I’d been sitting in the hospital waiting room for almost four hours. My back, neck, and butt were aching from sitting so long in a stiff plastic chair, but I didn’t want to draw attention to myself by getting up and walking around.
Lila had only sat with me for about half an hour, before she had gone in to have her shoulder x-rayed. Joel’s shift didn’t end for another twenty minutes. Lila’s parents were out of town, and Dan’s were dead. I didn’t have anyone to talk to, nothing to do to keep my mind off of what had happened.
I glanced up, blinking at the bright lights, to find a young woman smiling gently down at me. She was pretty in that typical girl-next-door type of way, and reminded me a lot of the girlfriend I’d had briefly in high school.
“Did something happen?” I asked, unable to keep the anxiety from seeping into my voice.
“Your friend asked me to come and get you,” she replied. “I’m sure you’d be more comfortable waiting with her, right?”
“Yeah,” I said eagerly. “Yeah.”
“Follow me, then.”
In a daze, I got out of my seat and traipsed after the nurse down the stark white hallway. There was a pair of elevator doors at the very end, and I stood behind her as she pressed the call button before folding her arms across her chest.
There was an uncomfortable silence, and then a ping as the elevator doors opened. There was no one inside. I followed the nurse into the small space and the doors closed behind me.
When I turned to face the nurse as the elevator jerked into motion, her face had changed, almost imperceptibly, but something about her was different.
“Have you and Lila been friends for a long time?”
“Since kindergarten basically,” I replied despite the unease growing steadily just under my skin. “Mar—my mom was friends with her mom so it was kind of inevitable I guess.”
“I imagine you probably trust each other with anything then, after knowing each other for so long.”
“I guess?” Half-consciously, I felt myself take a step back, but there wasn’t anywhere I could go. Shouldn’t the elevator have stopped by now?
“So where is it?” the nurse asked, tone changing to something altogether more sinister, though the smile on her face was as sweet as ever.
“Where is what?”
“Where is it?” she asked again, her voice deeper now. The lights in the elevator quickly began to dim, taking on a reddish hue as we continued our descent. “Where is it?”
The nurse’s face was beginning to change, the demure expression and button nose morphing into the frighteningly familiar features of Letuch as a pair of enormous bat wings erupted from her back and engulfed me in darkness.
“Where is it!”
I opened my mouth to scream, only nothing came out. Instead, the darkness around me seemed to rush in, filling my lungs until I thought I would suffocate, Letuch’s scream echoing in my ears as I tumbled deeper into the void.
“Peaches. Hey, wake up.”
I opened my eyes with a gasp to find Seb’s face uncomfortably close to mine. Expecting to see Letuch’s amber eyes instead of the icy blue ones looking back at me with a searching gaze, I jumped back, braining myself on the car window.
“Could you…?” I said in a sleep-raspy voice, wincing as the pain radiated out from the point of impact and throughout the rest of my skull.
“Yeah, sorry.” He moved back and yanked open the driver-side door, shutting it with a slam that had my sensitive ears ringing from the noise. He was standing next to the passenger door when I finally pushed it open, and yawning, I attempted to step out of the car only to find that my legs felt like they’d had a bad encounter with a meat tenderizer. “Whoa there,” he said, stepping forward to catch me before I could face-plant on the asphalt. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” I yawned again. “Just tired. What time is it?”
“Not even noon.”
Still early by my standards, considering the schedule Joel and I usually kept to. “Oh.” Then I took in our surroundings. “This is even worse than the last place.” We were parked outside a run-down motel that looked like something from a low-budget horror film. I could only imagine that the interior would be even worse.
“It’s just for tonight,” Seb reassured me as he grabbed our bags from the trunk.
“Okay, but why?”
He sighed and handed me his duffel to carry. “I’m trying to stay off Letuch’s radar.” I forced myself not to flinch at the mention of the newest star in my nightmares. “If he’s looking for us, he won’t look twice at this dump. I’m not exactly known for low-key lodging.”
