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With a flick of her mermaid's tail, Shelly surfaced from the deep coastal waters holding the dead body of victim number two.
Black garbage bags, held together with yards of duct tape, wrapped around the dead human like a macabre gift package. A cement block dangled from the rope attached to the body. Shelly removed a knife from the leather pouch belted at her waist and sliced through the rope, releasing the block. She plunged her long, sharp nails into one end of the garbage bag, ripped open a layer of plastic and stared into a pair of empty eye sockets.
The killer's signature calling card. News of the previous dead body with missing eyes, dumped weeks earlier in the bayou, still dominated the news media as an unsolved case.
From the tip of her fin to the top of her scalp, an electric surge of fear blazed through her body like a burn. This could have been me. Whether she was on land in human form, or at sea as a mermaid, both worlds were filled with danger.
Miles from shore, she kept afloat by swishing the tail fin beneath her torso. Her gaze froze on the maimed body as her heart pounded in time with each rise and fall of the waves. Seawater pooled in the victim's empty eye sockets like wells of tears. The placid mood of the ocean shifted, as if it resented the violent encounter it was asked to hide. Shelly's arms ached as she struggled to hold the slippery plasticencased body in the turbulent water. Against the waves, the plastic wriggled and slithered like a monstrous black eel.
The abrupt rumble of a boat engine sliced through the humid night air. Shelly jerked and the victim's body skated from her grasp and bobbed beside her in the water. She thought the killer had left, but panic and surprise at the unexpected encounter during her swim had made her careless.
Earlier, she'd been close to her human home, finishing her evening's swim, when a sudden splash sent screaming vibrations rippling through the sea. She'd heard the boat above her on the ocean's surface and watched as the long, cylindrical object sank like a torpedo not twenty yards away. She should have left at once. But she had suspected the foreign object was human, and hoped the human might still be alive.
So Shelly had watched and waited at first. Through the dark ripples, the full moon illuminated a man peering over the side of an old johnboat. She couldn't move as he'd stood there, waiting. Probably making sure the weighted-down corpse wouldn't pop back up, and then the boat had sped away.
Now he was back.
The boat gathered speed and headed directly at her.
No! I can't be seen. Stupid, stupid, getting caught. Got to get the hell away. He would be on her in seconds. Shelly reached for the body and her hands slid off the slick plastic. She took a deep breath and forced her panicked mind to be clear. Her fingers, then palms, grabbed a handful of plastic and she pulled it close enough to circle her arms around the victim's center. But the now-waterlogged body was so heavy it slipped through her arms down into the sea.
Yards away, the killer stared at Shelly with the eyes of an intense predator. With the light of a full moon, she made out the curly dark hair peeking out from under a baseball cap, a hookish beak of a nose, glittering dark eyes with gold flecks and a short, wiry body tensed in fury.
Her eyes burned as she strained to adjust her vision from water to air, the sudden beam of a flashlight blinding her for a moment. Judging from the way his mouth gaped open, Shelly knew he'd seen her inhuman pupils do their wild thing, shine with the bioluminescent glow of deep-sea marine life as the irises swirled like a miniature aurora borealis. Her muscles seized and locked, refusing her mind's screaming command to flee.
Damn. Wait until he sees my tail.
The boat stopped next to her and the man's face contorted with rage. He pointed at Shelly. "What the hell?" he screamed in a tight, shrill voice. He reached into his pants pocket and drew out something. Silver flashed as moonbeams reflected off a thin metallic surface.
A long-bladed stiletto knife.
The sight broke Shelly's paralyzing stupor. She somersaulted, momentarily flipping her tail fin in the air before diving down to the ocean floor. Despite a mysterious, searing pain in her tail, Shelly swam to the bed of sand, knowing he couldn't come after her this deep down.
The foreign odor of dead human wafted through the usual smell of marine life. As her eyes adjusted to the absence of light in the deep sea, Shelly located the body and swam over to it.
A few long strands of black hair escaped from the torn garbage bag. Shelly ran her fingers through her own honey-colored locks. She had never come so close to evil and death. It wasn't right to leave the body this way. Too disrespectful. Unable to resist, she touched the victim's forehead, noting the heart-shaped face and delicate, arched eyebrows above the gaping wounds.
I am so sorry this happened to you. So sorry.
She tucked the long black strands back into the plastic, trying to bestow some dignity and kindness on the dead woman. I'll come back for you, she promised as she placed the body in a wedge between a large outcropping of limestone rocks.
