The Mermaid Experience Chapters 1-25

The Mermaid Experience

By Newel Stephens

 

Chapter 1- Politics and a Dream

 

Audra Burns checked herself one last time in the mirror.  Her knee-length blue dress and business jacket had no wrinkles or stains, and her curly red hair was properly brushed and held back with a simple barrette.  She had on enough makeup to look presentable without drawing too much attention to herself.  She was as ready as she was going to be.  She picked up the tablet with her presentation from the counter and left the restroom, heading for the elevator up to the meeting room where members of the town council had arranged to hear her pitch.  She rode up to the ninth floor and walked down to the town council offices.  There was an administrative assistant sitting at a desk just inside the office.

“May I help you?”  She asked.

“Yes, I’m Audra Burns.  I’m here for a meeting with Jonas Fulton and some of the other town council members.”

“Oh, yes, Ms. Burns.  We’ve been expecting you.  The conference room is right this way.”

The young woman led Audra down a short hall to a typical conference room.  When she ushered Audra into the room, a handsome black man was already sitting at the table.  He stood up when she entered and held out his hand.

“You must be Audra Burns.  It is good to meet you in person after so many phone conversations.”

“And you must be Jonas.  It’s good to meet you as well.”  Audra replied while shaking his hand.

“Can I get you anything?  Coffee, water?”

“Some water would be great, thank you.”

“Have a seat, and I’ll be right back.  The others will be joining us shortly.”

“Thank you.  Is there a projector I can hook up to?”

“Of course.  There should be a cord under the table at that chair right there.”  Said Jonas as he pointed to a chair near the head of the table.  Audra sat in the chair and found a small shelf under the table with a cord for the projector and a remote control.  She connected her tablet and queued up the first slide in her presentation, then used the remote to start up the projector.  About the time she finished, Jonas returned, followed by a tall man in a brown suit.

“This is Gerard Sikes, another one of our council members.”  Said Jonas.  Audra introduced herself and shook his hand.  Two more people came in quick succession, one a motherly looking woman named Sandra Beall, and the other an older man named Layton Jones.  Once the introductions were through, Audra began her presentation.

“Thank you all for agreeing to meet with you today.  I’m sure Mr. Fulton has told you about my proposed project.  My hope is that after I show you what I have planned you will be willing to help support me.  Presenting the Aquarium of the Future!  A future jewel on Mobile Alabama’s waterfront that will be the centerpiece of your city.”

Audra continued with her well-practiced spiel, showing slides with architectural drawings and computer renderings of the proposed aquarium.  The aquarium had been her dream for many years, and she had developed a plan for the ultimate aquarium experience.  All of the other aquariums she had visited had many small tanks of water with a few limited species of fish in each one.  The newer ones often had one or two very large tanks in addition, often with acrylic tunnels through them so that people could experience being surrounded by water and swimming fish.  Audra’s proposal would be an aquarium with a single huge water tank, 5 million gallons of water.  Wrapped around three sides of the water tank would be the spaces for people, two floors full of interactive displays with the obligatory touch tank, museum store, and cafeteria.  Three tubes would cross through the water, with two on the bottom of the tank and one crossing diagonally above them surrounded on all sides by water, with a clear floor.

Instead of isolating different kinds of fish with aquarium walls, Audra planned to create mini-ecosystems within her huge tank.  One section would be a coral reef with living coral and all the colorful fish associated with that biome, while the other end of the tank would feature large open spaces for pelagic fish.  The two story depth of the aquarium would allow for bottom dwellers to be separated from surface-oriented fish.

When she finished describing the aquarium itself, she started to talk about the financial benefits of such a building.

“A large aquarium can attract a great many tourists to the city.  The Chattanooga aquarium pulls in over a million visitors annually, and 500 million dollars of development in the form of hotels, restaurants, and such followed the opening of the aquarium.  The Newport aquarium in Cincinnati had a similar effect.  Think of the benefits such a large influx of visitors would bring to Mobile!”

Mr. Sikes chimed in.  “If the aquarium brings those visitors.  We’ve been sold this kind of story before.  A big hotel, a conference center, but the visitors tend to bypass Mobile on their way to the beach, and then we’re stuck with a decaying building and unpaid taxes.”

“The beach is a part-time attraction.  Tourists only go to the beach in the warm months, perhaps 5 months a year.  And as you said, they tend to drive through Mobile on the way.  But an aquarium would be open year-round, and even in the summer, a lot of those beach goers might choose to stay in Mobile for a day so that they can visit the aquarium before or after their beach trip.”

Mr. Jones spoke up at this point.  “We already have an aquarium in Mobile.  I go to the Estuarium with my grandkids a couple of times a year.  What do we need another one for?”

“The Estuarium is a great small educational aquarium.  I visited it just yesterday.  But it is a local attraction at best.  A larger aquarium would pull people from a much greater distance, and I would hope that we would develop a cooperative relationship with the Estuarium.  Perhaps we could sell a double pass for both institutions, with the larger aquarium pulling in the crowds and the Estuarium concentrating on hands-on instructional experiences for schoolchildren.  Experience has shown that having multiple similar attractions actually brings more tourists and encourages them to stay longer.”

“So, what’s the catch?”  Asked Mrs. Beall.  “If this is such a great idea, why don’t you just build it?”

“Well, we have several banks lined up to help with the financing, but before they commit so much money they want to see that the community is backing up the development.”

“What kind of backing are you looking for?”

“For one, we would need help in obtaining a site.  We need a waterfront location with appropriate zoning, available parking, and good access.  In addition, the banks are looking for financial backing to offset some of the initial costs.  There are several ways to accomplish that.  The city of Newport, for example, provided the site and prepared the concrete pad for the Newport Aquarium.  In addition, the state of Kentucky gave a refund of state sales taxes for the first 10 years, with an upper limit and as long as at least 25% of the visitors came from out of state.  The details of exactly what kind of help you could give would be dictated by your unique situation.  That is why I wanted to come and talk to you, so that you could have time to decide if Mobile was interested and what incentives the city would be prepared to offer.

“And what do you expect the total cost will be for your aquarium?”

“Well, of course that will depend on the details, but we estimate it will cost between 60 and 70 million dollars.”

“Jonas, do you think this is a good idea?  It sounds like a big investment.”

“I think it might be a good idea.  That’s why I invited Ms. Burns here to present it to us.  Of course, there’s a lot to discuss before we make any decisions.”

There was indeed a lot more discussion, and eventually Audra was excused so that the council members could continue their deliberations in private. She returned to her hotel room to wait for the result.  Late that evening a call came from Jonas Fulton.

“Hello, this is Audra Burns.”

“Hi Audra.  This is Jonas.”

“Jonas.  Thank you for calling.  So what did you decide?”

“Well, we couldn’t really come to an agreement.  Gerard and I think we should back you, but Sandra and Layton think it would be too costly and we should spend our money on roads and police instead.”

“So what does that mean?  How will you decide?”

“We’ve agreed to bring it up in a full council meeting next week.”

“Do you need me to make a presentation again?”

“If you can.  Are you available next Tuesday?”

“I’ll clear my schedule so I can be here.”

“Thank you Audra.  I’m sorry to drag it out this way.”

“I understand.  That’s how government works sometimes.”

“I’ll try to talk to the other council members and prepare the ground for Tuesday.  Have a good evening.”

“Thank you Jonas.  You have a good evening as well.”

Audra was somewhat pleased at the phone call.  A meeting with the full council was what she had hoped to gain by talking with this select group.  It would have been better if all four of them were on board, but now she would get the chance to make her case in a public forum.  There would likely be reporters in attendance, especially if she called the TV stations beforehand.  If they reported positively on the aquarium, that would add pressure on the council to accept.  Audra made some notes and then went to bed.  She had an early flight in the morning.

 

Chapter 2 – A Serendipitous Discovery

 

The next day, a short flight to Houston and a 30 minute drive took Audra to her lab on Pelican Island.  Leaving her suitcase in the car, she entered the nondescript building in an industrial park near Texas A&M Galveston.  Inside was a single large room.  Near the door were two desks with computers and piles of paper.  Farther into the room were several tables covered with laboratory equipment.  Along the walls of the room were large fish tanks.  A complicated system of plastic pipes circulated water through the tanks.  A tall college-aged young woman with long blonde hair was adjusting some valves in the piping.

“Hi Jenny.  How are my jellies doing?”  Audra asked.

“They’re doing great.  The polyp tanks are producing well, and we almost have enough new adults to fill another tank.”

“And the rats?”

“All healthy and happy.”

“Great.  I think today we are finally ready to make some gel.  Get a net and come over to tank 15.”

Jenny collected a net and followed Audra along the line of fish tanks.  The first two tanks had rows of vertical glass plates across the bottom, covered with jellyfish polyps that looked like miniature anemones.  The tanks after those had jellyfish circulating around in the current, with the jellyfish getting bigger the further down the line they progressed.  They stopped at the last tank and Jenny netted out several of the jellyfish, putting them into a large glass beaker that Audra held for her.  When the beaker was about half full, Audra carried it to one of the tables and measured out a chemical solution with a graduated cylinder.  She poured the solution into the beaker and swirled it gently with a glass rod.  The jellyfish broke up as she stirred, dissolving until the beaker contained a slightly amber liquid.  Audra and Jenny then transferred the contents of the beaker into a series of test tubes and loaded them into a centrifuge.

Once the centrifuge had started to run, Audra asked Jenny to work with the rats.  “I know you are fond of them, Jenny.  Are you sure you can do this?”

“Yes, I can do it.”

“OK then.  Do the control rats first.  Use a scalpel and make a cut on their right hindquarter.  Not too deep, just enough to cause some blood to flow.  Then clean the wound and apply some Neosporin.  By the time you are done I should be ready with the healing gel.”

While Jenny worked with the rats in the corner, Audra unloaded the centrifuge and carefully removed the separated materials from the test tubes.  She was interested in the nematocysts – the microscopic needles that jellyfish use to inject toxins into their prey.  These particular jellyfish were Audra’s special find.  She had named them Cassiopea Burnsii after discovering them in a remote corner of the Gulf of Mexico.  She had actually been studying the effects of oil exploration on plant life in the gulf when she accidentally swam through a group of the jellies.  They stuck to her arms and legs, but she only felt a slight tingle instead of the burning pain that most people expect from a jellyfish sting.  One of the jellyfish had ended up plastered across a burn that she had gotten on her leg, and she noticed that it seemed to alleviate the pain from the burn.  Intrigued, she had collected several of the jellyfish and brought them back to her lab to study.

Since that time, Audra had been investigating the effects of the jellyfish.  After collecting a great many of them, she had developed techniques for breeding them in captivity.  Then she had investigated the healing effects of their stings.  The chemicals they injected would kill very small fish and plankton, but on humans they increased blood flow and promoted cell growth and division.  Audra had quit her teaching position at Texas A&M and started her own small company to investigate the uses of the jellyfish in helping promote healing.  She had begun a selective breeding program to increase the healing properties of the stings, and she had worked out a technique to isolate the nematocysts and infuse them into a gel.  Jenny was a local student that she had hired as her only employee so far.

Audra took the separated nematocysts and stirred them into a jar of Vaseline-like jelly.  When the mixture was ready, she took it back near the rat cages and helped Jenny make cuts on a second batch of rats, then cover the cuts with the jelly.  Jenny carefully photographed each cut, and the treated rats were returned to their cages.  They finished just in time for Jenny to leave for a class.  After Jenny left, Audra worked with a second set of rats.  She knew that Jenny wouldn’t have been tough enough to handle this task, because it involved giving the rats a third-degree burn before treating one control group conventionally and one group with the jellyfish gel.  By the time she was done with her gruesome task, it was time to close up the lab and head home to her small apartment nearby.

On Monday of the next week, Audra examined her two sets of rats.  The ones treated with jellyfish jelly were totally healed.  No sign of the cuts or burns remained other than healthy new skin in the affected areas.  The control rats were healing, but the process would take some time to reach completion, and the rats would be left with scars.  She called up Jonas in Mobile.

“Jonas Fulton here.  How may I help you?”

“Hi Jonas.  This is Audra Burns.”

“Well, hello Audra.  How are you doing?”

“I’m doing very well.  My research has been very successful lately.”

“That’s wonderful.  Are you ready for the presentation tomorrow?”

“Unfortunately, that’s why I am calling.  I have a paper to write and human studies to plan.  I won’t be able to support you tomorrow.  I will send along my presentation for you to give.”

“I’m really sorry to hear that.  I don’t know if I will be able to sell your plan the way you could do it.  If the council decides to move ahead, will your schedule allow you to continue working on the aquarium?”

“If the council votes in my favor, I will make sure I have the time.”

They spoke for a few more minutes, with Audra filling in Jonas on the details of her plans.  But the aquarium was already moving to the back of her mind as she considered the implications of her jellyfish-based material.

“The burn unit at Memorial-Hermann.”  Audra mused to herself.  “That ought to be a good place to start.  Who was that boy from med school?  He might be willing to partner with me in a study.”

Audra checked for some names on her computer and started making some calls.

 

 

Chapter 3 – Katherine Applies for a Job

 

  • 10 years later –

March 14

Katherine unpacked her scanty belongings in the kitchen of her tiny apartment in Texas City.  The window was open to allow a warm breeze to flow through the room.  The weather was sure nicer here in Texas than it had been in Indiana.  She had left 5 inches of snow on the ground to come to breezy, 70° March weather.  She hoped it had been the right decision to follow Allen down here.  He had his dream job, right out of college, but she could only hope that her newly printed diploma would enable her to find work as well.  She didn’t want to lose Allen.  They had been dating for 5 months, and she was pretty sure he was the one she wanted to be with for the rest of her life.  Maybe after he settled down a bit, he would finally feel ready to propose.  It wasn’t like Katherine hadn’t dropped enough hints that she was ready.

When she finished her unpacking, Katherine turned on her laptop and checked her e-mail to see if anyone had responded to her online résumé push.  There were several e-mails from likely companies, but most of them were polite refusals.  One seemed promising however – Burns Pharmaceuticals was looking for a biomedical engineer.  That was the right major.  They also wanted someone with experience in fish biology.  Well, Katherine had owned a few aquariums before going to college.  Maybe she could count that?  She went online and researched Burns Pharmaceuticals.  They were the manufacturers of healgel, a substance derived from jellyfish that was used in burn and wound care.  Katherine was familiar with the product, as they had mentioned it in one of her classes.  She even had a box of healgel strips in her medicine cabinet.  They were proven to promote healing of minor cuts and burns without scarring, and they had come to dominate the adhesive bandage market, passing band-aids within a year of their introduction.

Further searching revealed other uses of this miracle material.  A variation was undergoing medical testing as a medium to promote re-growth of skin and other tissue over a silicone template.  If approved, it could be used to help re-grow ears and noses after disease or injury, and there was even the possibility that fingers and toes could be re-grown over a template of artificial bones.  The material was already being used in unapproved ways by body modification enthusiasts to grow living elf ears or demon horns.

Wow!  This sounded like an up-and-coming company to work for.  Katherine quickly wrote a cover letter and tweaked a few items on her résumé, then sent a copy off to the address listed in the e-mail.  She spent a little more time going through her e-mails, and then got up to get ready for the evening.  She and Allen were planning to explore the waterfront in Galveston.  She put on a long summery skirt, a tight t-shirt, and sandals.  Before long, Allen pulled up in front of her apartment.  She met him at the door, received a pleasantly long kiss, and then followed him to his little red civic.

“So how did the unpacking go?”  Allen asked as they drove toward their destination.

“I’m all done.  I don’t have a lot of stuff so it doesn’t take long.  How was work?”

“Pretty good.  I’m starting to learn everyone’s names and figure out where I fit in.  John seems to be a pretty good boss.”

“What have they got you working on?”

“Well, I’m the new guy so they haven’t given me much yet.  John has me researching some more powerful external lighting, so I spent most of the day looking at data sheets on the internet.”

“I guess you would need some good lights when the sub gets really deep.”

Allen chatted some more about his job.  He had been hired as a mechanical engineer by a small company that made submarines for underwater industrial uses, like oil extraction.  Allen felt lucky to have the job.

It didn’t take them long to get onto Galveston island and find a parking spot.  They walked along the waterfront for a time, found a restaurant for dinner, and sat on a bench to watch the ocean for a time.  Katherine told Allen about her job prospect, and he agreed that it sounded like a good opportunity.  When it started getting chilly they got back in the car and Allen took Katherine home.  They spent a few minutes kissing on her doorstep before Allen left for his own small apartment a few blocks away.  Katherine looked forward to a time when they would be sharing a space, but they had both agreed that they would wait until they were married before taking that step.

The next day was a Tuesday, and when she checked her e-mail, she found one from Burns Pharmaceuticals.  They wanted her to set up an interview!  She called right away, and the human resources person asked if she was available that very afternoon.  She agreed to come at 2:00.  That gave her just enough time for lunch and to make sure she had everything she might need.  She had to dig a little bit to find her social security card and a school transcript.  She found an old folder left over from school and put those documents as well as another copy of her résumé inside.  She didn’t have much food in her refrigerator yet, so she made a sandwich for lunch.  With the butterflies in her stomach she didn’t feel like eating much, so the sandwich was enough.  She spent some time deciding what to wear, though she really didn’t have much selection of business clothing.  If she got the job she would have to do some shopping.  Katherine finally selected a straight brown skirt and a cream-colored blouse.  She braided her long blonde hair to keep it out of her way.  Clutching her document folder, Katherine walked down to her car and drove Galveston, and then across to Pelican Island.

When she got close to the address in the e-mail, Katherine saw a huge cylindrical building with a large parking lot in front of it.  Banners flapped from light poles throughout the parking lot.  “The Gulf Aquarium – Grand Opening May 1” they proclaimed, accompanied by pictures of brightly-colored sea life.  Katherine’s phone guided her around the parking lot to a set of large buildings behind the aquarium.  The Burns Pharmaceuticals logo marked these buildings as her destination.  She found a visitor parking spot and went in the front entrance.  A good-looking man in a polo shirt greeted her as she entered.

“Welcome to Burns Pharmaceuticals. How may I help you?”

“Hello, my name is Katherine Larsen.  I’m here for a job interview.”

“Miss Larsen.  Of course.  We have been waiting for you.  If I could just make a copy of your Social Security Card and Driver’s license?”

Katherine handed over the cards.  The man handed her an i-pad.

“There are a few electronic forms on this i-pad.  Please have a seat and fill them out while I check to see if Ray is ready to talk to you.”

Once Katherine was done filling out the forms, she was introduced to Ray McKenzie, the human resources manager.  He took her back to his office and asked about her qualifications.  She showed him her transcript and explained about her home aquariums and about the nursing home where she had worked to earn money for college.  He seemed pleased about the nursing home job and asked her more about what she did there.  She tried to make changing diapers and pushing wheelchairs sound like valuable experience.  Ray told her about the history of the company and what kind of products they were making.  He also told her about their insurance and vacation policies.  At the end of their interview, he seemed pleased enough.  “I think there might be one other person who would like to talk to you.  Would you mind waiting here while I go see if she is available?”  He asked.

“No, of course not.”  Katherine answered.  Hopefully it was a good sign that he wanted her to meet someone else.  Katherine went over the interview in her mind while she was waiting.  Had she been convincing?  Her hands felt clammy, so she wiped them on her skirt.  After a few minutes, Ray came back.  A short woman with curly red hair accompanied him.

“Katherine, this is Audra Burns, the owner and CEO of Burns Pharmaceuticals.”

This sounded really good.  The owner wanted to talk to her?

“Pleased to meet you.”  Katherine said as she received a firm handshake.

“Ray seems to feel like you might be a good fit for our company.”  Audra said.  “Would you like me to give you a little tour?”

“I would love to go on a tour.”

“Do you have any other appointments?  Do you need to catch a plane this afternoon?”

“No.  I just moved to Texas City, so I don’t need to catch a plane or anything.  And I don’t have any other appointments today.”

“Good, we can take our time then.  Come with me please.”

They went down the hallway towards a pair of swinging double doors.  Just before reaching the doors, Audra led her into a small side room.  The room had a closet full of white smocks.  Audra looked appraisingly at Katherine, then picked one and handed it to her.

“Let’s see if this one fits.”

Katherine put the smock on.  Audra went to a small closet at the end of the room and pulled out a smock of her own.  Audra’s smock was light blue and had her name embroidered above the pocket.  After checking to see that Katherine’s shoes had closed toes, Audra handed her a pair of protective glasses and put on her own pair as well.  Once they were dressed, they left the room and went through the swinging doors.

They entered a large room filled with rows of cylindrical stainless-steel tanks.  A bundle of pipes and wires hung over the tanks, with some of the pipes extending down into the containers.  Beside each tank was a computer monitor, and Katherine could see lines and icons on the screens indicating water temperature, salinity, rotational speed, etc.  The quiet hum of pumps could be heard, and several people in white smocks went circulated among the tanks, adjusting a setting here or there.  Audra walked to the third tank in line, which had a set of movable metal steps in front of it.

“Come on up and look inside.”  She said.

Katherine climbed up the steps and looked into the tank.  Inside, she could see masses of jellyfish gently circling the tank.

“We use a gentle current to keep the jellyfish from contacting the sides of the tank.”  Explained Audra.

“So these are the jellyfish you use to make healgel?”

“Yes, they are.  The nematocysts are the key component, but we also use the bodies of the jellyfish as a component in the gel.  If we choose to hire you, you would be helping us improve our techniques for growing and breeding the jellyfish.  It is a very delicate process and there are several parameters that must be balanced just right to make it all work.”

“That sounds like a very interesting challenge.”

“Let me show you the next step in the process.”

They walked farther down the row of tanks toward the back of the room.  Audra stopped at one of the tanks and pointed to a clear pipe that had been lowered down into the tank.

“These jellyfish have reached the optimum size and they are being harvested.”

Katherine could see the jellyfish being sucked up into the tube.

“The tube takes them into the next room.  Come with me.”

Audra walked to the end of the room and through a door.  Beyond the door was a smaller room, and Katherine could see the pipe coming in overhead and then discharging its cargo into a strainer.  A woman stood by the strainer with gloved hands and picked up the jellyfish that were in the strainer.  She loaded them into a glass bowl with a line on it.  When the bowl was filled up to the line, she picked up the bowl and loaded it into a machine behind her.  Through the clear door, Katherine could see robotic arms in the machine squirt liquid into the bowl and then stir it.  After a set time, the bowl moved on a conveyor belt back into a covered portion of the machine.

“The chemicals that are added to the jellyfish help break down the cell walls without causing the nematocysts to fire.  The bowl then goes into a centrifuge where the nematocysts are separated from the rest of the material.”

They passed through several more rooms.  The jellyfish parts were shipped away to a different facility where the material was combined with various chemicals to make the base gel material.  The nematocysts were added to the base material in a different room, where there was less automation and more hand work.  Katherine watched workers packaging the finished healgel into containers for use in hospital burn units.  Other workers spread the gel onto bandages that were then packaged for retail sale.  It all looked like a very progressive and interesting place to work.  As they approached one last door, Audra asked a puzzling question.

“So, Katherine.  Are you a good swimmer?”

“Pretty good.  I was on my high school swim team for a few years.”

“Have you ever done any snorkeling?”

“No.  There’s not much opportunity for that in Indiana where I grew up.”

“Have you ever used swim fins?”

“I played around with them once or twice.”

“The next thing I want to show you is another project of mine.  You saw the signs for the Gulf Aquarium?”

“I did.  Is that your project?”

“Yes.  It is something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time.  It wasn’t until healgel became such a big success that I was able to do it, though.  Until a year ago, I always had to beg the banks and governments for money, and I could never get it all to work out.  But now, with the profits from healgel, I can use my own money.  That made it a lot easier to get the local government to go along.  Are you ready to see it?”

“Oh yes.  I’ve always loved aquariums.”

“Follow me then.  We’re going to enter by the back way.”

Audra opened the door and led Katherine down some stairs.  They continued down a utilitarian hallway and entered a large room filled with pumps and huge pipes.  There were several large tanks of water in the room with fish swimming around in them.

“This is our filter and quarantine area.  The tanks have fish that we plan to introduce into the main aquarium.  They stay here for a time so that we can make sure they don’t have any diseases or parasites that would affect the other aquarium inhabitants.  Eventually we will also have tanks for breeding certain species.”
“What kind of filter do you use?”

“It is a large sand filter.  But we don’t need to do a tremendous amount of filtration because we pump sea water in from the gulf.  See that pipe over there?  It goes underground, and then along the bottom of the bay and out into the Gulf of Mexico.  We bring enough water in through there to completely change the water in the aquarium every three days.  The only thing we need to do to the water is check it for contaminants and heat it to the correct temperature.  Our next stop will show you where the water goes.”

They left the room and went up two flights of stairs.  When they came out of the stairwell, they entered a huge room with what looked like the largest indoor swimming pool Katherine had ever seen.  Skylights filled the room with natural sunlight, and the room smelled humid and salty like the ocean.  The pool was probably three times larger than the Olympic swimming pool at college.  It looked very deep as well, though it was not filled completely to the top.  Two women were swimming down at the far end of the pool.

“This is our water storage pool.”  Audra explained.  “The water we pump from the Gulf comes in here first, so that we can test it and raise or lower the temperature if needed.”

“Why is it only half full?”

“Actually, it is about two thirds full.  The pool is 20 feet deep, and I think it is filled to about the 12 foot level right now.  We need to leave room in case there is a problem.  If we find contamination or some other problem in the water, we can let the pool fill to the top while we figure out how to fix the problem.”

“I see.”

“Let me introduce you to some of my newest employees.”  Audra said.  Then she raised her voice and called the two swimmers.  “Renna, Lacy!  Can you come over here please?”

The two women started swimming towards them.  Katherine was surprised by their swimming technique, until they got a little closer.  Then she realized that they were wearing mermaid tails.  She had heard about such things, but never seen one up close before.  The women seemed to be swimming quite well with their tails, and in a few moments they were treading water directly below Audra and Katherine.

“Katherine, this is Renna and Lacy.  They just started working for me a few days ago.”

“Pleased to meet you.”  Said Katherine.  “Why are you wearing the mermaid tails?”

2-mermaids-picture

“Audra needs divers to feed the sharks and maintain the aquarium, and she had this idea to use mermaids instead of regular divers.”  Answered the woman who had been introduced as Renna.

“Why are you in the water storage pool?”

“We are practicing.  It takes time to learn how to swim with one of these tails, and we need to be ready when the aquarium opens in May.”

“Thank you.  Your tails look terrific, by the way.”

“Thanks.  I love mine.  I’ve been dreaming about being a mermaid ever since I was a little girl.”