I took a second look at Seb’s clothes—subtly high-end, but still distinguishable—and the shiny new car we’d been riding around in. “Right.”
“We just need to throw him off long enough for us to get in, do our job, and then get out again.”
“Us?” I gave Seb a skeptical look but he had already turned away and started heading for the motel lobby.
“Well, since you’re along for the ride anyway, you might as well help. Maybe we can even swing you a paycheck. It’s been a while since I had a partner.”
I wasn’t exactly fond of the idea of getting into yet another physical altercation with a supernatural being, let alone taking up a career in monster hunting. But it was beginning to look like for the time being, I wouldn’t have a choice. And it wasn’t like I could just turn around and head back home whenever I felt like it.
I wanted to pursue Seb’s comment about his previous partner, but didn’t have a chance during check-in due to the shouting match Seb ending up engaging in with the woman at the front desk about pricing for the night. None of us exited that exchange in a good mood.
I decided on a related topic of conversation instead once we got to our room, which was every bit as drab as I’d imagined. Seb flopped down onto one of the beds and sighed as the mattress squeaked loudly underneath him.
“So if I became your partner,” I ventured carefully, taking a seat opposite him on the end of the other bed. “Who exactly would be signing my paychecks?”
“My bosses, of course.”
“You have more than one.”
He grinned fondly, eyes still closed. “Yup. Part of protocol. They’re practically my moms, though.”
I pushed aside the throbbing nostalgia his reply caused and crawled up the bed to smash my face into one of the pillows, trying to ignore the lingering scent of cigarettes present in the fabric. I didn’t want to ask about his birth parents, because I didn’t want to talk about mine.
“So what’s the plan, then?” I asked a few minutes later, when I determined that I couldn’t lie on the bed any longer without risking falling asleep again. I pinched and rolled the cotton sheets under my fingers, wrinkling my nose at the texture. I hated rough fabrics.
“We just—” Seb’s phone started to vibrate loudly. He heaved a frustrated sigh as he pulled it out of his pants and sat up on the bed to answer it. “What the hell do you want? Oh. Sorry, I just thought—yeah. She called earlier. Mhmm. No, I wasn’t planning on it. I want to get the preliminary bullshit out of the way and then we’ll be out of here. Yes. You know that. There’s been a slight complication, but nothing too urgent. I can head down after this, if you want. Okay. Yeah, I’ll go talk to her pretty soon then. Okay? Sure. Sounds good. See ya.”
“What was that about?” I asked, peering at him through the one eye not currently mashed into the pillow.
“My supervisor, Sara. She was just checking in.”
It was apparent that there was a lot more to the conversation than that, and I suspected it had something to do with the mysterious call from this morning. But if he wasn’t going to talk about it openly, I wasn’t going to push him.
“All right,” he said, hopping off of the bed and heading over to our bags sitting near the door. “Time to get up and have a chat with our one and only lead.”
“Someone saw the mermaid?” I perked up immediately.
“Well, not exactly ‘saw’….”
“So how do we even know it’s actually a mermaid?”
“It’s called deductive reasoning,” he replied hotly. “Our department has a research team and they’re all quite good at their jobs. Now get your ass up and let’s go.”
It had started raining in the short time we’d spent in our motel room. I picked up my feet carefully as we crossed the parking lot to avoid slipping in any of the numerous puddles that dotted the pitted asphalt.
“What are you doing?” Seb remarked, when he noticed my odd gait.
“Nothing,” I replied, hoping he’d leave it at that. “So do you hunt ghosts, too?” I asked him as he unlocked the car.
Seb practically chortled as he climbed into the front seat. “No,” he said, the blunt reply emphasized by the simultaneous slam of our doors. “There’s a different—and much smaller—department for that, but truth be told I’m not convinced they actually do anything. Ghosts don’t exist.”
“But monsters do.”
“You’ve seen them with your own eyes, haven’t you?”
