“Quartet, With Mermaids”
by Alan Smale
“Did you ever see a mermaid on land?—well, I’ll tell you, then. Ungainly as hell. Drag themselves by the hands like cripples. Pitiful. If you ever see one, you’ll want to pick up a club and put it out of its misery.
“Why didn’t I? I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you about Molly.
“No, not at all attractive. A creature that locomotes like a hog with its back legs tied’ll never be attractive. Her face was blue-ish, and furry. Hair almost translucent, like that Jap grated cabbage stuff they give you with sushi.
“The first time? That would be somewhere off Norway. Twenty years ago. If you want the date, go look it up; it was in all the papers….”
They stood on deck in the half–light, drinking coffee from tin mugs and tossing their cigarette butts over the rail into the gray seas, silent hulks of men in scarves and greatcoats, faces chewed by the sun and the wind, men who drank a lot but said little.
To a man the Norwegians were tall, with close-cropped hair and salt-and-pepper beards underlining piercing eyes. Many could switch to passable English at the drop of a beer mat, although they spoke their own language when they were in a group.
With them was McDowell, who fancied himself a bit of a bruiser, who kept himself to himself at sea and drank until he broke heads on land. To McDowell, all Norwegians looked the same.
When McDowell was in his crib, his father had told him stories of a seafaring life when whaling was still a noble trade, and sons followed their fathers onto wide, rusty vessels that roamed the Atlantic hunting for glory. McDowell had left school at fourteen to sign on as a deck hand out of Aberdeen, bound for Orkney and Rockall, and was seasick as a dog with a fierce exultation that this was his rite of passage and a necessary initiation into the cohorts who roamed the seas.
If he was gut-wrenched by night, the salt wind and the bowl of the sky above him by day were the cure for all pain. He was a seaman. Solid ground was for yuppies and women.
Easy enough, in those days when the seas were rich with fish and the trawlers needed “every man Jack with two arms and a back”, and when captains still made jokes about sending press-gangs ashore to steal drunkards from the gutters to fill the empty bunks. Not so smooth today. Times were hard all over. The seas were over-fished, and the fleets were cutting back. The ever-shorter fishing season meant a faster turnaround. A few brief months of back-breaking sixteen-hour days in the trawlers, and then home to the pubs on the shore to rot for the winter.
McDowell figured himself lucky to be at sea at all, even under these circumstances. He hawked and spat accurately into the dawn.
A Viking with a fierce, wrinkled gaze clapped him on the back and said something incomprehensible. McDowell looked at him blankly, and the sailor mimed putting his hand behind his ear to listen, waving the other hand out at the iron ocean.
Wads of cloud lined the horizon, and a few thin white strands stretched above them. The slabs of pack ice off the bow of the Tromso were gunmetal gray. McDowell smelled fish and the locker-room odor of the seal nursery, and heard the bark of an old bull.
He followed the men down the deck to the landing boats. Ice crystals in the air scratched at his skin and formed a painful glassy crust on his three-day beard stubble. The tang of sea-salt filmed his lips. Pulling a balaclava over his face, he took his place in a ten-man open dinghy. Somebody handed him a club and a skinning hook, and the boat pushed off into the morning, cold waves slapping at the hull.
The ice floe was maybe a mile across, broad and flat and studded edge to edge with the silver and black harp seals. From where McDowell sat it looked as if they covered the ice completely, although he knew from his orientation sessions that each female was separated from the next by several yards. The Norwegians grimaced as the smell grew. McDowell breathed deep lungfuls of it, as his penance. The barks of the adults twisted in the air with the bleating of their young.
McDowell was first onto the ice and first into the seals. He liked to say that it was a Scotsman who was first onto the beaches of the Falklands when the Marines yomped their way across the islands to take on the Argentines. Anyway, as the lone Brit on the team he had something to prove to these big-shouldered Scandinavians; we’re as good as you, matey, and don’t you forget it.
And if he went first, nobody could see his face.
Seals were all he could see; seals and seals and seals, stretching to his horizon. He stared at them and the harp seals looked back with innocent doe eyes, piercing his armor. Pups in their lanugo fur even whiter than the snow nuzzled at their mothers, while the old bulls growled and barked at the skies. The year-old weaners played in the ice, teasing the young ones, tormenting the adults. The mama seals bopped them on the nose to keep them in line.
The gray dawn light and the cold tore gently at his face until water sprang to his eyes.
The seals had no fear. Stupid, dumb, pathetic animals. Culling seals was like hitting women. No man who had a choice should have to do it.
