said. "We've been bird-watching here for fifty-three years." He and Binkie exchanged fond smiles.
"But if you're not here for the bird-watching, why are you going out to Monhegan?" Binkie asked.
"We wanted to get away from things," Michael put in. "Get some peace and quiet."
"Some what?" Winnie shouted over a gust of wind that had evidently carried away Michael's words.
"Peace and quiet!" Michael shouted back.
They still looked at us with puzzled expressions. I sighed. I wasn't sure I even wanted to try explaining.
The trip had seemed so logical a few days ago. My romance with Michael had reached the point where we wanted to spend a little time alone together--okay, a lot of time--just at the point when neither of us had a place to call our own.
As a bachelor professor of theater in a college town with a chronic housing shortage, Michael had lived in relative luxury for the last several years by renting houses from faculty members on sabbatical. This year, alas, his landlords had suddenly realized they couldn't afford to spend a year in London--not with their seventh child on the way.They'd been very nice about letting Michael sleep on their sofa until something else turned up, but it was no place for the logical conclusion to a romantic candlelight dinner. We'd already ended enough dates watching Disney videos and dodging blobs of peanut butter.
And I was temporarily homeless, as well. Subletting my cottage and ironworking studio for several months to a struggling sculptor had seemed like a good idea at the start of the summer. I'd known I would be down in my hometown of Yorktown, organizing three family weddings; and with my career as an ornamental blacksmith on hold, I could use the rent money.
But when I tried to move back in, I couldn't get rid of my tenant. He was in the middle of an important commission; he would ruin the whole piece if he had to move it; he needed just one more week to finish it. He'd been needing just one more week for the past six weeks.
So I was still staying at my parents' house. Mother and Dad weren't there, of course; they were off in Europe on an extended second honeymoon. But the house was filled with elderly relatives. They'd come for the weddings and stayed on to watch the legal circus unfold as the county built its case against the murderer whose identity I'd managed (more or less accidentally) to uncover.
That was another problem. I'd become notorious. I couldn't go anywhere in Yorktown without people coming up to congratulate me for my brilliant detective work. More than one romantic candlelight dinner with Michael had been interrupted by people who insisted on shaking my hand, having their picture taken with me, buying us drinks, treating us to dinner--it was impossible.
"Too bad we can't just run away together to a desert island," Michael said after one such interruption.
"Actually, we can," I said. "What are you doing next weekend?"
"Running away to a desert island with you, evidently," Michael said. "Did you have a particular island in mind?"
"Monhegan!" I said.
"Never heard of it. Where is it?"
"Off the coast of Maine."
"Won't that be cold this time of year?"
"The cottage has a fireplace. And a gas heater."
"Aunt Phoebe's summer cottage. Actually, it's an old house. And hardly anyone stays on the island after August; it's too rugged." Which meant we wouldn't have half a hundred neighbors and relatives looking over our shoulders and reporting who said what to whom and how many bedrooms were occupied.
"What about Aunt Phoebe?"
"It's a summer cottage, remember? Which she isn't using, partly because summer's over and partly because she's having much more fun down here, waiting for the trial and keeping me awake with her snoring."
"And she won't mind if you use her cottage?"
"She wouldn't mind if she knew, and she won't have to know. Dad has a spare key. She's always inviting us to go up anytime. We haven't for years, but the whole family knows they have an open invitation."
"And how can we be sure the whole family won't be there?"
"In September? Like you said, it's cold this time of year. Besides, most of the family finds it a little too Spartan for their tastes. Mother won't go at all; she refuses to go anywhere that doesn't even have electricity, much less ready access to a deli and a good hairdresser. Michael, this is not a tropical paradise. But it's empty, it's free, and there's nobody else around for miles except for a few dozen locals who winter there."
"I'm sold," he said. "I can't skip Wednesday night's faculty meeting, but I'll get someone to cover my classesfor the rest of the week, come by for you early Thursday morning, and we'll drive up."
As I said, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Even the two flat tires that stranded us in a Motel Six near the New Jersey Turnpike for the first night of our getaway hadn't dimmed our enthusiasm. But standing there on the deck of the ferry, I wasn't sure any of that would make sense. I focused back on the present, where Winnie and Binkie were still patiently waiting for an answer. From the way they looked at us, they probably thought we were on the run from something.
"Well, things were so hectic down in Yorktown, and I told Michael about what a great place Monhegan was for getting away from it all," I said finally. "I didn't really stop to think how far past the season it is."
"Yes, you've had quite a time," Winnie said. "We had a note from your father when they were in Rome, and he mentioned your detective adventures. You'll have to come over for dinner and tell us all about it."
Michael winced. I could almost hear his thoughts: So much for anonymity and privacy.
"Yes, that's a wonderful idea," Binkie said. Then her smile suddenly vanished, and she flung her hand out to point over her husband's shoulder.
"Bird!" she cried.
Winnie whirled, and they both produced gleaming high-tech waterproof binoculars from beneath their rain gear. They plastered themselves against the boat rail and locked their lenses on their distant prey. I couldn't see a thing. I glanced at Michael. He shrugged.