Well, I couldn’t really argue with that.
Seb drove us to a department store first, which was confusing until he admitted his tentative ‘plan of action’. Which, for the record, I was not happy about.
“How are we supposed to fake being feds?” I hissed. “Isn’t this a felony or something? I can’t do this. There’s no way.” I got nervous enough just trying to feed my coworkers white lies about being too busy to hang out with them outside of work. There was no chance I’d be able to pull off lying about being law enforcement to a complete stranger.
Seb sighed resignedly. “It’s not technically a lie, per se. I do work for the government and this is a government-issued badge. You’re under my supervision which means it applies to you, too.”
I wasn’t buying that for a hot second, but it was better than trying to craft a false identity outright.
“I think I’ll just let you do all the talking.”
“Fine by me, Peaches. Just try not to give me away.”
So we bought cheap suits—the last time I’d worn anything even close to a pantsuit was at my high school graduation and that was under extreme duress—and I watched in fascination as Seb put on a boring brown wig and covered up any exposed tattoos with a thick layer of makeup. Which he then proceeded to use on me in order to make me look ‘professional’. Right.
All this was done in a family bathroom on the outside of a gas station near the store, not a comfortable or pleasant-smelling experience by any stretch of the imagination.
“Is that real hair?” I asked with my eyebrows raised.
I watched him adjust the wig to perfection, until it was passable even at a close distance.
“Of course,” he replied primly. “I want it to be believable, don’t I?”
“I can’t believe you carry around a wig,” I muttered to myself as we walked back to the car after he’d pronounced both of us complete works of art—I’d contested that assessment but was shot down.
“It’s the price of living on the cutting edge of fashion,” Seb said simply.
The bag full of our actual clothes was tossed unceremoniously into the trunk, and I was handed a badge, just in case, though we’d be screwed if anyone took a close enough look at it to notice that the identifying photo was a generic stock image of a middle-aged blonde woman with a watermark still printed on it. I gave Seb a skeptical look upon first examining it.
“What?” he replied defensively. “It’s a spare.”
“Sure.” I was still not quite sold on this whole government-approved monster hunting business, and so far, Seb’s egregious lack of organization or any evidence of professionalism was not helping me acclimate.
Luckily for us, the janitor we were supposed to be interviewing was wearing glasses so thick I was sure he wouldn’t even have been able to distinguish between Seb and me from six inches away, differing hair colors and all. He refused to stop cleaning the pool restroom while we interviewed, so I held my breath while Seb asked him questions.
His credibility as a witness went right out the window the second he opened his mouth.
“So there’s some sort of alien or something in there, right?” the guy whispered conspiratorially.
Seb forced a patient smile, the kind you’d see on a woman in a dental advertisement. “What would make you say that, Mr. Whitaker?”
“Well, why else would they send the FBI to investigate a shark in a swimming pool?”
“So you saw a shark, then?” Seb asked, eyebrow raised in clear skepticism. Like a shark was somehow harder to believe than a mermaid.
“Well, no…” Whitaker replied, looking like he was beginning to doubt his own story at this point. “But it has to be something like that, right? It snapped my pool skimmer right in half.”
“Of course. You mind if we go in and take a quick look around?”
For a moment, I was half-afraid Whitaker would suddenly wise-up, demand to see my credentials, and then kick the both of us off the premises. But he simply handed over the keys to Seb without any fuss whatsoever.
Seb hurried over to the locked pool gate like the building was on fire, and I nearly had to jog to keep up with him.
“You couldn’t have made up some crime we were investigating?” I hissed at Seb the second Whitaker was out of earshot. “I mean, really? We couldn’t have pretended to be from animal control or FEMA or whatever? What FBI agents would come look at a shark?”
He shrugged and turned the key in the padlock, holding the gate open so I could go inside first. “It’s easier to let people like Whitaker assume that we’re here on secret government business. Area 51 stuff, you know?”