Katherine’s compliment about the tails was sincere.  These were not simple cloth leg coverings.  They were hand crafted and painted works of art, and they looked very realistic.  Audra indicated that she was ready to move on, and Katherine followed her towards another door.

“How do they get out of that pool?”  Katherine asked.

“Well, as you would guess, they need some help.  We have a kind of crane and sling down at the other end of the pool.  When they are done practicing, they can push a button and someone comes to help lift them out of the water and then help them take off the tails.  It is quite a process to get into and out of one of those tails.”

They left the pool room and went down a short stairway.  When they opened the next door, Katherine had to stop and stare for a moment.  In front of her was a huge clear Acrylic wall, with hundreds of fish swimming behind it.  The water behind the wall seemed to recede into the distance, as if it was a part of the ocean.  Only after a few minutes of watching did Katherine notice that there was a back wall.

“Walk a little closer.” Said Audra, once Katherine seemed ready to move on. Katherine did so, and when she did she noticed that the aquarium was two stories deep. She was on the second floor, so she could look down and see into the bottom half of the tank. She could see three clear tubes crossing through the aquarium – one on the lower level, one on the upper level, and one that started on the upper level and angled down to exit on the lower level. Katherine looked around and saw that she was in a wide gallery area that surrounded the aquarium. Several workers were busy building pedestals and displays in the gallery. Smaller aquariums were set into the outer walls. A few of them were filled with water and fish, but most were empty. More aquariums were situated in the center of the gallery. One was a large, cylindrical tank with jellyfish swimming gently around in a circle. Audra led her farther around the gallery, following the wall of the aquarium.

“How big is this aquarium?” Katherine asked her.

“It is 300 feet in diameter and holds over 10 million gallons of water. It is by far the largest single fish tank in the world.”

“It’s incredible.”

Gulf Aquarium Overhead

They continued around the curve until they came to a spot where the second floor ended. They looked over a railing into a large, 2-story atrium that looked like it would eventually become the main entrance to the aquarium. One of the tubes opened out near the railing, and Audra led Katherine through it. The floor was flat, with a pattern of ridges cut into it to help them maintain their footing on the acrylic surface, but you could still see down through the material and watch the fish swimming beneath you.

“We had to develop a special technique for casting these tubes in place.” Audra explained. “The acrylic is a foot thick, and we developed a special machine that created a six foot long segment of tube and then moved gradually across the floor, extruding the tube behind it. That is why these tubes have no seams, unlike those you may have seen in other aquariums.”

As they approached the other side of the aquarium, they passed through a ridge of coral. The fish in this section of the aquarium changed from the large, free-swimming fish they had been viewing to the smaller, more colorful reef fish. Beyond the coral, the tube exited into the other side of the gallery. Near the exit of this tube was the entrance to another one.

“This tube will take us down to the first floor gallery. We are taking the tour in the reverse direction that most visitors will take.”

They walked back through the coral reef and when they reached the middle of the aquarium, the tube crossed over the lower level tube and then immediately angled downwards. They continued out into the lower level gallery, where more workers were busy installing tile on the floor. They headed back around the aquarium, avoiding the areas of newly laid tile, and Audra led Katherine through the last tube. This one had an opaque floor as it was on the bottom of the aquarium, but the view up through 8 or 10 feet of water above was spectacular.

“Rather than divide our fish by putting them in different tanks, we separate them the same way that nature does- by changing their environment. The reef fish could swim anywhere they want to, but they prefer to be near the safety of the coral where they can hide and where they typically find their food. The large, pelagic fish prefer to swim in the wide open areas of the aquarium.”

“How do you keep the large fish from eating the little ones?”

“That’s where our mermaids come in. They will be hand-feeding the sharks and other large carnivores. Basically, they won’t attack the smaller fish because they aren’t hungry. It isn’t a 100 percent foolproof solution, but that’s how it has been done for years in other aquariums and it works pretty well.”

“Where are the sharks? I don’t see any.”

“They are in quarantine. We will be introducing the larger more aggressive fish last to give the other fish time to establish territories and find hiding places.”

Soon they reached the other side of the gallery again, and Audra led Katherine through a door marked “Staff Only” and down a hall back to the Burns Pharmaceuticals building. Katherine thanked her for the tour as Audra escorted her to the entrance.

“We’ll call you within a day or two with our decision.” She told her.

 

 

 

Chapter 4 – Cooking Dinner

March 15

Allen called Katherine as soon as he got home from work.

“Hello?”

“Hi honey.  How did the interview go?”

“Really well, I think.  The president of the company gave me a tour.”

“That’s definitely a good sign.  What was he like?”

“Her name is Audra Burns, and she seemed quite passionate about both her company and the new Gulf Aquarium.  Did you know that she is paying for it with her own money?”

“No.  Want to come to my place for dinner tonight?”

“Sounds good.  What are you making?”

“I thought I would cook some spaghetti.”

“Mmm, that sounds yummy.  I’ll be over in a few minutes.”

“OK, see you then.  I love you.”

“I love you too.  Goodbye.”

Allen changed out of his work clothes into some shorts and a t-shirt, then started browning hamburger and boiling water for noodles.  He was poking around in the fridge to see what kind of vegetables he had when Katherine knocked on the door.  After a pleasant kiss hello, she came into Allen’s kitchen to help with the cooking.

“How was work for you today?”  She asked.

“Good.  They’ve put me on the Hippocamp project.”

“What’s the Hippocamp project?”

“It’s an all-electric submarine designed for scientific and industrial use.  It will have those really bright lights I was investigating as well as several different manipulator arms.  The design is already done, but there are still several auxiliary systems to finish, so I’ll be working on the lights and a couple of the manipulators.”

They continued chatting while they cooked, bumping into each other frequently in the tiny kitchen.  Not that either of them minded the contact.  They ate their spaghetti and then sat on the couch and watched a movie together.  It still felt kind of strange not to have any homework assignments to worry about.  After the movie, Allen walked Katherine home.  Allen wished her luck on her job search and then returned to his own, very empty and lonely apartment.

 

Chapter 5 – A New Job

March 17

On Thursday morning, Katherine was sitting in front of her computer looking at more job openings when the phone rang.

“Hello?”

“Is this Katherine Larsen?”

“Yes it is.”  The voice sounded familiar.

“This is Ray McKenzie with Burns Pharmaceuticals.  I’m calling to offer you a job.”

“Really?  That’s great.”

“Your official job title will be Associate Engineer, and we are offering a salary of $50,000 a year.  Does that sound good to you?”

That sounded like a pretty good salary to Katherine.  It was about the same amount that Allen was being paid.

“Yes, it does sound good.  What do I need to do now?”

“We will be sending you an e-mail with all the details- salary, insurance, vacation, etc.  Just read it over carefully and if you accept the job send me a reply.”

“When would I start?”

“Would Monday morning be acceptable?”

“Yes, that would work for me.”

“Good.  I’ll see you at 8:00 AM Monday morning then.  Have a good weekend.”

Katherine paced around her apartment, jumping up and down a little bit from the excitement as she waited for the e-mail to come.  She sent a text to Allen telling him the good news.  After a few minutes, the expected e-mail arrived and Katherine read it through.  Most of it was what she expected to see- a boilerplate letter extending the job offer and explaining the salary and benefits.  Katherine was a little surprised at the job description:

 

You will be working as part of the healgel development team, using your knowledge and skills to increase the production of Burns Pharmaceutical’s core product as well as developing new products based on this technology.

You will also be part of our Gulf Aquarium dive team, helping to feed and maintain the sea life in the aquarium.  Dive training will be provided.  In order to maintain the “Mermaid” Appearance, we request that you keep your hair long – no shorter than shoulder length.

 

That explained the tour of the aquarium.  Although this was not what she expected, Katherine was actually pleased to see this addition to her job.  She loved swimming, and the thought of spending part of each day swimming in a huge aquarium full of colorful fish made her very happy.  She had always worn her hair long, so that requirement was not an issue.  The instructions said that she should bring a swimsuit with her on Monday, so she would have to go shopping.  Her only swimsuit was an old tank-style one-piece that she had worn once or twice while attending school.  If she was going to be swimming frequently, she would need to get a couple more.  She would probably need to get a business wardrobe as well.  The jeans she wore at school wouldn’t be appropriate for an engineering job.  After reading through the job offer a couple of times, Katherine sent back her acceptance and then went downstairs to her car and headed to store to buy some clothes.  She decided to stick to one or two outfits at first until she had a chance to evaluate what the other workers were wearing.  She also didn’t want to blow through all her money in one day.  That first paycheck would be a few weeks in coming and she had to live on her savings until then.

Katherine and Allen celebrated her job with a nice dinner on the weekend.  On Saturday, they visited Moody Gardens, one of the biggest attractions in Galveston.  They did the zipline course, swam in the pool, and visited the rainforest pyramid.  Next to the rainforest was the burned skeleton of the Aquarium pyramid, and a sign that explained how a pump had overheated and started a devastating fire that destroyed the attraction.  The sign promised a new attraction soon.  Katherine wondered if Audra would have built her aquarium in a different city had the fire not happened here.

On Sunday evening, Katherine packed a small bag with things she wanted to take to her first day of work.  She had a picture of her mother, a picture of Allen, and her new red swimsuit.  She added a towel just in case.  The next day she took her bag and drove to her new place of employment.  She parked in the employee parking and went inside.  She learned that the receptionist’s name was Mark, and he gave her a stack of paperwork to fill out.  Once the paperwork was done, Mark called Audra, who came down to meet her again.

“Hello Katherine.  Welcome aboard.”

“Thank you for hiring me.  I’m looking forward to working here.”

“You will be working directly for me, so I’ll show you to your office.”

“Wow!  I’m surprised that I’ll be working directly for the owner of the company.  Why is that?”

“I like to be directly in touch with the people who design our products.  So at Burns Pharma I decided to hire managers for most things but keep the day-to-day management of product design under my own control.  It does mean that you may have to work independently from time to time when I have other business to attend to.”

“Well, I just hope I can live up to your expectations.”

“Come, let’s meet the rest of the team.”

Audra took Katherine upstairs to an office area.  Around the perimeter of the area were a series of offices, and in the center was a conference table with a projector and a screen that lowered from the ceiling, as well as a water cooler and a central printer and copier.  The largest office near the door belonged to Audra.  Audra led Katherine around the room to an office that already had a name plaque with Katherine’s name on it.  She put her bags down in the room and then followed Audra as she introduced the rest of the group.

Mike Easterson – Mechanical Engineer

Kelly Benson – Marketing Representative

Alfonse Brewster – Chemical Engineer

Donato Gemelli – Medical Compliance Specialist

Samantha Hanes – Human Studies Specialist

Renna Kosmatka – Aquarium Diver

Lacy Zelinski – Aquarium Diver

Katherine was surprised when she was re-introduced to the two mermaids.  Apparently Audra had a special interest in the divers as well as the product development team.  Once the introductions were done, Audra left Katherine alone to settle in for a bit.  She left her with a list of online training material that Katherine needed to work through in the next few days.  It didn’t take long to arrange her two pictures on her desk, and then Katherine started learning about Safety and Personal Protection Equipment.  She was halfway through the training on Compliance with All US and International Laws when Renna stopped in her doorway.

“Hey Katherine.  Want to join us for lunch?”

Katherine looked at the time in the corner of her computer screen.  11:58. “Sure.  Let me grab my purse.”

They were joined by Mike and Samantha.  Renna led the way back downstairs and down a hall to the company cafeteria.  The food was OK, though the others groused about it.  They spent their lunchtime getting to know each other a little.  Mike was married with three children and seemed to spend most of his evenings and weekends coaching soccer.  Samantha was divorced with a preschool aged daughter.  And Renna was young and single and spent most of her free time at the beach.  Katherine told them about Allen and then asked about the area.  The others quickly chimed in with recommendations for restaurants, parks, and other attractions.  When they were done with lunch, Renna came back to Katherine’s office.

“You’re with me this afternoon.”  She said.  “First we need to get you set up with a mermaid tail.  Did you bring a swimsuit?”

“Yes.  I have it right here.”

“First we need to take some measurements, so why don’t you run to the bathroom and change into your swimsuit?  I’ll get my measuring tape and meet you back here.”

Katherine did as instructed.  It felt strange to be walking back through the office in a swimsuit.  She was glad she had purchased a modest one-piece to bring today.  A couple of the men seemed to stare a little as she walked past their offices.  When she got back to her own office, Renna was waiting with a measuring tape and a form.  She had Katherine stand with her legs together and then took several measurements around her legs from her ankles to her waist.  She wrote the numbers down on the form.  Then she had Katherine sit at her computer and go to the web site of the mermaid tail manufacturer.  Renna helped her select a tail and a color pattern, then enter all of the appropriate information and order her tail.  It would take two weeks for the tail to be manufactured and delivered.

“This is really fast for a mermaid tail.”  She explained.  “Usually it takes several months, but Audra pays extra for high quality and fast delivery.”

Once her tail had been ordered, Katherine took her street clothes and followed Renna back to the water storage pool.  They went to the far end of the pool from where she had seen it before, and entered a locker room.

“You can keep your swimsuits in here from now on.”  Said Renna as she changed into hers.  After a few moments Lacy joined them and changed into her suit as well.  Both girls wore two-piece suits.  Renna wore a blue bikini, while Lacy had a tank top and brief-style bottoms.

“You’ll want to wear a two-piece suit once your tail arrives.”  Lacy said.  “The top of the tail stays in place better if you have bare skin on your belly.”

The lockers were wide and tall to allow room for the tails to hang in them.  Renna grunted as she lifted her tail out of its place.  They were apparently pretty heavy.  Katherine opened her locker and saw a couple of monofins in the bottom.

“Find the fin that seems to fit you best.”  Said Renna.  “You can practice with the monofin and work on your breath holding while we wait for your tail to arrive.  Come on out to the pool.  Fernando should be here by now.”

Katherine held the door as the other two women carried their tails out.  They walked to the side of the pool, where there was a miniature crane with a sling hanging from the tip.  Standing next to it was a muscular Hispanic man in a black swimsuit.

“Katherine, this is Fernando Salazar.  He helps us put the tails on and serves as a lifeguard while we swim.”

“Nice to meet you, Katerina.”  Said the man.

Katherine watched the process of putting the tails on.  First the women covered their legs with baby oil and then laid down on the floor and slid their feet into the tails.  Fernando pulled as they squirmed and wiggled until the tails were in place.  When they were both transformed into mermaids, Fernando lifted Lacy up and sat her in the sling on the crane, then rotated it out over the water and lowered her in.

“Why don’t you just crawl over to the side and jump in?”  Katherine asked.

“The silicone in the tails is pretty tough, but if we do a lot of crawling around it tends to get scuffed and scratched.  Besides, we kind of like Fernando to carry us around.”

Katherine smiled and Renna grinned at Fernando, who blushed slightly.

“You know I am a married man, Renna.”  He said.

“That doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy my work.”  She answered.

“Katherine, you can just sit on the side of the pool and slip your monofin on.  Then you can either jump in or ask Fernando for a ride on the crane.  I suggest you take advantage of the ride.”

Fernando picked Renna up and lowered her into the water with the crane while Katherine put on her monofin.

“Do you want a ride, Katerina?”

“Well, it was recommended.  And I need to see what it will be like once I get my tail.”

The handsome man lifted Katherine up into the sling.

“Your wife is very lucky to have such a strong, handsome husband.”  Katherine said as he helped her in.

“Thank you for the flattery.  It seems Renna is teaching you her ways of teasing.”

Fernando lowered her into the water and she dove forward out of the sling.  She experimented with using the monofin to swim and found it a little difficult.  She was not used to having her feet stuck together.  After a few minutes, she seemed to get the hang of the undulating motion required.  Renna swam over to her.

“That boyfriend of yours will like what this mermaid swimming does to your body.”  She said.  “It can be quite a workout.  Are you ready to practice holding your breath?”

“I have been swimming before.  I already know how to hold my breath.”

“Yes, I’m sure that’s true.  But we need to be able to stay under for three or four minutes when we’re in the aquarium.  Can you hold your breath for that long?”

“No, I don’t think so.  It’s been a long time since anybody timed it.”

“Come to the side of the pool and we’ll get Fernando to time us.”

They both took deep breaths and sank under the water while Fernando timed them with a stopwatch.  Katherine came up after about 95 seconds, but Renna stayed under for two minutes 48 seconds.

“Wow.  You’re pretty good at this.”  Said Katherine.

“Actually, I started out at less than a minute.  It’s mostly a mind game about learning to stay relaxed.  There is actually plenty of oxygen left in our lungs, but as the carbon dioxide builds up the urge to breathe gets strong.  Lacy and I have been working on it for a while every day.”

Lacy joined them and they continued to practice for a while.  Katherine managed to squeeze a few more seconds out before surfacing.  Then they practiced swimming the 300 foot length of the pool and back.  It didn’t take long for Katherine to get tired out.  It had been several years since her high school swim team, and she was out of shape.  So she rested at the end of the pool while the other two women swam a few more laps.  After a time, Fernando called down to them.  “Feeding time!”

“Follow us!”  Said Lacy, and began to swim the length of the pool again.  Katherine followed them.  When they got to the other end, Renna pointed out a large tube in the side of the pool.  About two-thirds of the tube was under water.  Katherine had noticed it before and assumed it was some part of the filtration system, but Lacy swam straight into the tube, and Renna motioned for Katherine to follow her.  They swam for 30 or 40 feet until the tube met the side of the aquarium.  Where the tube met the aquarium wall, the wall dipped down a foot or so and had a smooth, rounded top.  The water came up to within an inch or two of the lowered area.  Lacy grabbed hold of the top, gave a strong flip with her tail, and slipped over the edge into the aquarium.  Renna held Katherine back when she tried to follow.  Lacy treaded water in front of the tube, and they all waited for a few minutes.  After a time, Fernando appeared on a catwalk above and behind them.  He lowered a couple of tightly sealed buckets and set them into hooks on the edge of the catwalk.  Then he handed a long pole down to Lacy.  She pulled a fish out of one of the buckets and impaled it on the sharp point of the pole, then she grabbed the bucket and swam down through the pool towards the coral reef.

“There aren’t a lot of the bigger carnivores in the aquarium yet, but we’ve started to add a few.  Lacy is going down to feed the moray eels.  In a couple of weeks we’ll start to add the sharks and then we’ll need more help to do the daily feeding.  Audra doesn’t want anybody going into the aquarium who isn’t wearing a mermaid tail, so you can stay here for now.  I’m going to take the other bucket and refresh the seaweed for the grazers.”

Renna slipped over the wall into the aquarium and grabbed the other bucket.  Katherine watched as she swam down to a clip that had been attached to the wall with a suction cup.  Renna pulled some strands of seaweed out of the bucket and fastened them into the clip, then rose up to get a breath.  Katherine watched as the two women swam from one location to another, rising up to get a breath in between each spot.  No wonder they needed to practice holding their breath!  Three minutes was not very long when you were trying to wrangle seaweed out of a bucket or convince an eel to swallow a fish.  When the two women were done with the feeding, they brought their buckets back to Fernando and then slipped back over the wall into the tube.  The tube was wide enough for two to swim abreast, so Katherine tried to keep up with Renna as they swam back to the water storage pool.  When they got back to the far end of the pool, they waited for Fernando to walk back around the perimeter of the pool to the crane.  Renna taunted him good-naturedly while he walked.  Then Fernando used the crane to lift each woman in turn out of the pool, and helped the two mermaids pull their tails off.

Katherine volunteered to carry Lacy’s tail back into the locker room.  It was indeed quite heavy – probably 40 or 50 pounds.  Fernando came with them into the room and they carried the tails into a large washbasin.  They used a disinfectant cleaner and a hose to wash the tails out, then hung them back up in their lockers.  After helping the women with the cleaning task, Fernando left them alone in the locker room to shower and change back into street clothes.  By the time they got back to their offices, it was time to go home.

When she got home, Katherine changed into more comfortable clothes and started cooking dinner.  She had volunteered to make dinner for Allen that night.  As she pulled off her slacks and changed into jeans, she noticed some soreness in her leg muscles.  “I guess I needed the exercise.”  She thought to herself.  She decided to go Mexican and started cooking Spanish rice for dinner, with some grilled chicken breasts and some asparagus to go with it.  She was almost done when Allen arrived.  After a few hello kisses, they worked together to put the food on the table.

“So how was your first day of work?”  Allen asked.

“Very good.  I think I’m going to love this job.  The biomedical part really didn’t happen today – it was all paperwork and training.  But I got to spend the afternoon swimming.  How lucky can you be?”

“Well, you could be swimming with me.  I feel sad that I missed out on seeing you in your new swimming suit.”

“That’s OK.  Fernando was there to take your place.”
“Who’s Fernando?”

“Our very hunky lifeguard and mermaid tail helper.”

“Very hunky, huh?  Should I be jealous?”

“Lucky for you he’s already married.  He’s fun to tease, though.”

“I’m still jealous.”

“Well, after dinner why don’t you come shopping with me?  I need to buy a couple more swimsuits, so I can try them on and you will get your chance to see me before Fernando does.”

“Normally shopping ranks just slightly above a root canal in my book, but this sounds like it might be interesting.  I’ll take you up on it.”

 

Chapter 6 – Two Young People at Work

March 22

Allen found the shopping trip had some enjoyable moments, when his beautiful girlfriend modeled various swimsuits for him.  After he dropped her back off at her apartment, he had to go to his own and take a cold shower.  He needed to marry that girl.  He had been making plans along that line for some time, but had wanted to wait until things were more settled.  With both of them working good jobs, that time had come.  He decided to take her out on Friday evening and pop the question.

Tuesday morning found Allen at work.  Unlike Katherine’s traditional office setting, the company Allen worked for had a large, warehouse-like space with no separate offices.  Several desks were scattered around the room, but the majority of the space was taken up by three submarines under construction.  Orca Subs had a total of 15 employees, of which Allen was the newest.  John Sykes, the owner, had built his first sub by himself while working for Electric Boat in Connecticut.  When a wealthy yachter saw him sailing his creation, he ordered one of his own.  John had parlayed that first investment into his own small company.  Allen greeted a few people as he entered the room, then sat down at his desk and started his computer.  He opened up his CAD program and started working on the model for the bracket he had been working on.  He had found a set of powerful LED flood lights for the submarine, and now he needed to figure out how to attach them to the body of the sub.  After a time, his work was interrupted by Phil, the head of the manufacturing team.

“Hey Allen, you know how to work a wrench?  Or are you one a’ those kids with his nose in his phone alla time?”

“I’ve tinkered with a few cars before.  Why do you ask?”

“C’mere and gimme a hand then.  I gotta get these batteries inside sub 11 over here, and all my other guys are busy.”

“Sure, Phil.  You just tell me what you need me to do.”

Allen spent most of the day helping Phil work on sub 11.  This was one of the reasons he had been attracted to this particular job.  He had wanted to work for a small company where he got to wear a lot of hats and learn a lot of different skills.  John stopped by to see what Allen was doing and he seemed pleased to see him getting his hands dirty, crawling around inside a sub with Phil.

“How do you like today’s helper, Phil?”

“He’s not half as useless as I thought he might be.”

“That’s good to hear.  But don’t get too used to having his help.  We still need to get that new sub design done.”

“I’m just breakin’ him in.  He can go back to drawin’ pretty pictures tomorrow.”

At the end of the day, Allen had some bruised knuckles and sore muscles.  But he felt good about contributing his own sweat and labor to help build one of the company’s submarines.  And working on the sub had given him some ideas about how to design the bracket for the lights.  He now had a more personal, visceral feeling for how the subs were put together.  He went home at the end of the day and fixed a quick dinner, then called Katherine.

“Hi handsome.”  She said when she saw what number the call was from.

“Hi honey.  How was your second day?”

“Good.  I finished all the required training and actually started working today.  We’re trying to develop a healgel variant that sticks to prosthetics.”

“Why would you want it to stick to a prosthetic?”

“For things like reconstructive surgery.  If someone’s ear got cut off, for example, you could make a prosthetic ear out of silicone and the healgel would help hold it in place.”

“How would you take it off?”

“Well, if everything works like we hope it will, you never would.  The healgel would cause your own skin to grow up into the prosthetic and hold it in place.”

“Sounds interesting.”

“So how was your day?”

“I had an interesting day.  Phil asked me to help with some assembly on one of the subs, so I spent most of the day helping him install the engines and batteries.  It gave me some good ideas for my designs.”

“So do you want to get together tonight?”

“I always want to spend time with you, but we can skip it this evening if you have other things to do.”

“Actually, I’m kind of sore and tired from an afternoon of swimming.  Would it be OK if I just rested tonight?”

“As long as you’re not spending the evening with Fernando.”

“He was busy tonight, but maybe I’ll get with him tomorrow.”

“You’re just trying to make sure I plan something for tomorrow, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I’m addicted.  I can barely last one day without seeing you.”

“OK, it’s a date for tomorrow after work.  I want you to keep Friday night free as well.  I have something special planned.”

“Ooh, that sounds promising.  I’ll keep it free for sure.”

“All right then, good night dear.  I love you.”

“I love you too.”

 

Chapter 7 – A Proposal and a Picnic

March 23

The rest of the week continued in the same vein.  Katherine worked on healgel in the mornings and practiced swimming and holding her breath in the afternoons.  Renna and Lacy told her some of the quirks of the individual fish in the aquarium.  They also drove her pretty hard to practice swimming with the monofin and holding her breath for longer times.  They seemed to be pretty self-motivated individuals, and Katherine enjoyed working with them.  She went home every evening with sore muscles, but Allen chivalrously offered to massage her legs, so even the soreness had an upside.

Friday after work, Katherine changed into her little black dress and put on some makeup for her date with Allen.  When he picked her up he was wearing dress slacks and a nice shirt.  He took her to downtown Houston to a very swanky restaurant.  Katherine started to get little butterflies in her chest.  Was this going to be the day?  After a nice meal, Allen pulled out a little jewelry box.

“Will you marry me?”  He asked.

Tears of joy started leaking out of Katherine’s eyes.  “OH, yes I will!”  She answered.

Allen opened the box to reveal a ring.  “This was my mother’s ring.  I hope you don’t mind that I didn’t buy you something new, but I thought this would be something special to remember her by.”

“That’s actually very sweet.  And it’s a beautiful ring.”

“We may have to get the size adjusted, and if you want to we can ask the jeweler to add a little something to make it your own.”

“What about you?  Will you wear your father’s ring?”

“No, Cherise has that.  We decided after the accident that I would get Mom’s ring and she would get Dad’s.  So we will need to get the jeweler to find something that matches.”

