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By Beth McCabe
The mermaid sprawled in a few inches of dirty water, smoking a Marlboro, cursing in four languages I recognized and several more I didn’t.
I stepped outside the closet that doubled as our cafeteria and detention room. In the narrow hall, Briggs, my only subordinate, stood guard.
“Who told her she could smoke?” I demanded.
“Sorry, Chief,” Briggs said.
I sighed. “I’m not the Chief yet.”
“Sorry, Rachel.” A wine-colored flush spread up his throat.
“Stop apologizing.” I stepped back into the cafeteria. The mermaid stared at me and lit another cigarette.
I let that ride for the time being.
She was no beauty, at least by human standards. Over a wrinkled face, straggly patches of pale hair sprouted from her scalp. Gray scales covered her entire body, which, although it clearly leaned toward the female end of the gender spectrum, was hard to reconcile with stories of temptresses on rocks. She didn’t smell bad, exactly, if you don’t mind low tide on the salt marsh.
“The public defender is in court, but she’ll come over when she’s done.” I enunciated my words slowly and clearly. “She’ll be your lawyer. Do you understand what that is?”
The mermaid slapped her tail against the side of the kiddie pool, sloshing water over the side. “Bite me,” she said. “I don’t want a lawyer.”
I pulled my one pair of decent pumps out of the puddle, missing the Chuck Taylors I’d worn before I got ambition. “We’re getting you a lawyer whether you want one or not. That’s how we do things on terra firma. What’s your name?”
“Believe me, you couldn’t pronounce it.” She turned away and crossed her webbed arms across her narrow chest. “Call me Ishmael,” she said, barking a laugh. “Or Ariel. Call me whatever the hell you want.”
“Well,” I said, “I’ll just call you ‘M’.” I opened the door and walked out. I’d need to figure out how to keep a 24-hour guard on our guest. Maybe police from other towns around the shore would jump at some county-financed overtime.
“You know, we consider “mermaid” a pejorative term,” she called after me.
The Police Department of our little seaside Oregon town was two scruffy rooms in Town Hall. We didn’t even have a dispatcher; the county handled most of our calls. I used to have Briggs’ job, but in December our Chief of Police had fallen off his roof putting up Christmas lights. He decided it was a sign from God, or Santa, and retired. As Acting Chief, I was doing everything I could to make sure I got a permanent promotion. The question was whether the Garden Clubbers and aging techies on our esteemed City Council could get their minds around a female chief of police. Albeit a highly qualified, motivated female who knew the job inside and out.
Things had been going pretty smoothly. It was just my luck that Briggs had brought in the first merperson, to my knowledge, accused of conspiracy to commit grand larceny.
Of course, merpeople had been appearing off the west coast for a while. The marine biologists who managed to get close to them came back with stories of warming currents and diminishing food stores in the deep. And the closer they got to us, the less there was for them to eat.
When tourists in Santa Cruz started feeding them, it quickly became clear they preferred the salty and the sweet. Before long, people up and down the coast were tossing out jerky, chips, and Hostess cupcakes, calling out for tricks as if the merpeople were dolphins. But the merpeople had managed to remain elusive. Now that we had one in custody, I don’t think anyone had a clue how things would play out.
I was happy to leave the thorny legal and moral issues to the county courts. All I had to do was keep her here, and with that tail, she wasn’t going anywhere.
I arranged a meeting with Rodney Park, the county prosecutor. Before he came I ducked into the cafeteria to check on our guest.
“Are you alright?” I said. “Do you have everything you need?”
“I’m just peachy keen, Chief,” she said. “Love the accommodations. Especially the gym and spa.”
“Are you hungry?”
She pointed toward a full mail bin. Briggs had apparently emptied the vending machines, and I made a mental note to pay him back from petty cash. I pushed the bin closer to the mermaid. She bared a row of jagged little teeth, tore the paper off a couple of energy bars with her stunted hands, and chewed them up in a couple of seconds. Then she grabbed a Red Bull off the table and washed it all down.
“Move along, Chief,” she said, wiping her mouth with the back of a scaly hand. “Nothing to see here.”
In the office Briggs was wedged in behind our shared desk, with Rodney Park, the prosecutor, sitting across from him in our only spare chair. I leaned against the desk and told Briggs to proceed. He cleared his throat and began reading notes off his phone.