But a job was a job. They were going to die anyway, so it might as well be him as yet another bloody Norse.
He heard the sounds of massacre start up behind him; the confused bleats, the steady thudding of wood into bone, a scattering of curses, but McDowell kept walking over seals and around seals and on into the heart of the herd. He’d do his dirty work alone.
Alone he was, then, when the high keening began. It was an almost Gaelic wail of sorrow and mourning that made his teeth grate, and it came from straight ahead.
Hair, long and tangled and almost translucent. A body almost like a woman’s, with bony, rounded shoulders over stubby breasts, the whole covered with a light fuzz that might have been fur. Eyes with eyelids above and beneath like a cat’s, that closed in the middle. From the navel down, a broad, flat fish tail.
The mermaid propped herself up on webbed hands, looking over the breeding grounds to where the Vikings plundered the herd. She looked past McDowell, maybe not identifying him as a threat in her confusion. He watched her chest swell with an intake of breath and her eyes narrow and cloud with an unmistakable grief, and that thin screeching wail came forth again and cut into McDowell’s head.
In defense, he dropped the hook and raised the club over his head with both hands.
He knew that the thing before him was not fish and yet not human, and that it was the soul of this killing ground. Numbed in head and heart, McDowell never knew whether he would have brought the club down into the skull of the mermaid, or whether he would have stood like a statue, listening, until night fell or he froze to death or the Norwegians carried him off back to the ship.
Something thumped into the backs of his legs, and he skidded on the ice. Terrified of falling forwards onto the creature, McDowell twisted sideways and landed heavily on his hip. He looked back.
Behind him was the empty face of another creature that he knew to be male only by the absence of breasts. The merman had picked up McDowell’s hook and had hit him with it behind the knees before placing it carefully back down on the ice.
The female was staring, unsure what to make of him. Any second now she could take flight. McDowell jack-knifed his body on the ice, kicking the hook away past a startled harp seal female and into a pup nursery.
He grabbed the mermaid’s wrist with both hands, and started to yell.
“…convince you that it’s not only birds that can fly.”
From the sidelines, doing her deep–breathing exercises to flush out the butterflies in her stomach, Toni watched Shannara whip around the pool just below the surface, pick up speed and go deep. High above the water, a red and white beach ball hung from the ceiling by a long twine.
The silver torpedo that was Shannara the dolphin rose out of the water and swatted the ball aside with her nose. Too easy, her delighted squeal seemed to say as she slid back into the blue water. The crowd went wild. Kids shouted.
They could raise that ball by two feet and she’d still get it, Toni thought. While the audience clapped and cheered, Shannara and her mate Castor did a lap of honor, their silver bodies tracing slow arcs in the air. Covered by the applause, Toni tapped the radio mike on her headset and heard an answering dull pop from the PA. She was live.
Robert finished the wrap-up as the dolphins took the channel into B Pool. Toni began the walk from left to right along the narrow walkway between the twin pools, and picked up the patter on her cue.
“Thank you, Robert. Weren’t they great, ladies and gentlemen?”
She clapped as she walked and the crowd dutifully did the applause thing. They had the public trained almost as well as the marine mammals.
Toni knew that when she bent over to look into the mer tent every guy in the place would be checking out her butt. In shorts, with the tight red wet suit top, she looked aces. With the radio mike and her blonde hair tied back to leave her face clean, she looked professional, too. Smart babe. Gotta love ’em.
Which kind of made up for the mermaids being as ugly as warts. Emma glared balefully back at her from the tent, her face just breaking the surface of the water.
Yeah, yeah, thought Toni. Every girl’s summer job dream; a fish with an attitude.
She’d tried to like the mers, God knew she’d tried, because she wanted to enjoy this summer. But it wasn’t working out, and Toni just knew that one day Emma was going to take a powder and hide in the deepest corner of the pool till the audience had all gone home. She had a few jokes lined up all ready for when it happened, but she wasn’t looking forward to having to use them.
She straightened and continued her barefoot stroll around the walkway, blue water bubbling over her toes, while the audience moved around and got ready for the next bit.
Yeah, Toni loved the dolphins and had been bummed when she’d lost them to Robert last month. Why couldn’t he have taken the mers? She was here first, after all. But you’re the best, Toni, they said, you should get the finale. Like it was some great honor or something. Puh–leeze.
From behind her, she heard Emma hiss. Yeah, I love you too. Just do the damn job and eat your fish, okay?