One of the other diners noticed what was going on and started clapping.  Before long the whole restaurant was clapping, and their server came over to see what was going on.  Once he saw the ring on Katherine’s finger, he offered them free desserts to celebrate with.  They ate their desserts and then drove back to Katherine’s apartment, where they called Katherine’s mother and gave her the good news, followed by Cherise, Allen’s sister.  Then they spent a few hours discussing their plans, and decided on the traditional month of June for their wedding.  The exact date would be decided in consultation with Katherine’s mother.  It was late when Allen left for his own apartment, and June seemed like a long time away as he slipped into his lonely room.

Through the weekend and into the last week of March, most evenings were consumed with talking and planning for the wedding.  As new employees, neither Allen nor Katherine had much vacation time or money, so they planned for a short weekend honeymoon.  They made a trip to the jewelry store and picked out a ring for Allen.  His mother’s ring actually fit Katherine’s finger pretty well, so all it needed was an inspection and a good cleaning.  Katherine proudly showed her ring to her new friends and acquaintances at work.  When she showed it to Fernando, Renna and Lacy made sure to tease her about it, especially since she took it off before her swim practice.

After her second week of work, Renna invited Katherine and Allen to a picnic on Saturday.  So they packed up their swimsuits and sunscreen and headed to the beachfront park where it was being held.  Renna had suggested that Katherine bring her monofin with her as well.  When they arrived at the park, Renna welcomed them and introduced them to her other friends.  Lacy was there, as well as Fernando and his wife Anna.  Two other women were also present – Teresa and Maria.  They were neighbors of Renna’s.  The group found a picnic table and spread out their food to share.  Allen and Fernando took turns at the grill, cooking up hot dogs and chicken breasts while the women chatted and Renna showed off her ring to the three who hadn’t yet seen it.  They were just finishing up their lunch when they heard a voice from the direction of the parking lot.

“Well, this is a surprise!”  Said Audra as she approached the group.

“Hi Audra.”  Said Renna.  “What brings you to this park?”

“I like to come here and swim sometimes.  It is usually a pretty quiet little beach.”

“We have plenty of food left.  Would you like to join us?”

“That’s very kind of you.  Yes, I can join you for a bit – as long as we all promise not to talk shop.”

“I think we can all make that promise.”

Renna introduced Audra to the rest of the group and she joined in with the festivities.  In accordance with Audra’s request, they didn’t talk about work, but they did chat about where they worked.  Anna stayed at home as she and Fernando were trying to have a baby.  Teresa and Maria both worked in the tourist industry- Teresa as a clerk at a hotel, and Maria as a hostess at a restaurant.  They chatted while Audra finished her lunch, then went down to the beach to play in the water.  Katherine slipped on her monofin and went for a swim, and Allen tried to keep up with her.  After a few seconds it was obvious that Allen would be left far behind, so Katherine slowed down and they swam together for a while.  When they got back to the beach, Allen commented:  “That monofin really seemed to help you swim fast!”

“Would you like to try it?”

“Yes, but I’m not sure it would fit.”

Audra overheard their conversation and chimed in.  “I think I have a couple of extra fins in my car.  I’ll go see if I have anything that might fit you.”

She went back to the parking lot and came back in a few minutes with several different monofins.  “I bought several different monofins a while back when we first started thinking about divers for the aquarium.  One of these should fit you.”

Allen found a fin that would fit him, and several of the other guests decided to try them as well.  Soon they were having an impromptu monofin swimming class taught by the three mermaids.  Allen and Fernando kept at it the longest.  Once they got the hang of swimming with the fins, they decided to have a little race out to a buoy and back.  They were pretty evenly matched, but Allen got tired on the way back, and Fernando beat him to the beach by a few seconds.  As they climbed out of the water and started to rib each other, Allen noticed something wrong up by the picnic table.  A group of four tattooed men appeared to be harassing the six women.  Allen and Fernando dropped their fins and raced toward the group.  When they arrived, two of the men had grabbed Audra and Katherine, while two of them turned to intercept the new arrivals.

The man who approached Allen was tall, heavily built, and muscular.  He grinned as he approached.

“You’re out of your league, punk.  Go back to building sand castles or you might get hurt.”

Allen said nothing.  He just continued to approach them man, a grim look on his face.  When he got within arm’s length, the man stepped forward and threw a punch.  Allen stepped quickly to the side and caught the man’s hand.  With a well-practiced pull and twist, Allen used the assailant’s own momentum and body weight against him.  There was a dull cracking sound and the man fell to the ground.  Meanwhile, Fernando resorted to more traditional methods.  He blocked his attacker’s punch and counterpunched to his solar plexus.  The attacker clutched his chest, wheezing, and Fernando hooked his ankle around the man’s feet, knocking him to the ground.  After dealing with the first two miscreants, Allen and Fernando headed for the two that were holding the women.

Katherine’s arms were trapped against her side, but she remembered some techniques that Allen had taught her.  She brought her right foot up and stomped down upon her captor’s instep as hard as she could, then threw her head back.  The man quickly let go, backing up and holding his bloody nose.  Everyone turned to the last attacker, who had Audra in his grasp.  Seeing what had happened to his friends, this man let go of Audra with one hand long enough to pull a knife out of his pocket.  He held it up to Audra’s neck.

“Now you made us mad.”  He said.  “You better just back off or the redhead gets it.”

But in the confusion, the man had not kept track of Maria, who was now standing beside him with a small pistol in her hand.  She stuck it into his side.

“If you hurt her, I will make a hole in you.”  She said.  “You just drop the knife and let go.”

Feeling the cold barrel of the gun in his side, the thug let go of Audra and backed up.  Then he turned around and ran.  His three friends quickly followed him, nursing their bruises and injuries.  Teresa quickly picked up her phone from where it had fallen when one of the men knocked it out of her hand and called 911.

“Should we leave?”  Asked Allen.  “They might come back with guns or friends.”

“No, we stay here.”  Said Teresa.  “The police are on their way.  They will want to see the location and talk to us.”

So they stayed in place, though Allen and Fernando picked up the monofins and returned them to Audra.  The police arrived within minutes, and took a statement from each of them.  Teresa even had a picture of the men on her phone that she had taken before it got knocked away.  As soon as the police looked at the picture, they recognized the men in it.

“They are with the Kings gang.  See the crown tattoos they all have?  We’ve dealt with them before.”  Said one of the officers.  After getting phone numbers and addresses from everyone, the policemen left to go check the hospitals for the man whose wrist Allen broke.

“How did you do that?”  Asked Maria.  “He was much bigger than you and I thought you didn’t have a chance fighting him.”

“Aikido.  I studied Aikido for 8 or 9 years, though I haven’t practiced much lately.”

“Maria, I didn’t know you carried a gun!”  Renna chimed in.

“I may have a good job and a nice place to live now, but I grew up on the bad side of town.  I got a license to carry a handgun several years ago.  I never had to use it until now, though.”

“Well, I’m certainly glad you had it.”  Audra said.

After their little adventure, everyone was ready to go home, so they packed up the picnic supplies and left.

“Thanks for teaching me how to get away from that guy.”  Katherine told Allen.  “I never expected to use that.”

“And I never expected to use my Aikido.  I hadn’t thought about it for quite a while until today.  I had to quit after my parents died.  The money they left was enough for school, but not for any extras like Aikido classes.  But now I have a good job, so maybe I could start going again.”

“I think that would be a good idea.  You’ll probably never need it again, but it’s a good way to keep in shape.”

“Want to do it with me?”

“I don’t know.  Do you think I can?”

“Sure, you’re certainly healthy enough.  It’s more fun if we do it together.”

“OK.  If you find a good class to go to, I’ll come with you.  We may be pretty busy until after the wedding, though.”

“I’ll look around.”

 

Chapter 8 – Helping the Police

April 5

On Tuesday, Katherine’s mermaid tail arrived.  It was a beautiful blue color, with black markings and a yellow triangle on the tail, like a blue tang.  She changed into one of her new two-piece swimsuits and then followed Renna and Lacy out of the locker room, this time carrying a heavy tail like they did.  The two women and Fernando helped Katherine wiggle her way into the tail, then Fernando lifted Katherine up and put her into the sling.  She rode down to the water and slipped out, then tried swimming with her new tail.  The practice with the monofin had given her the skills she needed, and she found it relatively easy to accustom herself to the tail.  It provided a bit of extra resistance as she moved through the water, but she found herself thoroughly enjoying the feeling of being a mermaid.

Soon Katherine was joined by her two companions, and they quickly returned to their normal practice routine.  After a couple weeks of practice, Katherine could keep up with Lacy and Renna now, and she could hold her breath for nearly three minutes.  When Fernando called out that it was feeding time, they all swam through the tube to the aquarium entrance.

“So why don’t you refill the seaweed while Lacy and I do the hand-feeding?”  Suggested Renna.

“OK, that sounds like a good plan.”

This time all three of them slipped over the barrier into the aquarium.  Several sharks had been added recently, so there were plenty of fish to feed.  Katherine knew where to go to refill the clips with seaweed since she had been watching the other women do the job for two weeks now.  It was thrilling to swim through the aquarium with the colorful fish swimming around her.  As often happened, the workers on the outside of the aquarium got distracted by the mermaids and many of them gathered at the walls to watch the feeding.  Several of them waved, and Katherine noticed that some were pointing at her and talking.  They must have noticed the new mermaid.  Katherine waved back at them on her way up to take a breath.  Even with all three of them working, it took a couple of hours to complete the job.  When they were done, Katherine let the other two get out of the pool first.  Even though she was tired, she wanted the mermaid experience to last a little longer.

On the next few days, Katherine took her turn feeding the carnivorous fish.  The moray eels were the easiest, as they tended to stay in the same locations.  The sharks were a bit harder, however.  They could be swimming anywhere in the very large aquarium, though they did tend to each have a habitual route.  They had to place themselves in the path of a shark and then wiggle the food in front of them.  As time passed, the sharks learned that the mermaids were sources of food, so they would seek them out when they came into the aquarium.  Fernando had an important job as well, as he kept track of which fish had been fed and which had not.  He had a checklist with a picture of each animal that was to be fed on it, and he marked it off as the mermaids fed each one.  With time, they learned to recognize each individual fish, even when there were multiple individuals of a single species.

On Wednesday morning, Allen was at work, designing a manipulator arm for the Hippocamp, when John approached him, accompanied by a tall black man in a suit.

“Hey, Allen.  This guy wants to talk to you.”  Said John.

“How may I help you?”

The man pulled a police badge out of his pocket.  “Hello Allen.  My name is Dave Johnson and I’m a detective with the Greater Houston Gangs Task Force.  I want to talk to you about your encounter with some Kings gang members over the weekend.”

“Of course, Officer.  What do you need to know?”

“Is there someplace private we can talk?”

“As you can see, this is a pretty open workplace.  I suppose we could go outside into a car.”

“That’s a good idea.  Come out and we’ll sit in my car, if that’s OK with your boss?”

John nodded his head.  “I have no problem with my employees helping out the police.  Go ahead.”

The officer led Allen outside to a gray Toyota 4Runner and motioned Allen inside.  Once the door was closed, he started to speak again.

“First I need to tell you that your friend Maria has disappeared.  We suspect she’s been kidnapped by the Kings gang.”

“Oh, no!  Do you think she’ll be all right?”

“For now.  The Kings specialize in human trafficking, so I think they will want to keep her alive.  We suspect this kidnapping is in retaliation for what happened on Saturday.  You made the gang look bad, so they have to hit back somehow.”

“So you think they might try and do something to the rest of us?”

“Yes, we do.  And we think the rest of you might be able to help us.”

“Help you?  How?”

“Well, first I want you to understand that this is purely voluntary.  If you choose not to help out, nobody will think any less of you, and we will put you under full-time police protection.”

“Okay. . . what if I volunteer?”

“We would like you and your friends to wear transmitters.  We suspect the Kings may try to kidnap some or all of you as well, and we can use the transmitters to follow you to wherever Maria is.  We also hope they will take you to their hideout or headquarters, so that we can capture some of the gang leaders.”

“Sounds kind of dangerous.”

“It could be.  As you know, gangs can be very violent.  You might get beaten up, or even possibly killed.  That’s why we’re willing to pass on the help and just put you under protection.  But if you do decide to help us and you get kidnapped, we’ll have you under surveillance 100 percent of the time, and if it looks like they are going to get overly violent, we’ll move in.”

“Okay, I think I would be willing to help out.  Are you going to talk to the others as well?”

“Actually, I came to your work because the gang might be watching your apartments.  What I would like to do is give you the transmitters and ask you to explain things to your fiancée.  Then she can take them and pass them on at her work.  The Kings won’t see anything unusual about a group of friends talking to one another, where I might draw attention if I went to all of your homes.”

“That makes sense.  What do I do?”

“First, here is your transmitter.”  Dave reached into a bag in his back seat and pulled out a fitbit.  “It looks and functions exactly like a fitbit, but it has a higher powered transmitter in it.  Keep it on at all times, even in bed, as we don’t know when a kidnapping attempt might happen.”

Allen put the device on his wrist.  This wasn’t a bad deal.  He’d kind of wondered about fitness trackers, but didn’t want to spend the money on one.  So this would let him try one for free.

“Do you have fitbits for everyone else back there?”

“No, we have a variety of items.  Each one is labeled with the name of the person it should go to.  That way if something happens we will know which person each signal is coming from.  Your girlfriend’s transmitter is hidden in a bra, and we have a big gold crucifix for Fernando.  The other women have various items of underwear.  Tell them we’re sorry if it isn’t very stylish- we had to choose items that were bulky enough to hide the transmitters in.”

“Okay, I’ll pass them on.”

“Good.  The deal is the same with them as it is with you.  They don’t have to volunteer, we will be happy to put them under protection if they want.  There are some business cards in the bag with the transmitters.  Give one to each person.  They can call the number on the card if they want protection.  According to the cards, I’m a swim fin salesman.  They shouldn’t carry the cards with them, however, in case the gang gets hold of several of them and starts to wonder.  Also, make sure everyone knows that if they are accosted by gang members, they shouldn’t resist.  Going peacefully should help reduce the chance of violence.  If they do start to get violent, then you can resist.  In that case, we’ll get to you as soon as possible.  So, is that all clear?”

“I think so.”

“Tell your boss I just had some more questions about Saturday.  We don’t want any more people than necessary knowing what’s going on.”

“That makes sense.”

“Thank you.  I heard how you took down that thug with Aikido.  Good work.  If nothing happens in the next week or so, I’ll get back in touch.”

Allen shook hands with Dave, then took the back with the transmitters and stashed it in his own car.  When he went back in to work, John asked him: “What was that all about?”

“Remember that fight I told you about on Saturday?  The guys we ended up fighting are from a gang, and he had some more detailed questions for me.”

“Sounds like an exciting weekend.”

“It was a little more exciting than I wanted.  Hopefully things will settle down now.”

Allen returned to his work and finished the day.  After work, he drove over to Katherine’s apartment and carried the bag of transmitters into her place.  Dave had placed everything in a grocery bag so it would look nondescript.  He knocked on Katherine’s door.

“What’s in the bag?”  She asked.

“Let’s go inside and I’ll show you.”

Once inside, Allen explained to her about the visit from Dave and the transmitters in the bag.  Katherine immediately said that she would help out, so they opened the bag to get a look at the contents.  On the top was a white long-line bra with a little paper tag hanging from a string looped around one of the straps.  The tag had Katherine’s name on it.  She held it up in front of her body to check the size.

“He was right about this not being very fashionable, but according to the tag it’s the right size.  Wait here a minute and I’ll go put it on.”

Katherine went into her bedroom and closed the door.  When she came out, she was wearing just the bra on top, along with the work skirt she had already been wearing.

“What do you think?”  She asked.

“It may not be the height of fashion, but I think it looks hot.”  Replied Allen.  “Kind of a Mad Men 60’s look.”

“It’s a bit firmer than what I’m used to, but I think I can wear it for a few days.  Can you figure out where the transmitter is?”

Allen looked closely for a minute or two.

“No, I don’t have a clue.  And you are making me regret our decision to wait until we are married.  Can you put a shirt on?”

Having achieved her desired result, Katherine went back into the bedroom and put on a shirt.  Rather than putting her blouse from work back on, she pulled on a pink t-shirt and tucked it into her skirt.  The snugly fitting t-shirt hid the bra but still emphasized her curves.  She also picked up the bag she normally used to take her swimsuits to work and brought it back out into the living room.  Then she and Allen transferred the items with their hidden transmitters from the grocery bag into Katherine’s bag.  Fernando had a large gold cross on a necklace, as Dave had mentioned.  For his wife Anna, there was a panty girdle that looked like it would have matched Katherine’s bra except in a smaller size.  Each of the other women also had a girdle or bra in their own size.

“I wonder what male police technician decided on the underwear?”  Said Katherine.

“Well, Dave did say they needed to choose something thick enough to hide the transmitters in.  Maybe they raided a lingerie store and had all this stuff sitting around in their evidence room.”

“And I suppose underwear makes sense.  Kidnappers might take away things like jewelry or watches.  But why did the two guys get away with a fitbit and a crucifix necklace?”

“I guess guys don’t have any underwear options suitable for a transmitter.”

Once the items had been stowed, Katherine fixed dinner and the couple sat on the couch and snuggled for a bit before Allen went home.  They both agreed that they would leave their engagement rings off for the next few days, so that if they were indeed kidnapped at least their rings wouldn’t get stolen.

 

Chapter 9 – Kidnapped!

April 7

The next day Katherine took her bag to work and explained Dave’s offer to Renna, Lacy, and Audra.  They all decided to volunteer as bait, and each one went to the bathroom and changed into the transmitter-fitted underwear.  Renna also took the bra for Teresa and put it into her bag to deliver when she went home.  In the afternoon, the three girls explained the situation to Fernando, who put the crucifix around his neck and stuck the girdle for his wife in his locker.

“I don’t have a purse to hide this in like you girls do.”  He complained.

“I suppose you could always just wear it underneath your clothes.”  Renna teased.  “It will help you tame that belly of yours.”

Fernando blushed a little.  “My belly doesn’t need any taming.  Be nice or I won’t lift you out of the pool.”

The three women did their practicing and fed the fish, then left work and went their various ways.  Katherine met Allen after work as they had planned to go out for dinner.  Allen drove them towards a waterfront restaurant that had been recommended by one of Allen’s co-workers.

“So how many people took Dave up on his offer?”  Allen asked her.

“Everyone.  At least, everyone at work.  I don’t know what Teresa and Anna will say when they hear about it.”

“How does the bra fit?  Is it comfortable enough?”

“Actually, it fits perfectly.  It makes me wonder a little bit.”

“Why?”

“Well, all the other women said theirs fit well also.  How is it that Dave’s people knew everyone’s underwear sizes?”

“That is kind of creepy.”

Suddenly, two motorcycles pulled up on either side of the car.  The men on the motorcycles pointed guns at Allen and Katherine, and the one on the driver’s side pointed to an intersection up ahead, indicating that Allen should turn right.  Allen looked around.  They were in a quiet part of the city, and no other vehicles or people were currently in sight.  He hoped Dave was keeping track of them as he took the indicated turn.  The road they were following quickly entered an industrial area of town, and before long they found themselves in an alley between two large buildings.  The man on the motorcycle indicated they should stop.  When they did, the man yelled at them.

“Get out of the car.  Slowly.”

Allen and Katherine obeyed.  The two men wore black leather jackets and ski masks.

“I’ll give you my wallet, man.  Just leave me and my girlfriend alone.”  Allen said.

“Shut up and turn around.  Put your hands behind your back.”  Said the man in black.

Allen obeyed, and the man put handcuffs on his wrists.  On the other side of the car, the other kidnapper was doing the same with Katherine.

“Now walk slowly to the back of the car.”

They both obeyed.  Once they were behind the car, one of the men pointed his gun at them while the other stuck his gun in his waistband and reached into the car to get the car keys.  He used them to open the trunk and then the one with the gun waved it at Allen.

“Sit on the trunk and put your legs together.”

Allen did as he was told, and the second man pulled out a roll of duct tape.  He quickly taped Allen’s legs together at the ankles and knees.  Then he took a couple of strips of tape and used them to seal Allen’s mouth.  He finished by pushing Allen’s head down and lifting his legs up, dumping Allen into the trunk.

“Now it’s your turn, lady.  Sit on the car.”

Katherine’s legs were also taped together, her mouth was taped shut, and she was pushed into the trunk with Allen.  The trunk was closed, leaving them both trapped in darkness.  It was very crowded in the trunk of Allen’s small car, and Allen was crammed up against the sides of the trunk and the lid.  Katherine was squeezed in between Allen and the back of the car.  The car began to move, and with every bump or turn her knees banged painfully into the metal trunk interior.  They drove around for perhaps an hour or so, and then the car stopped.  Katherine waited for the trunk to open, but it didn’t for a long time.  Finally, after another hour or so, the trunk opened.  It was dark outside, so she couldn’t see the features of the man who pulled her out of the car.  He lifted her over his shoulder and carried her into a building and down some stairs.  Then he carried her into a dimly lit basement room with concrete walls and floor.  The man laid her down on the floor, and she caught a glimpse of another person on the floor as well.  It looked like Maria, but Katherine couldn’t be sure because a woman stepped in between.  The man rolled Katherine onto her side and grabbed her left arm at the wrist and above the elbow.  He twisted it outward and the woman poked a needle into her arm.  The anesthetic worked quickly and Katherine fell into unconsciousness.

When she awoke, she was lying on her back.  Her pants and shoes had been removed, and her ankles were spread apart and tied to a horizontal bar stretched across the floor of the room.  She was wearing an adult diaper.  Her arms were stretched above her head and her wrists were tied to a steel ring embedded in the wall behind her.  The duct tape had been removed from her mouth and replaced with a cloth gag with a large knot in it.  Katherine looked to her left and saw Maria, who was tied and gagged in a similar fashion.  Maria was looking at her, and from the red, bloodshot appearance of her eyes, she had been crying.  Katherine tried to reassure her, but she could only make muffled sounds through the gag, so she had to be satisfied with nodding her head and trying to make her eyes look hopeful.  She could hear some sound on her other side, so Katherine turned her head.  She could see Allen tied up beside her, and beyond him, two more forms that looked like Fernando and Anna.  All three lay unmoving, apparently still under the effects of the anesthetic.  Since she didn’t have a choice, Katherine lay there wondering.  When would the police come rescue them?  Were the transmitters working properly?  Would their kidnappers hurt them?  The questions went round and round in her head.

After a period of time that seemed very long to Katherine, the door opened and some people came into the room.  Katherine could see the man in black, carrying another person over his shoulder.  Walking behind him was the woman with the syringe.  As the man lowered the person he was carrying to the floor, Katherine saw that it was Renna, who was handcuffed and taped like Katherine had been earlier.  With quick, efficient movements, the man rolled Renna over and held her arm for the woman to inject the anesthetic.  When Renna fell asleep, the man took out a knife and cut the duct tape on her legs, then peeled the tape away from her mouth.  Then he took out some keys and removed her handcuffs.  He backed away and the woman pulled off Renna’s skirt and girdle, then put an adult diaper on her.  She also took off her watch and earrings and put them in a bag with the clothes she had removed.  When the woman was done, she backed away and the man tied and gagged Renna like the others had been done.

“That’s the second one of these girls who wore a girdle.”  Said the woman.  “Seems kind of strange for a group of young, fit women.”

“Ahh, women always think they are too fat.”  Said the man.  “Check over the others and see if any of ‘em need a diaper change.”

Maria’s diaper was obviously stained yellow, and Katherine could smell a slight urine odor from that direction.  The woman apparently saw that as well, so she approached Maria.

“OK, girl.  It’s the same deal as before.  If you struggle you won’t get any food or water.  Got it?”

Maria nodded her head.  The woman then went about changing her diaper, tossing the dirty one into a garbage can in the far corner of the room.  She was not very gentle about the process, but Maria seemed to be a bit relieved to have the wet one replaced.  As she worked, the woman mumbled to herself.  “I don’t know why he wanted to do it this way.  There’s a perfectly good toilet down the hall.  And what did I do to get the diaper changing job?”

Once Maria was taken care of, the man and woman left the room, and Katherine lay quietly for a while.  In time, Allen and the others woke up.  They struggled for a while, testing their bonds and looking around the room to size up their situation.  Katherine tried to communicate with shrugs and eye-rolls.  Eventually, the door opened again and two different men came in.  One man wore a silk shirt and gold rings on his fingers.  The other was the man that Allen had encountered at the beach.  His right wrist was in a brace, and he glared at Allen menacingly.  He pushed a cart into the room, loaded with water bottles with straws like runners use.  The man with the rings began talking.

“Welcome to the Kings’ transfer station.  I hope you are all comfortable.  I’m here to tell you what happens next.  You all made a big mistake a few days ago, hurting and embarrassing some of our gang members, like José here.  We can’t let that kind of challenge go unanswered, so we chose to bring you all here.  Other gangs would probably beat you up or maybe even kill you, but that’s not our way.  We like to make a profit from our dealings with people.  So you’re going to become Kings employees.  In a day or two, you’ll take a little ride to your new home, where you will help to pay off your debt to us by turning tricks.  It will be harder for the guys, because there isn’t as much demand for male hookers, but we should have enough to keep the two of you busy.  Working for us does have a few rewards, as you will find out tomorrow.  But for tonight, have a drink and get some rest.  Go ahead and use the diapers.  It’s going to be a while before you see a toilet again.”

After his little speech, the man motioned to José, who brought one of the water bottles to Maria.  “No talkin’ or you don’t get any water.”  He said, then untied her gag and held the straw in her mouth.  She sucked greedily until the bottle was empty.  He replaced her gag and moved on to Katherine, then each of the rest of them, following the same routine.  Once he had given water to all of the captives, both men left the room.

After drinking the water, Katherine’s bladder began to urgently signal that she needed to go to the bathroom.  Considering how long it had been since she left her apartment, she was not surprised.  She squirmed around and tried to relax, but her body was reluctant to override years of training.  Eventually the stress on her bladder overcame her body’s reflexes and she rediscovered what it felt like to wear a very wet diaper.  About an hour or so after the visit from the man with the rings, the woman they had seen before returned alone.  She went down the row and changed everyone’s diapers, all of which were soiled by this time.  When she left with a garbage bag full of the used diapers, she turned off the light behind her.

