The mermaids quickly slipped into a routine of practicing their show in the morning, followed by an afternoon alone. On most days Carlos would eat dinner in the dining room, alone except for his server. The mermaids noticed three different young women who would serve him at different times. The mermaids were expected to swim around for his entertainment, and after he was done they would be given their dinner and get locked up for the night. Allen kept investigating the pool, looking for anything that would help them get out of their situation. One of the fake corals in the center had some thin branching filaments, and Allen bent one of the filaments back and forth until it broke, giving him a small thin wire to use. He spoke to Katherine about what he wanted done with it.
“KATHERINE, I THINK WE MIGHT USE SOMETHING LIKE THIS TO DEFEAT THE CLAMPS, BUT MY OWN HANDS CAN’T REACH THEM WHEN WE ARE LOCKED UP.”
“SO YOU WANT ME TO DO SOMETHING FOR YOU?”
“YES. COME OVER BY ONE OF THE CLAMPS AND I WILL SHOW YOU.”
Allen swam over to one of the lower clamps. By turning his body, he got his hand near the clamp and he was able to poke the filament between the top of the clamp and the rubber gasket.
“I think that maybe we could poke this in here and release the catch on the clamp.”
“You want me to do that?”
“Yes, but only at the right time. If Gretchen sees you with the clamp released, she will catch on.”
“When should I do it then?”
“Right after breakfast when she lowers us down to release us. If you can release the clamp just a few seconds early we will know this works but Gretchen won’t notice.”
“That sounds like a good plan. give me the wire thingy and I’ll try it in the morning.”
“I’ll have the rest of the mermaids watch Gretchen, if she looks your way we will splash so you know not to do it.”
“Okay, good plan.”
The next morning, Katherine tried to poke the filament through the gasket up by her neck, but she found it difficult to do and ran out of time before Gretchen hit the release. The morning after, she tried again but heard splashing so she stopped. The morning after that, she managed to get the filament under the gasket and feel around. There was definitely something movable back there, but it took time to figure out just where she needed to poke it to make something happen. Finally, after over a week of trying, she was able to lift the latch. Her neck clamp popped open several seconds before all the others released.
“NOW WE KNOW YOUR IDEA WORKS, BUT HOW CAN WE USE IT?” Katherine asked. “EVEN IF I RELEASE MY NECK CLAMP, MY TAIL IS STILL STUCK.”
“ONCE YOUR NECK WAS FREE, COULD YOU BEND OVER AND RELEASE YOUR TAIL AS WELL?”
“PROBABLY, BUT WHEN WOULD I DO IT?”
“WELL, I THOUGHT OF TWO POSSIBLE PLANS. FOR THE FIRST ONE, ONE OR TWO OF YOU COULD GET LOOSE DURING THE NIGHT AND CLIMB UP INTO THE ROOM. THEN YOU COULD GRAB GRETCHEN WHEN SHE COMES INTO THE POOL ROOM IN THE MORNING.”
“THAT MIGHT WORK. WHAT’S YOUR SECOND PLAN?”
“GRETCHEN ALWAYS SITS DOWN ON THE POOL COVER TO FEED FERNANDO AND I. IF AUDRA COULD RELEASE HERSELF QUICKLY, SHE COULD GRAB GRETCHEN AND PULL HER INTO THE WATER.”
“THAT SOUNDS REALLY RISKY. IF SHE CAN’T GET LOOSE FAST ENOUGH GRETCHEN WILL SEE WHAT SHE’S DOING AND GET AWAY.”
“I AGREE. LET’S GO WITH THE FIRST PLAN.”
“WHY NOT TONIGHT?”
“OKAY. LET’S TELL THE OTHERS.”
They waited for several hours after going to bed, and then Katherine used the filament to release the catch at her neck. It popped open and she bent over to release her tail as well. It was a difficult reach, and it took her quite some time to get the filament into the right place, but at last the clamp released and she was free. As they had discussed, she released Renna as well, and then they kicked hard with their tails and climbed out of the pool. They looked toward the back of the room and were almost immediately disappointed. The back wall was all windows with a glass door in the center. Blinds covered many of the windows, but the two next to the door were open, which would make it hard to hide near the door and ambush Gretchen as she entered. Through the uncovered windows they could see a narrow beach and the ocean shore beyond. But getting near the wall of windows would be almost impossible, as there was a barrier in place on the floor in front of the windows. A four or five foot wide stretch of the floor was slightly lower than the floor in the rest of the room, and in that depressed area, shards of broken glass had been set into concrete. Any mermaid trying to cross that moat would be cut to ribbons by the sharp glass. Even the space directly in front of the door was covered with the glass. It looked like there was a bridge that extended from underneath the door when it was opened.