And Robert thought she was a prima donna. Jeez.
Robert was a pain. He’d taken her dolphins and she knew he made fun of the way she walked along the narrow path between the pools. She’d overheard him joking around with the other guys; “Hi, my name is Toni, I love sports and travel and meeting new people. Some day I hope to open my own boutique, and I love America!”
She tried to take bigger strides. What a jerk. Honest to God.
She smiled brightly at the audience lining the far side of the pool. “Until recently, everyone thought that the mermaid was just a legend from popular tradition; a beautiful girl from the waist up, and a fish from the waist down.” Her voice boomed out from the loudspeakers. She’d almost gotten used to how the PA brought out the country–girl accent she’d spent most of her teens trying to lose. She continued her walk as far as the shallow bay area, and turned. Hit your chalk marks, good girl, best foot forward, weight on the rear foot, smart babe.
Behind and above her a rank of TV screens was showing a series of pictures of mermaids from old parchments and rare art through the ages.
“From earliest times, mermaids have represented the beauty and danger of the seas. For sailors, the sighting of a mermaid was a sign that a shipwreck or some other danger or disaster was about to befall him. The kelpies and nixies of lake and stream and the ancient sirens of the sea all have their roots in the mermaid myth.” Behind her, the twelve TV screens would be showing ancient wood–cuttings of doe–eyed beauties with long hair and fishtails.
She moved a quarter turn to face another section of the audience.
“Until two years ago, scientists thought that mermaids were nothing more than a legend. It was believed that the sailors had been misled by manatees, or dugongs.” One of each appeared on the screens. “But now we know that there was a core of fact behind the fantasy. Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to introduce you to… Emma!” Be there, you little vixen.
The tent at the pool’s edge was flicked away by the FX controller, and the crowd went silent. Emma was sitting on a fake rock, her tail curled up underneath her, hands folded in her lap. A myth made flesh, lacking only a comb and a mirror. Oh, and like a face and a body that didn’t make you want to blow chunks.
Nobody was looking at her any more. Toni spoke into the silence. “Emma is six years old. She was captured off Newfoundland, where she and her mate were living in a seal colony. The connection between seals and mers is not understood, but we now know that where you find one, the other is never far away.”
Emma began to move. She reached out her arms and dragged herself towards the pool edge, her head sinking onto her chest in apparent fatigue. A low murmur that was almost a hum of distress came from the crowd.
Stop milking it, Toni thought. Out loud, she said, “Ungainly on land, Emma is nevertheless as active and mobile as any other marine animal in her natural environment.”
Crippled, said the murmur. Crippled.
Emma fell forward into the pool and disappeared. Some of the audience stood, perhaps expecting her to sink like a stone. Then there was a loud cry, and the place erupted in applause. Through the clear glass in front of the tank they saw the mermaid flash by, arms by her sides and dark hair streaming behind her like a comet tail. She broke surface once and rolled in the air to fall back beneath the water.
“Emma’s mate is… Bruce!”
Something jumped the partition between Pool B and the main show pool, a brown torso with its hands outstretched in front, a broad flat tail following. Bruce of the James Dean eyes, who hid behind his foot–long hair and turned away from any human who approached him, who was also a bitch to work with but at least knew when it was showtime. Without Bruce to take the lead, they wouldn’t stand a prayer with Emma.
After a few laps they stopped at the front of the pool and trod water, their top halves up above the surface, thrashing tails visible through the glass.
Toni could see the first few rows of the audience unconsciously leaning back, away from the mers.
This was the moment of uncertainty. It happened every performance, when the audience got their first good look at the mers, with their faces that were too human and yet not human enough.
It was her job to reassure them. They’re just fish with arms, really folks. Trust me, I’m a biology major.
“Despite their similarities to us, the mers are no more human than is a dolphin, or a chimpanzee,” said Toni. “While capable of being trained to perform simple tasks, they have no language, no culture, no abstract intelligence.” The mers sank beneath the surface and began to swim in opposite directions.
Somewhere, a child started to cry.
Directly in front of Toni the mers leaped into the air, clapped their hands twice, and sank again. A few seconds later they were beached on the shallow bay area in front of her.
“Mers do not perform for fish, unlike the other sea–dwellers you’ve seen this afternoon,” said Toni. “In fact, they eat only in privacy. They perform for the joy of performing,” and she met Emma’s hard, fishy little eyes, “don’t you, darlings?”
They backflipped away in synchronization, into the deeper water, and the audience clapped. She could feel the crowd losing their original unease and becoming more relaxed.