 

Chapter 10 – Uncomfortable Travel and a Rescue

April 8

With the lights out, the room was almost as dark as a cave.  Katherine couldn’t see Allen or Maria, even though they were only a few feet to either side of her.  She tried to relax and go to sleep, but it was difficult with her arms tied above her head and her legs laying on the cold concrete floor.  She could hear Maria quietly sobbing next to her.  It must be extra difficult for her, not knowing that a rescue was on the way.  It was bad enough for Katherine.  Where was Dave?  Why hadn’t they come yet?  Katherine squirmed and scooted her legs over until she could touch Maria’s legs.  She tried to rub her toes against Maria’s feet to comfort her with a little bit of human touch.

Allen lay in the dark, listening to the others shift around, trying to find a comfortable position on the cold, hard floor.  Maybe he should have said “no” when Dave asked for their help.  This wasn’t fun anymore.  And since he had allowed himself to be captured and so thoroughly trussed up, he was helpless to change his situation without help.  They were all committed now, whether they wanted it or not.  Despite the drink of water, Allen’s mouth was dry and he was very thirsty and hungry.  His fitbit had been taken, so he had to count on their captors keeping everyone in a group.  If he got separated from Katherine, Dave would have no way of tracking him.

It was a long and sleepless night.  Allen only managed a few fitful dozes as his mind went around in circles all night long.  Finally, the door opened and the lights came on.  Two men came in- the one with the broken wrist and another one.  They brought the little cart with the water bottles with them.  After the same warning about not talking, they made their way down the row of captives, removing gags and feeding each person in turn.  This time there was an initial bottle filled with some kind of protein shake followed by the bottle of water.  Allen drank all of both of them, figuring it might be some time before he got anything else.  After an hour or so, the woman came back to change diapers.  The same sequence was repeated several hours later.  By this time, Allen had no idea if it was night or day or what time it was.  He sang songs in his head and imagined what the wedding would be like.  How many children would he and Katherine have?  They had spoken about children, but never discussed how many.

Finally the man with the rings came back, along with the diaper-changing woman.

“Ok, it’s travel time.”  The man said.  “But first you get a little treat.  Amy will be giving you each an injection to help you feel good.  When you get to your new destination, you’ll get one of these every day, as long as you are cooperative.”

Amy carried a little bag with syringes in it.  She went to Maria and injected her with one of the syringes.  Allen heard Maria’s breathing slow as the drug took effect.  After injecting Katherine, Amy came to Allen.  She injected him in the arm and very quickly he was overcome by a feeling of intense pleasure.  Thoughts of his discomfort and what would happen next slipped away as he reveled in the powerful feelings created by the drug.  After a time, the pleasure abated, followed by a warmth and a drowsiness that overcame him.  He hardly noticed as two more men entered the room, pulling a pallet jack with a large wooden crate through the door.  After administering injections to each person, Amy came back to each and changed their diapers, grumbling about how she was glad this was the last time she would have to do that task.  The two men released Maria’s wrists from the bar and lowered her arms down in front of her body.  Then they tied a rope around her knees and tied her wrists to that rope.  After securing her new bonds, they lifted her up and put her into the crate.  They repeated the process with Katherine, then pulled the crate out of the room.

Two different men entered with another crate.  They released Allen’s hands and tied them down to his knees as well, then lifted him up and into the crate.  Allen wondered if he should resist, but the warm, drowsy feeling from the heroin in his system removed any desire to fight back.  In a few moments, Anna was loaded into the bottom of the crate with him and he felt himself moving as the men pulled the crate out of the room.  They traveled to another room with brighter lights that seemed bigger and more open than the one they had been in.  The two men lifted a large sheet of wood into the crate and dropped it down.  It slipped down into place on some blocks about an inch above Allen’s face.  Allen could hear a “chunk, chunk” sound as a nail gun was used to fasten the board in place, making a false bottom with the two captives hidden inside.  More sounds followed as some kind of metal parts were loaded into the top section of the crate, followed by the sounds of more nails sealing the top closed.  Soon the crate was moving again, and by the sounds, it went over some bumps and entered a smaller space- perhaps the back of a truck?

Allen drifted for a time, enjoying the warm feeling that gradually dissipated.  In time he started feeling warm because of the temperature, not the drugs.  He listened to the sounds as other crates were loaded around him.  Eventually, they started to move again, and he could hear the regular “clack, clack” that let him know they were on a train.  The train moved for a long time, and as the effects of the heroin wore off, his discomfort increased.  The temperature climbed and the air in the confined space in the bottom of the crate became stale.  As the train rattled over the tracks and around corners, Anna slid into him.  Her feet had been placed near his face, and after two days they didn’t smell all that great.  He twisted his hands in their bindings, trying to loosen the ropes and improve the circulation into his hands.  He became incredibly thirsty, and the stench of their wet diapers became oppressive.  Before long the heat started to dissipate somewhat – perhaps the sun had gone down.  The long, uncomfortable train ride went on and on for hours.

At last the train stopped.  Allen could hear the door to the train car open and also several voices, muffled by the crates piled in between.

“They’re in here.  Get a forklift and let’s start unloading these crates as fast as possible.”

This was followed by more noise as the crates were unloaded.  Allen felt his crate being lifted and moved by a forklift.  He tried to call out, but was muffled by the gag, so he kicked against the side of the crate.  But apparently his kicks were not loud enough to be heard over the sound of the forklift, because the crate was set down and the sounds of people and machinery moved away.  Allen waited, occasionally kicking and yelling again.  He had almost given up when he heard voices again.

“The others must be in one of these crates.  We lost most of the transmitters, so we’ll just have to open each one until we find them.”

Allen started kicking again.

“Wait! I hear a noise.  Let’s try this crate first!”

There was a pounding and then a creak as the top of the crate was removed, then the sound of people pulling out the parts in the compartment above and dumping them on the ground.  Finally, Allen saw the tip of a pry bar poke between the board above him and the side of the crate.  Allen blinked as a spear of light stabbed down when the board was pried loose.  Soon two pairs of hands reached in and pulled Anna out of the box.  A few moments later and two men lifted Allen out as well.  They set him down on a gurney and quickly removed his gag and the ropes.

“Now just hold still, Mr. Landry.  Would you like some water?”  Asked a man in a paramedic uniform.  Allen nodded gratefully and the paramedic brought him a cup of ice water.  He sat up to drink it.  Several policemen were moving around, and Allen recognized Dave among them, though he was not wearing a uniform.  After talking for a moment with Anna, who was on another gurney nearby, Dave turned to Allen.

“What took you so long?”  Allen asked.

“We were hoping to find out where they were going to take you.  Once we realized you were on a train headed into Mexico, we had to act fast before you got out of the country.”

“Where are we?”

“Brownsville.”

“Did you get them?”

“We got some of them.  We’ve arrested eight people who were at the factory where you were held.  I assume you will be willing to testify against them?”

“Of course.”

“Good.  They should all be in prison for a very long time.”

“I don’t suppose you brought any pants with you?”

“You’re headed to the hospital to get checked out.  We’ll get some clothes for you to wear once the doctors say you’re clear to go.”

“Where’s Katherine?”

“She’s resting in the ambulance behind you.  She’s fine, and so is everyone else.  I’m sorry you had to endure such an ordeal.  We had no idea it would be this bad.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to keep all these guys in line.  I’ll come talk to you in the hospital.”

Dave left and the paramedic gently pushed Allen back onto the gurney, then pushed it up into the ambulance.  Katherine was laying down on a gurney on the other side of the ambulance.

“Are you OK?”  Allen asked her.

“Yes, just very hungry.  How about you?”

“I’m all right.  But I was worried there for a while.”

“So was I.  That’s the last time I volunteer to be kidnapped.  That was the worst experience I’ve ever had in my life.”

“I agree.  I think Dave is going to have to do without my help from now on.”

They both rested quietly for the remainder of the short trip to the hospital.  As they were pushing them into the building, Allen asked if he and Katherine could share a room, and he explained that they were engaged.  So they were both taken up an elevator and down a hall into a room with two beds.  Once they arrived, a nurse handed Katherine a hospital gown and pointed her to the bathroom.

“You can clean up and get changed in there.  Do you need any help?”

“No, I’m hungry and tired, but I can manage.”  Katherine answered.

Once Katherine was done changing, Allen got to use the bathroom and do his own clean up.  After he was done, he went out and sat on one of the beds.  A doctor came and checked both of them out.  Other than being dehydrated and having some bruises on their wrists and ankles, both of them were OK.  They asked for food and the doctor sent for a meal for both of them, and had a nurse bring each one a bottle of orange juice in the meantime.

“So, was that heroin that we were given by the gang?”  Allen asked the doctor.

“It will take a few days for us to test your blood and confirm that it was heroin, but from the symptoms each of you has described, that is probably what it was.”

“Could it cause long-term issues?  Should we worry about addiction?”

“A single dose shouldn’t cause long-term harm, and you won’t be addicted yet.  The danger comes if you use it again.  They probably planned on continuing to give it to you until you were addicted.  Then you would have done whatever the gang wanted as long as they kept you supplied with the drug.”

“How long are you going to keep us here?”

“Well, you are actually all in pretty good health, other than a little dehydration.  Technically, you could leave any time.  But we would like you to stay overnight so we can make sure you are all OK.  We have a psychologist scheduled to visit later on today to talk with you about your traumatic experience.  And you look exhausted.  You could probably use a day’s rest.”

“What time is it anyway?”

“It is 6:20 A.M., April 10th.  I understand you were kidnapped the evening of the 7th, and you were on the train for about 8 hours.”

“Rest does sound really good.  I guess we will stay for a while – at least until someone brings me some pants to wear.”

The doctor finished his examination, and two trays of food were brought.  Allen and Katherine wolfed down their breakfasts with enthusiasm.  Once their stomachs stopped growling, they both laid down for a rest.  They both slept soundly until they were awakened by the nurse at noon so she could take their vital signs.  She gave them water to drink and then a tray with lunch.  They were just finishing up their lunch when Dave came into the room.

“How is Maria?”  Katherine asked.

“Well, the whole experience was harder on her than on the rest of you.  She didn’t know she was going to be rescued, and she was held captive for two days longer.  But she is recovering well and she should be fine in a day or two.”

“Good.”

“Are you ready to discuss it now?  I’ve interviewed some of the others, but I need to get a statement from each of you.”

They both agreed they were ready, so Dave went over the experience in detail, recording his questions and their responses, occasionally taking notes.  When he was done, he revealed a sack that he had brought with him.

“I had one of my officers get your landlords to let them into your apartments and pick up some clothes for you.  They’re in the bag.  We have a van coming in the morning to take everyone back home.  Thank you all so much for helping us with this case.  We’ve been trying to catch the Kings for a long time, and this will make a big dent in their organization.”

Just after Dave left, the psychologist stopped by.  She asked them a lot of questions about how they felt and explained about post-traumatic stress.  They both told her they felt fine, but she made sure they understood that they might have a delayed reaction that could affect their mental health.  They promised that if they started feeling depressed or having nightmares they would definitely contact a professional for help.  When they were finally alone, Allen dug his clothes out of the bag Dave had brought and pulled the curtain between the two beds so he could put on a pair of underpants.  There was a pair of pajamas in the bag as well as a pair of jeans and a t-shirt.  Allen put the pajamas on, saving the other clothes for the ride back home in the morning.  Katherine had been provided with a nightgown that she put on at the same time.  For her daytime clothes, the police officer had chosen her blue dress with the lacy top.  Allen was happy when he saw her pull it out of the bag because he liked to see Katherine in that dress and didn’t think she wore it often enough.  Katherine frowned a little bit.

“How come you get casual clothes and I get a dress?”

“I don’t know.”  Allen answered.  “Maybe it was the 50 bucks I paid Dave?”

“You don’t have 50 bucks.  But I’m glad the dress makes you happy.”

They pulled back the curtain and then sat on the same bed together for a while.

“Won’t it be nice in a few months when we can share a bed every night?”  Katherine asked.

“Definitely.”  Answered Allen.

They cuddled for a while, then sat next to each other on the bed and turned on the room’s TV.  They held hands and watched a nature program until the nurses brought dinner.  After eating, they were both tired, so they moved to separate beds and went to sleep for the night.

 

Chapter 11 – Press Conference

April 11

The next morning before leaving the hospital, Allen and Katherine called their respective bosses.  Both Audra and John were very understanding.  They had already heard from Dave about what happened, and there had even been a story on the news about the kidnapping, though the news only said that they had been rescued and didn’t mention the train ride or the crates.  The faces of their captors were also all over the news, along with a long list of charges for each of them.  Allen noticed that the man with the rings did not show up among the images of the people who had been arrested.  Both bosses told them to take the rest of the day off and come to work in the morning.  After dealing with the hospital checkout paperwork, Allen, Katherine, and the others headed towards the front of the hospital.  Dave met them along the way.

“I’ve managed to keep the media away until now.  But there are several reporters waiting outside the hospital.  It’s up to you whether to talk to them, of course, but I suggest you arrange for a press conference tomorrow, after you have had a chance to rest some more.”

“I think that sounds like a good idea.”  Said Allen.  “If we have a press conference we can handle the questions all at once instead of having them hang around outside our houses to talk to us one at a time.”

“I agree, said Renna.  What time should we tell them?”

“How about 6:00 in the evening, after we get off work?”

Everyone agreed.  Then Dave spoke one more time.  “I do have one request.  Please don’t say anything about the transmitters, or that we expected you might be captured.  We might want to use the transmitters again later, and we don’t want the criminals to hear about them.”

They all agreed to Dave’s request, then headed out the front door of the hospital.  Waiting in front were several news vans, and a couple of reporters rushed toward them as soon as they got out the door of the hospital.  One familiar face got there first.

“Hi, I’m Kari Davis from Fox 26 News in Houston.  Are you the people who were kidnapped by the Kings gang?”

Fernando spoke up.  “Yes we are.”

“What was it like?  Can you tell us what happened?”

“We are still recovering from our ordeal, but we have all agreed to hold a press conference tomorrow at 6:00 PM.”

“Is it true you were packed into crates on a train?”

“We’ll tell the whole story tomorrow.”

Dave pushed in between the reporter and the group of former captives, and a couple of uniformed police officers joined him.  Allen and Katherine piled into a large van with the others.  One of the police officers who worked for Dave was their driver.  They left quickly, leaving the reporter behind in the parking lot, where she stood in front of the TV cameras and re-hashed what little the news reporters had been able to find out.  For the first hour or two of the trip, they all discussed the kidnapping and their various experiences, but after a while they got tired of reliving the traumatic event.  Maria still seemed a little sad.

“What’s wrong Maria?”  Asked Katherine.  “Are you feeling depressed about the kidnapping?”

“No, it’s not the kidnapping.  It’s my job.  I called my boss and explained what happened, but he told me he already hired a replacement.  I thought he was a kind man, but he just said he didn’t want anyone working for him who was involved in gangs and drugs.”

“That’s terrible!  Didn’t Dave tell him what happened?”

“Yes, but he doesn’t seem to believe it.  He thinks I must have been involved with the gang somehow or they wouldn’t have kidnapped me.”

“Well, then obviously he was a jerk you don’t want to work for anyway.  We’ll help you out until you find a new job.  I’m sure it won’t take long for a woman of your skill and experience.”

“Thanks for having confidence in me.”

They dozed on and off for the rest of the long drive, and they were all very happy to get back to their homes.  The officer who drove the van told them that the police would be keeping an eye out for them for the next few weeks just in case the gang decided to try anything else.  After a night in her own bed, Katherine was excited to get back to work again.  She didn’t get much work done in the morning, however, as everyone had to hear the story of the kidnapping.  When Audra heard about Maria losing her job, she spoke up.

“If I remember from the picnic, Maria was a pretty good swimmer.  Do you think she’d be willing to come join the mermaid crew?”

“I don’t know exactly what her career plans are, but we could ask her.”  Answered Katherine.

“I need to hire some more mermaids anyway.  While you were gone, Lacy and I had to handle all the feeding ourselves, and I’m getting tired of doing the weekend feedings alone.”

“Who helped you and Lacy get into the pool?”

“Jonas.  I don’t think you’ve met him, but he is actually a partner in the Gulf Aquarium business.  I’m sure you’ll get a get to know him soon, since we’re going to change the schedule somewhat.  Instead of doing all the feeding at once, I want to have several feeding times throughout the day.  You and the other mermaids can take turns, and we’ll make up a schedule for the weekends as well.”

“Why do you want to spread the feedings out like that?”
“Well, once the aquarium opens, I expect the feedings to be a major attraction.  If we spread several of them out through the day, more customers will get the opportunity to watch.”

“That makes sense.  But does this mean I’m going to lose my weekends?”

“I’m going to leave the scheduling up to you, Renna, and Lacy.  Let’s go with four feedings a day.  The three of you can work out a schedule that you are all happy with, and I don’t expect any of you to work more hours than you do already.  So you can schedule one person to have two days off in the middle of the week and work the weekends, or you can work half days four days a week.  Whatever you three work out between you.  Make the schedule up with just the three of you for now, but once we get a new mermaid hired, she can start helping when her tail arrives.”

“That sounds reasonable.”  Said Katherine.  Lacy was nearby, so she heard what Audra had said.  She thought the plan sounded good as well.  They both went to talk to Renna and plan out their schedule.  They decided that they would take turns having two days in a row off.  Katherine would have Friday and Saturday off, Renna would have Sunday and Monday off, and Lacy would have Wednesday and Thursday off.  The two who were working on those days would take turns doing the four feedings.  On Tuesday, all three would participate, with Lacy volunteering to go twice.  If Maria got hired, the schedule would only last a couple of weeks before it would have to be re-done for four people, so Lacy didn’t mind a couple of extra times.  Since it was about lunchtime before they got their plan completed, they decided to start the next day, on Wednesday.  Katherine would do the 10:00 AM and 2:00 PM feedings, and Renna would do the noon and 4:00 PM feedings.  Lacy would get to stay home and relax.  They all went to find Audra in her office and make sure she approved of the plan.

“This looks like a good schedule.”  Audra said.  “Can you send me your spreadsheet in an e-mail?”

“Sure Audra.”  Katherine said.  “Will it be a problem that I’m not here with the design team every morning?”

“We might have to change an occasional meeting time, but I think we can work around it.”

“I was wondering, it takes an awful long time to put the tail on and off.  Maybe there is a way I could just keep it on between my two times doing the feedings?”

“I guess we can get a wheelchair that you can ride around in between feedings.  As long as you’re just working at the computer that should be OK.”  She turned to Renna and Lacy.  What about you two?  Do you want to keep your tails on between feeding times as well?”

“I think that’s a great idea.”  Lacy said.  Renna agreed as well.

“Renna, why don’t you go to a medical store this afternoon and pick up a couple of wheelchairs?”

“Sure thing.”

After lunch, Katherine and Lacy went to change into their tails.

“Where’s Renna?”  Asked Fernando.

They explained the change in schedule to Fernando.

“Audra had mentioned that she might be wanting to make some changes.  It sounds like I will be busy.  Did Audra say anything about who would help you get into your tails on the weekend?”

“Jonas has been helping Audra on the weekends.  I suppose he will continue helping.”

“You are making me jealous.  Another man is going to be carrying all my beautiful mermaids around?”

“We’ll make up for it by giving you another mermaid to carry.”

“Hmm, that sounds like a pretty good deal.  I’ll take it.”

Fernando helped Katherine and Lacy into the pool.  They swam and practiced for a time, and after an hour or so Renna joined them.  She brought two wheelchairs with her and parked them by the door to the locker room before putting on her tail and joining them.  Then the three mermaids swam through the tube to the aquarium and fed the carnivores.  When they were done, they hurried to change and drive to the conference room in a Galveston hotel where the press conference had been set up.  They arrived about 15 minutes early and gathered with the other former captives.

“Do we want to pick a spokesman?”  Asked Lacy.

“I think that’s a good idea.”  Said Fernando.  “Someone who can give the basic story and then of course the rest of us can chip in and add what we want.”

“So do we have a volunteer to be the spokesman?”  Asked Allen.

“I think you would be a good one.”  Said Renna.

The rest quickly joined in, agreeing with Renna, more out of a desire not to be chosen themselves than because of any great feeling that Allen was a superior speaker.  Feeling a little like he had been railroaded into the position, Allen accepted.  They waited in an adjoining room until the appointed time, then walked out together and sat down behind a table in the conference room.  Allen positioned himself in the center, behind one of the three microphones.  The rest of the room was full of reporters, seated in rows of chairs.  TV cameras from all of the local stations were positioned throughout the room.   Kari Davis, the reporter who had tried to question them at the hospital, had been chosen to introduce the former captives.  She stood behind a podium to one side of the table, and once 6:00 arrived, she started by giving a brief summary of what had happened, then asking the captives to give their names.  Allen spoke first and introduced the others.  Then he took the microphone and explained that he had been chosen to tell the story of what happened and then they would all take questions.

Allen explained about the picnic and how the gang members had attacked and been driven off.  He didn’t mention that he used aikido on the first gang member, instead just saying that they had fought and that the thug had been injured.  He then said that they had gone about their business as usual until Maria had been kidnapped, then the rest of them had been kidnapped two days later.  He explained about the motorcycle riders and being put into the trunk and taken to the basement room.  Without going into detail, he simply said they had been tied up in the room for another day and then drugged and put into the crates on the train.  Then he described being rescued from the train by the police.

Once Allen finished his description, all of the reporters started shouting at once, trying to be the first to get a question answered.  Allen pointed to a man in the second row.

“Rob Davis, Local 2 News.”  Said the man.  “Didn’t the police warn you that Miss Cruz had been kidnapped?”

Allen looked at the others, who seemed happy to leave the explanation to him.  “The police did warn us that Maria had been kidnapped.  They told us to be careful, and that they would be increasing patrols near our houses.  I believe it was their increased watchfulness that allowed them to find out where we were being held and ultimately rescue us.”

The next question came from a channel 11 reporter.  “Miss Cruz, Why do you think you were kidnapped first?”

“They told me it was because I was the one who had pulled a gun on one of their gang members.”

“Do you have a concealed carry permit?”

“Yes I do.”

Allen pointed to Kari Davis, who he figured should get a chance as she had been trying for some time.

“Miss Larsen, is it true they made you wear diapers?”

“Yes, they did.”

“Do you know why?”

“I think they wanted to humiliate us and demonstrate our helplessness.  And with the diapers they didn’t have to untie us to let us go to the bathroom.”

“Did they rape any of the women?”  Asked another reporter.

Allen looked at Anna, trying to spread out the answers between them.  “No.  They did nothing sexual beyond a few crude comments.”  She said.

The next question was directed at Renna.  “Miss Kosmatka, what was it like being tied up and not knowing what they were going to do to you?”

“It was horrible.  We were totally at their mercy.  We didn’t know if they were going to kill us, rape us, beat us up, or what.  It’s difficult to talk about.”  Renna choked up at that point, shaking her head, which made Maria tear up as well.  One reporter sensed the tension and tried an easier question.

“Mr. Salazar, I heard that you have a job as a mermaid wrangler.  Just what is that?”

Fernando smiled.  “Renna and Katherine work together as mermaids for the Gulf Aquarium.  When they are in their mermaid costumes, it is difficult for them to get around, so I help them get into and out of the water, act as a lifeguard, and whatever else they might need.  We are also responsible for taking care of the fish and the 10,000,000 gallon aquarium tank – the largest aquarium tank in the world.”

“Wow!  That sounds interesting.  Can you tell us more?”

“Our connection through the aquarium is how all of us met.  And the aquarium will be opening in just two short weeks.  If you come after May first, you can see Katherine and Renna as mermaids, feeding the fish in the aquarium.”

After that, there were a few more questions about the aquarium, and then several more questions about the kidnapping- most of them the ‘how did it feel’ kind.  When things started to seem repetitive, Allen thanked the reporters for their time, expressed his gratitude to the police for rescuing them, and closed the press conference.

 

Chapter 12 – On Being a Mermaid

April 13

Wednesday morning, Katherine worked for a couple of hours and then went to the locker room at about 9:30 to change into her tail.  When she got out to the pool, Fernando hadn’t shown up yet, so she started the process of wiggling into her tail on her own.  Fernando arrived a few minutes later and helped her finish the job.  He showed her a laminated piece of paper with photographs of some of the carnivorous fish on it.

“Renna and I have been working to divide up the fish into four groups for feeding at the four different times of the day.  These are the ones for the first feeding.  I’ll hang up this chart near the entrance so you can refer back to it as you work.”

Katherine looked over the chart.  In addition to the pictures, the official species name of each fish was listed, along with a description of any identifying features.  Some of the fish also had nicknames that they had begun to develop.  One of the nurse sharks, for example, was called “Nurse Chapel” because of a triangular shaped mark on her body that reminded Lacy of the Star Trek logo.  After studying the chart for a few minutes, Katherine had Fernando lower her into the pool and swam across to the aquarium entrance.  When she was done with the feeding, Fernando lifted her back out of the pool but she stayed sitting in the sling on the crane and asked him to bring one of the wheelchairs nearby.  There was a towel draped across the wheelchair and she used it to dry off before having Fernando lift her into the chair.  Once she was seated in the wheelchair, Katherine wheeled herself into the locker room and took off her swimsuit top.  She could just reach the latch to her locker, so she opened it and retrieved her bra and top.  She put them on and grabbed a brush out of her locker.  There was a sink with a mirror in the locker room, but Katherine couldn’t see into the mirror from her seated position.  She backed away until she could see herself in the mirror, then brushed her hair.  The hair made wet spots in her blouse where it fell on her shoulders and back.

Once she was changed, Katherine headed back out of the locker room.  Fernando was there to help push her through the building to her office.  Every time they passed another employee in the halls, Katherine had to answer questions and hear comments about her mermaid tail.  Many of the others had heard about the mermaids, but had not yet seen them.  After returning to her office, Katherine resumed her work logging the results of testing on the new healgel variant.  When lunchtime rolled around, Audra stopped by.

“How is the wheelchair working out?”  She asked.

“I’m getting a new appreciation of disabled people.”  Answered Katherine.  “Do you know how hard it is to simply open a door when you are in a wheelchair?  But this does seem to be a good way of getting some office work done without having to change out of my tail.”

“Your press conference yesterday made quite an impression.  Fernando deserves a bonus for talking about the aquarium.  The aquarium switchboard has been jammed all day with people wanting to find out about the grand opening or to buy tickets.”

“Next time you can be the one kidnapped and you can have all the free advertising you want.”

“I think I’d rather pay for advertising.  By the way, Maria will be here this afternoon for an interview.”

“That’s wonderful!  I hope you decide to hire her.”

“Her résumé looked good.  It looks like she is a diligent worker, so I think that there’s a good chance we will.”

“Would you like to have lunch with me?”  Audra asked.

“Sure.  Let me grab my purse.”