“Suspect was apprehended approximately 100 yards off the coast by officer who had commandeered a civilian fishing vessel.”
Rodney Park rolled his eyes.
“For god’s sake, Briggs,” I said. “What do you think this is, CSI?”
Briggs pinked up. Not for the first time, I thought that I really needed to toughen the kid up if he was going to have a future in law enforcement. “OK,” he started again. “I was fishing with my grandpa. I had an eye out because the guy they apprehended in Portland said he was working with a mermaid when he robbed those trucks. We heard someone singing–well, more like grunting and humming. I grabbed the binoculars and there she was, with a big pile of snacks on a rock and a school of merpeople swimming toward her.”
I stifled a laugh. Briggs’ THC-addled grandpa probably thought the scene was a flashback from a Dead concert fifty years gone. Rodney waited patiently as Briggs consulted his notes.
“When she saw us,” Briggs continued, “she tried to grab the contraband before she swam away, so Grandpa was able get the net around her.” He paused for dramatic effect. “When we got up close, officer observed – I mean, I saw that she was wearing an Ace Food Delivery ball cap.”
I could sense Rodney’s prosecutor antennae going up. “That was one of the companies whose trucks got hit,” he said.
“We grabbed the evidence and I read her her rights.” Briggs beamed, proud of himself for following protocol. I was proud of him too. Up till that point the most exciting thing that had happened to Briggs on duty was getting smacked by a homeless lady when he tried to give her some reusable grocery bags.
Rodney was scribbling madly on his legal pad. “OK,” he said. “According to the guy in custody, our suspect hired him to stop food supply trucks in isolated areas and relieve them of snack foods at gunpoint. We sent the suspect’s picture up to Portland and the guy ID’d her.”
“Rodney, do we have jurisdiction over merpeople?” I asked.
“When the courts decided that they have the rights of citizens in our waters, they also ruled that they’re subject to the laws thereof.” He shuffled his papers. “So we’ve got probable cause. How’s Tuesday morning to arraign?”
“County Courthouse. You know the drill, Rachel,” he said absently, thumbing his phone. Then he looked up. “Oh. Not that easy, is it? Let me see if I can get a judge out here.”
I needed to go over to the apartment I shared with my boyfriend, Colby, to grab some clothes and a big thermos of coffee. I turned to Briggs. “No one gets in that room but you till I come back, understand?” I thought about how talking to the mermaid for just a few minutes had made me feel as if I’d lost an argument that I didn’t know I was having. “Briggs,” I added, “don’t engage. Stay outside the room.”
Rodney Park walked out with me. “Hey,” I said, “are you sure you don’t want to move the suspect to the county lock-up?”
“Obviously we may have to make some long-term arrangements,” the prosecutor said. “For now I don’t want to subject her to our regular guests. Just hang onto her for a couple of days, Rachel, please.”
Well, that was that. Rodney was a good guy. I trusted him to do the best he could. “How’s the family?” I remembered to ask.
He grinned and showed me his screensaver: a cuddly daddy-type in rumpled sweats with two toddlers hanging off him like branches. I suppressed a blip of envy as he walked toward a green Beamer Z4. I wished he wasn’t so damned nice. I’d have preferred to hate him for having so many things I wanted.
When I got back to the station after my quick stop home, Briggs was all set to go, messenger bag slung across his skinny frame. “I ordered the pizza, Rachel,” he said. “M likes it with extra anchovies. That’s the only thing I asked her,” he added quickly. I was glad he was a little paranoid.
“Why don’t you stay for pizza, Briggs?” I said. “Colby’s coming over.” Briggs said no thanks and went off to vegan hot yoga or whatever uber-healthy activity he had planned for the evening.
I had invited Colby over to the station for dinner as consolation for scrapping our romantic evening. I was extra bummed about that; it was ovulation time and I was old enough to hate wasting a month. I had also planned to finally tell Colby, over oysters and a good Pinot Noir, that I had gone off the pill. I knew the fact that I hadn’t done that yet was ethically dubious, to say the least. But he was a rock musician, not much of a homebody, and I was worried about how he’d take it.
I put a few slices of pizza on a double paper plate and brought them to M. She tilted her head and held one up over her mouth, eyes shut in ecstasy. I closed the door, feeling a little queasy — from nerves or the oily smell of the pizza, I wasn’t sure which. When I got back to my desk, Colby was there, looking at me with shining eyes. The paper plate in front of him was still pristine.
