Murder with Puffins

Chapter 1: 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, with 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 looked in the direction Michael pointed. To me, the vague shape ahead looked like the same ominous cloudbank we'd stared 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 to mention 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 on his face. 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, and 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 subsided to a mere tropical storm, but if I'd bothered to check 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 Saltenstall Burnham, a.k.a. 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 that was at least one-quarter rain.

"Don't mind him, dear," Binkie whispered, noticing my reaction. "Brisk 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 fly-over season."

"Oh, of course," I said.

"The what?" Michael asked.

"The fall fly-over 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 coming for forty-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.