They headed down the hall to the elevator, passing several people who made comments about Katherine’s tail.  She returned the teasing good-naturedly and continued wheeling herself down the hall.  They rode the elevator down to the first floor and then Katherine wheeled herself after Audra to the cafeteria.  It was difficult for Katherine to decide on what to eat, because she could not see any of it from her position in the wheelchair.  Based on Audra’s descriptions, she chose a pork chop with gravy and a salad.  It was easy enough to balance the food tray on the arms of the wheelchair, but once they got to a table, she found that it was difficult to get close enough to reach her tray comfortably.  They moved from a rectangular table to a round one, and that worked a bit better.

“I can’t believe how well you handled being kidnapped.”  Said Audra once they got comfortable.

“I think I’ll be having nightmares for a few weeks.”  Answered Katherine.  “Getting back to a normal routine helps.”

“Well I think I would have been hiding in my bed for a week afterwards.  In fact, I’ve started to look for a bodyguard, and some increased security for the company.  I want to make sure nothing like that ever happens again.”

“That sounds like a good idea.”

After lunch, Katherine returned to her office to work.  Before long, it became apparent that she would need to go to the bathroom before getting back in the water.  So she wheeled down to the bathroom and into the handicapped stall.  Her first hurdle was getting the stall door closed behind her.  Once she figured that out, she used the grab bars in the stall to maneuver herself off of the wheelchair and onto the toilet.  Then she rolled the top part of her tail down to about her knees and finally was able to pee.  After cleaning herself up, she pulled the tail back into place and moved back into the wheelchair.  Finally, she used the handicapped accessible sink to wash her hands.  The whole process took close to half an hour.

“I am really, really beginning to empathize with disabled people.”  Thought Katherine.  “If I end up doing that every day, it won’t really save any time to leave the tail on between feedings.  There’s got to be a better way.”

She continued thinking about the problem as she went about the rest of her day.  She took her second turn feeding the fish and then changed back into her clothes and got ready to go home.  On the way out, she stopped by Audra’s office.

“I’m not sure leaving the tail on is going to work very well.”  She told her boss.

“Why not?”

“It took me half an hour to go to the bathroom, and there is no way I can hold it long enough to wait until after the second feeding.”

“I see.  So do you want to just change twice a day?”

“I’m still thinking about it.  Maybe there’s another way.”

“If you think of something, let me know.”

The next day, Katherine followed a similar routine, though this time she did the noon and 4:00 feedings.  She still kept her tail on in between the feedings, but once again she found the bathroom trip to be difficult and time consuming.  She was off duty for the next two days, but she decided that she would change out of her tail between feedings when she returned on Sunday.

Katherine spent the next day running errands and cleaning her apartment.  When 5:00 rolled around, she changed out of her t-shirt into a dressy blue tunic with Indian-style embroidery, and she did her makeup and hair carefully.  Allen knocked on the door shortly after she was done.  He was dressed in a light blue dress shirt and a pair of khaki pants.

“Are you ready for the photo shoot?”  Katherine asked.

“I guess so.  You look fabulous, by the way.”

“Thank you.”

They got into Allen’s car and drove to the aquarium, where they met John Farishe, their wedding photographer.  Katherine led them to a side door and up the stairs to the water storage pool.  The photographer waited outside while she and Allen went into the locker room and she changed out of her leggings and into her mermaid tail, with Allen helping her to put it on.  Allen helped her into the wheelchair and they went back to the photographer.

“Ah, you are very beautiful.”  Said the photographer when he saw Katherine.  “This will make for a very memorable wedding invitation.”

They all went outside and Allen wheeled Katherine down to the shore in front of the aquarium.  They found a big rock for Katherine to sit on, and Allen stood behind her while the photographer took lots of pictures.  In the close-up photos, Katherine looked normal with her tunic hiding the tail beneath, but they made sure to take plenty of full-body pictures showing her tail bent around the rock.  With the sunset behind them, they hoped the pictures would be very striking.  When they were done, they went back into the pool room, but instead of wheeling her directly to the locker room, Allen stopped Katherine beside the pool.

“What are we stopping here for?”  Katherine asked.

“John wanted to get some indoor pictures too.”  Said Allen.  “Here, I’ll help you sit on the side of the pool.”

Allen lifted her out of the wheelchair and carried her to the side of the pool.  Once she was arranged, he kicked off his shoes and sat down next to her.  The photographer knelt at the adjacent side of the pool and took some more pictures.

“Very good.”  He said after snapping the photos.  “Now let me come and pose you a little differently.”

He walked up behind the two of them and turned Katherine’s head to one side, then had Allen put his arm around her.

“No, no, this is still not quite right.”  He said.  Then he suddenly pushed them both from behind.  They splashed down into the pool.  Katherine kicked herself up to the surface to find Allen treading water beside her.  They both looked up at the photographer, who was snapping pictures wildly.

“Wonderful, wonderful!  That was just the effect I was looking for!”

“I should splash your camera!” said Katherine.  Allen just laughed, and soon Katherine was laughing with him.  They swam over under the crane and explained to John how to operate it.  He lifted Allen out of the pool and then Allen took over and lifted Katherine out.  Allen pushed his fiancée back into the locker room in the wheelchair, and she took off her mermaid tail and tunic and put on a dry swimsuit.  Allen dried off as well as he could with a towel, but there were no dry clothes for him to wear.

“We can go over to the men’s side and see if we can borrow one of Fernando’s swimsuits.”  Katherine offered.

“That’s OK.  I’ll just borrow a towel to sit on in the car.  Let’s go see John out.”

They arranged to meet with John on Monday evening to design their invitation, then showed him out the door.

“What are they building back behind the pool?” Allen asked, pointing to the crane sticking up above the roof.

“I always assumed it was just aquarium construction.”

“If the aquarium is going to open in two weeks, they wouldn’t still be using a crane.”

“I guess that’s right.  I’ll ask Audra on Monday.”

John arranged his towel on the car seat and drove Katherine home.  On the way, he suggested they go swimming.

“You’re already dressed for it.”  He said.  “And I can go home and change real quick.  Maybe we can pack a picnic to eat on the beach.”

Katherine agreed, so Allen dropped her off, then went to his own place and changed.  She packed a simple picnic dinner and was ready for him when he came back.  They drove out the Texas City Dike to the beach and had a leisurely evening of picnicking, swimming, and lounging on the sand.

 

Chapter 13 – A Visit from Mom

April 16

On Saturday, Katherine and Allen went shopping for a wedding dress and suit for the wedding.  The suit was the easy part—Katherine had a harder time deciding what dress she liked.  She narrowed her choices down to two or three, and then decided to get her mom’s opinion.  Her mom was already planning to visit for a week at the beginning of May to help with the wedding preparations and to meet Allen.

Sunday it was back to work for Katherine.  It was different to be there on a weekend.  No one was in the office, so she had lots of quiet time to plan new healgel additives and applications.  When 9:30 AM rolled around, she went to the pool.  A man met her when she entered.

“Hello.  You must be Katherine.”  He said, sticking out his hand.

“Yes, that’s me.”

“I’m Jonas Fulton, Audra’s business associate.  I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“Only good things, I hope.”

“Definitely.  Audra has been very complimentary.  I’ve even seen you on TV.  You were very brave to survive being kidnapped like that.”

“Thank you.  If you could give me just a minute, I’ll go get changed.”

“Before you go, you may want to come look at the pool.”

Audra followed him to the side of the pool.  Not far from the crane was a cylinder of acrylic placed vertically in the pool.  The walls of the cylinder came up above the water about a foot, except for one section where the wall had been rounded and smoothed like the mermaid entrance to the aquarium.  The cylinder sat next to the wall of the pool and water poured from a spout on the wall into the cylinder.  There must have been a drain in the bottom because the water level in the cylinder wasn’t rising.

“We still have the extruder we used to make the tubes through the aquarium, and Audra came up with an idea to overcome the bathroom problem.  She’s waiting in the locker room because she wanted to be here and help you test it out.”

Katherine went into the locker room and found Audra inside.  She was wearing a green bikini top and a pair of panties, and she was pulling a mermaid tail out of a locker.  Katherine was a bit surprised to see her with a mermaid tail, though she knew Audra had been feeding the fish on the weekends for the last few weeks.

“I met Jonas outside, and he said you had a solution to the bathroom issue?”

“I think so.  Come here and look at my tail.”

Katherine approached at looked inside Audra’s tail.  There was a long, thin tube inside that was attached to the tail just above the knees.  On the other end of the tube was a flexible cup.

“This tube is glued into a hole in my tail.  With a little bit of healgel, I can adhere the cup to my urethra, and when I need to pee it will come out the tail, just like a fish.  The cylinder in the pool is a place where we can go when we need to use the bathroom.  The water is kept separate from the aquarium water, and runs down through a filter to the sewer.”

“That sounds like a promising idea.  Have you tried it out yet?”

“No, we just got everything installed yesterday.  I had a tube put in your tail as well.  Since we won’t be able to wear our swimsuit bottoms with this arrangement, I figured we didn’t want Jonas helping with our tails today.  This way we can help each other.”

“How did you install the big tube in the pool?  It is way too big to fit through the doors.”

“A section of the roof comes off.  We lowered it in with a crane.”

“Yes, we noticed the crane on Friday.  Why do we still have construction going on behind the pool building?  I thought the aquarium was almost done.”

“I have plans for an expansion.  There will be some outdoor pools and a connection to the bay.  I have an idea for something that has never been done before, but I want to keep the exact details a secret.”

Katherine got her tail out of her locker and noted the tube inside.  She and Audra both sat on a bench next to each other and worked their tails up their legs.  When the tails were most of the way on, they attached the tubes, then helped each other pull the tails up the rest of the way.  When they were done, they called for Jonas, who brought a wheelchair into the locker room and took each woman in turn out to the pool.  Audra immediately swam to the tube and slipped over the entryway.

“I’ve been saving up so I could test my idea.”  She said.

Katherine felt a little strange watching her boss go to the bathroom, but with the strong current in the tube, there was nothing to see.  After a couple of minutes, Audra swam back to the entryway and flipped out of the tube.

“Did everything work all right?”  Katherine asked.

“Just perfectly.  Jonas, you can take the water sample now!”

Jonas lowered a small cup on a string down into the water in the tube.  He sealed the top of the cup and then walked toward the aquarium.  Audra went with Katherine and helped her with the feeding.  When they were done, Katherine was ready to try out the new bathroom area.  At first, she was a little hesitant to go, but she had peed in the bathtub once or twice with no ill effects, and she figured a ten foot diameter tube with constantly circulating water was sanitary enough.  When she was done, Jonas took another water sample.  Then he lifted Audra out of the pool.

“Do you want to get out now as well?”  Audra asked.

“Yes.  I have some things I can work on in my office.”

“All right.  Can you help Lacy with her tail when she comes?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Good.  Now can you help me take off my tail?  I have plans for a relaxing Sunday afternoon.”

“Sure, I can help.”

Jonas lifted Katherine out of the pool and she followed Audra into the locker room in her wheelchair.  After helping Audra take her tail off, she wheeled her way down to her office to work.  At about 11:30, she went back to the pool to meet Lacy.

“You missed out on some really cool stuff yesterday.”  Said Lacy when Katherine arrived.

“Like what?”

“They lifted a big chunk of the roof off with a crane, and then lowered the potty tube down through the hole.  I hung out in the pool and watched the whole thing.”

“That does sound like it would have been rather interesting.  Potty tube?  Is that what we’re calling it?”

“Well, it fits, doesn’t it?”

“I guess so.”

“There were several construction guys working on the new plumbing and stuff.  They made some crude jokes, but Jonas made them cut it out.”

“Always happy to be of service.”  Chimed in Jonas, who had just entered the room.

Lacy and Katherine went into the locker room and Katherine helped Lacy with her tail.  Then Katherine went back to her office while Lacy got into the water and fed some fish.  The cafeteria wasn’t open on a weekend, so Katherine had a sandwich and an apple that she had brought from home.  Her office seemed very quiet without the hustle and bustle of other people working around her.  It was nice to be able to concentrate on her work without interruptions, but a little scary to be in an empty building all alone.  So Katherine was happy to hear Lacy rolling to a stop in front of her door.

“How do you like being here on a weekend?”  Lacy asked.

“It’s a little lonely here all alone.  How do you like the potty tube?”

“It’s great.  I hate to admit it, but I peed in the pool one or two times before.  It’s kind of tough getting around in a wheelchair though.”

“I know what you mean.  My arms get sore from rolling it around.  But it beats trying to pull my tail on and off twice in one day.”

“I agree.  When I started this job, I thought how romantic it was to be a mermaid, but I didn’t realize how much work it would be.”

They chatted a few minutes longer, then Lacy left to do some work in her office.  While Katherine’s non-mermaid portion of the job was working for Burns Pharmaceuticals, Renna and Lacy were more concentrated on the aquarium.  Renna was a veterinarian who made sure the animals in the aquarium stayed healthy, and Lacy was involved in marketing.  Before long, it was time for Katherine to take her second turn feeding fish.  While waiting for Lacy to help her out of her tail afterward, Katherine found out a little more about Jonas.

“So Jonas, lifting us into and out of the pool doesn’t take much of your time.  What do you do with the rest of it?”

“I help Audra with her strategic planning.  The current aquarium is just a start, and I’m working on ideas for our next expansion.”

“Ooh, that sounds interesting.  What kind of expansion?”

“I’m sorry, but that’s a secret right now.  We’ll tell you when the time is right.”

Lacy came and helped Katherine out of her tail, then Katherine worked a while longer until it was time to help Lacy change.

Maria started working on Monday, so each of the other mermaids started spending some extra time in the pool with her to help her learn to swim with a monofin and hold her breath as long as possible. The remaining days of April were busy with training, wedding preparations, and getting ready for the aquarium’s grand opening.  When the last Friday in April arrived, Katherine drove her little car to the airport in the morning, excited to see her mom again after several months on her own.  She waited near the exit, and when she saw the tall blonde woman with a little bit of gray in her hair, Katherine ran to gather her up in a big hug.  After a few moments, they separated and Katherine grabbed the handle of her mom’s carry-on.

“How was your flight?”  She asked.

“Not bad.  I had a good book to read.  How are the wedding preparations going?”

“I think we have most everything lined up.  I do want your opinion on my wedding dress.  Do you feel up to stopping at the dress shop on the way to my apartment?”

“Oh, I’m always up to looking at wedding dresses with my daughter.  Let’s do that.  How is your job working out?”

“I really like it.  I always loved swimming, but thought my job would end up being in an office all day.  With this job I get to swim a couple of hours a day, while still using my biomedical training.”

“I’m really eager to see this mermaid tail of yours.  Will I have a chance to see you in it?”

“Yes.  I have a ticket for you to come to the grand opening on Sunday.  I will be swimming in the aquarium a couple of times, and I will come out to meet and greet people in between.”

“That sounds like fun.  How about Allen?  Is his job going well?”

“Oh, yes.  He loves it.  He is learning a lot of new things and he has a great group of people to work with.”

“That sounds wonderful.”

They picked up Janice’s luggage and then drove to the dress store.  Katherine modeled each of the three dresses she was considering, and her mom liked the same one she had been leaning towards.  It had what they called a trumpet-style skirt which fit her hips closely and then flared out at the bottom, with a satin panel across the abdomen and a lacy bodice on top.  Once they made their decision, the clerk took careful measurements and made a list of minor alterations, then Katherine made a down payment and put in her order for the dress.  When they were done, they went to Katherine’s apartment and settled in.  Katherine only had one bed, but she had bought an air mattress a few days earlier and made it up in the living room.

“I’m sorry I don’t have a bedroom for you.”

“I understand.  You’re just starting out and can’t afford a bigger place yet.  This mattress seems comfortable enough.”

“If you can’t sleep on it, you can have my bed and I’ll sleep out here.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t think of it.  This is your place now.  I’m so proud that you have grown up to be a strong, independent woman.”

“Thanks, Mom.  Are you hungry?  I have some stuff ready in the fridge to cook for dinner.”

“That would be very nice.  The bag of peanuts on the plane was a long time ago.”

Janice came into the kitchen and chatted while Katherine put some chicken into the pan to cook.  They went over the wedding plans and caught each other up on all the events of the last few months.  Although she had told the story dozens of times now, it felt like a load was released from Katherine’s shoulders when she shared her story about the kidnapping.  They ate the chicken and some salad, then talked long into the night.  On Saturday, Allen came over and they all went out for lunch.  Janice had been pleased with Allen since she met him after his first few dates with her daughter, and now that they were engaged, she suggested he could call her “Mom.”  Within a few sentences, the title felt comfortable in Allen’s mouth, something he had never thought would happen after his parent’s tragic death a few year’s previous.  Katherine had a ticket to the grand opening for Allen as well, so they arranged for him to pick up Janice in the morning and bring her to the aquarium.  Katherine would be going over earlier to get ready.  For the opening week, the mermaids would be swimming in teams, and in between feeding times, they would be rolling through the aquarium in their wheelchairs, visiting with the customers and handing out little plushy mermaid dolls to the children.  Maria’s tail was due on Monday, so she would be joining them once she was equipped.

 

 

Chapter 14 – Grand Opening

May 1

Sunday was Opening Day at the aquarium, so Katherine had a quick breakfast with her mom and then headed off to get ready for her part.  When she arrived at work, she was surprised to find the front door open.  Behind the reception desk sat a large, muscular man with a crew cut.

“How can I help you?”  He asked.

“Hi, I’m Katherine.  I’m here to get ready for work.”

“Good Morning, Katherine.  I’m Joe, with the new security company.  Can I see your company ID, please?”

Katherine dug through her purse and found her ID buried at the bottom.  After she showed it to the guard, he told her to have a nice day and waved her past.  Apparently Audra had hired a security company like she had mentioned.  It made sense to have them start working right at the grand opening time.  After passing the guard, Katherine went directly to the locker room.  Before long, Renna, Lacy, and Maria were there as well.  Although Maria didn’t have her tail yet, she was going to be there to help them with their tails and push them around in their wheelchairs.  She was wearing a long dress with a skirt that flared out at the bottom and a scale pattern in the fabric, but she changed into a swimming suit for some early practice before meeting with customers.  Lacy had a schedule of the day’s appearances for each of them.  Renna and Katherine would start out in the aquarium at 10:00.  Even though there were two of them, Lacy wanted them to go slow with the feeding so that it would last an hour.  Then at 11:00, Maria would push Lacy around the aquarium in a wheelchair, so she could pass out toys and interact with the customers.  At Noon, Lacy and Renna would go back in the aquarium, and Katherine would go do customer contact at 1:00.  The pattern repeated throughout the day.  Once she knew the schedule, Katherine called Allen and her Mom and told them when to look for her.  Fernando showed up about 9:00, and he helped them all into the pool, where they swam gently for a time and helped Maria practice.

When the time came for the first feeding, Katherine and Renna Swam over the entrance wall into the aquarium.  As soon as she entered the water, Katherine could see the customers on the other side of the walls pointing and gathering at the wall to watch her and Renna work.  As they had planned, before doing any feeding the two mermaids swam around the aquarium, waving at the customers as they passed.  They paid special attention to the children, making sure they all had a chance to see them pass by.  After making their pass, they went back to the entrance area and picked up some food.  Katherine put a big fish on her feeding stick and then swam down to where Nurse Chapel usually hung out.  To make it fun for the children, she held the fish out where she knew the shark would find it, then turned her head as if she were looking for something.  When she felt the tug on her stick, she turned around and acted surprised.  As the big nurse shark swam away with her meal, Katherine shook her finger as if she was scolding her, then swam to the surface for a breath.  Katherine and Renna continued to feed the carnivores, making sure to take plenty of turns swimming around the aquarium in between each feeding task.  After feeding one of the bamboo sharks, Katherine looked up to see Allen and Janice watching her.  She waved at them and then went on with her tasks.

When she was done with her turn feeding the fish, Katherine dried off, got in a wheelchair, and went to her office to work.  The pharmaceutical offices seemed quiet after the hustle and bustle of the aquarium.  When lunchtime came around, she wheeled herself out to the cafeteria.  Now that the aquarium was open, the cafeteria was also open to serve the aquarium staff.  Maria came to meet Katherine, escorting Allen and Janice, who wore visitor tags.

“How do you like the aquarium?”  Katherine asked them.

“It’s impressive.”  Replied Janice.  “We have only seen a part of it, but the huge tank in the middle is a real show-stopper.  Having mermaids swim around inside of it is a nice touch.”

“We saw Lacy in the gallery, passing out stuffed mermaids to a crowd of little girls.”  Allen commented.

“That’s what I’m going to be doing after lunch.”

“It seems like a fun part of your job.”  Said Janice.  “What about your biomedical work?  Will we get to see that part of your workplace sometime?”

“Some of the processes we use are company secrets, so I can’t show you everything.  But maybe you can come by sometime later when the grand opening is past and I will show you what I can.”

“I would like that.  I suppose there will be plenty of time after you are married for me to visit both of you and see all the sights around Houston.”

After a leisurely lunch, Allen pushed Katherine back to the staff entrance to the aquarium.  Once they entered the aquarium gallery area, Maria found them and took over as Katherine’s helper.  Allen and Janice hung around for a few minutes but soon Katherine became busy dealing with the aquarium guests, so they left her there to go finish their tour.  Katherine spent the next hour answering questions from children and adults.

“Are you a real mermaid?” A young girl asked.

“No, mermaids are just pretend.  But I’m as close as you can get.”

“Can I touch your tail?”

“Yes, you can.”

“It feels rubbery!  Do you have normal people legs underneath?”

“Yes.”

“How can you walk with a tail?”

“I can’t.  That’s why I have to use a wheelchair when I’m out of the water.  But with the tail I can swim really well – much faster than people with legs.”

“Can I be a mermaid?”

“Do you know how to swim?”

“I can hold my breath and get my face wet.  And Daddy holds me up so I can practice kicking.”

“That’s a good start.  You keep practicing and maybe one day you can be a mermaid too.”

Some of the questions from adults were not as entertaining.

“Hey, you look pretty hot.  Wanna go get a drink with me later?”  A bearded man with a large beer belly asked.

“I’m very flattered by your offer, but I’m engaged.”

“So?”

“So you’ll have to find someone else to drink with.”  Katherine turned away from the man and Maria pushed her wheelchair away from him.  The man got a good look at Maria in her snug mermaid-style skirt and started to switch his unwanted attentions to her.  But then a muscular man in a polo shirt with the aquarium logo stepped in front of him.

“Hello, sir.  My name is Kent and I’d like to ask you a few questions about your experience at the aquarium today.  Do you have a moment?”

With the man temporarily distracted, they made their escape and found another group of kids and parents to talk to.  After her hour was done, Katherine decided that dealing with the public was more tiring than swimming in the aquarium.  Maria wheeled her back to the water storage pool and Fernando lowered her in.  She made a quick stop at the potty tube and then it was time to feed the fish again.  Lacy came with her this time, and they tried to make the process as entertaining as possible.  Katherine’s little trick of looking away and then acting surprised when the shark grabbed a fish off her feeding stick seemed to be popular.  Lacy would swim upside down with her tail vertical and feed the fish on the bottom, or she would sit on one of the tubes and slide down the side.  When they were done, Katherine had an hour to work in her office before she did the 4:00 feeding with Renna.  As they changed, Katherine asked Lacy about the man who did the survey.

“Who was that guy who headed off the rude man?  I didn’t know we had people doing surveys.”

“We aren’t doing any surveys just yet.  I think he was one of our security guards.”

“Well, I’m glad he was there.”

They finished taking their tails off and went home.  When Katherine arrived at her apartment, Allen was there with her mother.

“How did the rest of your aquarium tour go?”

“We had a good time.”  Janice answered.  “And I got to know Allen a little bit better.  I think I’m pretty happy with your choice for a husband.”

“I’m happy too.”  Answered Katherine as she stood next to Allen.  Her arm was around his waist and she gave a little squeeze.

“Now you’re both embarrassing me.”  Said Allen.  “Shall we go out for dinner tonight?  Or would you like to come to my apartment and I’ll cook something for us?”

“Oh, you mean he cooks, too?”  Said Janice.  “I think I’ll vote for that option.  What are you planning to make?”

“I think I’ve got the ingredients for Swedish meatballs.  Does that sound good?”

“It does.”  Said Katherine.  “You make the meatballs and Mom and I will make a fruit salad and bring it with us.”

Allen left for his apartment and Katherine and her mom cut up fruit for a salad.  They got together a bit later and had a nice dinner together.  On Monday, Katherine dropped her mom back off at the airport and then rushed to the aquarium.  The schedule had been changed a bit to accommodate her, so she spent most of the afternoon feeding fish or meeting customers to make up for being gone in the morning.  Maria’s tail arrived in the morning, so the schedule for the rest of the week was less taxing with all four mermaids trading time in the water.  None of them took their usual days off that week.  On May 9 the grand opening week was officially over and they shifted to having only one mermaid feeding the fish and none visiting the customers, though the plan was to continue having occasional meet-and-greets on the busier weekend days.

 

Chapter 15 – A Criminal Makes Plans

May 12

 

Carlos twisted one of his rings around his finger as he waited for the knock on the door.  He eyed the two chairs in the dingy little office, but decided they were both too dirty to sit on.  It wouldn’t do to stain his expensively-tailored pants.  Finally the knock came, and Carlos unlocked the door to admit the man he had been waiting for.  The man at the door was a skinny fellow with dirty clothes and long hair.  He had a crown tattooed on his neck.  Carlos waved him into the room and backed away, staring at him for a minute or two.

“So, did you find a suitable patsy?”  Carlos asked.

“Yeah.  Guy named Jeff Simms.  He has a bad back and the doctor won’t give him any more Oxycodone pills.  I kindly arranged to sell him some of our best smack for a real low price.  Gimme a couple of weeks and he’ll do anything we ask him to do.”

“Good.  What’s his role with the company?”

“He’s some kind of battery expert.  I don’t know much more than that.  But I seen him goin to work every day at the Orca plant.”

“All right.  That’s good enough.  Keep feeding him the drugs, but drop hints about us maybe having supply problems in the future.  When the time’s right, I’ll contact you and his fix will suddenly get very expensive, unless he’s willing to do us a little favor.”

“You got it, boss.”

“Boss?”

“Oh. . .  sorry.  I mean– Your Majesty.”

“Better.  Now get out of here.”

Carlos gave his contact a few minutes to clear the area, then he left the building.  Two bodyguards appeared from the shadows and one locked the door behind him.  A long limousine pulled around the corner and all three men got into the back.  Once he was settled, Carlos spoke to the driver.

“Take me back to the Astoria.  I have some more planning to do.”