“What?” I said. “Is it the anchovies?”
“Shit.” The county was dealing with the press, but social media would be harder to contain. Well, I’d have to learn to deal with that kind of thing as Chief. At that moment all I could think of was how hungry I was. I picked up a slice dripping with cheese and tiny dead fish.
“Can I see her?” he asked.
I stopped with the pizza halfway to my mouth. “What?”
“I hear she was singing when she was arrested, and it was, like, too beautiful for human ears.”
“Colby, the Sirens were mythical beings. Our mermaid was singing, alright, but from what I heard, it wasn’t exactly the music of the gods.” I took a huge bite. “In any case, no one gets near our little Siren except lawyers and cops.”
Colby’s mouth turned down. “But the music’s been flat, babe. I need inspiration. If I could just hear her sing, I might be able to come up with a new sound. Maybe we can tune our instruments a different way. Or record her and synthesize it. Anyway, once I hear her, I’ll know what to do.”
Colby’s band, Butter Lizard, had been really big a decade earlier. He’d had the whole shebang: fancy hotels, top-shelf everything, groupies. I’d met him back when I was a dewy twenty-something and traveled with him for a while. He was sweet and funny and we got along well, so the relationship stuck. When I went back to Oregon State to study criminology, we instituted a policy of “Don’t ask, don’t tell, and for god’s sake use a condom”. To be honest, it had been a long time since I’d worried about all that. I figured most of the nubile fans had moved on to younger, hotter bands.
At that moment I did not have time or energy for his angst. “Listen,” I said. “I don’t really think hearing her sing is going to help Butter Lizard get its mojo back.”
“But you don’t know that for sure, do you?” He plopped a slice of cooling pizza on his plate. “And I guess you don’t really care if we stay in roach motels and make a fraction of the money we used to make.”
“Colby.” I tried to sound sympathetic, but no way was I letting him, or anyone, near M. “If I want that promotion, I have to do things by the book. C’mon, eat.”
He stared at the greasy mess on his plate. “Not exactly the caviar and lobster we used to get back in the day, is it?” he said.
Under the circumstances I didn’t see much of an opening to tell him I wanted a baby.
After Colby left I tried to tackle my paperwork, but I was having a hard time following my own advice about staying clear of the mermaid. In the cafeteria the lights were blazing; M held a thick book carefully up out of the water, scanning it rapidly. I saw what looked like a German title on the cover and a few other tomes stacked up on the floor. I had no idea where she’d gotten them until I remembered that Briggs’ parents were both professors. I supposed loaning a suspect a couple of books would not be a huge legal issue.
M inserted a granola bar wrapper into the book to hold her place and laid it on the stack. Her eyes were the stormy gray of a Turner seascape.
I perched on the edge of a plastic chair. “How many of our languages do you speak?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Fifty or so.”
“How can that be?”
“That sounds weird to you, because most human ethnic groups only speak one or two languages. But then there’s the Roma,” she said. “You call them gypsies.” She wrinkled her face in distaste for our partiality to offensive terms. “According to our historians, we’re two tribes of the same race; they evolved on land and we stayed in the water. The Roma are the largest ethnic diaspora in the history of the footed world. They survived because they have a knack for learning the language wherever they end up. We have the same ability.”
I looked at her skeptically. “But how would you learn our languages? We didn’t even know you existed until a couple of years ago.”
“We’ve kept our distance, but we see you and hear you.”
“Why haven’t you interacted with us? Maybe our two races could help each other.”
She snorted. “Yeah, right. You hunt down every species you can get your hands on, and when you’re done with them you hunt each other. No, thank you.”
“Yet here you are.” I realized I was getting close to crossing some sort of line, but I couldn’t stop.
“Haven’t you read Les Misérables?” she said. “That thing about stealing food to feed your family?”
I wondered if she was admitting in an oblique way that she had indeed set up those heists, and if she was telling the truth about doing it for altruistic rather than mercenary reasons. But if she wasn’t selling the stolen snacks, how did she pay her accomplice? And if she was, what were the merpeople using for money–gold doubloons? Well, it would all come out at her trial. Stick to the job, I told myself. Think of your future. I rose and turned toward the door.
“You know,” M said conversationally, “there was nothing you could have done to keep your father from leaving. Your mother cheated on him.”