Toni led the mers through a few tricks. They did somersaults and barrel rolls in the air. The beach ball was released into the pool and they towed it by its string and then bounced it back and forth between them. They each took it in turns to hold a hoop above the water so the other could jump through. It was slick and smooth, and the crowd was getting into it, and she didn’t have to tell the hiding-mermaid jokes. But, looking at the blank faces of the mers, she thought, I lied. There’s no joy here. They do this because they must.
Robert had set up the basketball hoop while the mers were doing the other stuff, and now he tossed the B–ball into the water. Toni went into the patter for the last trick. “But when a mermaid comes to the end of a hard day reeling and writhing, what could be better than going out to shoot a few hoops?”
Bruce took off around the pool, slapping the ball ahead of him. Emma played block, and they tussled and skirmished until Bruce threw himself into the air, releasing the ball in a long slow curve that bounced off the backboard and rattled into the net. The ball splashed down into the pool and the crowd cheered.
Toni did her standard ad-lib—”We’re still working on teaching them baseball”—and then turned to face the crowd for the wrap-up. “So there’s one more thing that humans and mers have in common, ladies and gentlemen. Maybe somewhere back in the mists of time, in the primeval dawn, we share a common ancestor, and before the human race chose the land and the mers chose the sea—”
She saw the basketball out of the corner of her eye a fraction of a second before it slammed into her cheek. She staggered and mashed her toe painfully into the raised lip at the pool’s edge. The headset slid off her ears but caught in her hair, and her muffled snap of “Goddammit!” echoed around the walls, clearly audible.
Even more painful than the red blaze on her cheek was the laugh that welled up from thirty rows of paying customers, who had come to see a show and had got their money’s worth, people who had just seen her made a total fool of, people who laughed at her, not with her.
She tried to pull it together. She put one hand on her hip and struck a mock–schoolmarm pose, wagging her finger at the pool. “You’re sad, Bruce. Really sad. How many times have I told you….”
But it was much too late, and anyway it was obviously Emma who had made the throw; Emma the vile, who was now vaulting out of the pool and clapping her membraned hands together with glee. Which of course made the stupid audience clap at her discomfort as well, like a bunch of trained seals.
Tina bowed and took it, as the involuntary tears rolled down her face.
She wanted her dolphins back, dammit; after the show, she was going straight to management to tell them she wouldn’t take those mermaids another day.
God, how she hated them!
“I was in Texas. Used to fly all over in those days. Europe and the States. Japan especially. Everybody wanted to meet the man who found the first mermaid.
“There was a traveling show, like from a hundred years ago. Ed’s Old Tyme Traveling Show, or some such crap. Nostalgia. They had all the stuff you see in movies. Jugglers, fire-eaters. Bearded lady. And a merman, of course, with his hair in a silver clasp. They had him rigged out in a black tee–shirt with rips in it, and three earrings in each ear, really punked out, and he was sitting up in a fish tank bored enough to piss rocks. Then he looked up and saw me, and after that he never took his eyes off me the whole time I was there, and I knew he knew who I was. Recognized me.
“That was just one of the times. It was always the same. Every damn one of them knew me for who I was, and they just gave me this awful look….”
A barn, just a big ol’ wooden barn in Macon, Missouri, with a plastic heifer perched on the front ridge of the roof over a pole with Old Glory hanging from it, and iron cartwheels on each side of the big double door, and “Livestock Market” in dark–wood carpentry across the high front of the barn, and enough trailers and horse-boxes and cattle-trucks and pickups and American-made station wagons out front to convince a body something real big was going on inside, that the country boys who knew a thing or two would all be there with their brothers or their pa’s or their girls, in their cowboy hats and flannel shirts and boots, checking out the animals and shooting the breeze about feed and fetlocks and ticks and pills and what all, while the brown stink of the farmyard hung heavy about them like a blessing or a charm. And maybe there’d be a hoe-down tonight, with banjos and fiddles and harmonicas and all.
