Chapter One: The Tank
“Hello,” the young man in the lab coat purred into a round speaker, his hands fidgeting. Ripples of azure light reflected on his cheeks. “Are you awake?” There was no response. He stood with a few other stiff-backed men, among them the nation’s secretary of defense, in a room divided in half by a wall of thick—and perfectly soundproof—glass. Behind the glass was something that resembled the kind of fake habitat found in a zoo, like an enclosure for keeping penguins or seals. Bubbling salt water filled most of the tank to a depth of about five feet, but on the right there was an artificial shore of baby blue cement sloping down into the water. That was where the resemblance to a zoo display ended, though. A giant flat-screen television blazed high on the wall above the tank’s deep end, playing what appeared to be a reality show about rich teenagers. Flouncy pink satin cushions were heaped along the shore just above the waterline, and a large white dresser decorated with golden scrolls perched on a ledge at the back. Various electronic gadgets were scattered on the cement, but beyond the clutter the tank gave no sign of being inhabited. “You have a very important visitor today, so . . . your full cooperation . . .”
The crowd behind him shifted impatiently, and the young man flinched as if he could feel their disapproval pricking his skin. “Getting on with it! I’m going to be turning on your microphone so you can talk to these men. But I have to warn you . . .” Far back in the tank something sky blue and pearlescent flicked up for a moment from behind a pile of cushions. For a second the young man’s voice grated to a halt, and he stared urgently before he mastered himself enough to keep going. “We’ve programmed the computer to recognize any hint of singing. If you try anything, it will send out an electric shock automatically. A pretty severe one. All right? I’d like you to be on . . .” There was that blue flash again, and a trace of rippling gold. “On . . . your best behavior, please.” He turned to look at the secretary of defense and offered a tight, ingratiating smile. Then he flicked a switch in a small control panel set into the glass beside the speaker. “Please meet the United States secretary of defense. Secretary Moreland?”
Moreland leaned toward the glass, an odd smirk rippling over his heavy reddish face with its sagging jowls. His white hair shone like meringue above his gleaming pate. “Anais,” he snapped, then waited, scowling, for a reply. It didn’t come. “I’d suggest you get your damned tail over here. You’re our little mermaid now.”
The sky blue tail rose above the water again, twitching irritably. Pinkish iridescence shone on its scales, and the cushions stirred as a golden head shifted up into view. Dreamy azure eyes turned to gaze through the glass. Several of the men stepped forward as if involuntarily, and others visibly braced themselves. She shook herself, and her inhuman beauty came at them like a living wave. Moreland’s smirk tightened, and his upper lip jerked sharply higher to expose his perfect teeth. “Hello there.”
“Hi.” She examined Moreland’s crisp, expensive suit with a trace of approval. “Are you really important?”
It was hard to tell if Moreland was leering or snarling in response. “Oh, I’d say so.”
“Then I only want to talk to you.” She scanned the other men disdainfully. “Having all these people staring at me makes me feel so shy!”
She didn’t look shy, but Moreland smiled almost indulgently. He made a quick motion to the young man in the lab coat, who hurried to tap at the control panel, cutting off Anais’s sound. “Do you mind, gentlemen?” Moreland asked.
“We can observe through the monitors in the next room?” the lab-coated man asked anxiously. “She is—I mean—I am her primary handler, and I should know—”
“Oh, I don’t think so.” Moreland’s lip hiked up again. “I don’t think you should observe. I’d like to allow her”—he cocked his head toward the tank, where Anais, piqued at not being able to hear what they were saying, was now swimming toward the glass—“a chance to confide in me. Privately.”
“But—of course you’re aware, Mr. Secretary, that she’s suffered some very serious trauma. Those mermaids she was living with all . . .”
“A fragile flower,” Moreland agreed, grinning horribly. “I’ll use my most delicate touch.”
The young lab-coated man didn’t look particularly reassured, but he still nodded. “The blue switch controls sound going into her side. The red cuts her off over here. Given the precautions we’ve taken, though—”
“Thank you, Mr. . . .”
“Thank you, Mr. Hackett. I’ll let you know when I need your assistance.”
