To start at the beginning, use this link: Link to chapters 1-5
Chapter 35 – A New Job
On Friday afternoon Ray McKenzie called Janice and offered her the job at the aquarium. The pay was about 15% more than she was making with her current job. Janice surprised herself by saying “yes.”
“I guess I’m committed now.” She said. On Monday she put in her two week’s notice, and then she had a busy two weeks of winding up her old job, cleaning up her house and getting it ready to sell, and looking for a place to stay in Florida. She also filled out an online form with her measurements so that the aquarium could order a tail for her. She told Detective Johnson about her decision and he seemed pleased, though he warned her again that she would need to be careful.
Two days before she was ready to head to Florida, she received a phone call.
“Is this Janice Benson?” Asked the woman on the other end of the line.
“Yes. Who is this?”
“My name is Maria Valenzuela. I’m Audra Burns’s steward.”
“Hello. May I ask why you’re calling?”
“I understand you have accepted a job as a mermaid at the aquarium.”
“Yes, I have. How did you get my name and phone number?”
“As Audra’s representative, I attend the monthly company board meetings. When Jonas mentioned they would be hiring more mermaids, I asked him to send me the names and numbers of any who were hired. Have you found a place to live yet?”
“No. There are a couple of different places I’ve been looking at, but I haven’t decided yet.”
“Well, if you would like to, you would be welcome to stay here at Audra’s house.”
“I thought Audra had gone missing?”
“She has. I believe she was kidnapped. I am her steward, which means I make decisions in her behalf while she is gone. She’s got a big house and there’s no reason for it to sit empty when I can rent it out.”
“What will you be charging for rent?”
“I was thinking about $1,000 a month.”
“Wow! That’s less than half of what I thought I would end up paying. Why so cheap?”
“I have a soft spot for mermaids, and I think Audra would approve of me helping some out. I’ll probably make the offer to some of the other mermaids as well. There is plenty of room. Are you interested?”
“Maybe. But I really don’t know you.”
“Well, you think it over and call me if you decide to try it.”
“OK, I’ll save your number.”
Janice didn’t know what to think about the housing offer, so she decided to see what Detective Johnson thought about it. She called him up and told him about the call.
“Well, I’ve worked with Maria before.” He told her. “And she seemed to genuinely care about Audra. It sounds like a pretty good deal to me.”
“What if she’s the person you’re looking for?”
“I don’t think that is very likely. You still have the two bras you bought on your interview trip?”
“Please make sure to wear one every day. Then if anything happens I’ll be able to track you.”
“If I’m going to wear one every day, I’ll need more than two of them.”
“Once you arrive, I’ll arrange to get you a few more.”
“OK, thank you for your help.”
Janice decided to take Maria up on her offer, so she called back and got the address for her new home. Unlike typical apartments, there was no deposit required, and no time commitment, so Janice could always change her mind if she wasn’t comfortable. She was glad she wouldn’t have to stay in a hotel while she finalized her living arrangements.
The day came for Janice to pack her car and make the long drive to Florida. Since she would be moving into a furnished home, she put most of her furniture in storage. The rest of her belongings were packed into a moving pod that would be delivered to the house in a few days. Many of her things she sold or got rid of. Janice was a little surprised at how easy it was to let go of so many things. But she wanted a fresh start and she found she didn’t feel the need for much of it.
The drive was a bit lonely. She hadn’t driven so far alone in many years. There had been family vacations before her husband died, and then trips with Katherine, but always with someone else in the car. The new scenery wasn’t quite as interesting without anyone to share it with. She arrived on a Saturday evening and Maria met her as she got out of her car. She felt under-dressed in her leggings and tunic compared to the dark skirt and blouse worn by the dark-haired woman who met her.
“You must be Janice.” She said. “Welcome to your new home. I’m Maria.”
“Thank you for inviting me.” Janice answered. “It looks like a very nice place.”
Janice was not exaggerating. The large home was in a very upscale neighborhood, and the stone façade outshone the neighboring homes in size and workmanship.
“I hope you will like it. Let me help you unload your car and show you to your rooms.”
“You don’t have to do that. I wouldn’t want you to get your clothes dirty.”
“Don’t worry about me. I like to help.” Said Maria as she grabbed the handle of a suitcase. “Follow me.”
