As it turned out, rescue was a long time coming, and captivity was a lot more boring than movies made it look.
Muri hadn’t said a single word the whole time we’d been sitting here, nor had her facial expression changed by a millimeter. I guessed that this wasn’t caused by her partial paralysis, but instead was a result of her prickly personality.
The thugs who’d thrown us in the van were no longer around, having gone to the trouble of marching us through the double doors of a large brick building that bore a striking resemblance to my high school and then tying us to two chairs in a small room adjacent to the entryway. There were no windows. The only other furniture in the room with us was a small desk and three more folding chairs. The floors were bare concrete.
I didn’t want to be the one to break the silence, so I kept my mouth shut too, hoping that Muri would eventually crack.
After another twenty or so minutes of waiting, the mustached man came back in, greeting me with a smarmy smile.
“So I guess you were out looking for us, eh?” he asked personably, pulling up one of the other chairs and straddling it backwards. It felt like a scene straight out of a two-bit crime drama. He’d (correctly) guessed that Muri would be a much tougher nut to crack and turned his attentions toward me instead. Luckily for us, I still didn’t really know shit, despite all of Seb and Muri’s explanations over the last day and a half.
So I just shrugged.
Mustache frowned and then squinted at me, staring intently at the front of my sweatshirt. “What’s that you got there?”
I looked down in confusion, and then dismay, at the rather noticeable bulge of Muri’s gun, still tucked in the front of my pants. Marisol had warned me about slouching as a kid. But who could have predicted it would get me in trouble with supernatural kidnappers?
Mustache marched over and pulled up my sweatshirt in a way that made me feel like I needed to take at least five showers to feel remotely clean again. He drew out the gun with a crow of surprise. “Pretty thing, innit?” he said, twirling it around his index finger, admiring the delicate filigree embossed around the barrel. He seemed especially entranced by the pearl inlay on either side of the grip. “Don’t see a piece like this every day. Guess it’s a good thing Zida forgot to give you a frisk before they sent you our way, eh? Lovely little item to add to my collection.”
Muri let out a hiss of rage next to me, her jaw twitching from the effort it must have taken not to tell Mustache to go straight to hell.
“Now, I doubt you’re hiding another pistol on you,” the man continued with that irritating smirk, “but it couldn’t hurt to be a little more thorough now, could it?” I grimaced as he knelt down in front of me, running his hands up my ankles, then calves, then to the outsides of my thighs. He stopped with his hands on either sides of my hips, hovering over my jean pockets. “What’s this?” He slipped his hand into the left pocket and drew out the crumpled up envelope, reaching inside to extract an ornate purple gemstone pendant hanging from a thin silver chain. “My, my. You’re a veritable gold mine of beautiful things, aren’t you?”
I couldn’t hold back the shudder that ran through me at the look he gave while saying those words. I wouldn’t say that I got hit on often, certainly not half as much as Lila did when we went out together, but not even a fraction of the comments I’d gotten in the last seven years creeped me out as much as Mustache’s did.
Thankfully, there was a muffled yell from outside, and Mustache ceremoniously draped the pendant over my head, the small stone feeling like an absurdly heavy weight bearing down on me as the metal chain brushed against my skin. “Hold onto that for me, love,” he said, now gripping Muri’s pistol like the weapon it actually was and carefully moving out the door.
I nearly knocked my chair over when Muri suddenly lifted her freed hands to touch the necklace hanging around my throat. Her fingers were shaking with the effort it must have cost to lift them while still under the influence of whatever drug she’d been dosed with.
“What the hell is this?” she asked quietly, sliding the pendant back over my head. I couldn’t deny the hot and cold flash of emotion that ran through me when she removed the thing.
“It belongs to my best friend,” I replied honestly. It was the first time I’d ever told anyone I even had the thing. Joel hadn’t even known I’d taken it. “Belonged. I took it, when she died. I don’t know why, I just…did.”
“Do you know what this is?” she asked.
I shook my head. “Should I?”
Muri frowned, taking her eyes off of me for a second to glance at the door. “Slide your chair over. I’m going to untie your hands,” she said. “Put this back in your pocket and do not, under any circumstances, tell Seb you have this. Understand?”
“But your phone,” I pointed out. Couldn’t Seb hear our whole conversation?
“It’s dead,” she said shortly. “Seb would have used the GPS when I first called him. So don’t worry about them finding us.”
I nodded and waited patiently while she picked at the knotted material that had been cutting off my circulation for the past few hours. I didn’t know why the necklace was so important, or why she was so insistent I hide it from Seb, but I definitely wasn’t about to argue with her while I was still tied to a chair.
“What’s going on?” I asked as soon as I was free, standing up and rubbing life back into my fingers. “How did you untie your hands?”
“I didn’t,” Muri replied, holding up the tattered remains of her bindings and the raw bleeding flesh of her wrists.
I winced. “Oh.” I dropped my hands, feeling awkward about the fact that I could actually move and Muri could still barely lift a finger. “So what do we do now?”