Anais was tapping, though inaudibly, on her side of the glass. She was supporting herself in the deepest water with a slight circulating motion of her fins so that her face and shoulders floated just above the surface. Her golden hair rippled and shone around her, and she looked sulky and eager. Hackett gave her a coy little smile and a wave as he turned to leave. “Even without any singing,” one of the men observed as they walked to the door, “she’s still remarkably . . .
“Remarkably?” one of his companions asked archly, eyebrows raised.
“Compelling, I would say.”
“I’d use a different term, frankly.”
Secretary Moreland didn’t watch them go. Instead he was staring fixedly into Anais’s blue eyes, though the look on his face didn’t exactly suggest attraction. It was somewhere between caressing and murderous, and a smirk kept tweaking his lips. Once everyone was gone he reached to flip the sound back on, still keeping his gaze locked on Anais’s face. “Better now, tadpole?”
Anais pouted. Her lips were slick with strawberry pink gloss. “You have a problem.”
“I’d say there are some other—you really can’t call them people—some other nasty animals who have much bigger problems these days, tadpole. You should be very, very thankful that we’re taking such good care of you. When you could be in the same mess as your little killing-machine friends . . .”
Anais shrugged impatiently, sending a quick surge through the water around her. Her golden hair lapped at her shoulders. She was wearing a sparkly, sky blue tank top that matched her tail almost perfectly, and diamond studs sparked in her ears. “I don’t care about that! Charlie told me about that boat of yours that got trashed.”
“Mr. Hackett. He said there was a big wave that came out of nowhere and, like, totaled the boat with your guys on it after . . .” Anais suddenly seemed a bit uncomfortable. “After . . . I surrendered. I knew you’d want to talk to one of us, if we just acted nicer. And—”
“That wave didn’t come out of nowhere, I think, tadpole. You shouldn’t assume that Mr. Hackett’s information is entirely reliable.”
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you!” Anais was getting exasperated. “I just didn’t want to tell . . . Mr. Hackett because I didn’t think he could really do anything. I figured it all out. You can go and kill mermaids without the singing stopping you now. Right? But you don’t have any way to stop her from bashing your guys with those waves. You have to kill her. Soon! Like, right now she’s the only one who knows how to do that, but she’ll probably start teaching everybody else, and then you won’t be able to get rid of mermaids anymore at all . . .”
Secretary Moreland was clearly trying to keep his expression steady, but it wasn’t working. Tiny spasms of excitement bent his features and shimmered in his eyes. “So you’re claiming you know the mermaid who committed the assault on the Special Ops boat?” He paused for a moment, assessing. “Several of our men were killed. This isn’t something we take at all lightly. You wouldn’t want to be anything less than perfectly candid on the subject.”
“Of course I know her. We had to kick her out of the tribe because all she did was cause problems.” Anais’s tail was swishing faster now, its pink iridescence flashing candied reflections on the glass.
Moreland looked disappointed. “So she wouldn’t consider you a friend? Try to find you?”
“No way! She knows I see right through her. Though she did keep trying to get me to pay attention to her.”
Moreland nodded. The sparks in his eyes seemed agitated. “I see. But you’ll tell me all about her, won’t you, tadpole?”
Anais leaned back from the glass with a motion that suggested someone settling into an armchair, although there was nothing but water around her, and smiled slyly. Her fins lightly stroked across the tank’s blue cement floor. “That depends.”
“Does it? On what?”
“On you letting me out of here!” Anais shook her head, golden rays of hair swinging with the movement. “I mean, I know my parents must have left me a ton of money. And the house! And there’s a pool, and I could get our servants to come back, and—”
“Tadpole, tadpole . . .” Moreland shook his head, and his smile was much softer, much more slippery, than before. “You haven’t thought this through.”
“I totally have! I—”
“You aren’t human, little tail. Not remotely.”
“So the law doesn’t apply to you. Not one teeny bit. And that’s including due process and inheritance law. Legally you don’t exist. There’s no provision in the law for leaving a house to a precious little monster . . .”
This clearly hadn’t occurred to Anais before. Her eyes widened in dismay and her mouth opened onto a round darkness that seemed to threaten the unleashing of terrible music. Moreland grinned stonily and raised his eyebrows at her. She paused and glanced around her tank, then shut her mouth again.
“Exactly,” he hissed. Anais scowled. “But you don’t like this troublemaker mermaid, do you, tadpole? She absolutely deserves to die, doesn’t she?”
