Off the Trail

Book Excerpt: Chapter 8 (Robert)

Robert saw her hundred yards ahead, seated between bushes. Her short, messy red hair matched Doug’s description, and her face was windblown to a nearly matching shade. She was oblivious to Robert, and as he got closer, he saw why—she was coaxing a penguin out of its nest with some sort of hook. Then she gripped its head tightly, as its wings flapped and bit at the air; it looked as if the bird would either fly away or take off her index finger. But the woman did not seem at all bothered by the commotion. With one hand holding the bird, she used the other to scribble notes in a journal.

“Are you Angela?” he asked.

“That’s me,” she said, not bothering to look up. She straddled the bird, silencing its wings, returning a sense of calm to the scene. Yet whatever she was trying to do next, the bandage on her left hand was clearly causing her problems.

“You need help?” Robert asked.

“Ever handle a penguin before?”

“No.”

“Then I don’t need help.”

“I’ve got two good hands, at least.”

She sized him up, and he felt oddly insecure that she paused for so long.

“Okay,” she said finally. “Come over here and position yourself next to me, just like this. Now, I’m going to get up and you’re going to slide over and hold her between your legs just like I’m doing. I’ll keep a hold of her head.”

He did as instructed.

“Now, see how I’m holding her. First put your left hand over my right, just like that.  Now your right. Hold firm but not too tight. Do not let go.”

The bird between his knees was stronger than he expected, and the feathers were not smooth but finely knit, like the exterior of his synthetic jacket. Angela held the caliper to the penguin’s beak and feet, and Robert felt a sudden childlike excitement come over him. The penguin raised its head with an almost human look of indignation, and he couldn’t help but feel sorry for it.

“You can let go now,” Angela said.

Robert released his hands, widened his knees, and the penguin scampered back into its nest. Robert stood, brushed the dirt off his pants, then slowly circled one of the bushes, looking at birds crowded underneath, in distinctly separate cubbyholes, like some thin-walled tenement, so many eyes and beaks following his movements.

“I had no idea there were so many penguins here,” he said.

“There used to be more.”

“Why do they move their heads back and forth like that?” he asked.

“They’re trying to frighten you away.”

“They think I’m a predator?”

“Worse. They think you’re a tourist.”

Robert looked up at Angela, with her backpack on, notepad in one hand, staring at him impatiently. He suddenly remembered why he was there.

“Actually, I’m an FBI agent.”

“Looking for a missing bird?”

“I’m looking for the man involved in the altercation this morning. I believe you know him.”

Angela began scribbling something into her notebook as she spoke. “As you can plainly see, I spend too much time with penguins to notice every tourist who passes through.”

(From The Tourist Trail, Chapter 8: Robert)