“Isn’t that exactly what we’re doing?” I demanded.
Seb snorted. “Of course not. As if I’d ever have anything to do with Area 51. Fucking assholes.”
I stared at him disbelievingly as he moved over to examine the murky green water of the community pool. A storm had come through less than a week ago, practically flooding the entire town. When things had calmed down, Mr. Whitaker had the pleasure of nearly being pulled into the water by the alleged mermaid while he’d been trying to clean the pool.
Seb spent exactly ten seconds actually looking at the pool before moving away from the water and meticulously investigating every nook and cranny of the building perimeter, looking for god knows what.
“So how exactly does a mermaid get into a community swimming pool?” I asked, after watching him crawl around on the pool deck for a few minutes with no end in sight.
Seb sighed. “Technically, mermaids don’t belong anywhere near the US. They’re native to the southern hemisphere in most of the world, with the exception of sparse habitats around the Mediterranean and the Middle East. One getting as far as the Pacific Northwest on their own is unheard of.”
The way Seb delivered information was about as graceless as if he were reciting it straight from an encyclopedia, but I appreciated his openness too much to mention that to him.
“On their own?” I asked, unsure of what exactly that was supposed to imply.
“It means someone tried to smuggle it in. They’re probably keeping it as a pet.”
I nodded, sort of following. I knew people did the same thing with exotic animals like tigers and snakes, but a mermaid still seemed a little farfetched as far as pets went. “Right, but why would they keep it here?”
Seb shrugged. “My guess is that this,” he said, gesturing to the pool, “wasn’t part of their plan. The flood probably gave the mermaid all the opportunity it needed to escape, and it holed up here. Once the storm subsided, it had nowhere else to go.” Seb continued peering intently at a pile of mud and dead leaves sitting on the filthy pool deck. I craned my neck to get a closer look in hopes of figuring out just what the hell he found so interesting about the thing.
With little luck, however. All I could see was a bunch of crap. And frankly, I wasn’t so sure if Seb could see anything either. It was entirely possible that all this was supposed to enhance his mystique and make me trust him more about this whole monster hunting business.
Finally, Seb looked away and began walking back around the pool with no end in sight to his pacing. This was equally as bewildering as his thorough investigation of the dead leaves. There seemed to be no method at all to his madness.
“So…what do we do now?” I asked in a hushed tone after looking at Seb and then at the pool and then back again for several minutes without seeing any change in either of them. There wasn’t really any reason to be quiet, at least to my knowledge, but I felt awkward and intrusive interrupting the silence that had fallen during Seb’s scrupulous examination of the area.
Seb didn’t reply for a long second, instead continuing to pace around the edge of the pool until he circled back around to where we’d been standing before. “We’ll need to have a closer look,” he said finally, with a meaningful look in my direction.
“Oh, no way. Seriously?”
“Newbies do the dirty work,” he said gleefully. “We’ll need to fully assess the situation and since I’ll be taking care of all the paperwork….”
I frowned. “And then we’re killing this thing?” It sounded kind of sad, really. Nothing Seb had said so far had made the mermaid seem like…well, a monster.
“Nope,” Seb replied, popping the P with an obnoxious smack of his lips. “We’re investigating whoever brought it into the region. Keeping sub-sentient non-humans in captivity is a fairly heavily regulated practice; the guy who did this is breaking a half a dozen laws, and I do love delivering some righteous paranormal justice. But there is one thing we have to do first.”
“And what’s that?”
“We harvest ourselves some mermaid scales.”
I stared at him blankly. “Repeating what I just said doesn’t actually help me decipher your bullshit.”
“Wouldn’t it be easier to get these scales or whatever once the mermaid is dead or captured or whatever the hell we’re doing with it?”
Seb winced. “We won’t be doing anything with it. That’s the problem.”
I gave him an incredulous look. “Surely we’re not leaving it here for the janitor to take care of. I thought getting rid of the thing was the whole point of your job.”