“WHAT DO YOU THINK?” Katherine signed to Renna.
“I DON’T THINK WE WILL BE ABLE TO CATCH GRETCHEN BY SURPRISE. MAYBE WE COULD LET EVERYONE LOOSE AND TRY TO OVERWHELM HER?”
“NO. SHE WOULD JUST SEE US FROM OUTSIDE AND NOT COME IN. THEN SHE COULD USE HER REMOTE TO CUT OFF OUR AIR.”
“SO WHAT DO WE DO NEXT?”
“LET’S AT LEAST LOOK AROUND THE ROOM AND LEARN WHAT WE CAN, THEN GET BACK IN THE WATER AND THINK ABOUT ANOTHER PLAN.”
They crawled around the room, but there was not much to see. Most of the room consisted of the pool cover, with a narrow rim of floor around it. On one side there was a counter with a computer tablet mounted on top of it. Currently the tablet was turned off, but they had seen Gretchen use the tablet to control the clamps and the pool cover. Next to the tablet was the regenerator for the breathing collar discs. There was a cabinet under the counter, and inside was a box containing extra discs of both types for the breathing collars. The rest of the room was devoid of decoration or furniture, so Katherine and Renna crawled back to the pool and slipped in. It was too dark to see their hands in the water, so they couldn’t explain their failure to the others yet. Renna positioned herself in her clamps, and Katherine pushed them together with her hands until the latch behind dropped into place, locking them again. Then Katherine got into her own clamps. She leaned over and closed the tail clamp, then straightened up and pushed the neck clamp closed. It felt like the end of her hopes.
When Gretchen came into the room in the morning, she stepped into a puddle of water.
“Why is the floor all wet?” She asked.
Of course, the mermaids couldn’t answer even if they had been inclined to. Gretchen walked around the room, noticing the pattern of the wet areas.
“This is very interesting.” She said. “It looks like someone has been splashing water in the night, and they seem to have had a particular target.”
Gretchen walked over in front of Renna and activated her remote. “So, Renna. Why were you trying to splash the controls? Did you think getting them wet would open your clamps?”
Renna felt the now strange sensation of air going into her lungs from outside and realized that Gretchen had opened the valve in her throat so she could talk. Thankfully Gretchen had already provided an excuse for her. Apparently the thought that someone had gotten out of the pool hadn’t even entered Gretchen’s mind.
“Y-yes, Gretchen. I thought maybe we could short out the controls and it might open the clamps.” Renna said.
Gretchen closed the valve again, cutting off any further explanation. “And it looks like Renna wasn’t the only one splashing water. Was it Katherine or Carla that joined in the hopeless splashing plan?”
Katherine sheepishly raised her hand.
“Well, even though it accomplished nothing, I cannot let this go unpunished. But for now we have more important things to do. We will be training extra hard today because Mr. Ruiz is having company tonight. This will be your first real live performance. Normally, a stunt like what happened last night would mean no breakfast, but you will need your strength for the performance.”
Gretchen proceeded to feed them their breakfast, and then they began an intensive practice session. She produced a set of brightly-colored plastic eggs and had each mermaid hide one beneath her flap. These would be used for the sequence with Fernando so that each mermaid could “lay” an egg and then put it into Fernando’s pouch. Gretchen also gave Fernando a handful of small floating seahorses and had him put them in his pouch. After the mermaids gave him their eggs, there was a short dance sequence, after which Fernando would open his pouch and allow the seahorses to float out. The eggs were heavier than water, so they would stay in the pouch when it opened. They practiced the performance all day with only short breaks when Gretchen needed to use the bathroom or eat lunch. She fed them dinner and then left them alone, telling them they had an hour to rest before showtime.
After Gretchen left they finally had a chance to “talk” about their experience with the other mermaids. Katherine and Renna explained what they had seen and why they had abandoned the plan to ambush Gretchen. Allen could see how depressed Katherine was feeling.
“DON’T LOSE HOPE. IT IS BETTER THIS WAY. THERE ARE PROBABLY MORE GUARDS AROUND WHILE CARLOS HAS COMPANY, SO OUR ESCAPE WOULD HAVE BEEN MORE DIFFICULT. WE WILL WAIT FOR THE GUESTS TO LEAVE AND THEN TRY AGAIN.”