Kemp, who thought he might as well have a big sign suspended over his head with the words “Out-of-Towner” painted on it bold as a rooster, got down from the cab of his converted Kenworth and wandered in through the doors, breathing deeply, getting into the role, thinking cowpoke and twang and trying to look like he belonged, because a city accent just might get him stomped. He had to stand aside to let a plump-faced matron in denim and pink lace get by; she had a three-week-old zebra on the end of one leash and a young llama on another. The zebra looked at him with soft, accusing doe eyes, and an old guy with grizzled stubble pushed a leaflet into his hand that said, “Fall Exotic Animal and Bird Auction” in big, uneven mimeograph along the top and a list of rules—no cameras, no smoking, no guns, no frivolous bids, no returns or complaints or bitching if the beasts died on you or gave your farm dogs a disease or ate your flower boxes—down the side, and then he was right in front of a big arena with straw down all around it, and an auctioneer was announcing that the next up would be Watusi cattle, and a bottle-fed cougar, well adjusted and used to children, and then a couple of hand-raised wallabies and macaques and what all, before something that was real special and they all knew what that was. And the bidding went on, and Kemp stood and blinked and took in the heat and the atmosphere and the smell and the accents, and the Watusi lowed and went for a couple of thousand, with those huge, twisted horns, off to some guy’s ranch where ten to one they’d get shot down in some fake–African safari hunt and end up on some other guy’s wall, still with that dumb trusting look and those giant corkscrew horns. The call of the wild, yessirree-Bob. Real men carry guns and can strip them down and oil them up and have them back together again in nothing flat, without looking. Breathe in that country air, line up them gunsights, and boom!—Back to nature, red in tooth and claw. Perhaps it’s not the animals that smell of shit around here, after all.
Cool it, Mister Kemp. Work to do, and no spare cash for side adventures.
The cougar went for a song, bottle-fed my ass, my granddaddy used to drink his dinner out of a bottle and he wasn’t no friend to any children neither. The wallabies, so young they were kept in a leather sack to make it like dead momma’s pouch, and cute enough to draw teeth, they fired up a bidding battle that damn near turned into a range war, flinty glares traded back and forth under the heavy floodlights till they were going-going-gone and don’t forget ladies and gentlefolk that it’s a crime to buy these things unless you’re registered to own them, haha.
Kemp couldn’t even look at the macaques; too human by half. So he watched the audience instead, who seemed an okay crowd now he was near enough to see them. Good natured enough, interested in the livestock, not a sour lynch-mob kind of group, just ranch folks from all over who lived with cattle and wanted something a little different. Well, different would be up next, for the macaques were sold, and here was the buildup, ladies and gentlemen we have something today that’s out of the ordinary, something we don’t see right regular in this neck of the woods, something you may not be ready for today but something we hope to bring you a lot more of in the future, and maybe you might just want to think of making your swimming pool a little bigger. And without further ado, let me introduce you to …Daisy!
Out comes this big wagon drawn by two fine high–stepping horses, and you just know the thing has to weigh something the way they’re putting their backs into it. The wagon’s big and square with a black tarp over it, and one of the auction boys gets on up there and cuts a rope, ta-dah, and there’s Daisy, in a small tank of water. Nobody acts surprised, everybody knew it was coming because word gets around, but everybody leans forward, and the guys are checking out her tits and her face, this strange animal that looks half a human and half some porpoise fish thing and might just be a legitimate object of desire, and the women are all narrow-faced for a moment as they see this hussy of a fish, hair neatly braided but with no sign of a siren song or a mirror and comb. And she’s no natural beauty, just a mammalian form with recognizable parts but a face that looks kind of vacant, but guarded, but sentient, but caged. She’s in the water and then she feels the sun come out, those arc–lamps shining down bright, and with broad muscled shoulders and a flick of that wide tail, Daisy is up and on that fake rock, water running off her through the fine down that covers her face and body, leaning on her arms and tilting back her head, and her chest is forward, and maybe that would be erotic if she was a little, you know, a little less of a dog.
The auctioneer: “Here’s Daisy, come all the way from Newfoundland, where she lives with the seals. Not Darryl Hannah, that’s sure, but in her own way, she’s a beauty.”
The audience: “Well that’s the best mustache I’ve ever seen on a woman,” and “What do you say, I’ll bet she really smells of fish,” and “Where would you put it, anyway?”
And the auctioneer: “So new she’s not endangered, and she’s not native to the U.S., and so she’s totally legal to own,” and Daisy, scared now by the bleating of the crowd, says “Aa–aaa–aa–aa,” and slips back underwater and dives to the bottom, where she can’t see the crowd but they can still see her.
And Kemp walked into the center of the arena, and it all went quiet.
Pushed his hat back on his forehead, casual, as if he’d been doing it all his life and it was just an unconscious thing he did. “Well, now. Will all the guys from the Department of Agriculture and the Audubon Society please raise their hands?” General laughter. “Yeah, right. But they’re here, and you know it. Anybody who’s thinking of tossing this babe into his trunk and keeping her in his bathtub ought to know who’ll be following him home tonight.”