I had assumed that the other passengers clinging to the rail were seasick, like us, and either optimistically hoping the fresh air would make them feel better or pessimistically placing themselves where the weather could take care of the inevitable cleanup. But up and down the rail, a forest of binoculars appeared, all trained on the distant speck.
"Only a common tern, I'm afraid," Binkie said. "Still, would you like to see?"
Under Binkie's guidance, I managed to focus on a small black dot atop a distant buoy. Even with the binoculars, you could recognize the dot as a bird only if you already knew what it was.
"Poor thing!" Binkie said "Imagine being out in weather like this!"
I didn't need to imagine; we were out in it.
"Oh, there's another tern at three o'clock!"
Dozens of binoculars swerved with the uncanny accuracy of a precision drill team. Binkie redirected my binoculars to another, closer buoy. This one definitely had a morose bird perched on top. I deduced that terns must be closely related to seagulls; this looked like just another seagull to me. The buoy gave a lurch, and the tern had to flap its wings and scramble to keep its footing before hunching down again. It cocked its head and looked at the boat. In the binoculars, it seemed to stare directly at me. It shook its head, pulled it farther back between its shoulders, and looked so miserable and grumpy that I identified with it immediately.
"Poor thing," I said.
"Oh, they're fine," Winnie said. "Coming back very well."
"Coming back from where?"
"Extinction, dear," Binkie said. "Things looked very bad for them at the beginning of the century, poor things, but we've managed to turn that around."
"We have several hundred nests on Egg Island, and, of course, nearly a dozen pair of puffins," Winnie said. "If you get a chance, you should take the tour. The boat leaves from Monhegan and anchors off the island for several hours."
"In the spring, love," Binkie said. "I imagine they stoprunning after Labor Day. The puffins would be mostly gone by now."
"True," Winnie said. "But if there are still a few puffins there, perhaps we could arrange a special tour for Meg. If the weather lets up a bit," he added, glancing up.
I forced a smile and handed Binkie her binoculars. The weather would have to let up more than a bit before I'd set out from Monhegan again in a boat. But if by some misfortune Winnie and Binkie succeeded in convincing a suicidal boat captain to take them out puffin-watching, I'd find some excuse.
"Just what is a puffin anyway?" Michael asked.
I winced. Dangerous question. The Burnhams and several nearby birders pulled out their field guides and began imparting puffin lore.
If I'd been explaining, I'd have said to keep his eye out for a black-and-white bird about a foot high that looked like a small penguin wearing an enormous clown nose over his beak and bright orange stockings on his feet. The birders did a good job of describing the beak--a gray-and-yellow triangle with a wide red tip--but they went into too much detail on the chunky body, the stubby wings, the distinctive, clumsy flight, and the precise patterning of the black-and-white feathers. I doubt if Michael needed to know quite so much detail on how to tell immature puffins from other birds he'd never heard of, or if he cared in the slightest about puffins' breeding and nesting habits. When Winnie and another birder began competing to see who could more accurately imitate the low, growling arr! that the usually silent puffins make when their nests are disturbed, I groaned in exasperation.
"Don't worry, dear," Binkie said, patting me on the shoulder. "It always gets a little rough when we're this close to the harbor."
"Close to the harbor?" I said. "You mean we'll be landing soon?"
"Thank God," Michael muttered. I wasn't sure whether the ocean or the bird lore made his exclamation so fervent.
And sure enough, within minutes we saw the ferry dock. Quite a crowd of people stood on it with great mounds of luggage. More birders, I supposed, since at least half of them peered through the rain with binoculars. Like the birders on the boat, they scrutinized the gulls that wheeled overhead--hoping, I suppose, to spot a rare species of seagull. The two sets of birders also scanned one another. As we approached the dock, they began pointing, waving, and calling greetings.
"Good Lord, Binkie, look who's on the dock," Winnie said. "Just beside the gift shop."
"Oh no, not Victor!" Binkie exclaimed. "How awful! I did so hope we'd seen the last of him."
"No such luck," Winnie growled. "Turns up like a bad penny every few years. Wonder what the old ba--scoundrel's up to this time."
"Never borrow trouble," Binkie said. "We don't know for sure that he's up to anything."
"Like hell we don't."
I peered at the dock, wondering who Victor was and how he could possibly have aroused this much animosity in the normally mild-mannered Burnhams. But without binoculars, I couldn't see many details; if the docks held a sinister villain twirling his mustache or sporting cloven hooves, I couldn't spot him.
"Oh, look, Dr. and Mrs. Peabody," Binkie said--no doubt to distract Winnie from his irritation with the nefarious Victor. "What rotten luck; they're leaving just when we're getting here."
"I wouldn't count on it," Winnie replied, inspecting the Peabodys through his binoculars. "I overheard the captain speaking rather sharply to someone over the radio. Said he'd never have set out if they'd accurately predicted the size of the swells."
I was glad Winnie hadn't mentioned this until after we could see the dock.
"You think he'll ride out the storm here, then?" Binkie asked.
"If he has any sense," Winnie replied.
"Luck was certainly with you two," Binkie said, turning to Michael and me. "You very nearly missed the boat!"
The boat picked that moment to make a sudden free-fall drop into the trough of a wave.
"Lucky us," Michael muttered.
Copyright © 2000 by Donna Andrews.