The sharp pain from the tip of her tail fin broke through the shock and grief. She looked down and saw a small stream of blood oozing out in swirling, crimson eddies. The killer's knife had stuck into her fin. Damn. In the split second her tail had been exposed, the killer had managed to stab her. She pulled out the knife and this time the pain was excruciating. Had this been what he used to kill his victims?
I have to stop him.
She forced herself back up through the black depths of water, gripping his weapon in her right hand. Nearing the surface, she found the rusty boat still rocking from her downward dive. Flat-bottomed and only fourteen feet long, the rusted aluminum boat was not the best choice for anything but the calmest of waters. Although the style was popular in the bayou for leisure fishing, and easily navigable in the winding backwaters threading along the bayou shoreline, the killer was out of his element so far from land and with the increased wave action of the sea.
His engine sputtered as the killer tried frantically to restart the old worn-down motor. He was on the scrawny side, but his biceps bulged as he yanked the pull cord over and over.
As the boat's motor sprang to life, the waters churned and roared around her. Too late to knock him overboard now. The motored blades could slice her to pieces if she came too close.
Her fingers gripped the knife's handle in frustration as the boat raced off.
She fought against the instinct to fling it away and leave it on the ocean floor. Maybe the killer's identity could be traced through the weapon.
Certain he was gone, Shelly lifted her torso higher out of the ocean and spotted a dingy white baseball cap floating on the boat's wake. She grabbed it and submerged undersea again.
Home. There she could think, form a plan. And get her cousins' advice.
"Anybody out there?" Shelly pushed air out of her lungs, sent the vibration of her voice in a compressive wave motion, similar to the high-frequency elocution of dolphins but minus the clicking sound. "Lily? Jet? " If they were anywhere near, they'd pick up her message and respond. Underwater sound traveled twice as fast as on land and four times as far.
Shelly strained to hear an answer but only caught the snapping of crab claws and a few toadfish whistles.
She swam home, each flick of her fin sending shooting sparks of pain through her body. Please, no sharks. She focused on keeping an eye out for opportunistic predators attracted by bloody smella mermaid's worst nightmare. She feared hungry sharks more than the killer returning. No way could that man get near her so many fathoms deep.
At last she swam through her home's undersea cave portal with its narrow tunnel climbing upward, and broke surface. The tunnel led to land, the opening covered by a hurricane-proof steel structure shed erected after Hurricane Katrina. It replaced the dilapidated tin building that had stood in this exact spot ever since Shelly was a teenager visiting her cousins on summer vacation. Some such structure had stood for decades at this portal, providing cover for her ancestors as they came and went to the sea.
Dark, humid air rushed into her lungs and she paused at the portal's slender opening, about the size of a city-street manhole. Arms clinging to the edge of its sandy surface, Shelly braced to raise her tail fin out of the water.
This was going to hurt like hell.
The transformation from tail fin to legs usually lasted about thirty seconds with only minor discomfort as oxygen bubbled through her veins. But tonight's stab wound was a bitch. Already tired and in shock, it took all Shelly's energy to pull her body out of the sea. When her breathing slowed a bit, Shelly stood on her left foot and cautiously put weight on the injured right one. It was bearable. She limped to the left wall of the shed and fumbled for the flashlight, kept for these late-night swims. Once she shifted from mermaid form, her night vision decreased to that of an average twenty-nine-year-old.
The halo of light revealed a deep puncture wound, but the bleeding wasn't as bad as she'd first feared. She hoped that was a good sign. She removed the sporran always belted to her waist during swims. It contained her knife, useful for cutting her way loose from fishing nets and as protection against dangerous predators.
Shelly had thought the human world a much safer place.
The moonlight made her feel exposed and vulnerable as she hobbled to the house. Once inside, she quickly locked the door behind her and leaned against it. Home. It had never felt so good to be home.
The smell of grilled seafood and the musical babbling of her cousins in the kitchen hit her with such relief it made her knees wobble.
She meant to call for her cousins, Jet and Lily, but she was too spent for her voice to carry. She stumbled into the kitchen and leaned an arm against the table. Her long hair dripped, forming a puddle on the Spanish-style tiled floor.