The auctioneer said, “Who the hell are you?”
“Nobody,” said Kemp. “But I’ve got a tanker of fresh brine in the parking lot and a client with his own lake in Maine. And I just want what we all want, good homes for all this alternative livestock. You see, there ain’t no law against this because nobody’s had the chance to make one up yet. To make one up, they need a test case. Hear what I’m saying?”
Auction-boys were coming for him now, get outta the ring, jerk, unless you want us to sell you.
Hey, that gave Kemp an idea. “May just be that they’ll decide this is slavery.”
And Daisy, who’d come up for air again while all this talk was happening, said, “Aaa–aa–aa,” and barked like a seal, dropped her head forward onto her chest, stared moodily at the ground. Scratched her ribs, just like an unselfconscious child would scratch. Lots of mixed signals there for the crowd. A muttering arose like a wind, as everybody started thinking out loud.
Kemp stepped out of the arena.
“Well, thank you,” said the auctioneer, dribbling sarcasm like spit into the sawdust. “If it’s going to be facts, well, Daisy can survive out of water for eight hours if it’s cool, but she needs salt water the rest of the day. Needs a pool with no chlorine, or a private lake, or one big mother of a fish tank… just kidding. She eats eight pounds of fish a day. Clocks up about nine knots when she swims. And for the record, she’s an animal, and no scientist anywhere has said different. I’m starting the bidding at three thousand. Three–thousand–three–thousand, who’ll give me three?”
“Three thousand dollars,” said Kemp, hand raised.
The auctioneer leaned over his podium. “If that’s a frivolous bid, son, I’m going to lock you up with the brown bears.”
Kemp started pulling bills out of his pockets. “Three thousand.”
He got her for three thousand.
Drove the cart out himself, quick, before anybody could get on his case, and picked up Daisy in his arms, who weighed just as much as a woman but didn’t smell as good, and got her in through the airlock, saw her face peeking out of the special glass bubble set into the roof of the tanker, this rig was customized for mers and she could live and thrive in there for a week or more if he kept tossing in the fish, forever if he could figure out a good way to change the water.
But it wasn’t that big a drive to the coast, and there wasn’t any client in Maine either, just Kemp himself, who saw the tide coming and knew he couldn’t swim against it forever, but while there was still a chance, before the undertow got too great, while it was still a low–level thing, he’d kick in and do what he could.
Kemp got behind the wheel and onto the road, and the last thing he saw of Macon was a bunch of ostriches heading for a horse-box, and he thought, if there was any guts in this country somebody would be here for you too, you dumb long-neck balls of fluff with legs, but I guess there isn’t, and my hands are kinda full right now.
He headed down the long road to the coast.
Chen Ho’s restaurant was going down.
As a field inspector for the Washington D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, Curran knew the choice of words was wrong, but as an ex-cop he had trouble thinking about it any other way. Out loud, he said, “Rice, infested with roaches. Must be disposed of. Old food, dirt and grime on stovetops and food preparation areas. Evidence of rat harborage—rodent feces on kitchen floor areas.” Curran remembered the old days, when he was allowed to say rat shit, and call a spade a damned shovel.
He ticked a couple more boxes on his checklist. “Garbage disposal not functioning, clogged with hair. What is this, you let your chefs shampoo their goddamn hair in the kitchen?”
Chen Ho shrugged minutely, hands deep in his pockets, gold tooth gleaming. “Of course not. I can’t explain it. As for the rest… you’ve caught us on a bad day, I’m afraid. I sacked one of my kitchen help last night, and we’re a little backed up. The rats come from the Korean food warehouse over on H Street. Now there’s an establishment you should check out someday.”
“It’s on the list,” said Curran. “Let’s finish off here, shall we?”
Curran was getting the pain in his gut, the one he always got when he saw maggots.
There’d been a whole bunch, feasting on cooked chicken in the open trash bins in the kitchen. He only had to see the blind, wiggly little bastards to start thinking about corpses with bullet holes, execution–style slayings in Southeast where sometimes the bodies didn’t show up for several days.
Maggots. Just saying the word out loud would add another layer of acid to the pain.
All those kids’ lives.
After ten years in the force, Curran just couldn’t take the heat any more.
So here he was, in the kitchen.