Janice grabbed a box and followed Maria through a large formal foyer and up a grand staircase to the second floor. Maria showed her into a suite of rooms consisting of a small sitting room and a bedroom with attached bath and walk-in closet. Janice was enchanted by the large jacuzzi tub in the bathroom.
“Oh, this looks very nice.” She said. “I think I’ll have a long bath tonight.”
“That would probably feel good after a long day on the road.” Maria answered.
They finished unloading the car, with Maria continuing to help despite Janice’s insistence that she didn’t need it. Once the car was unloaded, Maria gave Janice a remote for the garage door and had her park her car in the 4-car garage. Janice made sure to leave lots of room between her old Honda Accord and the Mercedes already parked to one side of the space. With the car parked, Maria gave Janice a tour of the house. There was a large living room, a formal dining room, the kitchen, and a less formal family room or recreation room on the ground floor. Behind the recreation room was a changing area where people could get ready to go out into the pool in the back yard. Janice was astonished at the size of that pool. It was broken up into several sections connected by pathways and bridges, but it took up the entire back yard behind the house. It was surrounded by a privacy fence on the sides, with a tall, clear wall at the back so that the view of the bay was unobstructed.
“Katherine told me about this pool.” Janice said. “But her description didn’t do it justice.”
“You knew Katherine?” Maria asked.
“She is my daughter.”
“Your daughter? Does Jonas know you are her mother?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t say anything and he didn’t act like he knew when I interviewed.”
“Why would you come here and take this job? Doesn’t it remind you of your daughter and make you sad?”
“I don’t know how it will make me feel. So far, even though there are lots of things that remind me of Katherine, the challenge of a new job has diverted my mind from her. And there are actually fewer memories here than in the house she grew up in.”
“I suppose that’s true. And since the cause of her death was an airplane crash and not directly related to her job. . . Wait. You don’t believe she is dead, do you?”
Janice didn’t know what to say. She barely knew this woman, and she had already figured out her secret.
“Please don’t tell anyone.” She finally said. “I’m hoping I might find out what really happened to her.”
“Of course I won’t tell anyone. If she’s not dead, then she was probably taken by the same people who kidnapped Audra. I want to find out what happened as much as you do.”
Maria pulled Janice into a hug, then she continued the tour. She took Janice upstairs, where the hallway from the stairs went in two directions. To the left, there were four doors. The first one led into Janice’s suite of rooms, and the other three led to similar suites that were currently empty.
“Audra built this house so that she could invite friends and family for extended visits.” Maria said. “But she never had a chance to use these rooms much.”
To the right of the stairs were doors leading into Audra’s rooms and Maria’s rooms.
“You can knock on my door any time you need something.” Maria said. “I have an office where I handle much of Audra’s day-to-day business, so I spend a lot of time there.”
With the tour done, Janice was ready to try out the bathtub and turn in for the night.
“Breakfast is at 9:00 in the morning.” Maria said.
“What do you mean by that?”
“Just what I said. If you want breakfast, it will be ready at 9.”
“You mean you’re cooking breakfast?”
“I assumed I would have to go shopping and handle my own food. Are you saying meals are provided with the room?”
“Well, I always cooked for Audra. I might ask you to go shopping from time to time.”
“This gets better and better. I’ll see you in the morning.”
After a long soak in the tub and a restful night’s sleep, Janice pulled on some sweat pants and a t-shirt and went downstairs for a Sunday breakfast. To her surprise, Maria was dressed even more formally than the night before. She had on a long, flowered dress and her makeup and hair was impeccable. The dress was protected by an apron, and there were two plates on the table with a scrambled egg concoction on them.
“I hope you like huevos rancheros.” Maria said.
“I don’t think I’ve ever tried them.” Janice answered. “But they look delicious. Why are you all dressed up?”
“It’s Sunday. I’m going to church right after breakfast.”
“And you still made me breakfast? If you had said something I could have cooked while you got ready for church.”
“You were tired after a long trip, and I’m used to making breakfast every morning. What do you have planned for the day?”
“Originally, I thought I would need to go grocery shopping, but it looks like I won’t need to do that. So I’ll probably unpack and organize, then maybe drive around and get to know the area better.”
