So, I missed class last week, and what do I find awaiting me when I get back? Apparently, our CW assignment was to use a host of zoo words (ticket, cages, malodorous, snack cart, otter, loud, mind, messy, birds, monkeys, penguin, exhibits, birdseed, slushie, and feral — to be precise) in a work of fiction that was not about a zoo. Yeah. So I’m not sure I really like quite how this turned out, but oh well. I’ve never written a mystery before…
The red light darted across the QR code on Sydney’s ticket. The scanner chirped in recognition, and the ticket collector handed the paper back to the eleven-year-old. Sydney bounded over to her mother and brother who stood off to the side waiting for her father, the last in line, to get the suitcase, the duffel bag, and himself on board the King Blackbeard. Six-year-old Nate stared around at the upper deck of the cruise ship. “This boat is soooo big! I can’t even see where the end of it is!”
“I know!” Sydney’s blue-gray eyes danced. “There’s sooo many people on it. I’ve never been on a cruise before. We’re gonna have so many adventures here!”
“Here comes Daddy,” their mom nodded to her husband who was stuffing his ticket back into his windbreaker pocket.
“Daddy! Can we go look at stuff?” Nate pulled on his father’s baggage-laden arm.
“Not so loud!” his mother chastened. “We’re not the only people on the ship, okay, honey?”
Nate’s hands released the arm as his innocent brown eyes focused on a speck on the floor.
“It’s okay, Nate. I just need you to be attentive to what’s going on around you. Can you pick up your backpack? We’re going to head to our cabin on floor eleven.”
Half an hour later, after claiming beds, marveling over kitchen amenities, and arranging their books on the nightstand, the brother and sister were impatient for an exploit.
“Can we go now?” Sydney begged excitedly.
“Yeah. We’ve been unpacking for forever!” Nate added.
“Alright, you two monkeys,” their dad addressed the two. “We’ve got everything mostly arranged now, so I think we can go explore a bit.”
“Hurray!” Sydney and Nate cheered simultaneously.
The father took the lead as the children skipped eagerly behind him, their two sets of eyes reveling in every novel sight around the deck of the ship.
Making their way to a snack cart, the father ordered an over-priced cherry slushie for the three of them to share. While the vendor was filling up the cup, Sydney noticed something else on the cart.
“That trail mix looks like birdseed,” she remarked to her dad.
Hearing her, the man at the cart turned around, setting their slushie on the cart’s narrow counter. “It is birdseed. If you go all the way down to the fourth deck, there’s a room with seven or so parrots in it.” The man grinned at Sydney and Nate. “Some of them even talk. And,” he drew out the word for drama, “you can feed them.” He raised his eyebrows mischievously.
Nate’s eyes opened wide. “Can we, Daddy?”
“Why not?” their father answered. Addressing the man at the cart, “It looks like you’d better add two packs of birdseed to the mix.”
Ten minutes later, the trio was down in the bird salon. Their dad chatted with the bird keeper while Sydney and Nate sprinkled birdseed through the bars of the cages for the feathered creatures within.
“They’re just so funny!” Nate laughed, picking up a bit of seed he had dropped on the floor.
Sydney nodded vigorously, attentively observing the playfulness of the blue and yellow bird she was feeding.
“I like them a lot, but my favorite bird is still a penguin. They’re just sooo cute – especially the baby ones.”
Nate looked solemn. “My favorite is a otter. They like to swim – just like me.”
“Um, Nate?” Sydney glanced at her younger brother. “It’s an otter, not a otter. And I was talking about favorite birds. An otter isn’t a bird.”
“Oh.” Nate tossed another handful of birdseed through the bars. “Well, I still like otters,” he stated firmly.
Just then a British accent broke in. “Personally, my favorite species is the African Grey. The striking contrast between the red tail feathers and the grey body is fascinating.”
Sydney turned to look at the speaker. It was a man. About twenty-something, she determined. She could not decide if she liked him or not.
“Not to mention the breed exhibits incredible intelligence and speaking abilities in addition to its docility,” he nodded matter-of-factly at the children.
“Oh,” replied Sydney. “Is that one, over there?” She pointed to the cage closest to the door.
“I do believe you are correct,” the Brit returned. He turned and walked over to examine the bird behind the tall bars.