“It’s a continuous battle to keep these old buildings free of vermin,” Chen Ho was saying, fastidiously. “One tries one’s best, but it’s always just a matter of time before they find a way back. Do you live in the area, Inspector? I’m sure you understand….” Chen Ho gestured eloquently with his long fingers, just a citizen doing the best he could.
Curran didn’t trust him. “Take me to the pantries and meat locker, please.”
“Perhaps you’ve seen enough. You’re looking a little pale. It must be hard, visiting restaurant after restaurant, day after day.” Chen Ho looked down at him solicitously. How did he get so tall, Curran wondered to himself. These guys were supposed to be short.
“Do you eat the food here?” he asked.
“Of course,” said Chen Ho. “And I haven’t had a day’s ill health since we opened.” He smiled happily, tooth sparkling in the fluorescent light.
Curran didn’t believe it for a second. And he wanted to get on and finish up, before Chen Ho tried to slip him a bottle of brandy or a few paltry bucks to give him his certificate and let him stay open.
Orientals used to know their place in this city. In the old days they worked hard and were less cocky. Curran wondered if Chen Ho was gay.
“Pantries. Meat locker.”
“Of course,” said Chen Ho. “Follow me.”
If I must, thought Curran.
Curran looked him over as they walked. Expensive pleated pants, silk shirt, gold glistening against the bronze skin of his neck and wrists. Even his bald head looked polished. Yes, it certainly did seem that Chen Ho was doing all right for himself. Well, the smug look on his face might change a little when Curran suspended his license to prepare and serve food.
Looking distastefully at the yellow walls and ceiling of the second–floor corridor, Curran wondered how long it had been since Chen Ho was here last. Probably not since his previous inspection, four months ago, the one he’d scraped through with a marginal 71 points out of 100 and been allowed to stay open by the skin of his shiny white teeth.
Chen Ho was still talking. “…and we’re so busy these days. Business is good. Did you see our write–up in the Post?”
Trendy liberals like Chen Ho always got the Post. Curran got the Washington Times, and never looked at the eating-out section. “No.”
“We have it framed in the foyer. They were very sweet about our seafood.”
“These floors should be swept,” said Curran.
“Inspector,” said Chen Ho, halting in front of a large steel door. He was smiling gently. Here it comes thought Curran. “I’m sure you’ve seen enough. It would appear that, through circumstances beyond our control, we’ve lapsed a little in our civic duties here. You have my word that we’ll take every step possible to remedy the situation. And perhaps there’s something I could do to make all this a little easier for us both.”
Curran hated it when smooth bastards like Chen Ho tried to buy him off. It reminded him how little he got paid and how much of that disappeared in child support. Stop tempting me, he thought. All of you. Just cut it out.
“Yeah, there’s something you could do,” said Curran. “You could keep your goddamn restaurant clean. You could stop offering bribes to a public servant. And you could get out of the goddamn way.”
Something else was happening here. The cop instinct was waking up and demanding to be heard. He doesn’t want me to go in the meat locker. His gut curled up a little tighter.
“Bribes?” said Chen Ho, injured, as Curran opened up the meat refrigerator and strode in. “I can assure you….” The door banged shut behind them.
More rat turds, damn him. More grime than Curran liked to see, though in fact it wasn’t as bad as the rest of the place. There was no crusted blood on the floor, or –– “Jesus Christ!”
A face, in profile, resting on the floor, neck neatly severed. Long hair wrapped around it to obscure the features. An arm. Other parts, too.
Curran’s heart rate jumped to a hundred and fifty. He felt the old taste in his mouth, the one he thought he’d said sayonara to when he left the force. And that feeling that whatever he did next, he would be too slow, too slow. Christ, he was alone in a meat locker with a bunch of body parts and the man who might have wielded the cleaver.
Two steps back, the cold wall stopped him. He slapped at his belt for a gun that wasn’t there.
Chen Ho watched him with amusement. “Relax, officer,” he said. “Not human.” He squatted down and, with a little difficulty, splayed the hand apart so that Curran could see the thin membrane joining the fingers. “You haven’t stumbled into Sweeney Todd’s. It doesn’t appear on the menu, but it’s not illegal. Quite the, ah, underground delicacy, as it happens.”
“You bastard,” said Curran.
“There’s no need to be rude. They’re not even an endangered species.”
“But you should be,” said Curran. The ache in his gut had become a throbbing pain that threatened to bend him over. He’d have asked to use the restroom if he hadn’t marked it down so many demerits for unsanitary conditions and disorder. He took a deep breath, trying not to imagine the particles he might be sucking into his lungs.