Shelly drank in the domestic scene. Jet put down a platter of extremely rare grilled shrimp and crab claws while Lily rolled up chopped fish in seaweed for sushi rolls. From the back, Lily's long blond hair, so similar to her own, fell in graceful swirls down to her hips. Jet noisily pulled out knives and forks to set the table. The colored glow from an antique Italian chandelier cast variegated prisms of light dancing across the walls.
"It's not like Shelly to get home so late," Jet said, running a hand over her cropped black bob. "And she's the one who insisted on grilled shrimp tonight, too."
"I'm here," Shelly said weakly. Neither could hear her over the kitchen rattling and a small TV playing the evening news.
"It's a full moon," Lily said. "I'm sure the tug of the tide called her. I plan on a long swim myself after dinner. Care to join me?"
"I said I'm here," Shelly managed, louder this time.
They turned as one to look at Shelly standing there, dripping and shivering from a combination of fear and cold. Jet strode over and shook her arm. "Shelly? Are you hurt?"
Shelly gazed at her injured foot and pointed a trembling finger.
Jet knelt down for a look. "Holy shit, girl. How'd you get this?"
"Kn-knife wound," she stuttered.
Lily gasped and dropped a handful of the seaweed wrap. A glob of raw fish plopped against her pedicured toes.
"How'd you manage that?" Jet asked. Lily hurried across the kitchen. Stepping over the dropped sushi, she grabbed a chair and set it behind Shelly.
She sank into it gratefully and stared at the worried faces of her cousins, the only family she had left in the world and the only ones who truly knew and understood her. Being mermaids, the trio pretty much kept to themselves and protected one another from outsiders.
The enormity of what she had just witnessed hit Shelly like a tsunami. If she was in danger, so were her cousins. So was every mermaid, few as they now were in the Gulf Coast. The toxic oil spills had chased away most of those lingering in the area.
"I saw a body being dumped about three miles out in the ocean, near the mussel beds."
"You meana dead body?" Jet asked, eyebrows furrowed in confusion.
"Yes." She took a deep breath and spoke again, the bottled words tumbling out. "I felt the pulse of the water change and when I looked to the surface I saw a tall object falling. And and there was a boat, too, but it left." Her mouth quivered violently and Shelly clamped her jaws, trying to still her chattering teeth.
Lily laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. "You're okay now," she murmured in a voice that held the echo of an ocean wave.
Shelly nodded. "I knew, as soon as it dropped, that it smelled human even though it looked all wrong. You know? Just a long, cylindrical object with no arms or legs moving.
"I dragged the thing up and realized the plastic had interfered with my sense of smell. When I tore open the bags, the human smell overpowered me and I saw " Her whole body convulsed. "I saw a face with missing eyes."
"Just like the body found a few months ago," Lily whispered. "Oh, honey, no wonder you're so upset. How awful."
"That's not the worst part," Shelly confessed. "I was seen. In mermaid form."
A stunned silence settled in the kitchen.
"Don't tell me the killer saw you," Jet demanded.
Shelly hung her head. She'd screwed up big-time. "He got close enough to stab me in my tail fin as I tried to get away. The damn thing stuck."
Jet's hands fisted at her sides. "Son of a bitch. Wish I'd been the one who killed him."
They thought she'd killed him.
"Don't be upset." Lily stroked her arm. "You did what you had to do. It's over now."
"It's not over," Shelly confessed. "He got away."
Jet slammed a fist down on the kitchen table. "He can't know our secret. I'll take him out myself." She took a determined step toward the back door. "Just tell me what direction he went and I'll find the bastard."
Lily stood. "Let me do it. I'll sing to him. No man can resist me when I sing. It'll be easier that way, and less violent."
"But he's gone." Shelly stood, grimaced at the shooting pain in her right foot and sat back down. "Besides, you don't know what he looks like."
Jet faced her, hands on hips. "So. Describe him and the boat."
Shelly shook her head and lowered her lashes. "It's too late to do anything about it now."
"So what? Are we supposed to sit around and chance that he'll find us?" Jet paced, running her hands through her short hair.
Lily's musical voice interrupted. "He doesn't know who we are. It was dark. A human's eyesight isn't as good as ours. We should be safe."
Shelly again felt the killer's fierce eyes boring into hers. "Maybe," she said doubtfully. "But Bayou La Siryna is a pretty small town and he got a close-up view of my face. What if I run into him on the streets? Will I have to watch my back every day for the rest of my life wondering if he's recognized me?"
"We'll find him first," Jet said. "Find him and kill him."