Sydney caught her brother’s glance.
“He’s weird,” Nate whispered as quietly as he could.
Sydney quickly looked over her shoulder. Mercifully, the man did not seem to have heard the comment.
A minute later, Nate poked his sister in the side. “Look, Syd! That weird guy – he’s taking the grey parrot!”
Discreetly, Sydney’s eyes darted over to the tall cage by the entrance. Just as Nate had said, the man was exiting the salon with the African Grey parrot perched on his shoulder.
“He’s stealing it!” Nate hissed.
Sydney turned around, furrowing her brows at the arched doorway. She turned to Nate. “I knew there was something about him. You know what? It’s a mystery. Our very own mystery. And we’re going to figure out – all by ourselves.”
Nate’s eyes beamed excitement at his big sister’s astute pronouncement.
“Let’s go,” she nodded, her voice filled with mysterious delight.
Their dad still talking to the bird keeper, the siblings tiptoed down the hall. Turning the corner just in time, they glimpsed the parrot’s red tail disappear to the left. Down that hallway and up the stairs to the next floor, the two stalked the birdnapper. Finally, Sydney and Nate saw him pull a room key out of his shirt pocket, insert it in the door of Room 587, and turn the doorknob.
Apparently, though, the man did not deem it necessary to shut the door all the way behind himself and his hostage. Sydney could hardly believe how perfect this mystery was turning out. Motioning for her brother to follow her, the girl stealthily tiptoed to the doorway and peeked in.
“Wow,” she mouthed.
Nate peered around her.
The man stood with the parrot in the midst of open books, electronic devices and cords, pieces of notepaper, and assorted writing utensils scattered all over the third-class suite.
“That sure is messy,” Nate agreed in his quietest voice.
This time, however, the man heard the remark. Just as she saw the man’s head snap up, Sydney sprang back. Dashing down the hall, she heard Nate’s frightened, “Ahh!” Forcing her feet to turn, she ran back toward Room 587.
The door was still open, and Sydney rushed in – and stopped. She was not sure what she had been expecting. Torture, perhaps? But not this. Nate was standing by the man, bashfully stroking the stolen bird.
“Would you like to pet him?” The man acknowledged her.
Sydney scanned him critically. “Why did you steal him?”
“Steal him? You mean this bird?” The man seemed surprised.
Sydney punctuated her accusation with a decisive nod.
“Madam, I am entirely innocent of such a crime,” he returned.
Now it was the siblings who seemed surprised.
“Allow me to introduce myself. I am James Cooper, graduate student of veterinary medicine at Bristol. My particular field of study is animal intelligence, and I am writing my dissertation on the mental processes and speech patterns of these parrots. I am actually interning with a firm that trains these birds to speak for entertainment – you know, on television, in films, on cruise boats.”
“But none of the parrots in the bird room could talk,” Nate protested curiously.
The man seemed a little exasperated. “Five out of the seven birds in that salon were macaws – practically feral – and with extremely low intelligence ratings. The only two with speech capabilities are Kon Tiki here and that malodorous Methuselah of a Blue-fronted Amazon who sleeps all day.”
Suddenly, a stern voice boomed into the cabin. “Nate! Sydney! What are you doing here? Why did you run off without telling me? And who is this?”
Sister and brother turned around wide-eyed to face their father. “We were solving a mystery Daddy!” Nate declared. “You see that guy? Well, he took Tiki – that parrot – or we thought he did. So we sneaked up behind him and watched him come in here, but then he saw us and told us he didn’t steal the parrot. And,” the six-year-old’s face lit up with his amazing secret, “he teaches parrots to talk!”
Her father glanced at Sydney who nodded in confirmation.
He turned to Mr. Cooper. “I’m sorry…” he fished for the name.
“James Cooper, sir,” supplied the man.
“James. I’m sorry if my kids have been bothering you,” their dad apologized. “I didn’t realize they were stalking you, or I…”
“Your children are acquitted, sir,” Mr. Cooper nodded diplomatically. “I don’t mind at all. On the contrary, I was honored to meet two such specimens of curiosity.”
Sydney tried to suppress a grin.
The father sighed in relief.
Nate simply looked intrigued. “Mr. James? Have you ever teached an otter to talk?”