Chapter 16 – Wedding

June 3

 

Katherine stood beside Allen in her wedding dress and heard the minister pronounce them man and wife.  Renna, Lacy, Maria, and a young cousin named Katelyn stood by as her bridesmaids, and Kenneth, an old friend of Allen’s from college, was the best man.  Allen’s sister Cherise was in the audience, sitting with the uncle and aunt who had taken them in after their parents died.  On Katherine’s side of the room sat her mother, grandmother, and a few aunts, uncles, and cousins.  Many of their friends from work filled out the audience, but it was a small wedding.  Neither Allen nor Katherine had been blessed with a very large family, and both of them had suffered the loss of loved ones at an early age.  It was good that they were developing a network of new friends to fill some of the gap created by the loss or distance of family members.  Even Audra and John were in the audience.  Even though they were Allen’s and Katherine’s employers, shared experiences were making them into friends as well.

Allen and Katherine kissed passionately, and the audience cheered them on.  The day continued with all of the usual festivities until it was finally time for Allen and Katherine to drive their festively decorated car to San Antonio.  Rather than put themselves into debt with a long, expensive honeymoon, the couple had decided to spend two nights in a nice hotel and see the Alamo.  They would have a lifetime to spend together afterwards, and hopefully plenty of opportunities for more expensive vacations once they had settled down a little.  As is true for many couples, more of their honeymoon was spent in the hotel than anywhere else, though they did have a nice tour of the Alamo.  They swam in the hotel pool and Allen was a little surprised to see that Katherine kept her feet together and kicked mermaid-style even without her tail.  One of the other hotel guests almost jumped in to “save” her when she stayed down at the bottom of the deep end for 3-1/2 minutes.

Before long the weekend was gone and it was time to head home and back to work.  Since Allen’s apartment was larger, they had moved all of Katherine’s stuff into his place before the wedding.  All they needed to do with Katherine’s apartment was some cleaning before they turned in the keys.  They spent some of their time on Sunday evening opening wedding gifts and putting them away before retiring to the bedroom for the night.  On Monday morning it was back to work for both of them.

“How was the honeymoon?”  John asked as Allen entered the Orca plant in the morning.

“Very good.”

“I can tell you liked it by the goofy grin on your face.  So was it worth waiting to get married?”

“I know that’s not very common nowadays.”  Answered Allen.  “But yes, I believe it was.  Neither of us has been attending a church lately, but we both believe that sex outside of marriage is wrong.  And we felt that if we could have the self-control to wait for intimacy until we were married, our union would be stronger and longer-lasting because of that commitment.  Although I had to take a few cold showers, I think waiting shows that our love is based on mutual respect and admiration, not just the physical desires of our bodies.”

“I can certainly respect your decision.  You two seem to be a wonderful couple, and I wish you all the best.”

“Thank you.”

“I have an assignment that I think you will like.  Sub 12 is getting close to being completed.  All it lacks is for Jeff to finish running some tests on the batteries and it will be ready to go.  How would you like to help Phil take it out for some underwater testing?”

“I would love to!  I’ve wanted to spend more time inside one of these subs since the day you hired me and gave me a ride.”

“I thought you might like it.  There will be a checklist to follow, and Phil will be the main pilot, of course, but I imagine there will be a chance for you to man the controls for a while.”

“Great!  Thanks!”

“I’ll let you know when Jeff is done, and then you and Phil can schedule the test.  It will probably be near the end of the week.”

Allen went to his desk and began working, but he probably got less work done than usual as he daydreamed about the opportunity to actually travel in one of the subs.  He spent some time on the internet looking for off-the-shelf motors and actuators for a manipulator arm, but he was having a hard time finding anything that met the requirements.  He would probably have to work with a manufacturer to develop something custom, but if he could find an off-the-shelf motor that came close, the manufacturer might be able to make it without jacking the cost up too high.  He made a spreadsheet to keep track of which motors met which requirements.

In the afternoon, Jeff came by.

“I hear you get to go out on the test run for sub 12.”  He said.

“Yes, John told me this morning.  I’m really looking forward to it.”

“You’re a lucky guy.  Have fun.  I’ll have it ready for you by the end of the day tomorrow, I think.”

Something seemed a little off about Jeff.  He looked a little pale and sick.  Maybe he was jealous that Allen got to go out in the sub and he didn’t.  Allen returned to his work for the rest of the day.  When he got home, he told Katherine the good news.

“That sounds exciting!”  She told him.  “Where will you take the sub?”

“I think we just go straight out into the Gulf of Mexico.  One of the tests is a deep dive and the bay here isn’t deep enough.  We have to go south quite a distance to get more than 50 feet deep.”

“How deep will you go?”

“This is just a quick test, so we aren’t planning to go real deep.  Phil says he knows a place where we can get down to 100 feet.”

“When are you going?”

“We haven’t determined exactly when yet.  Jeff said he would be done tomorrow, so sometime after that I suppose.”

 

Chapter 17 – Submarine Test Drive

July 9

 

Allen put his swimming suit on under his pants on Thursday morning, the day they planned to test Sub 12.  When he arrived at Orca’s plant, the big doors at the back of the building were open and Sub 12 was already being lowered into the water.  Allen walked over and stood next to Phil as he directed the crane operator.  It seemed like a long time to Allen, but before long everything was checked out and ready to go.  Allen and Phil changed into swimming suits and T-shirts, then took turns climbing down into the sub.  Allen had a laptop with him, and once he was seated he plugged a cable from the laptop into the diagnostic port on the sub’s control panel.  He brought up a checklist on the screen and read off each item as Phil activated a switch or took a reading from the control panel.  The pre-launch list was relatively short, as the sub had been thoroughly checked out in the shop.  The last item on the list was the champagne bottle strapped into some netting near the hatch.  Orca tradition was to carry the champagne in the sub for the first underwater trials, then present it to the customer for the christening.  After finishing the checklist, the hatch was closed and the crane was disconnected, and they were ready to pull out into the bay.  Allen latched the laptop down to a temporary holder they had placed in front of the cockpit.  Then he watched through the window as Phil pressed the throttle forward and moved the sub out into Galveston Bay.  For the first part of the trip there was little to see as they traveled down the marked shipping lanes.  An occasional fish darted by, but the heavily traveled area was devoid of most sea life.  After they passed the end of Galveston Island, Phil guided the sub out of the shipping lane and headed almost directly south.  He double-checked the hatch and then dove, leveling out when they approached the bottom.  Here along the coast the water was not very deep, so they were cruising at about 20 feet down.

Now that they had left the shipping lane, Allen could see more signs of life on the sea floor.  Sea grasses and sponges grew up from the bottom, and fish darted in and out of hiding.  Colorful gobies hovered above the sea floor and darted back into their burrows as the submarine passed over.  It was a struggle for Allen to pay attention to the data being gathered by the laptop.  Luckily, most of the data collection happened automatically.  At specific times, Allen would press a key to capture a snapshot of some of the key parameters they were tracking—battery charge, CO2 levels, engine power, etc.  All of the parameters held nicely within the specified ranges, indicating a successful test so far.  They motored along for a half hour or so, and then Phil asked Allen if he wanted to pilot the sub for a while.  He happily agreed, taking over the controls while Phil watched the data collection.  From time to time, Phil told Allen to turn or gave him suggestions for keeping the sub level and on course.  Eventually, they passed a few large rocky outcroppings on the bottom and Phil took back over the piloting duties.  He took them around the rocks and Allen could see that they marked the edge of an underwater ravine or canyon.  Phil expertly guided them down into the canyon, following it down as it got wider and deeper.  Allen started paying closer attention to the laptop and the gauges on the control panel as they dropped below 50 feet deep.  The light from above grew dim and Allen turned on the lights, illuminating the ghostly specks of floating plankton around them.

They continued their descent into the canyon, and the depth gage passed 100 feet before they leveled out close to the bottom.  All the readings on the laptop looked good, and Allen pressed the save key to capture the data.  A few moments later, he heard a short hissing sound from the back of the sub.

“Phil, did you hear that?”  He asked.

“Yeah, I heard something.  Are all the readings OK?”

Allen checked the gages and the data on the laptop.  Everything looked normal.  Then he noticed a wobble on the battery gage.

“It looks like the battery is starting to lose power.”

He looked back toward the engine and started to notice the smell of smoke and melting plastic.

“Phil, I think we might have a fire in the battery.”  He said, trying to keep his voice calm.

Phil was beginning to smell it as well, and he cut the power to the engines and turned the nose of the sub up, pressing the button that released the ballast.  The lights flickered and Allen watched as the battery charge indicator dropped increasingly fast.  They could see a red glow coming from the battery compartment below the engine now, and the smoke was growing thicker.  Allen grabbed the fire extinguisher from its bracket on the wall and opened the access door to the battery compartment.  Flames licked up one side of the battery, trying to find fuel in the metal compartment.  Allen aimed the fire extinguisher at the base of the fire and pressed the trigger.  Nothing happened.  Allen was stunned for a moment.  He shook the extinguisher and felt nothing.  It was empty!  He dropped the useless extinguisher and tried to close the compartment door.  The door was now too hot to touch, so Allen pushed it closed with his foot, but he couldn’t close the latch.  He felt a tickle in his belly as the sub reached the surface and bobbed on the water.  Phil opened the hatch, allowing fresh air to mix with the toxic smoke that was rapidly filling the small cabin.

“Leave the fire, Allen!  We’ve got to get out of here before we breathe too much of this smoke!”

Phil climbed up through the hatch, temporarily blocking the flow of fresh air as he passed through the opening.  Once he was through, Allen handed the emergency kit up through the hatch.  As Phil reached in to grab the handle, it slipped from his grasp, tumbling onto Allen’s head and bouncing into the bottle of champagne.  Allen caught it, but not before the bottle shattered, spilling champagne down his legs and into the bottom of the sub.  Allen handed the kit out again and started climbing through the hatch, but the spreading fire reached the pooling champagne, expanding with a “Whoosh!” through the cabin and up Allen’s legs.  The sudden pain from the burning alcohol almost caused Allen to slip back down inside the sub, but Phil saw him falling backward and quickly grabbed his arms.  There was little leverage on the outside of the slippery submarine, so Phil struggled to lift Allen out of the burning cabin.  In desperation, Allen grabbed Phil’s shirt and pulled himself up, but his legs still hung down in the flames below.  Phil struggled futilely for a moment, and then managed to get his knees underneath him and lift Allen the rest of the way through the hatch.  He immediately rolled back, letting Allen’s legs flop down into the sea and putting out the flames that still danced along them.  Allen clung weakly to the lifting ring on top of the sub as Phil pulled two life jackets out of the emergency kit and put one on each of them.  The emergency kit was in a floating plastic box, and Phil quickly activated the distress beacon in the kit, then pulled out two straps that he used to tie Allen and the emergency kit to the sub.  Once they were secure, he closed the hatch so that water would not be able to get into the sub and sink it.

“Don’t worry Allen.”  He said.  “There is a lot of traffic through this part of the gulf and we should be rescued soon.  As long as we stay with the sub we’ll be OK.”

Allen didn’t answer.  The trauma to his legs from the fire, followed by the shock of the cold seawater, had caused him to go into shock and fall unconscious.  Phil tied himself to the sub and sat back to wait, hoping that rescue would come quickly.  He tried his cell-phone, but they were far enough out that there was no service.  The radio in the sub could be used to call for help, but they hadn’t had a chance to use it before the fire spread.  The distress beacon had a shorter range, but the area saw enough ship traffic that someone should pick it up before long.  So all Phil could do was wait and hope Allen would survive until rescue came.

 

 

Katherine had just arrived back at the apartment when the phone rang.  It was John, Allen’s boss.

“Katherine, I have some bad news for you.”

“What?”

“Allen and Phil took one of our subs out for a test drive today, and they haven’t come back.”

“What?  What do you mean they haven’t come back?”

“Well, they left about 9:00 this morning.  Usually they finish by 2:00 or so.  We figured they might be spending some extra time since this was Allen’s first test drive, so we didn’t panic right away.  But they certainly should have been back by now.”

“Oh, no!  What can we do?”

“I just called the coast guard.  They are sending out a call to all boats in the area to be on the lookout, and they are sending one of their boats out on a search.  And I know the route we usually follow on the test drives, so I will be taking the company’s demo sub out to look for them.”

“Can I come with you?”

“I don’t know.  There isn’t a lot of room in our sub for extra people.”

“Please?  I can’t just sit here by the phone, not knowing.”

“All right.  You can come.  We leave in about fifteen minutes.”

“I’ll be there.”

John and Katherine searched along the route usually taken when they tested a submarine, travelling along at a depth of about fifteen feet.  They went slowly, and John scanned the bottom while Katherine watched above for the telltale shadow of a hull.  John took a zigzag route to cover more ground, in case their path deviated from the path taken by Phil and Allen.  Every half hour or so, they would surface so that John could use the radio and check in to see if they had returned or if the coast guard had found anything.  As it got dark, they approached the canyon where they generally dove to deeper depths.  John turned on the powerful sub lights but concluded that they needed to go back for the night.

“Even with the lights, we might miss something in the dark.”  He told Katherine.  “We need to go back and get some rest.”

Katherine just nodded, with tears flowing down her cheeks.  They surfaced and returned to Orca headquarters.  John promised to call if they heard anything, and they both returned home to try and get some sleep.

Chapter 18 – An Unusual Rescuer

July 10

Hector Guzman piloted his submarine through the darkness, running on the surface but ready to dive if he heard the telltale sound of an airplane engine or another ship.

“This is my last trip.”  He told himself.  “With the money I get for this delivery I can take my sister and move somewhere safe, far away from the drugs and gangs of Nicaragua.”

He was piloting a drug smuggling submarine, having just finished a delivery on a secluded beach in the McFadden Wildlife Refuge.  Growing up poor in Puerto Cabezas, Hector had been unable to avoid the gang which ran the city.  He had been too wise to partake of the drugs himself, and he had thought to go to college and escape the gang until his sister came to the notice of El Guapo, the head of the gang in Puerto Cabezas.  When the enforcers came to recruit her as one of El Guapo’s “girlfriends,” Hector had been there with her.  He had made a bargain—he would help pilot the gang’s boats if El Guapo would leave his sister alone.  Hector had grown up fishing with his father and he knew the Lamlaya and all the hidden coves and streams along the coast.  Hector and Ismelda both knew what happened to El Guapo’s girlfriends.  It started nice, with dresses and jewelry and fine meals, but then Guapo would see someone else and the hitting would start.  Soon the makeup would be needed to cover the bruises, and the meals would be taken in the house.  And eventually, she would just disappear.

So Hector and his sister played a waiting game.  Hector drove the boats, at first just for local jobs, but once the gang got the sub, for long-range deliveries to their American customers.  He pretended to be happy with the results, buying a nicer house for them to live in and spending money at the bars.  But he did only the minimum to maintain the façade while he stashed away as much money as possible.  His sister played the game as well, accepting the gifts from El Guapo while resisting his invitations to visit the hacienda.  They both knew that they could only play the game for so long before the gang boss grew tired and forced the issue.  With what he would earn for this trip Hector figured he would finally have enough for the bribes and the passports and the plane tickets to leave Puerto Cabezas and travel to somewhere safe.  Once there he hoped to escape the gang’s influence and build a life for himself and his sister.

Hector sped quickly south through the Gulf of Mexico, riding high and empty.  He turned on the scanner, listening for Coast Guard chatter to make sure he passed far away from any other boats.  That was when he picked up the emergency beacon.  A strong signal coming from almost directly ahead.  He started to turn away, but then he thought “It might be a pleasure boat.  What if there are children aboard?”  He had to at least go see what was going on.  He could always dive if there were other rescue boats nearby.  He almost missed it in the darkness.  He was looking for the shape of a ship, perhaps capsized, above the water.  But the long low shape that appeared to his port side was another submarine!  He crept slowly forward, looking for the cause of the distress signal.  Two men were in the water beside the submarine, which still seemed to be functional.  No other rescue craft seemed to be in sight.  Hector moved alongside and motioned to the men.

“Cual es la problema?”  He asked.

“Help us, please.”  Said the larger man.  “Our sub had a fire and my friend is hurt.”

Hector spoke no English, so he didn’t understand the words, but he could see that the smaller man seemed to be hurt.  Not sure how he would handle the situation, Hector waved at the man to come and reached his arm out to help.  The larger man untied the smaller one from the sub and swam the few feet between the two submarines, then grabbed Hector’s hand and lifted his friend up.  Hector caught the unconscious man and pulled him up onto the top of his sub, then lowered him down inside.  When he came back out, the larger man was back, pulling along a plastic case of some kind.  Hector helped the man climb into the sub.  There was barely room for the three of them in Hector’s vehicle, but he helped the larger man tend to his friend.  He could see that the smaller man’s legs were badly burned, with large blisters forming all along their length.  The older man jabbered in English with great urgency, pointing generally north.  Hector nodded his head and smiled, but he had no intention of heading north.  He wasn’t willing to let these men die, but he wasn’t going to spend the rest of his life in an American prison either.  He left the older man to tend to his friend and turned up the throttle on his submarine, heading southeast.

Phil looked closely at Allen’s legs.  They were badly burned and needed treatment.  There were some first aid supplies in the emergency kit, so he opened it up to see what he could find.  The kit wasn’t designed for major injuries, but he did find a jar of healgel and some long, gauze bandages.  Phil carefully spread the healgel on Allen’s burns, trying to cover the worst parts thickly, with a thin layer on the other parts.  When he started to unwrap the gauze, he could tell that it wasn’t going to be long enough to wrap both legs.  He tried talking to their rescuer.

“Excuse me.  Could you help?  I need more gauze.  Do you have a first aid kit in here?”

The man turned and listened, but obviously couldn’t understand.  “No entiendo.”  He said, shrugging.

Phil held up the gauze and pointed at it.  “Do you have any more of this?”  The man just shook his head.  So Phil did the best he could.  Rather than wrap each leg individually, he wrapped the gauze around both legs together, trying to space it very carefully so that he didn’t overlap yet still covered all of the burns.  Once Allen was treated as well as possible, Phil looked around to evaluate their situation.  Obviously, this was a drug smuggling sub.  Phil had heard about them being used.  He was surprised at how well-built the sub looked, despite the obvious bare-bones design.  The whole interior of the sub had been left as a single compartment, with the engine exposed at the back and several plastic containers of supplies strapped to the floor along the sides.  Unlike the wide panoramic windows in Orca’s subs, this one had a small rectangular window in the front.  While it was on the surface, the pilot could stand up in the conning tower and look directly ahead at his path.  There was a simple periscope for surface viewing while the sub was submerged.  Several cans of gasoline were stored in the back near the engine, and a covered bucket apparently served as the latrine.  Phil needed to convince this guy to keep helping them.

“Are we going north?”  He asked.  “Norte?”

The man just shook his head.

“You’ve got to turn us around.  My friend need a doctor.  Please?  Por Favor?”

The man kept shaking his head, and Phil kept asking for several minutes.  Finally, Phil stood up.  Maybe he could take the controls and show him what he wanted.  But when Phil stood up the man turned around.  He had a pistol in his hand.  He looked almost apologetic, but he waved the pistol and pointed to one of the boxes, motioning that Phil should open it.  Carefully keeping his hands in sight, Phil did as he was told.  Inside the box were some boxes filled with gallon-sized baggies, a couple of rolls of duct tape, and several sets of handcuffs.  Apparently this man came prepared.  The man indicated that Phil should lock one of the handcuffs around his left wrist, then lock the other cuff around one of the steel supports for the engine.  Once he had done so, the man stashed the pistol back under the controls in the front of the sub.  Then he came back and made sure the handcuffs were secure, using a second set to cuff both of Phil’s hands together.  He took another set and handcuffed Allen, wrapping the chain around a tie-down on the side of the sub.  He kept saying “lo siento,” even as he worked to immobilize Phil and Allen.  Phil knew that meant “I’m sorry,” but it didn’t keep the man from using the handcuffs.

After securing the two men, the man opened up the emergency kit and inspected the contents.  He took the distress beacon out of the kit and turned it off, then went to the conning tower and threw it into the ocean.

Apparently getting handcuffed woke Allen up, because he moaned and opened his eyes.  The man responded to the sounds by getting a water bottle out of another one of the plastic cases.  He carefully let Allen drink from the bottle, even encouraging him to drink more when he turned his head away.

“Drink it all, Allen.  People with burns need a lot of fluids.”  Said Phil.

Allen drank the rest of the bottle.  When he was done, the man handed another bottle to Phil, who drank some, saving the rest for later.

“What happened?”  Asked Allen.

“You fell unconscious.  This guy came by a few hours later and rescued us.”

“If he’s our rescuer, why are we handcuffed?”

“I think he’s a drug smuggler.  But I think he has a little bit of a conscience, because he picked us up when he could have just passed by.”

“How bad are my legs?”

“They’re burned pretty badly.  I did what I could with what little was in the emergency kit.  I had to wrap them both together because there wasn’t enough gauze to do them individually.  There was some healgel in the kit, and I put that on your burns.  How is the pain?”

“Horrible.  I’ve never felt such intense pain in all my life.  It feels like my legs are still on fire.”

“I have a few pain pills in the emergency kit, but they won’t last long.”

Hector watched the two rescued men talk.  He was glad the smaller one woke up.  After seeing the burns he had wondered if the man would survive.  He hated that he had to tie them up, but the big one had looked like he was going to try and force Hector to drive north.  He couldn’t afford to do that, not now.  But he couldn’t just hand them over to El Guapo either.  So he had about three days to figure out what to do with them.  Perhaps it was time to execute his plan.

 

 

John and Katherine were out in the sub again as soon as it got light in the morning.  Katherine had already called Audra and explained the situation, and Audra said she was sure the other girls would fill in for as long as she needed to be gone.  They traveled quickly to the area where they had left off the night before and began the search again.  The light in the bottom of the canyon was still dim, but with the addition of the sub lights they were able to see pretty well.  They began slowly making their way down the canyon, with John taking another zig-zag course to make sure they inspected the whole width of the depression.  After a couple of hours, they surfaced to check the radio and heard from the coast guard.

“They’ve found something!”  John reported.  “Something that looks like the sub is just a couple miles south of here.  They’re sending a boat, but we can get there pretty quickly.  Shall we stop our search here and go look at it?”

“Can we leave a marker or something in case it’s a false alarm?”

“I’ll save our GPS coordinates and we can come back to this spot if we need to.”

“Then let’s go!”

A few minutes later they approached the coordinates given to them by the coast guard, and John immediately spotted sub 12.  They pulled alongside and John tied the two subs together so they could investigate.  The top hatch was open, so it was easy for him to climb down inside.

“Well, they obviously aren’t in here.”  He said.  Katherine leaned over from the conning tower of the other sub, trying to see what John was looking at.

“Can you tell what happened?”

“Yes, it’s pretty obvious that they had a fire.  The battery pack is completely melted, and there are scorch marks and soot everywhere.  The good news is that the sub is on the surface with the hatch open, and the emergency kit is missing.  That means they got out before the fire got to them.”

“Then where are they?”

“That’s a very good question.  There were life jackets in the emergency kit, but the life raft is still in the sub, damaged by the fire.  Since the sub is still floating, you would think they would have stayed with it.  There was also an emergency beacon in the kit, but we didn’t receive a signal.  I’m having a hard time understanding what could have happened.”

John climbed back out of sub 12 and called the coast guard.  They arrived a while later in their own boat and were just as baffled as John was.  They finally concluded that either the two had been picked up by another boat or they had become separated from the sub.  The coast guard boat began a search pattern in case the latter had happened, looking for two men floating in life jackets.  John began to tow sub 12 back to the Orca plant so that they could figure out what went wrong.  Katherine sat back down in the demo sub and sobbed.

Chapter 19 – Escaping the Drug Lords

July  13

 

It had been three long days since the smuggler had picked Phil and Allen up.  Other than keeping them tied up, the man had been very kind.  He shared his food and water liberally with both of them, and he seemed to be extra concerned about Allen, making sure he had plenty to drink and watching intently when Phil checked on his burns.  Unfortunately, there hadn’t been a whole lot Phil could do.  With no clean bandages available, Phil figured it was best to keep Allen’s wounds bound up with the original gauze from the emergency kit.  At least that had been sterile when he took it out of the packaging.  Phil peeled back a corner from time to time to get a look at the burns underneath, and they seemed to be healing OK.  There was no sign of infection at least.

It was now dark, and Phil could hear that the sub was slowing down.  The smuggler was running just beneath the surface, watching his surroundings through the periscope.  They must be approaching their destination.  Phil wondered what would happen when they arrived.  Would the other smugglers be as well-disposed towards two castaways as the one who had picked them up?  Or would they end up on the bottom of a river somewhere?  After several hours of slow-speed maneuvering, the sub surfaced and the smuggler drove the nose into the shore.  He turned on a small flashlight and looked at Allen and Phil, making a shushing motion with his finger at his lips, then climbed out and left them alone for a few minutes.  When he came back, another man was with him.  This new man looked like a scene from National Geographic magazine, with dark hair cut raggedly short, a thin bone piercing his nose.  He was barefoot, and clad in a loincloth and a dirty Hard Rock Café t-shirt.  The new man hopped nimbly down into the sub, while the smuggler stayed outside with a gun in his hand.  He made motions like carrying something, and the new man released Phil and Allen from their handcuffs, then jabbered to Phil while lifting Alan’s feet.

Phil gathered from the pantomime that they wanted him to help lift Allen out of the sub.  He grabbed Allen under the arms and helped lift.  Allen helped as well, reaching up to grasp the hands of the smuggler up top.  Once out on the top of the sub, Phil and his native helper slid down the side into the shallow water, still carrying Allen between them.  They tried to avoid getting Allen’s legs wet with the dirty brown river water.  The smuggler motioned toward a narrow path through the overgrowth, and Phil continued to help carry his friend through a few hundred yards of jungle until they arrived at a small native hut hidden in the trees.  Most of the hut consisted of poles with a thatched roof above and no walls, but one small section was walled off.  They carried Allen into this section and laid him on a hammock inside.  The smuggler guy handed a pair of handcuffs to the native guy, and he cuffed Allen’s hands to the pole at the end of the hammock.  Then he motioned with his gun to another hammock.  Phil sat down and allowed himself to be handcuffed to another pole.  Their two captors spoke to each other in some language other than Spanish for a few minutes, and then the smuggler left.  When he left, the light left with him, and Phil could barely make out the native man, who lay down calmly on the floor.  Without much else to do, Allen and Phil lay back in their hammocks and went to sleep.