“I’m going to take a wild guess and say that you won’t be much use in a fight,” she said. Her tone was without judgment, but I still flushed at the comment.
“Try the door.”
Obediently, I walked over to the door and jiggled the handle. “It’s not locked.”
“Then do me a favor and find where they’re keeping the mermaids. And try not to get killed.”
“Yeah. Okay.” I stood there in the doorway for a second, steeling myself before exiting, knowing that if I stood there for much longer it would have been an invitation for Muri to make some kind of humiliating comment.
The hall was darker than it had been when we were first escorted inside. I could hear the muffled sounds of something happening to my left, and made the decision to turn right instead. I stumbled upon another hallway, even darker than the first, the floor glowing under the faint lights of the EXIT signs on either end.
I took a few seconds to peer inside each window on the doors lining the hallway, half-hoping I wouldn’t see anything of note inside. Most contained nothing but darkness. I decided to give those a pass for now. The double doors at the end of the hall had no windows. I pushed the right one open with some misgivings, and found myself inside a massive storage space.
There were several steel roll-up doors at the opposite end of the room, all of which were closed. The floor was lined with emergency lights, plugged into almost every electrical outlet. Aside from that, the room was dark. And in the center were several large fish tanks that looked like they had been hastily cobbled together with plywood and acrylic, containing more than a dozen mermaids, all curled up into harmless-looking balls at the bottom.
I knew from experience that their appearances were especially deceiving.
“What are you doing in here?” barked a gruff voice from my left.
I put up my hands in surrender automatically and watched wide-eyed as a man—not one of the two who had brought Muri and I here, but one much more slender in build, and holding a matte-black pistol—emerged from behind the tank.
“I…um…lost,” I said, unable to come up with a decent excuse.
“You one of the prisoners?”
I nodded, deciding that honesty was the best course of action when faced with a man holding a loaded firearm.
“Shit.” He put his gun back in a holster on his belt, obviously having made the correct assessment that I posed little threat to him, and pulled out a walkie-talkie instead. “Hank, one of those girls you brought in just wandered in here and started checking out the merchandise. What the hell is going on?”
The only response was static.
The man looked at me suspiciously, as if I had something to do with the fact that his buddy wasn’t answering the radio. “All right, you come with me,” he said, grabbing me forcefully by the elbow and dragging me back to the double doors I’d come in through.
The doors burst open before we reached them. There was a loud noise in my right ear, and the sensation of something wet hitting my face. It was several more seconds before I registered that Seb had walked in and shot the man holding onto me in the shoulder with Muri’s gun, and that my face and neck were speckled with his blood. I stared down in shock at the groaning man writhing on the floor.
“He’ll be fine,” Seb assured me in an even voice. “Your brother is looking for Muri right now. I took care of the other two when we broke in. But you might want to stay out of the way.”
For the next fifteen minutes, the entrance to the storage space became a virtual revolving door as Joel first brought in Muri, who seemed to be walking somewhat under her own power now, before leaving in the company of Seb to retrieve the men who had captured us. The two of them herded the thugs to the corner where Seb had propped up the man he’d shot and left all three of them there after making sure their hands and feet were securely restrained.
After our former captors had been dealt with, I cautiously approached my brother and pulled Joel into a tight hug, allowing him to comb his fingers through my hair for several seconds before I pulled away.
Seb and Muri were making a concerted effort to not look at us. "It's been a while since I had to be the one to save your ass,” Seb said to her with a tired smile.
Muri didn’t return it.
“Did you find anything?” she asked. She was holding onto the wall for support, but seemed determined not to sit down.
Seb looked taken aback. “Hell no. I was a little busy trying to figure out where the hell you two were, if you didn’t notice.”
Muri let out a noise of frustration.
“What’s going on?” I asked, confused by their exchange. “I thought we caught them.”
“Zida wouldn't let themselves be pushed around by those two assholes,” Muri explained, the note of disgust in her voice all-too apparent. “Which means we’re looking for a much bigger fish. Someone with influence.”
“Can’t you just ask them?” Joel asked, looking every bit as bewildered as I felt.
Seb shook his head. “She’s right. And they won’t snitch.”
Muri sighed. “Call Naomi and Sara and let them know what we found. My phone’s dead.”
“How’d you pull that off anyhow?” said Joel as Seb walked away from us—just a few feet—and pulled out his own cell. “Calling Seb, I mean. They didn’t take your phones?”
I winced at the reminder that mine was still sitting on Zida’s couch, but said nothing about it, knowing I’d get an earful from Joel for losing it.
“It’s a simple case of miscommunication,” Muri explained. “They,” she said with a tinge of disgust as she gestured toward the tied-up thugs, “assumed Zida frisked us before they got there. Zida assumed they would do the same before loading us up in that van. None of them bothered to spare a second to double check that things were actually proceeding according to the assumptions they’d made. And that is why hired help is always a mistake in this line of work.”
