Bertie charged through the leaves in pursuit of the unicorn. Her black form jumped out of his reach, onto the sun-baked beach. The superheated sand burned as it wedged itself in his tennis shoes. Bertie picked up the pace, but the unicorn braked. He rammed into her hindquarters.
Princess Piranha had escaped again.
Bertie grabbed her reins and made sure he had a firm grip on the rough leather before sinking to the hot sand and gulping in deep breaths. Princess Piranha flapped her wings. The breeze gave Bertie some relief from the heat.
“You could have at least parked in the shade,” Bertie said. But all things considered, he had lucked out.
She could have flown away.
“You realize you got wings, right?” he said between breaths.
Bertie looked across the sand to The Last Resort bar. He checked his phone.
He had enough time for something cold before the meeting, right?
A message bleeped. “Bertie, where are you?”
It was from Hessy, doing her managerial duty to make sure he got to the meeting on time.
As in The Meeting, The Meeting with the new board of the unicorn park.
Yeah, he had time for something cold.
Bertie shoved his phone in his pocket as it bleeped again and tightened Princess Piranha’s reins around his knuckles as he pulled himself to his feet. He rubbed the sand off, ignoring another bleep from his phone, and clicked his tongue at Princess Piranha to follow him to the bar.
He would keep her close. There was no way he was showing up to the meeting and telling his bosses the he had lost a winged unicorn mutant thingy. No way.
His phone bleeped again.
“Not again, Hessy,” Bertie said. He dug out his phone. “Hey, star vet,” the first message said, “you haven’t forgotten the meeting, right?” Then the next one. “You’re avoiding???” And another. “You’re avoiding.”
Which was so not true.
He was searching and rescuing. And sipping.
Or would be sipping soon.
He tied Princess Piranha to the flaking blue porch of The Last Resort and stepped inside. But before he could make it to the bar, a thunderous crack made Bertie whip around.
Oh, no, no, no, no, no.
The post of The Last Resort dangled in the breeze. Princess Piranha had run off.
Bertie ran into the hot sand.
He looked to the left.
He looked to the right.
The sun bounced off Princess Piranha’s sparkling black hide. Bertie ran to catch up, but she was galloping too fast, kicking sand up into Bertie’s face.
She made a sharp turn left onto the northeast dock. Bertie rushed after. He stopped to get his breath where the sand met the worn slats of the pier. There was no reason to keep running. He had her. When she looped back, he’d cling onto her reins for dear life and drag her back to the park. It’s not like she was going to fling herself into the ocean.
A rush of air skimmed Bertie’s head.
No, no, no, no, no.
Bertie let out a breath of frustration. Princess Piranha was flying.
He ran inland, across the sand, trying to keep up. She made a beeline for the mangrove forest.
Not the mangroves, Bertie thought. Not the mangroves, please not the mangroves.
Just as she was about to breach the forest, she dove to her right and galloped across the field towards—
“Not the town!” Bertie called.
That’s worse. So, so, so much worse.
Bertie sped across the grass. His footsteps matched every ragged breath. He wasn’t going to reach her in time. There was no way.
He was a few car lengths behind when she reached the road into town. A line of stalls swallowed her up.
Unicorn on the loose. What would the bosses say?
Bertie lunged forward. He skidded on the road, regained his balance, and followed Princess Piranha’s retreating heinie.
“Is that your unicorn?” A vendor stopped Bertie. “Can I have a picture?”
“If I can catch her.” Bertie pulled himself out of the vendor’s grasp. Today of all days, Rumstad decided to put up kiosks everywhere. Bertie didn’t have time to ask why.
He dodged smiling shoppers who pointed at him as he straggled along. He overheard the commentary: “That’s that vet” and “He runs the unicorn park” and “Autograph?”
At least all the crowds were slowing Princess Piranha down. He was so close now. So close.
He threw out his arm and just about snagged her reins, which were whipping behind her, when she made a sharp left into a narrow street. Bertie slid on the cobblestones.
“Grab her,” Bertie said, but everyone was too busy taking pictures with their phones.
“There goes Dr. Unicorn,” someone screamed as Bertie dashed after Princess Piranha. The red, orange, green, yellow, and purple of the narrow houses bounced in front of his eyes as he tried to keep up his speed. The street curved towards the old fort. Just then, Princess Piranha rammed into a t-shirt stall.
“No!” Bertie screamed. He caught up to her just as she slipped on the broken wooden slats and shook the t-shirts from her back. With a red shirt still swinging on her horn, she bucked down the street.
“Eh, toreador!” The vendor laughed. He didn’t seem to care that his kiosk was destroyed. He probably planned to put up a plaque that said, “Unicorn was here.”