I crossed my arms over my chest and leveled a harsh stare at him. “And what the hell does that mean?”
Seb looked like he wanted to drown himself in the pool to escape this conversation. “I may have let you operate under the assumption that I was a monster ‘hunter’ when that isn’t quite the whole truth. Per se.”
“Well…it’s a bit complicated.”
“I’ve got time,” I said pointedly.
Seb exhaled forcefully through his nose and put up a hand to push his glasses back up. “The whole monster hunter bit,” he said through a grimace. “That job description would probably apply more accurately to a different division than the one I work in, which is the reason we need to collect the scales before I have to call in for help.” He looked physically pained at having to say the words, but I was willing to bet my head hurt a lot more than his after that travesty of an explanation.
“Okay, you’re going to need to stop beating around the bush and get to the point because I have absolutely no idea what is going on right now.”
Seb sighed again. “I’m reconnaissance. I’m supposed to show up, look around, call for back-up, and have them take care of any liabilities while I investigate the source of the problem.”
“Monsters in captivity don’t typically fare well, especially mermaids. Some we can capture safely and release back into their natural habitats, and others have to be…exterminated.”
I wrinkled my nose in disgust. “So you have them put down like animals.”
His smile was strained, but still patronizing. “Trust me, Peaches, I like it a lot less than you do.”
I chose to ignore that comment. For now. “All right, then explain to me why we have to get these mermaid scales—something that you obviously don’t want to do yourself—before these ‘reinforcements’ get here and kill it.”
“You just love to be difficult, don’t you?” Seb said with another exasperated sigh.
I raised an eyebrow. “This, coming from you?”
He just shook his head. “Come on, I’ll explain back at the car. You’re going to need some outfitting before you’re ready to tackle this thing.”
As promised, Seb painstakingly revealed the complexities of his job. In addition to working for a secret division of the government investigating paranormal crimes (a job he described as being much more akin to the average tax auditor, and nothing so glamorous as being a bona fide Van Helsing wannabe) he plundered crime scenes and pilfered evidence lockers, collecting rare and valuable items to sell on the monster black market. Seb was for all intents and purposes, and despite his supernatural affiliations, nothing more than a dirty cop.
A dirty cop who was making me get into a swimming pool with a rabid mermaid to harvest mermaid scales so he could sell them at a premium to the highest bidder.
What exactly had I gotten myself into?
“And why can’t you do this?” I asked him, eyeing the sparkly pink goggles sliding down the checkstand conveyor belt toward the teenage cashier who had been eyeing Seb and me with distaste ever since we’d gotten in line.
“It’d be…riskier for me,” he said in low tones, exchanging equally suspicious glances with the cashier.
I elbowed him in the side. “Stop that,” I hissed. “How is it riskier for you? You’re the one with—” I gestured wildly. “Combat experience.”
Seb snorted and handed over a shiny blue debit card to the cashier. “I guess so, but that’s not really the point. Just trust me, okay? I’ll be right there in case something happens.”
“How reassuring,” I mumbled. But I could tell Seb wasn’t going to back down however. Whatever his issues with mermaids were, they ran deep. Maybe he had a phobia of water? Maybe he couldn’t even swim. That might be fun to lord over him, but wouldn’t really help me if I actually did encounter trouble with the mermaid. And I still wasn’t sure what to expect in that regard.
The information he’d given me thus far wasn’t much to go on. I wouldn’t have thought a single mermaid could be worse than a troupe of zombies, but Seb’s tense body language and stiff expression indicated otherwise.
“I don’t see why you wouldn’t let me pay for the swimsuit,” I grumbled, still rankled by the whole shopping experience. “And I really don’t understand why I have to be the one that goes head to head with the mermaid.”
“Look,” Seb said, keys jangling in his right hand as we walked back to the car. He was tapping his thigh with left, and he looked about ready to jump out of his skin. “I wouldn’t ask you to do it if it were something I actually could do. But I can’t.”