I stopped. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Sure you don’t,” she said. I could hear the smirk in her voice. “Oh, and hey, good news. You’re going to get that baby. Bad news: No daddy for this kid. Just like you.”
A chill ran up my spine. I still hadn’t gotten up the nerve to tell Colby I’d gone off the pill, never mind anyone else.
M flipped her tail in the shallow pool. “Hey, Rachel, be a dear and fill me up, would you? You do not want to be around me if I start drying out.”
I turned. “How could you possibly know those things?”
She narrowed her eyes. “We’re kin with the Roma, remember? We have the Sight, just like them.”
“Is that so,” I said coolly, collecting myself. I didn’t know how she’d figured any of that stuff out–or if the part about my parents was even true–but she was more than clever enough to run a con. “If you’re a gypsy fortune teller,” I said, “tell me this: how is this little escapade going to end for you?”
She crossed her arms over her chest, a gesture with which I had become all too familiar. My hands shook as I attached a length of hose to the faucet and ran the other end into the pool. I fought the urge to smack her.
The arraignment was tight quarters, what with Rodney Park, the judge, an alarmingly young public defender, the court reporter and me all crammed into the room with the kiddie pool.
The judge stated the charges and asked M how she wanted to plead.
“No contest,” M said.
The fourteen-year-old in a suit leaned down and whispered urgently in M’s ear.
“Yes,” M said testily, “I know I can plead not guilty, but if I go with no contest, I don’t have to put up with a stupid trial.”
The judge asked M if she was sure. M said yes. The judge set a date for sentencing, and that was it.
Rodney Park looked stunned. “You’d better speed up the arrangements for a fish hotel, Rodney,” I told him.
M was contentious, manipulative, brilliant, and charming. She discoursed with ease on almost any subject, wet or dry. Rather than borrow officers from other towns, I stayed at the station, grabbing a few hours on a cot when Briggs was there.
I was haunted by our inability to supply M with the most basic comforts; a kiddie pool was no place to keep a mermaid for more than a couple of hours. When I did sleep, I dreamt of a fish wearing a ball gown and tiara, washing up on the beach and gasping for breath. I had begun to dread the thought of passing M along to the county, but I hoped they could come up with something more appropriate.
I called Rodney Park and asked him when he might be taking the prisoner off my hands.
“Hang on a bit longer, Rachel, please,” Rodney said. “We’re looking at installing a hot tub in a private cell. She saved us some bother, at least, forgoing a trial. We’d have had to use a bathtub for a defense table.” His chuckle rang hollow.
I took a breath and brought up something that had been bothering me. “Rodney,” I said, “I’ve been studying pictures of merpeople. They all look alike. Yes, I know that sounds terrible, but please, hear me out. They have genders, but the differences in appearance are fuzzy. Likewise age. My point is, I don’t see how the guy in Portland who identified her could have known for sure.”
“There wasn’t just that. The evidence Briggs brought in matched the inventory from the last truck that got hit,” Rodney said.
“But that could be coincidence,” I said. “It’s not as if the Ring Dings were marked like bank bills.” I knew I sounded a little crazy. “You didn’t get a formal confession, did you?”
“No, but she didn’t deny the charges, either.” Rodney was finally losing patience. “Rachel, she pled no contest. She doesn’t want a trial. Our psychologist says she’s extraordinarily intelligent and she understands the legal concepts involved. Not to mention that we have to set some precedent here. I don’t know what we can do to help her at this point.”
When we hung up, I finally hated Rodney, just a little.
I was at my desk doodling a design for a tiny version of the Orca pens at SeaWorld when Uber Eats delivered M’s nachos, extra chilis on the side. I walked the plate in with my head still deep in salt water, wondering if I could get a say in the county’s marine detention facilities.
M tossed her book on the floor. “Let me go, Rachel,” she said. Her voice had grown hoarse over the short time she’d been with us, and her scales had flickered from pigeon gray to spectral white.
I put the plate down. “M, that’s not how it works. I don’t have the authority to do that. You should have worked with your lawyer, pled not guilty.”
She curled up against the edge of the pool, not meeting my eyes. “I just thought we’d made a connection here,” she said.
“You mean, you figured you could avoid a trial by manipulating me into releasing you.”