Bertie dodged a bicycle as he ran after Princess Piranha. He almost had her—again—but she pushed off her hind legs and flew into the blue sky.
Bertie bent over, gasping for oxygen, and watched as Princess Piranha, with a red shirt flapping in the wind like a sail, disappeared from view.
Still resting his hands on his knees, he looked at the ground. Purple, green, orange, yellow t-shirts interspersed with black unicorn feathers were strewn at his feet. A bead of sweat dripped on the bluish cobblestones. Bertie sucked in humid air.
“Bertie?” Hessy’s voice came at him from above.
Crap, he was probably late for the meeting.
Bertie straightened his back, but before he could explain why he was late, a flash blinded him. He shielded his face with his hands.
“Bastian Best from the St. Quiche Ledger.” Bastian snapped another picture. “From underdog to unicorn superstar. That is what all of St. Quiche is calling you. How do you balance it all?”
Bertie looked over at the demolished t-shirt stand. He grimaced at the stitch in his side.
“Maybe you could give Bertie a minute?” Hessy said. Bertie found her in the crowd, her red head all fiery in the sun. She was standing in front of the fort’s giant double doors with what Bertie assumed was the unicorn park board. The governor, looking particularly broad in his cream suit, smiled. “Indeed, our star veterinarian has arrived.”
Hessy stood next to Bertie and whispered, “Smile.”
Bertie stretched his face into what he hoped was happy.
“Okay, maybe not,” she said.
“Miss Beauregard relayed your message,” the governor said.
“My message?” Bertie said. He looked to Hessy for help. Message? What message? Hessy kicked him.
“As to the reason for your delay,” the governor said.
“Yeah, totally, my message,” Bertie said.
“Dr. Vole?” A man with way too much product in his hair and gold chains peeking out of an open collar, stretched his hand out to Bertie. Bertie seemed to remember that he ran illegal horse bets from his pharmacy. “Once matters settle down at WURRIEA, are there any plans to create another genetically engineered animal?”
“UREA?” Bertie said. Hessy whispered something in his ear, but he didn’t catch it on account of a lady bellowing.
That was Miss Celestina.
As in president-of-the-board-boss Celestina. She raised her finger at Bertie. A red handbag, like a cannonball, swung slowly at her elbow. “You! Do not let me catch you making more mutants.”
“Celestina, dear,” the governor said. “Dr. Vole was not the one to suggest the creation of more mutants.”
Celestina grabbed Greasy Man’s collar. “I told you, don’t you go putting crazy talk ideas into this boy’s head. Or did you not see what just happened?” She pointed at the vendor who was picking up all his stray t-shirts. “Bull in a China shop.”
“I believe you are crushing Anton’s windpipe,” the governor said.
“Anton,” Celestina said, “if I find out you push anyone to make more monsters—”
Bertie said, “The unicorns aren’t—”
“Monsters, you hear?” Celestina put her finger in Greasy Anton’s face. I will push you off the board.”
Greasy Anton smiled, showing a space between his front teeth. “Celestina, dear—”
“Any more suspicious creatures, I will push you off the board. I will push you out of your business. I will push you off St. Quiche.” She pointed to the fort behind her. “I will push you off the top of this building.”
“Do you want me to continue supplying fertilizer for your mother’s prize lilies?” Greasy Anton said . . . greasily.
Celestina pulled back her finger. “Fine. I will pay your hospital bills after I push you!” Celestina rounded on Bertie. “You made me miss my kalooki game.”
Bertie gulped. Was she waiting for an apology? Maybe she was waiting for an apology. “I’m sorry, Miss Celestina.”
“Everyone thinks you are a star, but I have been watching you these past few weeks.” She leaned in. Her voice became a hiss. “I. Know. Better.”
Bertie worked really hard at not blinking as she stared up into his face. Then she growled.
He was sure of it.
When she turned away, her red handbag thwacked Bertie in the ribs. Bertie hunched over in pain just as Bastian snapped another photo.
By the time the floaters cleared from his vision, Celestina was stomping away. Pedestrians cleared a path for her. It was like watching the parting of the Red Sea, only scarier.
“Governor!” she hollered. “I will go pick up the new veterinarian.”
“New vet?” Bertie said. But no one would give him an answer.
Will Bertie flub his job? Will the new vet be better looking than him? And what’s with the dragons? Tune in to The Veterinarian’s Field Guide to Smelly Dragon Breath to find out. (Coming soon to an Amazon webstore near your.)
Need to catch up on book 1, The Veterinarian’s Field Guide to Rabid Unicorns? Get your copy here at Amazon.com.