“Couldn’t agree more,” said a sinuous male voice from our right. The four of us whirled around in surprise to see a man emerging from the shadows. The air around him roiled like the air above the pavement in the hottest days of the summer. It almost hurt to look at him.
“Who are you?” Seb asked cautiously, dropping the phone from his ear and motioning for Joel and me to stay back. Muri already had her gun drawn, finger on the trigger as she stared coldly at the apparition.
“The man you’re looking for,” he said simply.
I stared in confusion as the self-professed smuggler as he held his arms in front of him, wrists pressed together and palms out in supplication.
There was something distinctly off about his mannerisms, his voice, like they weren’t suited to him. Something about the way he spoke seemed too performative, like someone not used to speaking with that particular cadence.
“Let’s not waste any time, shall we? I know you humans are an impatient lot.” He exchanged an odd look with Seb, one I couldn’t decipher.
Seb handed Muri’s gun back to her, and she lazily trained it on the smuggler as Seb approached him with another zip-tie in hand. The man looked as agreeable as if he were having a chat about the weather with his next-door neighbors as Seb secured his hands.
“You know who we work for, don’t you?” Seb said to him.
“Of course,” the man replied.
“And you’re just turning yourself in?”
“I know what her kind does to those of us who run,” the man said with a pointed look at Muri. Despite the chill of his words, the amiable expression on his face never wavered.
“Do you mind standing over there?” Seb asked awkwardly. It was apparent that most of his suspects were not so eager to cooperate. He didn’t know how to proceed with the situation.
“Certainly.” All four of us watched in disbelief as the man marched over to the others and stood obediently in the corner. It was almost a comical juxtaposition, the clean cut stranger with his tailored suit and wire-rimmed glasses standing primly next to the three men who could have passed as regulars in a back-alley pub if they’d been human.
Muri and Seb exchanged bewildered looks.
“I’m going to step out and call Naomi,” Seb told her. “My division head,” he explained for Joel’s and my sake. “Keep an eye on them for me.”
“Want us to check those out while we’re here?” Muri asked, jerking a thumb casually toward the mermaids still sleeping in their tanks.
“Might as well. We might be able to find out something useful by the time the others get here.”
I stayed with Joel at first while Muri slowly made her way over to the other side of the room to examine the tanks, until Mustache made a particularly rude comment that had both Joel and I turning bright red, albeit for totally different reasons. After that, I ambled over to Muri’s side to seek sanctuary there instead while Joel exchanged threats with Mustache, though I was probably more terrified of her than the smugglers. She was staring intently through the glass with narrowed eyes and a troubled expression.
“What is it?” I asked, causing her to jerk back suddenly before turning to face me.
“Some of them are pregnant,” she replied with a frown.
“Pregnant?” I glanced at the mermaids. “But how do they—”
“They look female to you because they resemble humans, but mermaids are hermaphroditic creatures. Breeding them isn’t a simple process though. Most smugglers don’t go to the trouble. I’m not sure why this one’s different.” Muri continued peering through the thick glass at the huddled mass of dozing creatures, her nose practically pressed against the surface of the tank.
I, on the other hand, was keeping my distance. I hadn’t yet forgotten my first experience with a mermaid, and I didn’t think I ever would, at this rate. I watched Muri instead, trying to puzzle out what exactly she was looking for, when her eyes suddenly widened in alarm and she straightened up.
“Seb,” she said urgently. “Sebastien, get over here!” Her tone was as brusque as usual, but didn’t hide the note of panic underneath.
I hadn’t even seen him come back in, but Seb quickly hurried over from where he and Joel were standing, an irritated look on his face. I wasn’t sure if Muri was the cause, or the phone call he’d just had. “What? What is it?”
“Take a look at this,” Muri said, gesturing toward the mermaids. “Is that what I think it is?”
“Shit.” He cast an odd look my way before turning back to Muri with a frown. “David’s going to have a field day with this one.”
Curiosity piqued, I moved closer to the two of them. “What’s going on?”
Seb sighed deeply. “The mermaids he was smuggling in when the one we discovered at the pool escaped weren’t the first.”
I scrunched my brows together in confusion. “How do you know?”
He pointed at the mermaids in the tank. “Do you see the difference in coloring between those two there?” I couldn’t, but I nodded anyway. “They’re two different breeds of mermaids that rarely interact in the wild. One originates from Papua New Guinea, the other from the coast of Israel. And that one there—” He pointed to one curled up in the very corner of the largest tank, further away from the others. “It’s showing signs of having already given birth. Which means he was crossbreeding them.”
“Extremely,” Seb replied. “Especially since we have no idea what he did with the other offspring. Or what traits the young inherited from their parents. This doesn’t happen in nature. It’s not supposed to happen.”
Seb looked extremely upset by this, but I didn’t know what to say to help him. Especially not with Muri standing in between us surveying the whole thing as coldly as she did most everything else.