“BUT HOW? THERE IS NO WAY WE CAN CRAWL ACROSS THAT BROKEN GLASS.”
“IT LOOKS LIKE WE WILL HAVE TO SWITCH TO MY OTHER PLAN. WITH GRETCHEN INSIDE THE ROOM THE BRIDGE OVER THE GLASS SHOULD BE IN PLACE AND WE WILL BE ABLE TO GET OUT.”
“BUT WHAT WILL WE DO THEN? I HAD A HARD TIME CRAWLING A FEW FEET IN THE POOL ROOM. WE MAY GET OUT THE DOOR BUT I’M SURE CARLOS WILL STILL HAVE GUARDS ALL AROUND EVEN WHEN HIS GUESTS ARE GONE. WE WON’T GET FAR BEFORE THEY CATCH US AND THEN WE’LL BE RIGHT BACK HERE OR WORSE.”
“YOU SAID THE OCEAN WAS RIGHT OUT THAT DOOR, DIDN’T YOU? WE ONLY HAVE TO CRAWL THAT FAR AND THEN WE CAN USE OUR TAILS LIKE THEY WERE MEANT TO AND SWIM AWAY FROM HERE. WE’LL GO UP THE COAST TO THE NEXT TOWN AND FIND HELP.”
“I SUPPOSE THAT MIGHT WORK.”
“I KNOW IT’S A GAMBLE, BUT IT BEATS STAYING HERE.”
“SO HOW DO WE MAKE YOUR PLAN WORK?”
“REMEMBER OUR ALTERNATE PLAN?” Audra interrupted.
“GRETCHEN LIKES TO SIT ON THE EDGE OF THE POOL AND FEED ALLEN AND FERNANDO. I THINK SHE ENJOYS TAUNTING THEM. I’M RIGHT NEXT TO ALLEN, SO WHILE SHE IS INVOLVED WITH GIVING HIM BREAKFAST, I CAN RELEASE MY CLAMP AND GRAB HER.”
“OK, THAT MIGHT WORK. BUT HOW WILL YOU GET YOUR TAIL CLAMP OFF?”
“WE CAN RELEASE IT DURING THE NIGHT. OUR TAILS ARE HIDDEN UNDER THE POOL COVER SO SHE WON’T SEE. THEN ALL I HAVE TO DO IS RELEASE MY NECK CLAMP AND ATTACK.”
“YOU’LL HAVE TO PRACTICE UNTIL YOU CAN RELEASE YOUR CLAMP VERY QUICKLY.”
“WE’VE GOT ALL NIGHT.”
“OK. IF THE OTHERS AGREE WE’LL TRY IT, BUT ONLY AFTER THE GUESTS ARE GONE.”
They didn’t have much more time to discuss their plan before they noticed a few people being escorted into the dining area. Gretchen also appeared, dressed in a long black dress instead of her usual swimming suit.
“OK mermaids.” She said through her headset. “Swim around and look pretty. The guests will be settling in and ordering their dinner. I’ll let you know when to start the performance.”
Muscular men wearing dark suits escorted several groups of guests to their seats at the tables. By the look of them, they were guards drafted into being ushers for the occasion. Young women scurried between the tables getting orders for drinks and appetizers. They were dressed in black leotards and tights, but they had knee-length skirts instead of the extremely short filmy skirts they usually wore. They all had their hair braided into a single long braid at the back. Carlos must have found or hired more women for the occasion, beside the three the mermaids were used to seeing. The guests had an Asian look about them. There were 5 or 6 men all wearing dark suits, and an equal number of women wearing formal dresses. The last group to enter consisted of Carlos, who now wore an expensive jacket over his silk shirt, and another Asian man and woman. The man was obviously the highest ranking member of the delegation, as the other guests bowed their heads in respect as he passed. Carlos and his two main guests were seated at the central table, and as soon as they seated themselves the young serving women started setting drinks and appetizers in front of them. The mermaids swam around as the guests worked through their initial courses, and the guests were all obviously fascinated by the scene in the pool in front of them. Once the main course had been brought out to all of the tables, Gretchen kicked off the performance.
“Places mermaids.” She said, and then the music started.
The mermaids swam their well-practiced routine, making a few minor mistakes, but nothing that would be picked up by the audience. The guests seemed to be suitably impressed by the show, and there was even applause at the end when the floating seahorses erupted from Fernando’s pouch and all the Mermaids gathered around him.