“That sounds like a good plan. Don’t hesitate to come to me if you have any questions.”
The huevos rancheros were very good. When they were done, Janice insisted on clearing the table. Maria showed her where the dishwasher was so she could load their plates into it. About the time they were finished, the doorbell rang. Maria went to the door and then came back with a package.
“This came for you – special Sunday delivery.” Maria said. “Did you forget something important in Indiana?”
The package was in an Amazon.com box, and the label said it was from Jill’s Unmentionables. Janice wasn’t expecting any package, so she opened it up to see what was inside. She found four bras, just like the two she had gotten from Detective Johnson on her previous trip. All the paperwork made it look like Janice had ordered them herself.
“Now I remember.” Janice said. “I ordered these just before I left. I’ll go put them in my drawer.”
“Those look nice enough.” Maria said. “But don’t you want a little variety?”
“Nobody but me has seen my underwear for 15 years. If I find something I like I just get several.”
Maria left for church and Janice spent some time unpacking. After a few hours, she had her clothes put away and a few pictures on the wall. She set up her computer and looked around for some local sights to visit. She decided on Bill Baggs Cape Florida State park and drove the short distance to the south end of the key, then took a walk on the beach. The beach was beautiful, though she realized it must be the same one where the men first attempted to kidnap her daughter. On a warm Sunday afternoon there were lots of people present, so Janice wasn’t concerned about a similar attempt this time.
Monday came and Janice drove to the aquarium for her first day of work. Ray McKenzie met her at the door.
“Welcome to Burns Pharmaceuticals.” He said. “Come to my office and we’ll get the onboarding process underway.”
After an hour or so of filling out forms, Ray led Janice to the small office that would be hers. He showed her how to find the online training modules and then he walked around the office with her and introduced her to the other employees in the area. She met Lacy and Olivia – two of the other mermaids, along with several others who worked for Burns Pharmaceuticals but not the aquarium. The other three mermaids were not in their offices because they were feeding fish or out working with the dolphins. After the introductions, Ray left her alone to work on the online training. He told her that after lunch Lacy would be helping her practice in the pool with her mermaid tail. She had just finished one of the training modules when Jonas stepped into her office.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were Katherine’s mother?” He asked.
Janice’s heart skipped a beat. “I didn’t want to be hired out of pity. I wanted to be considered on my own merits.”
“I suppose that could be a valid reason. But I don’t like employees withholding information like that.”
“I don’t think that kind of personal information is something I have to disclose.”
“I suppose that is technically true. Do you really want to work here, or is this just some mis-guided attempt to find fault for your daughter’s death?”
“I told you the truth. I felt like it was time to make a change. I know my daughter enjoyed working here, and that is what piqued my interest in applying. Who told you I was her mother?”
“When you mentioned hearing about the crash on the TV, I remembered seeing an interview with you in it.”
“Am I still hired?”
“Yes. I just wanted to understand your motivation. I hope you enjoy working here as much as your daughter.”
“I hope so too.”
The rest of Janice’s morning was uneventful. She had lunch with Lacy and Marta, and they were very welcoming and friendly. Afterward, Lacy went with her to the locker room and showed her where her tail was, then helped her put it on. She was a bit surprised at how difficult the process was, but she was very pleased with the results. Her tail was modeled on the coloration of the Ember Parrotfish, so it was light blue with an area of pale green in the center, along with some muted gray-green at the tips of the fins. She had chosen a light blue halter top to wear with it, and she thought the overall appearance was fantastic. Lacy helped her slide into a wheelchair and they both rolled out to the practice pool. Fernando, a handsome Hispanic man, was waiting there to help them get into the pool. He lifted Janice out of the wheelchair and placed her gently into the sling of the crane.
“They didn’t tell me about the handsome young helper when I applied for the job.” Janice said.
“Not a bad job perk, is he?” Said Lacy. “Unfortunately, he’s married.”
Fernando lowered Janice into the pool and she tried to swim around with her new tail. Soon Lacy joined her and began giving her tips. She spent the rest of the afternoon practicing swimming and holding her breath, and Lacy gave her a tour of the mermaid quarters and the outdoor pools. By the time the day was over, Janice was feeling quite tired and sore, but she felt good about how much she had improved her swimming skill.