When they woke up a few hours later, the native man was coming through the door accompanied by a woman.  She wore a brightly-colored sundress and sandals, and her long black hair was done up in a braid that went down her back nearly to her waist.  She seemed upset or nervous about something.

“You talk English?”  She asked.

“Yes, we speak English.”  Replied Phil.

“I name Ismelda.  My brother ask me talk to you.”

“Your brother is the man who brought us here?”

“Yes.  Hector is my brother.  He want to help you, but we must be careful.”

“Where are we?”

“Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua.”

Phil whistled.  They were very far from home.  He had never heard of Puerto Cabezas, but he knew where Nicaragua was.

“My friend needs to get to a hospital.”

“Not here.  El Guapo find out, and then your friend be dead.  My brother has plan.”

“OK, what’s the plan?”

“We make un acuerdo, a promise together.  We help you go home, you take us with you.  But no jail for my brother.”

“We can try.  I can’t promise no jail because I’m not a judge, but we can promise to put in a good word for you.”

“What your name?”

“I’m Phil, and my friend is Allen.”

“Thank you.  Phil, if we take off those.”  She pointed to the handcuffs.  “You will not run?”

“No, I won’t run.  Where would we go?”

“No go.  Safe here.  El Guapo not find you.  You have friend who can help?  We call on telephone?”

“Yes, we have someone we could call.”

“You come with me.  Manua show us how to go.  Your friend Allen stay here be safe.”

“Allen, are you up for that?  Will you be OK here alone?”

“If it gets us help, I can manage it.”

“OK, I’ll go with you.  Lead the way.”

Ismelda spoke briefly to the native man, Manua, in his own language, and he unlocked both sets of handcuffs, then picked up his bow and arrows and led Phil and Ismelda out into the jungle.  It was nearly dawn, and the sky was starting to lighten up slightly, but it was still dark in the jungle below the trees.  Manua led them through the forest, which was fairly clear of undergrowth once they got away from the water.  Ismelda had a small flashlight, which she shone at their feet, but Manua didn’t seem to need any extra light.  Phil could see no trail or landmarks that he could recognize, but Manua walked without hesitation, as confident as a man in his own bedroom.  After an hour or so, they came to a track that looked like it had been made by a wheeled vehicle.  Two parallel ruts led straight through the jungle, with many large potholes and roots in the way.  Once they reached this road, Ismelda seemed to gain confidence and turned off her flashlight.  Manua waved at them to fall back and he scouted ahead, with his bow at the ready.  Apparently he was more concerned about meeting humans on the road than he had been about wild animals in the jungle before.  Eventually, Phil could see that the trees were thinning out, and the road improved slightly.  A few ramshackle houses lined each side of the road.  At this point, Manua held up his hand and indicated they should stop.  He led them behind some bushes out of sight of the houses on the road.  Ismelda reached into a pocket in her dress and pulled out a cell-phone.  She checked it a moment, then nodded and handed it to Phil.

“You call friend now?  Tell him they come Puerto Cabezas airport, we bring you and Allen, we all leave together, yes?”

“Yes. I’ll do that.”  Phil looked at the phone, which was an older model but should do for his purposes.  It showed a single bar of signal.  Apparently they had to come this close to town in order for it to get that much.  He dialed John’s phone number, adding the 01 country code for the United States.  To his surprise, the call went through as quickly as if he had been in Houston.

“Hello, John Sykes here.”

“Hi John.  This is Phil.”

“Phil!! Where are you!  You’re alive?”

“It’s a long story, but yes, I’m alive.  We’re in Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua.  We were picked up by a man from this town.”

“What are you doing all the way in Nicaragua?  Why didn’t he just bring you back to Galveston?”

“He didn’t want to be arrested.  Listen, I don’t think I have long to talk.  Allen is hurt.  His legs were burnt pretty bad.  There is some danger here and we can’t take him to the local hospital.  Can you get to the airport here and pick us up?”

“I can make some calls.  We should be able to get there.  Can we call you back on this phone?”

Phil looked at Ismelda.  “Can my friend call back on this phone?”

“Yes, he can call back.  But you ask him.  Hector and I come with you, yes?”

“John, we have one condition as well.  In addition to Allen and I, we need to bring two other passengers with us.  And I don’t think they will have all the right documentation.”

“Sounds like a pretty complicated situation.  I’ll call some friends and see what we can arrange.  We’ll move as quickly as possible.”

“Thank you.  Allen seems to be doing OK so far, but he really needs to get to a hospital.”

“I understand.”

Phil handed the phone back to Ismelda.

“Can we get clean bandages and some pain relief for my friend?”  He asked her.

“I try to send later, yes?”

“OK.  But please hurry.”

“Yes, I hurry.  All hurry.”

Ismelda seemed to be getting increasingly nervous.  She finally said she had to go, and started walking down the road into the town.  Manua motioned for Phil to follow him, and led him back through the jungle to his shack.  Allen was there, sleeping uneasily as he struggled with the pain.  Manua left them both in the shack for a while.  When he came back, he was carrying a handful of leaves.  He gave three of them to Allen and pantomimed chewing.  Figuring it couldn’t hurt, Allen put the leaves in his mouth and chewed on them.  Soon the pain in his legs lessened, and he felt a little hazy and disconnected.

“Thank you.”  He told Manua.  The native seemed to understand his gratitude.  He put the rest of the leaves in a clay bowl and placed it on the floor near Allen’s hammock.  The three of them waited there throughout the day.  Manua brought them roasted meat and strange vegetables and fruits to eat.  He showed Phil a hole behind the shack where he could use the bathroom.  When Allen needed to go, he used an old water bottle that they had used for that purpose in the submarine, and Phil took it outside and dumped it in the hole.  After it got dark in the evening, Hector came to visit them.  He brought a roll of bandages and a tube of antibiotic ointment with him, as well as a note written in English.

 

PLANE COME TOMORROW AT 6:00 P.M.

MANUA AND HECTOR TAKE YOU THERE

 

Phil had Allen sit up in the hammock while he carefully unwrapped the old bandages.  In a few places, they adhered to the skin and pulling them off was very painful.  Allen chewed some more leaves and they continued the unwrapping.  When they were done, Phil inspected Allen’s legs carefully by flashlight.  There was still no sign of infection, and new skin seemed to be growing in some areas.  When he tried to get Allen to spread his legs so that he could look at the inner sides, he moaned in pain and the legs didn’t move.  Upon close inspection, it appeared that in the three days of being bound together, the lesions burned into Allen’s legs had stuck to one another.  Rather than risk damaging Allen’s legs any further, they decided to re-wrap them with the legs still together.  Phil applied the antibiotic cream and then used the new bandages to wrap them up.  This time he had plenty of length, so he overlapped the bandages as he wrapped, making Allen’s legs and feet look like a mummy.

After a long conversation with Manua, Hector left again, making motions with his hands that seemed to indicate he would be coming back later.  With little else to do, they all tried to get some sleep.  They had another day of new foods and laying around in hammocks.  Phil thought that it would have sounded like a nice vacation if it weren’t for the omnipresent bugs, the oppressive heat, and no sign of a beach anywhere close.  He and Allen had plenty of time to chat and get to know one another.  Finally, sometime in the early afternoon, Hector showed up.  He seemed to be unhappy and agitated.  He and Manua had an intense conversation, after which they motioned for Phil to help carry Allen again.  Hector handed a small backpack to Manua, who put it on his back.  Then Hector lifted Allen’s legs and Phil lifted his body, and they followed Manua back down to the river.  Phil noticed that Manua had his bow and arrows with him.  There was a dugout canoe in the river with a small outboard motor at the back.  They put Allen in the canoe and then climbed in with him.  Hector started the motor and headed upstream.  They traveled for a few miles and then turned into a small stream and continued on, going slowly as they had to duck under branches and even get out and pull the canoe in a few locations.  They finally came to a very shallow area and the canoe would go no farther.  Hector and Phil carried Allen again, with Manua leading the way.

Before long they came to the edge of the trees and Phil could see that they were on the edge of a small airport.  They were close to the runway, on the far side of the airport from the cluster of small buildings that must be the terminal and control tower.  They settled down just inside the trees to wait.  It wasn’t long before a small private jet landed on the runway and taxied to a stop.  The plane turned around to be ready to take off again, and then the door opened and a set of stairs folded down.  Phil recognized John as he climbed down the stairs.  Hector took the backpack from Manua and motioned to Phil.  They picked Allen up and carried him quickly to the airplane.  When they reached the stairs, John helped them carry Allen up into the aircraft, then left to go make arrangements in the terminal.  The interior was outfitted for a wealthy businessman, with several comfortable chairs, a fold-down table, and a couch.  They put Allen on the couch.  There were several people in the airplane, including Katherine and Dave Johnson.  As soon as Allen was situated, Katherine knelt by the couch and hugged him hard and long.  While they were thus engaged, Dave introduced himself to Phil and then started talking in rapid, fluent Spanish with Hector.  Hector gesticulated wildly and spoke very emphatically for several minutes.  Finally, Dave turned to the rest of them.

“I understand Phil promised we would take Hector and his girlfriend with us when we go.”

“Yes, we made a deal with him in exchange for helping us get back.”  Said Phil.

“Apparently, Hector has been smuggling drugs for a man called El Guapo for the past year or two, in order to protect his sister.  But now he says that El Guapo got suspicious and took his sister to his compound.  He insists we can’t leave until we rescue his sister.  What do you say about this?”

“Even though Hector is the one who kidnapped us.  He is also the one who rescued us.”  Answered Phil.  “I believe his story about doing it to protect his sister.  Most drug smugglers would have left us there to possibly die.  Even if Hector may not deserve our help, I believe his sister is innocent, and it sounds like she is in grave danger with El Guapo.”

“Well, let’s see if there’s any chance of us helping.  First, let me introduce you to our other passengers.  This woman is Dr. Chase Hansen.  She is from the burn unit at Memorial-Hermann hospital.  She is here to look at Allen’s legs.  The two men behind her are Jake and Brick.  They are friends of mine who might come in handy helping Hector out.”

Dave began talking with Hector again.  After a few minutes, he pulled up a Google Maps image on an i-pad and zoomed in on a particular building.  They discussed it for a moment, and Dave handed Hector a piece of paper and a pencil so that he could sketch the interior in as much detail as he could remember.  After a few minutes, Dave switched back to English to explain the plan to the rest of them.

“Ismelda is being held in El Guapo’s compound near the edge of the city.  Hector says that his native friend Manua can get us close by going through the jungle and approaching the house from behind.  In the meantime, we need John and Katherine to be actors.  Do you think you can do it?”

“What do you need us to do?”  Katherine asked.

“I need John to be a potential customer of El Guapo, and you will play the part of his arm candy girlfriend.  Do you have any provocative clothing with you?”

“I wasn’t expecting to dress up for anything, but I have a skirt with me that we could maybe shorten.  And I could wear a bikini top with it.”

“That should work.  Brick will go with the two of you as your bodyguard.  John will call El Guapo and set up a meeting in a hotel.  Hector suggests the Hotel Las Colinas, as it is on the other side of town from El Guapo’s compound.  While you keep him occupied, the rest of us except Allen and the doctor will circle around through the jungle and spring Ismelda.  We’ll meet back here at the plane and leave in a hurry.”

Katherine went into the lavatory and changed into her bikini top and skirt.  She rolled the waistband a few times to shorten the skirt to well above her knees, and used a few pins to hold it in place.  She took John’s arm and he smiled at Allen.

“Thanks for lending me your wife.”  He said.

Allen, who was in some pain as Dr. Hansen pulled back his bandages to inspect his burns, only grimaced with gritted teeth.

The two of them walked down the stairs and across the tarmac to the terminal, with Brick following behind.  Once inside, they showed their passports to an official in the airport, then went out front to the single taxi waiting there.  They got in, Brick sitting in the front and the other two in the back, and John started talking.

“Do you speak English?”  He asked.

“Yes, I speak English good.  Where you want to go?”

“I want to arrange a meeting.  Is there a hotel in town I can go to?  Someone mentioned the Hotel Las Colinas?”

“Yes, I can take you to the Las Colinas.”

“Good.  I hear there is a man in town called El Guapo.  I want to do some business with him.  Do you know how I can arrange a meeting?”

“You sure you want to meet him?”  The driver asked, looking more carefully at John.  “He can be trouble.”

“Yes, I know what I want.  Can you help arrange it?”

“For an extra 20 Cordobas I can make it happen.”

“I haven’t had time to change any money.  But I’ll give you 5 US dollars if you arrange the meeting, take us to the hotel, and then wait there to bring us back when we’re done.”

“Deal.”

The man whistled out the window to a teenager who was hanging around the airport entrance and spoke to him in Spanish.  Katherine heard “El Guapo” mentioned several times in the conversation.  When they finished speaking, the teenager ran off, and the taxi driver drove away.  Even in town, most of the roads were unpaved dirt, so it was a slow ride to the hotel.  Nonetheless, Puerto Cabezas is not a large place, so they arrived at the two-story concrete building in fifteen minutes or so.  After promising to pay the cab driver once he took them back to the airport, John, Katherine, and Brick got out and went into the hotel.  There were a few tables and chairs on the covered patio, and John sat down at one like he owned the place.  In a few moments a nervous woman approached.

“Can I help you?”  She asked in halting English.

“Yes, bring some beer for my girlfriend and I.  We’re expecting to meet someone here.”

The woman rushed away to get something.  She came back with two glasses of warm beer.  John sipped at his for a few minutes.  It wasn’t very long, though, before three men approached.  When she saw them, the woman stopped hovering and quickly rushed back to the kitchen to prepare more drinks.  Two of the men were obviously local thugs, their arms covered with tattoos and pistols stuck in their pants.  Brick, who was standing unobtrusively in a corner, sized them up and found them wanting.  The third man was thin and wiry, with wavy hair held in place by some kind of hair spray.  He wore flowered shorts and a silk shirt with the top several buttons open.

“Are you John?”  He asked.

“Yes.  You must be the man called El Guapo.”

“That’s me.  I hear you wanted to meet with me.”

“Indeed I did.  I understand you have ways of shipping goods to the United States without going through customs.”

“I might.  Just who are you?  And how do you know about me?”

John pulled out a business card that Dave had given him, and slid it across the table.  He couldn’t read the text on the card, and he had never seen the symbol in the corner.  But El Guapo obviously recognized it.  He picked it up between two fingers and flipped it with a third.

“What kinds of goods do you want me to ship?”  He asked.

“Synthetic drugs.  We have a manufacturing plant in Columbia, and we need to ship them up the coast and slip them over the US border.”

The negotiations continued for some time.  The plan was for John to draw it out for as long as he could.  So he changed the subject, asked about nearby beaches, and drew out the conversation as long as possible.  El Guapo seemed happy to chat a little longer, as long as he could spend some more time ogling Katherine.  When he thought they had gone long enough, John allowed himself to be convinced to pay 10% of the price of the material.  He slipped $200 across the table and told the gang leader he would be in touch in a few days when his first shipment was ready.  Then he left a few dollars on the table and they left.  The cab driver was waiting as promised, and the trip back to the airport was uneventful.  When they got back into the airplane, Ismelda was there along with the rest of the group that had gone to get her.  Unlike the simple sundress that she had worn to visit Phil and Allen, now she was clothed in a body-hugging black gown with a pearl necklace around her throat.  Her long black hair was loose and fell in soft waves down her back, and her make-up looked professional, if slightly overdone.

“Apparently the rescue operation was successful.  How did it go?”  John asked.

“Hector’s friend Manua made it easy for us.  There was a guard at the back gate, but Manua shot him in the arm with an arrow coated with some kind of sleeping drug.  Jake handled a couple of guards on the inside, and we were able to pull Ismelda out without most of the occupants even knowing we were there.”

“Let’s get out of here, then.”

John talked to the pilot and they were off the ground in minutes.  After briefly checking beneath the bandages, Dr. Hansen had hooked Allen up to an IV and he was soon sleeping peacefully with his head in Katherine’s lap.

“How is Allen doing?”  Katherine asked the doctor.

“Quite well, considering he’s gone almost 6 days with little to no treatment for his burns.  It is a good thing Phil had some healgel and applied it early.  That material has been a quantum leap in burn care.  He’ll be spending a lot of time recovering, but he’ll come out OK in the end.”

After a three-hour flight, the plane landed in Houston.  Dave took Hector and Ismelda to begin asylum paperwork.  An ambulance was waiting and Allen was transferred directly to the back.  Katherine was allowed to sit in the back with him.

 

Chapter 20 – Hospital Stay and Bad News

July 16

 

Katherine spent the next day in the hospital, sitting with Allen whenever he was awake.  Several other doctors joined Dr. Hansen in examining Allen’s legs, and nurses were constantly in attendance, dealing with Allen’s dressings and handling his other needs.  Finally, Dr. Hansen came into the room and sat down to talk with the two of them.

“I have some good news and some bad news for the two of you.”  She started.  “The good news is that the burns on Allen’s legs are healing quite nicely.  Burns of the type he received used to mean months of skin grafts and surgery to repair the burned area.  But now with healgel we can cover the burned area and new skin will grow on its own.  I would estimate that Allen’s legs will be completely healed in another two weeks or so.”

“That sounds great.”  Allen replied.  “So what’s the bad news?”

“As you are aware, since your bandages held your legs together for so long, the new skin and other tissue grew together.  It will require an operation to separate them again.”

“So when will the operation happen?”

“We want your body to recover completely from the burns before proceeding with such a major operation.  So you will need to wait at least two months before we proceed.”

“Two months!  I thought you said the burns would be healed in two weeks!”

“In two weeks al of the open wounds on your legs will be covered with tender new skin, but your body has suffered a major trauma, and it will take quite a bit more time to fully recover before we do such a major procedure.”

“So I’ll be stuck in a wheelchair for two months?”

“Yes.  And we want you to build up some muscle in your legs, so you will need to spend some time with a physical therapist.  At first, it will be painful, as the therapist will want you to bend your knees and feet, and some of the new tissue will probably tear and bleed.  But if you don’t move your legs, the new tissue will grow in the wrong places, and you will lose the ability to make those movements.”

“I guess that all makes sense.”

“Good.  Your nurse will have a schedule for you.  You’ll probably need to stay in the hospital for the first two weeks, after which you can move home or to a rehabilitation facility.”

The physical therapy started that afternoon.  Beth, his physical therapist, came to his room pushing a wheelchair.  The first thing she did was teach him to move himself from the bed into the chair.  She pushed the chair up next to the bed and he had to sit on the edge of the bed and then use his arms to lift his body and transfer it to the chair.  After practicing the move a couple of times, Allen could tell that his arms would need to be strengthened almost as much as his legs.  Beth made him roll his own wheelchair down to the physical therapy gym.  The room did not look much like a traditional gym.  Allen recognized a few familiar items, like the weight machine and a normal treadmill, but there were other less familiar items as well, like the set of stairs and the treadmill with adjustable hand-bars alongside.  For his first session, Beth had him sit on a padded bed and simply bend his knees and ankles back and forth, so that she could find out what his range of motion was.  He felt some of the pain and tearing that Dr. Hansen had warned him about, but Beth didn’t have him push it too far to start.  After their session, Allen worked to convince Katherine to go back to work.

“You don’t have to stay here all day now.”  He said.  “You can sleep in your own bed tonight and go back to work.  Come visit me in the afternoon.”

“Are you sure?  I worried terribly for those three days when you were missing.  I’m not sure I’m ready to let you out of my sight yet.”

“Well, I certainly love spending time with you, but you heard the doctor.  This is going to be a long process.  We need to get back to as much of a normal routine as we can manage.”

“I suppose you’re right.  I guess I’m not doing a lot of good sitting here watching soap operas.”

“You could go to the library and find me some books to read.  And maybe I can call John and see if I can get a laptop and do some work from here.”

“That sounds like a good plan.  You’re sure you’ll be OK tonight?”

“Yes, I’ll be fine.  I’m not very happy to be in separate beds again, but I can hold out for a couple of weeks.”

“OK, I’ll go home at bedtime tonight then.”

They slipped into a new routine for the next two weeks.  Katherine returned to her shifts at the aquarium, and Allen worked for an hour or two a day using a laptop.  Beth pushed Allen to exercise and move his body, switching to twice a day sessions and eventually moving him to the weight machine to strengthen his leg muscles again.  And the nurses and doctors treated his burns and helped him with his various bodily needs.  When his last day in the hospital came, newly grown skin covered his legs and feet, and there was no more need for bandages.

“I guess I can’t call you mummy-boy anymore.”  Said Beth at his physical therapy session.

“You’ll have to switch to monopod instead.”  Allen replied.

“Now that your bandages are off, I’d like to get you in the pool, but I’m having a hard time figuring out how to arrange for a swimming suit.”

“I suppose the hospital gown won’t work too well in a pool.  And skinny-dipping is out?”

“I’m afraid so.  The nurses and I may be used to seeing male equipment, but the other patients would probably be embarrassed.”

With Allen’s legs grown together, putting on any kind of pants or underpants had become impossible.  When he was originally brought to the hospital, they had to cut off his swimsuit, which had become trapped between his legs.  It hadn’t been a real issue until now, as Allen simply wore hospital gowns, but he was going to need normal clothes when he left the hospital.

“I think I might have a way to get you in the pool.”  Beth said.  “We’ll see how it works when you come back tomorrow.”

“OK, I’ll be ready to try.”

After his physical therapy session, Allen returned to his room to find John had come to visit.  After answering the usual questions about his health, John told him he had some bad news.

“Allen, I haven’t told you this because I didn’t want you to worry while you were recovering, but Orca has been having some trouble lately.  After they heard about the fire in sub 12, all of our customers cancelled or postponed their orders.  We’ve been trying to figure out what went wrong, but haven’t had much to report yet.”

“It started with the battery.  What does Jeff have to say?”

“Jeff died.  Apparently he overdosed on heroin.”

“Oh, that’s really sad.  Jeff was such a nice guy.  I never would have guessed he was doing drugs.”

“None of us suspected.  And we found a few strange devices in the battery compartment, although they are pretty burned up.  It may be that Jeff was involved in the fire somehow.”

“You think he might have sabotaged the battery?”

“The police have called in some forensic experts to look at it.  But it may be some time before we know exactly what happened, if ever.”

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

“That’s the rest of the bad news.  With no orders, I have no money coming in and lots of bills to pay.  I’m having to lay off all of my staff except a couple of the electrical guys.  I hope once we can figure out the cause of the fire and resolve it, we’ll be able to sell submarines again, but for now I don’t have any money to pay people with.  Your insurance is paid up, though, so your medical expenses will still be taken care of.”

“I see.  Is there a chance that I can get my job back if you get some orders?”

“Oh, I certainly hope so.  You have been a great worker, and if I have the chance you will be one of the first people I contact.”

They spoke for a few more minutes before John had to leave, taking the laptop with him.  The news of his job loss saddened Allen a bit, but he was still happy to be leaving the hospital.  He greatly anticipated the opportunity to sleep in the same bed with his wife again.  Katherine arrived after work, carrying a sack from the mall with her.  They spent a few minutes on a hello kiss, then Allen broke the news about his lost job.

“We’ll be OK.  This way you can concentrate on getting better for a while, and then go looking for work when you are ready.  Are you ready to go home?”

“You bet I am.  Let’s go!”

“I brought you some clothes to wear.”

Katherine pulled one of his t-shirts out of the bag, followed by a long blue skirt.

“A skirt?”

“Well, you can’t exactly wear pants right now.  I thought this would be better than just wrapping your legs in a blanket or something.”

“I guess that makes sense.  I am getting kind of tired of these drafty hospital gowns.”

Allen took off the offending gown and slipped on the t-shirt.  Then with Katherine’s guidance he slid the skirt up over his legs and fastened it at the side.  There was also a pair of ankle socks in the bag, so Allen slid them onto his feet.  He was grateful that his wife had thought of all the details.  He wouldn’t have been able to pull his longer socks up past his ankles anyway.  Once he was dressed, Allen got into his wheelchair and then collected up the few personal items and the library books and they put them in the shopping bag to carry home.  As they were ready to leave, Allen pulled Katherine down into his lap for a long, passionate kiss.

“You’re looking forward to getting home, I see.”  Said Katherine when they came up for air.

“Definitely.”

Katherine stood up and looked down at her husband.

“You had better put your hand in your lap until we get out in the car.”  She said.

Allen looked down to see a telltale bump pushing out the fabric of the skirt.  He covered it with his hand.

“I may have to find a skirt with thicker fabric.”  Said his wife.  “I hadn’t thought about what might show with you not wearing underwear.”

They went down to the administration area and checked Allen out of the hospital.  They left with a folder full of instructions for how to treat his new skin, as well as a schedule of his physical therapy appointments for the next month.  When they got to the door, a nurse held the wheelchair while Katherine went to bring the car to the door.  Allen had to learn how to scoot from the wheelchair into the seat of the car, but with some instruction from the nurse he figured it out.

“What will we do about a wheelchair?”  Allen asked as he and Katherine pulled away.

“Audra agreed to loan us one of the ones we use for the mermaids.  I already have it at home.”

Half an hour later they were at home.  Allen waited in the car while Katherine went to fetch the wheelchair.  They were grateful that their apartment building had an elevator so that Allen could get to their second floor apartment.  They spent the rest of the evening enjoying the chance to be alone together.

 

Chapter 21 – A New Beginning

July 25

The next morning, Allen got dressed in a different t-shirt and the skirt, then got in his wheelchair to help Katherine make breakfast.  He found that he wasn’t able to help much, as he couldn’t reach anything in the top cabinets, and the bottom cabinets blocked the wheelchair so that he had to park it sideways to reach anything on the counter, stove, or sink.  Before leaving for the day, Katherine made sure any ingredients for his lunch were down where he could reach them.  Not long after Katherine left, there was a knock on the door and his ride to physical therapy was there.

“Hello, you must be Allen.”  Said the older man when Allen opened the door.  “My name is Grant, and I’m here to take you to your appointment.”

“Hi Grant.  Nice to meet you.  I’m ready to go.”

Allen locked the door and Grant pushed his wheelchair down to the elevator, and then out to a wheelchair-equipped van.  There was a lift to raise Allen to the height of the van floor, and special tie-downs in the van to clamp his wheelchair in place for the ride.  When they got to the hospital, Beth met them at the door.

“I like the skirt, Allen.  It seems like a practical solution for clothing.  Are you ready to go to the pool?”

“Yes.  Have you figured out the swimming suit situation?”

“Yes, I think I have.  Come on in to the locker area and I will show you.”

When they got to the lockers, Beth pulled out what looked like extra-long tank top made of red swimsuit fabric.

“We have a seamstress that sometimes makes special clothes for people with various disabilities.  I asked her to make this for you.  It goes down to your knees and has elastic to hold it in place.”