Anais was still sulking. “Of course she deserves it!”
“So maybe helping us track her down would be worth your time anyway. I promise you we’ll tear her guts right out. Maybe we’ll even take our time doing it. Remember, legal protections don’t apply to her either, and we’re very, very annoyed with her.”
Anais cocked her head, brazenly intrigued. “You should be. She’s a bitch, and she’s really nuts. And just, like, weird.”
“Tell me her name.” Moreland’s voice was suddenly rough.
“Luce.” Anais spat it out.
A shadow passed through his pale eyes. “Luce. I believe I’ve heard her mentioned before. And what about her human name? Do you know that much?”
“Will you at least show me pictures? Once you kill her?”
“Oh, certainly. Probably even video. We’ll watch it together. It will be my great pleasure. Virtue should always be rewarded.” Aqua light from the tank gleamed on Moreland’s wet teeth as he spoke.
“Lucette . . .” Anais visibly struggled to remember. “She said it . . . No, Catarina said it once when they were fighting. Lucette Kip . . . No. Lucette Korchak?”
“A very good beginning, Anais.” Moreland smiled. “You know, at first I wasn’t sure your information was reliable. But I’m beginning to think we can come to an understanding after all.”
“What about Sedna? Will you at least make sure you kill her, too? And Dana and Violet.”
“Sedna was the leader of the group you identified? In southern Alaska?”
“Ah, but that’s why I didn’t think we could trust you, my dear. We couldn’t find any trace of mermaids anywhere near the location you described to us. Unless you can do better, I’m afraid I won’t be able to show you video of Sedna’s dismemberment.”
“I told you the truth.” Anais’s pout tightened moodily, and her head tipped sideways. “I bet Luce got there first. I bet she warned them.”
Moreland nodded, a bit curtly. “Very possibly. I need you to understand something, Anais. It won’t be easy, and it won’t happen anytime soon. But if you help us enough, I might eventually see my way to . . . encouraging special consideration of your case. Maybe a judge could be persuaded that you deserve your inheritance after all, in view of your services to your country.”
Anais mulled this, her blue fins rippling irritably. Then her face changed completely. All at once she beamed with gentle innocence. “Of course I’ll help. It isn’t safe for anyone to have Luce swimming around out there! She’ll just kill so many of your men if no one stops her!”
“Quite so.” Moreland’s tongue slid across his bluish teeth, and his eyes widened with a fake sincerity that almost equaled Anais’s, except that his smile kept twisting into a leer. Every tiny disturbance of the water sent greenish light crawling across his stiff white hair. “We’re very grateful for your patriotism. Now, did . . . Lucette ever mention the name Dorian to you? Dorian Hurst?”
“Who?” Anais asked. Her confusion looked genuine enough.
Moreland was disappointed again, but Anais suddenly leaned forward in excitement. “Wait, wait, wait! A guy? You’re saying that Luce was seeing a human guy? That is so sick!” She squealed with laughter. “And she thought she was supposed to be queen! Oh, I can’t wait to tell . . .” Anais’s laughter faltered abruptly, and she looked down.
Moreland observed her for a long moment. His gray eyes were covetous, cold. “Oh, but there’s no one left to tell, is there, tadpole? The abominations who would have liked to hear your gossip about Lucette and her human boyfriend are all dead.” He gazed at her with something that might have almost passed for compassion. “We destroyed every last one of them in front of you. And even as we speak the teams are out there, hunting down other groups of your kind.”
“I didn’t want to be a mermaid!” Anais snarled. “I never wanted to! They’re not my kind! I loved being human. Everything was so perfect . . .”
Moreland considered this. “You didn’t want to be a mermaid. Were you somehow changed against your will?”
“Of course I was!” Anais was staring down, plainly on the verge of tears. Maybe they were even real.
The secretary of defense didn’t look convinced. “Then who changed you?”
“Luce did it.” It came out in a sullen whimper. “She forced me, but I . . .”
“That’s very sad.” Moreland stared at Anais for a few more moments. Now that she wasn’t looking at him, he examined her stunning form with a mixture of hungry fascination and naked loathing. “Well, then, it’s a very fortunate thing that you’re living with humans again, isn’t it? You can talk to us. Now, what you said before, about this Luce . . .”