“Rachel, please,” she said quietly. “I can’t stay cooped up like this for another hour, never mind a couple of years.”
An image so vivid it was almost hallucinatory appeared in my mind’s eye: the forlorn fish from my dream in a barred hot tub, tiara askew. I opened my mouth to ask M if she had planned the thefts. Then I closed it. It was better if I didn’t know. I took out my phone and touched Colby’s picture.
“Hey,” I said when he answered, “how would you like to hear the mermaid sing?”
Colby brought the band’s old yellow van around to the back door while I stood lookout. He carried M out and laid her on a tarp in the back alongside piles of cords and amps. I texted Briggs with some busywork to keep him out of the station and sat down at my desk with a nervous eye on the doors. About forty minutes later Colby texted me that he and the van were back in the parking lot. I ran out, heart banging.
“Relax, Rachel. There was no one at the pier,” he said.
I let out the breath I hadn’t realized I was holding and took his hand, overcome with sudden melancholy. We’d had some good times. “Did you get her to sing?”
“Yeah, she sang a couple bars of “Yellow Submarine”. God, she sounded horrible.” His voice broke, although he tried to smile. I felt bad for taking advantage of him. At least I could make sure no one got in trouble but me.
“Pack up quick and get out of town,” I said. “I don’t think anyone will bother coming after you.”
Neither of us talked about him returning. For the first time in a long while, I think, we were both being honest with ourselves. Colby would make a great sperm donor, but a baby daddy, not so much. And he deserved a woman who could imagine his future, not just remember his past.
“Goodbye,” I said. “Thank you.” We hugged.
Inside, Briggs stood in the doorway of the cafeteria with panic in his big brown eyes. “Rachel, something terrible has happened,” he said.
“At ease, Private,” I said. I called our former Chief and asked him to come back in.
I live on a river now, well northeast of the place I used to call home. Today I miss the sea. I fill my car with all manner of unhealthy carbohydrates and Marlboros sealed in plastic bags.
Rodney Park made me a generous offer of community service and a clean record. He’d never admit it, but I figure I did him a favor when I took M off his hands. I can show my face in my old neighborhood with impunity, if some mortification. But I don’t want to risk hanging out with M too close to shore, since technically, she’s still a fugitive. She’s only safe in a crowd of other merpeople. I doubt anyone but me would be able to pick her out in a lineup.
At the pier I fasten a life jacket over my belly as best as I can and lower my bulk into a kayak. The chill November drizzle feels good; inland, I’m always too warm. I drift for a while, not thinking about anything much.
A matte gray tail shoots out of the bay and holds still for a second, pointing at the sky as if it’s flipping me the bird. Then M breaks the water grinning and spitting. My daughter rolls inside me as if she is attuned to the mermaid’s antics, which she probably is, poor tike.
M always knows I’m coming.
“Holy crap, Rachel,” she crows. “You’ve doubled in size since I last saw you.”
“Thanks a lot,” I say sarcastically, but I’m grinning too. I toss her a snack cake. She leaps out of the water, catches it in her teeth, rips it open, and demolishes it in a tidy mouthful.
“That’s what our people have to do to survive,” she says primly.
“Boo hoo,” I say. “Speaking of which, you aren’t selling this stuff, are you? Because I have a new job now, thanks to the Chief, and I’d hate to lose another one to your black market activity.”
“I’m insulted that you ask,” M says. “Would I do tricks for morons if I had a better source of income?” She dives and shoots back up. The fetus performs a corresponding somersault.
“Hey,” M says, all innocence. She reaches for a package of tiny doughnuts. “Seen the boyfriend lately?”
“No,” I say testily.
“Gee,” she mumbles around a mouthful, “who could have predicted that?” Powdered sugar coats her nose like cocaine, which it basically is.
“Shut up.” I unwrap a Twinkie, take a bite, and grab another. I’m eating for two. “Let’s play our game.”
M leans on the edge of the kayak, rocking it none too gently, and points toward the cigarettes. I pull out a pack and a Bic and light her up. She takes a huge drag, smiles at me, and nods.
“What will my daughter be when she grows up?”
“A mining executive.” She blows a set of smoke rings, politely aiming them away from my face.
“Will I ever be Chief of Police?”
That’s how we pass the afternoon: I ask questions and M spins tales. Does she see the answers, or is she just making them up to screw with me? It’s better if I don’t know.