He wrote on his clipboard, not looking at the mer parts, speaking aloud as he did so. “Improper storage; food products exposed to contamination. Meat and fish in the same container.”
Chen Ho stared. “Now that’s petty.”
Curran shivered, and it wasn’t just the cold.
“Somebody else’ll probably do the reinspection in a few days, when you’ve cleaned all the crap out of this place. But I’ll be back here within six months, Chen Ho, and when I get here, I don’t want to see or smell any mermaid preparation on the premises. Illegal or not. Or I’ll bust you again so fast your gold chains will knock your teeth out. Understand?”
“Even if the rest of the place is clean?”
“I’m sure it won’t be. I can always find something.”
They walked out of the meat locker and the door slammed behind them.
“All right,” said Chen Ho, wistfully. “They’re extremely hard to come by, anyway. But you wouldn’t believe what people are willing to pay, these days, for something… special.”
“Don’t tell me,” said Curran.
But on the doorstep, forms filled out, he hesitated. Chen Ho looked at him, and knew. “Aha,” he said. “Just one thing? What does it taste like?”
Curran looked at him helplessly.
“Well, well. Curiosity killed the cop? Perhaps we could arrange for you to….”
Curran swallowed hard. “No. Stop dancing, Chen Ho. Just tell me.”
“The tail is like a blend of salmon and catfish. It goes nicely with a hollandaise, or maybe a nice light butter sauce.” Chen Ho’s eyes sparkled. “The taste changes subtly, delightfully, as you leave the tail and go North. The body, under the fat layer, is a delicate white meat, rather reminiscent of….”
Curran was already nodding. They said, in chorus, “Chicken.” Then Curran slapped the closing order into Chen Ho’s palm and walked away quickly into the bright sunlight and the fresh, clean air.
“—so I grabbed her wrist with both hands and shouted and screamed until the boys heard me. Kept hold too, off the ice and onto the Tromso and all the way back to port.
“Well, it wasn’t lust, I’ll tell you, despite all the jokes those Norwegians made. She stank to hell and back. But when I looked at her, I saw money. A boat of my own, so I could sail where I wanted, just be at sea when I liked. Food. Cigarettes. A bit of freedom, away from dock towns and bars and union clubs.
“That’s all I saw.
“Now, of course, I feel so… stupid. I got rich soon enough from all the talk shows and interviews and everything. But it didn’t make all that much difference to me. And after the three–-ring media circus had died down and everything was quiet again, I realized what I’d done to Molly, and all the rest of them.
“Had it to do again? I’d push her into the sea. Start thumping those weaners like I was there to do, and let the mermaids stay undiscovered.
“Don’t start that with me again, not after all these years. Seals are different. Seals are animals. It wasn’t pleasant work, but it’ll keep getting done just the same whatever you say. I bet you’re one of these people who’ll scarf down a steak but get all gooey about eating rabbit. There are three million harp seals up there and we were taking a couple of dozen, tops.
“Not that I liked doing it, you understand. It cut me up inside. It did. I’ve told you that already.
“But seals, they’re not the real thing. If you could look in a mermaid’s eyes, if they weren’t all gone now, you’d see the difference.
“Yeah, I’ve read the articles, but what do journalists know? Mermaids were something else. Truly.
“But maybe, after all, some still exist out there, up North beyond the fishing grounds.
“I’m not betting on it, but I have to know. So that’s why I’m going, and this time I’m going alone. I think my Dad would approve. It’s what I’m supposed to be doing with all that blood money. Going to sea, as you might say, going to see.
“How will I find them?
“Well. That won’t take any skill on my part, though if they’re thin on the ground, it might take time.
“But I know how it’ll be. I’ve seen it in their eyes.
“They’re going to find me.”
Alan Smale writes alternate and twisted history, and hard SF. His novella of a Roman invasion of ancient America, “A Clash of Eagles”, won the 2010 Sidewise Award for Alternate History, and his series of novels set in the same universe, Clash of Eagles (2015), Eagle in Exile (2016), and Eagle and Empire (2017), are available from Del Rey (US) and Titan Books (UK and Europe). His Roman baseball collaboration with Rick Wilber, The Wandering Warriors, came out from WordFire Press (2020), and Hot Moon, his alternate-Apollo “technothriller with heart”, set entirely on and around the Moon, was launched by CAEZIK in July 2022. (All books are also available in audiobook format.)
Alan has also sold over forty pieces of shorter fiction to Asimov’s and other magazines and original anthologies.
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