“Can’t swim?” I ventured.
Seb gave me a doubtful look and unlocked the car. “Of course I can swim,” he announced, and he hurriedly climbed into the car.
“Sure,” I said under my breath as I got in after him.
Seb’s nervousness seemed to leech from him and into me on the drive back to the pool. By the time I was geared up and peering into the murky water, I felt like throwing up, a far cry from my idle curiosity and incredulous amusement upon learning that we were looking for a mermaid.
“I don’t have to touch it or anything, right?” I asked Seb, trying to choke down my anxiety as quickly as possible. I wanted to get this over with.
He shook his head. “It’ll most likely be sleeping. Mermaids are nocturnal, and they shed their scales like cats shed fur. You should be able to just scrape them off the bottom without a problem as long as you don’t attract too much attention. Get as much as you can without coming up for air and then I’ll help you climb out.”
I’d only be down there for thirty or forty seconds then. I could do that.
Taking a deep breath and filling my lungs, I swallowed my fear and slipped into the water.
Underneath the surface, visibility was practically non-existent, the water thick with mud and debris. I could see my hands in front of me, but little else. As gently as possible, I propelled myself deeper, trying to reach the bottom of the pool.
The deeper I went, the darker it got, and I was beginning to regret not pressuring Seb into buying an underwater flashlight in addition to the swimsuit and goggles. It was noticeably colder as well, and the water felt like it was leaving a slimy film on my skin.
Unlike the majority of the community pools I’d swum in as a child, the pool floor slanted sharply near where I’d gotten in, leading down into the deep end, about eight or nine feet if I had to estimate. I could see a trail of glittering specks along the ground as I followed this incline downward and I swam more vigorously to reach what I could only assume was my intended target before I ran out of air.
I could feel the pressure in my lungs building and gave a flailing kick to push myself down just far enough to grasp a handful of the smooth oblong objects—and then froze, immediately realizing my mistake. The kick, which had been powerful enough to propel me down the last couple feet, had also created a disturbance in the water, which rippled and produced a trail of bubbles behind me.
I didn’t dare move, despite the burning pain in my chest from lack of oxygen, letting myself float slowly upward toward the surface as I scanned the almost entirely opaque water around me. There was nothing.
Finally my head broke the surface of the water and I took a much needed gulp of air. I met Seb’s worried gaze from across the way and let out a nervous chuckle, forced out by the sudden flush of relief that flowed through me.
A frigid hand curled around my ankle mid-laugh and yanked me under.
My nose burned from the water rushing into my nostrils and I was unable to tell up from down as the creature flung me around like nothing more substantial than a piece of kelp. All I could do was try to hold onto what little air was in my lungs as I kicked furiously as the creature that held me in its grasp.
Then suddenly all movement stopped and a wide-eyed, flat-nosed creature that was definitely anything but human invaded my vision, startling a few bubbles from me as it met my gaze with fish-like eyes. Nothing about this creature resembled a childrens’ cartoon character, with the exception of the scaled tail attached to a vaguely humanoid torso, but even this was a frightening deviation from my expectations.
The creature drew me closer then, and I released more precious oxygen in the form of a silent scream as bluish-green lips drew back to reveal two rows of terrifyingly sharp teeth.
I was in deep shit.
The only thing I could do was flail uselessly in the mermaid’s grip as I struggled to break free. This seemed to confuse it for just a moment, but with startling speed, it…she…cocked her head like a snake before lunging forward to strike at my throat.
Those shark-like jaws latched onto the soft skin of my neck, sending agonizing pain shooting through my spine and into each limb in quick succession. I could feel my awareness slipping away, an encroaching blackness brought on by the combination of pain and lack of oxygen beginning to cloud my vision. All I could see was hair, flowing gently in the water in front of me: not the flat blue of the mermaid’s plant-like locks, nor Seb’s bright blonde—but a deep black obscuring my attacker from view and closing in around me as my brain shut down and everything disappeared.