Allen examined the suit and measured it against his body.  “It kind of looks strange, but I suppose it should work.”

“Do you think you can change into it without help?”

“Oh, yeah.  I’ve been learning how to do a lot of new things lately.”

  1. You go in the men’s room and get changed, and I’ll go get my swimsuit on as well. Then we’ll see how you do in the pool.”

Allen spent the next hour in the pool with Beth.  Some of the time he was doing specific exercises under her direction, but for about half the time, he was able to just swim.  Beth was impressed with his ability to swim with his legs together, and he explained about practicing with a monofin a few times.  Allen much preferred the time in the pool to the regular physical therapy sessions.  Beth explained that swimming strengthened a large number of muscle groups throughout his body while the water supported his weight.  Once they were done in the pool and dressed in street clothes again, Beth suggested that Allen try using crutches.  She found a pair for him to try and he quickly found that he could move around with the crutches far easier than with the wheelchair.  Beth let him take a pair home with him.

After the van driver returned him to their apartment, Allen parked the wheelchair in a corner and used the crutches to get around.  They made it easier to maneuver in the kitchen, especially when he had to reach the mayonnaise on the top shelf of the fridge.  He spent the afternoon updating his resume.  At least now he had some real full-time work experience in his own field to include.  Once his resume was in shape, he looked around at employment opportunities in the area.  There were a few possibilities, but he wasn’t sure if he was ready to apply just yet.  Should he wait until his legs were separated?  Or should he start applying right away and explain the situation to future employers?  Doctor Hansen had encouraged him to wait for a while, but Allen thought he would likely get bored before the doctor thought he was ready.

Allen fixed some dinner and had it ready shortly after Katherine got home.  Once the dishes were put away, Katherine asked Allen if he wanted to go shopping.

“Shopping for what?”  He asked.

“You don’t plan on wearing that same skirt every day, do you?”

“I suppose not.”

“Let’s go get a few more then.”

Allen left his wheelchair behind and used the crutches to get to the car.  They were a lot easier to transport, as they could go in the back seat instead of the trunk.  They went to a department store in the mall, and Katherine led Allen into the unknown reaches of the women’s clothing department.  Ignoring Allen’s embarrassment, she walked right up to a sales clerk and explained their situation.

“My husband is recovering from some really bad burns on his legs, and his legs are stuck together.”  She explained.  “So we need some clothes that he can wear while he heals.  Do you have some comfortable open bottom girdles?”

The clerk was a heavy-set woman with black hair in two braids and a name tag that said “Corinne,” on her white blouse.

“We probably have something.”  Corinne answered.  “But he looks like he’s in pretty good shape.  Why does he need a girdle?”

Katherine reached down and pulled up the bottom of Allen’s skirt to show his legs.  “Like I said, his legs have grown together.  An open-bottom girdle was the only kind of underwear I could think of for him to wear.”

The clerk’s expression changed from skeptical to helpful once she saw Allen’s legs.  “I understand now.  Come on over to the lingerie area.”

“I can talk, you know.”  Allen said.

“I’m sorry dear.”  Katherine answered.  “But I figured I was more of an expert on women’s clothes.  What did you want to say?”

“Nothing.  This is just a little strange to me.”

They went to the lingerie area and Corinne suggested two different girdles – one light control and one medium control.  Katherine seemed to agree with her, so they got a couple of different sizes of each to try on.  The women’s dressing rooms were empty, so Corinne told Allen he could change in there.  Katherine went with him to help him evaluate the fit.  Allen tried the larger light control girdle first, but found it fit pretty loosely over his hips.  The smaller size fit better, so he asked Katherine for her opinion.

“The fit looks right.”  She said.  “But I think you need to try the firmer model.  I can still see a bit of a lump in the front.”

After switching to the medium control girdle, Katherine was happy, so Allen left it on and put his skirt back on over the top.  When they came back out of the dressing room, Katherine handed the tags from the girdle to the sales clerk.

“This one seems to fit well.  Can we have 4 more like it?”

Corinne took the ones that didn’t fit and put four more of the desired model into a bag.  “What else can I help you with?”  She asked.

“Well, I think we need to find a few more skirts as well.  Allen, do you want them all long like the one you have on, or do you want some shorter skirts as well?”

“I think some shorter ones would be cooler.”  Allen replied.  “Maybe we can get one more long one and make the rest shorter?”

“I can help you with that.”  Corinne said.  “I think you probably want narrower pencil-style skirts since your legs will always be together.  Come on over to the business wear section and we’ll see what we can find.”

With Corinne’s help they found another long skirt and three knee-length skirts.  Katherine teasingly offered him a pink skirt with a flower pattern, but Allen selected solid colors and no prints except for a single red and blue striped one that Katherine seemed to like.  In fact, she liked it so much that she bought another one in her own size.

“Will that be all then?”  Corinne asked when the skirts had all been added to the shopping bag.

“Well, I was thinking that it might be good to get something for Allen to sleep in.  I get rather distracted when he sleeps in the nude.”

This time it was Corinne who seemed embarrassed.  “Well, I suppose we could look at some nightgowns.  Or perhaps he could use a half-slip?”

They went back over to the lingerie area.  Allen quickly nixed the nightgown idea as they all seemed to have lacy decorations and were designed for people with breasts.  They found a couple of simple white half-slips with only a thin band of lace around the bottom and those were added to the bag.  At that point they finally stopped and paid for their purchases.  Katherine seemed very chipper as they returned to their apartment.  Apparently she enjoyed buying new clothes even when they were for her husband.  By the time they got home, Allen was very tired.  His muscles were sore from the exercise in the pool and from the unaccustomed effort it took to use crutches to walk.  They sat on the couch to watch the news but Allen’s head began drooping before the first commercial break.  So they adjourned to the bedroom and Allen fell quickly to sleep.

When he woke up in the morning, Katherine was already done with her breakfast.

“I let you sleep in because you seemed so tired.  I think you need to take things a little slower for a few days.”

“Yeah, I think I felt good and so I overdid it.  I’ll take it easier today.”

“Good.  I put all your new clothes through the laundry last night.  Your skirts are hanging up in the closet and your girdles are in your underwear drawer.  Have a good day.”

Katherine gave him a long kiss and then left for work.  Allen got up and dressed in one of his new outfits, then fixed himself some breakfast.  Before long his ride came and he went to physical therapy again.  They spent most of the time in the pool like they had the day before.  The pool in the physical therapy area wasn’t very large, though, and Allen wished he had a little more room for longer swims.

“Do you think we could move to a bigger pool?”  He asked Beth.

“Yes, if there is one available.  In fact, you don’t really need my help as much now.  If you had a pool you could go to every day, I could just assign you some exercises and have you check in maybe once a week.”

“That sounds good.  I think I know of a pool I can use.”

Beth showed Allen the exercises she wanted him to do and promised to re-schedule their appointments for once a week on Mondays.  When Allen got back home, he called Katherine at work and asked her if she thought he could use the mermaid pool for his exercise.

“Let me ask Audra.”  She said.  “It will probably be OK, but we may have to work out transportation.  I not sure the medical taxi service will bring you here.”

“I’ll call them up and ask about it.”

It turned out the medical taxi would only take him to the hospital or other official medical facilities, but when he talked about it with Katherine that evening, they decided he could ride in with Katherine in the morning, do his exercising, and then catch a ride with Katherine or one of her friends at lunchtime.  The other mermaids all agreed that they would be willing to give Allen rides when needed, and he could always hang out in the pool or locker areas if he needed to wait for someone to be available.  So the next morning, Allen packed up his swimsuit and a towel and went to work with Katherine in the morning.  Katherine showed her badge to the guard at the door, and the guard took Allen’s picture and made a badge for him as well.  Katherine’s turn at feeding the fish wasn’t until noon on Wednesdays, so she escorted her husband to the pool and then headed to her office.  Allen went into the small men’s locker room and put on his swimsuit.  Fernando was there as well, getting ready to help the mermaids into the pool.

“I’m not sure I appreciate the competition.”  He told Allen.  “I’m kind of used to having these beautiful mermaids all to myself.”

“That’s why I decided to come.”  Answered Allen.  “I needed to keep an eye on my wife.”

Maria was waiting to be lowered into the pool when they came back out of the locker room.  Fernando helped her first, then he helped Allen into the pool as well.

“I’m a little envious of your crutches.”  Maria said after Allen joined her.

“They are easier to get around in than the wheelchair.”

“Yes, but I don’t think they would work with the mermaid tails.  The big tail fins would get in the way.  I hear you have some cute new skirts to wear.”

Allen’s cheeks blushed a bit.  “Yes.  They are the only clothes that work with my legs fused together.”

Maria chuckled at his embarrassment, then started swimming a few laps.  Allen tried to keep up with her, but she was much faster.  After a few minutes, Allen swam to the side and asked Fernando if there was a monofin he could borrow.  With the monofin on, he found that he was more closely matched to Maria, though she was still more practiced and faster.  After a few laps, Allen was starting to get a little tired, so he went through the exercises Beth had assigned him and then spent some time just floating in the water.  After a while, Maria came back to him and asked if he wanted to practice holding his breath with her.  He had heard about the process from Katherine, so he and Maria took turns holding their breath, with Maria coaching him on ways he could lengthen the time.  Not long after that it was 10:00, time for Maria to go feed the fish in the aquarium.  Allen asked Fernando to lift him back out of the water.  He got out just in time to meet Audra.

“Hi, Allen.”  She said.  “How is the pool working for you?”

“It’s a lot bigger than the therapy pool.  I like being able to swim some longer laps.”

“Good.  Hey, I like your swimsuit design.  We might try something like that for our mermaids.  I know some of them would like a little more coverage sometimes.  Would it be OK if I gave you a ride home today?  I have some questions to ask you.”

“Sure, I’d be happy to ride with you.  Thanks, by the way, for letting me use the pool and for letting the mermaids give me rides.”

“I’m happy to help out.  Anything to help the husband of one of my most valuable employees.  I understand you are looking for work?”

“Well, I’m not looking very hard yet until I recover some more, but I’m starting the process.”

“Did you learn about designing buildings in your mechanical engineering classes?”

“The civil engineers and architects learn a lot more than the mechanical engineers, but I took a few electives in structural design and engineering.”

“Well, how would you like to help me design some new buildings?”

“I’d love to.”

“I’ve also been thinking about adding a merman to our aquarium experience.  Would you be interested in participating?”

“Sure.”

“Go ahead and change and we can talk on the way to your apartment.”

As they traveled, Audra swore him to silence about her project, although he was allowed to share it with Katherine.  She planned a major expansion to the aquarium.  One part would be a large outdoor pool where customers could come and swim with the mermaids.  This part was already under construction.  Another section would be a dolphin pool with a large stadium, and a third section would be an enclosed area with several pools where the mermaids could stay in between performances.  Audra wanted sleeping areas, an eating area, and a recreation and work area, all of which would allow the mermaids to stay in the water.

“This sounds like you want the mermaids to live here full time.”  Allen said.

“Yes, that is the eventual plan.”

“But why?  Won’t it be hard to recruit people to live like that?”

“I think there are people who would jump at the chance.  Imagine if the situation with your legs was permanent.  Wouldn’t you rather live in a place where you could swim about freely, rather than having to depend upon crutches and wheelchairs?”

“Maybe.  But what about getting out and seeing places, doing new things?”

“Well, just because you live in your apartment it doesn’t mean you stay there all the time.  It would be the same with my mermaid home.”

They arrived at the apartment, and Allen printed a copy of his newly refreshed resume for Audra to take back with her.  His mind was already occupied with thoughts of the aquarium expansion.  It sounded like an interesting project.  When Katherine arrived home, he filled her in on the details.

“Wow!  I knew she had a big project going on behind the aquarium, but this is really ambitious.  What do you think about working for Audra?”

“You seem to be enjoying it.  It sounds like a nice opportunity.”

“I think so too.  It would be nice to be able to see you during the day.”

 

Chapter 22 – Merman

July 28

Thursday morning Allen put on his striped skirt and a nice polo shirt for his trip to the aquarium in the morning.  Seeing his choices, Katherine put on her matching skirt and a silky green blouse.  Allen thought it was a little weird to be wearing similar clothes to his wife.  Allen felt she filled out the skirt much better than he did.  Katherine had the 10:00 AM feeding schedule on Thursdays, so they both changed and got into the water together.  Allen started out with the monofin and enjoyed spending an hour or so swimming and exercising with his wife.  He felt a little less tired this time, so he stayed in the water while Katherine fed the fish.  He swam through the tube to the aquarium with her and watched from the side as she did the feeding.  When she was done, Fernando lifted them both out of the pool just in time to see Audra entering the room.

“Allen, I’ve looked over your resume and I think we would be willing to hire you.  Are you interested in the job?”

“Yes, I think so.  What about the salary?”

“We would pay you the same salary as your wife.  That is our normal starting salary for new engineers.”

That meant the salary would also be very close to what he was getting at Orca.  “That sounds reasonable.  When would you want me to start?”

“Well, I know you are still recovering from your burns.  Why don’t we give you a week or so to gain strength, and you can start on August 8th?”

“Thank you for this opportunity.  I can hardly believe my good fortune.”

“Well, I like to think I am a good judge of character, and I believe that is one of the most important attributes in an employee.  Your actions in saving us from those gang members and the way you have handled yourself since then are pretty good indications that I will be getting someone who will be an asset to my company.”

“Thanks again.”  Allen said, blushing from the compliments.

“I believe Renna was going to drive you home.  She’s going to measure you for your tail first, so dry off as well as you can and leave your swimsuit on for the measurements.”

Katherine had a second feeding time later in the day, so she left her tail on but replaced her swimsuit top with her blouse.  Then she led the way to Renna’s office, with her using a wheelchair and Allen following on his crutches.  When they arrived, Renna pulled up the order form on the computer and then got out her measuring tape.

“Wow.  I expected to see scars from the burns.”  She said.  “But your legs are mostly just covered with new skin.”

Allen had avoided looking too closely at his legs before now, though Katherine had insisted they looked fine.

“Do you mind if I touch your legs?”  Renna asked.

“No, go ahead.  You’ll have a hard time measuring them without touching them.”

Before measuring though, Renna ran her hand up and down Allen’s shins, feeling the new skin there and in the space between his legs where they had grown together.  The skin had not closed evenly between his legs, so it was thicker in some areas than others.  The new skin had also grown back with very few hair follicles, so there were smooth and hairy patches on his legs.

“I’ve never seen the effects of healgel up close before.”  Said Renna.  “But I have a cousin who was badly burned a long time ago.  Your legs look so much better than her arms.  Anyway, let’s get to the measuring and then I can take you home.”

Renna measured around his legs in several places, filling in the form on her computer with the details.  Then she showed Allen several pictures of the various colors and patterns available.  He chose a mandarin fish design.  It would have a green base color, with wavy orange stripes and blue at the tips of the fins.  Once all the details had been entered and the order sent off, Renna took Allen back to his apartment.  The next two days were Katherine’s days off work, though they both went to the mermaid pool each day so that Allen could do his exercises.  Katherine spent the time with him, just enjoying the water like a normal person without a mermaid tail.  On Monday, Allen invited Beth to come to the mermaid pool for his evaluation.  He waited at the entrance so that she could get past the guards, then led her to the pool on his crutches.  She watched him swim for a while, then did her tests.

“Well, you seem to be recovering quite well.”  She said.  “I don’t think you need my help any longer.  It looks like your daily swimming sessions are working well to increase your strength and flexibility.  As long as you keep eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly, you should be in good shape.”

Beth said that she would communicate her findings to Dr. Hansen.  Unless there were problems, Allen just needed to wait until his two months was up before scheduling the surgery to split his legs.  So Allen kept up his exercising in the pool each day, spending some time practicing holding his breath so that he could be ready when his tail arrived.  When August 8 rolled around, he wore his striped skirt and polo shirt and arrived ready for a full day of work.  The mermaids and many of the guards were already used to seeing him travel through the halls on his crutches, but Audra met him at the door and introduced him to the rest of the office employees.  Then she showed him to his office, which was just a few doors down from Katherine’s office along the perimeter of the large office workspace.  He spent the rest of the morning doing paperwork and online training, then joined Katherine for lunch in the cafeteria at 11:30.  After lunch, it was Katherine’s turn to feed the fish, so Allen joined her in the pool and did his exercising while she was in the aquarium.  After she was done, Katherine kept her tail on since she would also be doing the 4:00 feeding.  Allen changed back into his regular clothes and they both went back to their offices to work.  Shortly thereafter, Audra showed up at Allen’s door.

“Would you like a tour of our new area?”  She asked him.

“You bet I would.  I’ve been very curious about it.  And I am supposed to be helping with the design.”

“Follow me then, and I’ll show you what we’re building.”

She took him down to the lower level of the mermaid pool building.  Since this consisted mostly of a dark hallway around the perimeter of the pool, with no access to the pool itself, Allen and the mermaids had seldom been down there.  Audra walked to a door at the back of the building and unlocked it with her access card.

“This is the new Swim with Mermaids pool.”  She told him as they passed through the door.

On the other side of the door was a large outdoor area, fenced off from prying eyes by tall chain link fences covered with tarps.  The area was filled with a large, Amoeba-shaped pool.  A few workmen worked in the dry pool, installing what appeared to be part of the filtration system.  About half the pool was shallow, perhaps 2 or 3 feet deep, while the other half was much deeper.  An island jutted up in the center of the pool where the shallow part met the deep part.  It was decorated with artificial stone and live plants, with several flat areas where mermaids could sit.  A wide set of shallow stairs would allow easy entry to the pool from the shallow end.  A line of changing rooms were located on the far side of the pool.

“It looks like you are almost done.”  Allen said.

“Yes, we should be ready to start in a couple of weeks.”  Audra replied.  “I plan to have a meeting with all the mermaids this afternoon.  – But I guess I need to say mer-people now that you will be joining them.  We will need to work out a new schedule that includes time in the new area.”

“How will we get from the locker rooms out to this pool?”

“That’s where you come in.  I hired an outside firm to do the design work for me, but they can’t seem to understand the unique needs of our mermaids.  I wanted a way to swim between all the pools, but their solutions all involve walking.”

“Do you have anything in particular in mind?”

“Yes.  First, notice the construction behind the pool?  That’s the dolphin arena.  Now come with me inside the mermaid living quarters.”

Audra led him to another large building to their left.  He had assumed it was part of the healgel factory, but apparently it was not.  They entered a cavernous space the size of a large airplane hanger.  Another pool was under construction in one corner of the space, but it was less complete.  Beyond the pool was a large machine with a 10 foot diameter tube of acrylic protruding from one end.  Audra led him over to the machine.

“This is the machine we used to extrude the tubes for the aquarium.  My plan is to connect all of the pools with these tubes.  But the water levels are not the same in all of the pools, so I need you to help figure out how to make the transition from one pool to the other.  The pool in front of you will be part of the living space for the mermaids.  It will connect back to the mermaid pool by the aquarium as well as over to the swim with mermaids pool.  I think we will need a few more pools that could be connected to this one as well – some bathroom facilities, a place to eat, bedrooms, etc.  I want you to help figure out what we need, and then we can call in the architects to flesh out some of the details.”

“Wow!  You certainly have some big plans.  It should be interesting to work on.”

“I’ll give you the existing plans to work from.  I do want it all to fit within this building, if possible.”

“I’ll start working on it right away.”

They returned to the offices, and Audra sent Allen a link to a directory that had all of the electronic drawings and models of the expansion.  He worked on the design, reviewing all the existing plans and making notes about what he thought needed to be added.  At 3:00, he went out into the central area for a meeting with Audra and the other mermaids.  Lacy had even come in on her day off to be present at the meeting.  Audra showed them all a picture of the new pool on the wall screen, and explained that she wanted to open the swim with mermaids event on August 19th.  In addition to Allen and Katherine, Lacy was also aware of the new pool, as she had been working to developing marketing materials for the opening.  Renna and Maria were getting the information for the first time, though they had been aware that an expansion was in the works.  Audra’s plan involved having two mermaids in the new pool from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM on every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.  Customers would pay an extra fee to come swim in the pool with them, and those customers who wanted it would be provided with mermaid tails made of swimsuit fabric.  Three other aquarium employees would be present at the pool, acting as lifeguards and helpers for the customers.

“This is going to really mess with our schedule.”  Maria said.

“Yes, I know.  Please make up a new one that includes time in the swim with mermaids pool.  Allen’s tail should be arriving at the end of this week, so you can include him in the schedule starting on the 14th.  Since the weekends will require more people, I think each of you should only get one of those three weekend days off work.  Work with Maria to come up with a schedule everyone can live with.”

“We’re going to be spending so much time as mermaids that it will be hard to get our other work done.”  Renna said.

“I plan to eventually hire one or two more mermaids.”  Answered Audra.  “But the addition of Allen should help in the meantime.”

Once Audra was done speaking, the rest of them went to Maria’s office and huddled around to help her figure out a schedule.  Allen and Katherine chose Sunday and Monday as their off days.  Renna chose Wednesday and Thursday, Lacy picked Thursday and Friday, and Maria split her off days, taking Tuesday and Saturday.  Once they had the off days selected, Maria worked to spread out the work evenly among all of the mer-people.  The hours didn’t quite split evenly, so Maria gave Renna 12 hours instead of 13, since she had chosen to work all three of the weekend days.  Once their future schedule was decided, they all went back to their individual activities for the rest of the day.

Allen spent the next several days working on the expansion plans.  It seemed to him that the person who had worked on in previously had still been thinking like a land-bound person.  Allen’s time in the pool and on crutches or in a wheelchair predisposed him to find solutions that would allow someone to stay in the water and swim from one pool to another.  Based on the tube from the mermaid pool to the aquarium, Allen used the extruded Acrylic tubes as connectors from one pool to another.  The most difficult parts of the design was the change in water level between the mermaid living area and the swim with mermaids pool.  Allen struggled with that problem until he asked the extruder manufacturer if the extruder could make a curved tube.  Although it had not yet been tried, the engineers at the manufacturer worked out a modification that would allow the machine to make the tubes curved.  That let Allen design two connections to the swim with mermaids pool.  One was essentially a water slide for going from the mermaid living area to the pool.  The other was a tube with a lock built into it that would allow a mermaid to swim into the lock, adjust the water level, and then swim back up a curved tube into the living area.

When Allen was done, he took his plans to Audra and explained his design.

“Instead of wheelchair ramps and sidewalks between the pools, I used tunnels connecting each pool so that we could swim anywhere in the complex without leaving the water.”  He explained.

“Oh, I like this.”  Said Audra.  “Why is this main pool called the greenhouse?”

“I figured if the mermaids would be spending a lot of their time in this living area, they would want someplace a little bit green and wild.  I envision putting lots of skylights above this pool and growing seaweed and water plants in it.  So it will be a kind of underwater garden.”

“Very nice.  I like that idea.  I don’t see any detail on what happens between or around the pools though.”

“I imagine there will need to be some infrastructure there for maintenance and such.  But I thought I would concentrate on the living space for the mermaids first.”

 

Gulf Aquarium with Mermaid Quarters (1)

Gulf Aquarium Layout

“And what about these sleeping pools?”  Audra asked.  “Do you envision sleeping in the water somehow?”

“We may have to experiment a little.”  Allen answered.  “I think you could float an air mattress on the water or maybe rig up a hammock, but you would need some way to make sure we couldn’t roll over in the night and end up trying to breathe water.”

“Why do you have three different depths for the three main pools?”

“I tried to adapt the depth to the purpose of the pool.  The cafeteria is the shallowest, because we will mostly be sitting and eating in that room.  So it is deep enough to swim easily, but no deeper.  The tops of the tables will be just above the water so we can have dry food.  The recreation and study pool is deeper for more flexibility in playing games or practicing, and the greenhouse needs to be even deeper for the needs of the various underwater plants we want to grow there.”

“That makes sense.  What are these chairs along the wall of the recreation pool?”

“Well, I imagine the mermaids will want to be able to watch TV or use a computer, so I planned for some kind of touch-screen combination computer/TV to be installed in the walls.  The chairs are for the mermaids to sit in while they watch TV or use the computer.  That’s why there is a couch on one end.  I figure that end can have a larger TV screen for watching movies or shows as a couple or a group.”

Audra and Allen discussed the design for several hours, with Allen taking notes on the decisions they reached.  The pools in the living areas would not have any floors around the perimeter like a normal pool.  Instead, the walls would simply go straight up to the ceiling.  Anyone wanting to be in those rooms would have to be in the water.  There were also no doors for land-bound people to enter the pools—they would only be accessible to someone swimming through the tubes.  Audra insisted on this design for privacy.  She felt if this was going to be a living space for the mermaids, they wouldn’t want to have a separate land area in it where the mermaids couldn’t comfortably go.  Behind the walls around the pools would be rooms for the filtration equipment, a kitchen for the cafeteria, and access areas for maintenance, but all of those areas would be accessed through separate doors not connected to the pools.  Audra was very pleased with Allen’s plans, and she asked him to make the changes they had spoken about and then send them to her so that they could forward them on to a new architect and the construction company.

“I want to get the greenhouse pool and the connections to the practice pool and the swim with mermaids pool done as quickly as possible.”  She explained.  “That will make it convenient for you to move around in all the areas where you will be working.”

Gulf Aquarium Cross Section through lock tube

 

Chapter 23 – Swimming with Mermaids

August 12

 

The next day was Friday, and Allen’s tail arrived.  He wasn’t due to join the aquarium feeding schedule until Tuesday, so he put the tail on and spent some time practicing for the last couple of hours of the day.  On Saturday, he went into the aquarium and helped Katherine during her two feeding times.  He enjoyed the freedom the mermaid tail gave him.  Although he could swim as fast with just a monofin, somehow it felt right to have the tail.  Katherine’s mom came to visit them on Sunday.  She planned to stay for a week.  That first evening, Allen spent a long time going through the details of his submarine accident and subsequent captivity.  He had been very reluctant to talk much about it before, other than when he reported his experience to Dave.  He found the experience to be cathartic, especially with the loving support of his wife and mother-in-law.

“How do you like wearing skirts?”  Janice asked him.

“It felt really strange at first, but it’s a practical solution and I’m used to it.  But I don’t plan to continue the practice after my legs get separated.”

“Your legs would look a lot better if you shaved off those hairy patches.”

“No, thanks.”

“Is your operation planned yet?”

“No.  Dr. Hansen said I should call during the second week of September and they would do an evaluation to see if I am ready.”

“So long?  What are they waiting for?”

“She says she wants my body to fully recover from the burns and to gain strength and muscle mass.”

“Well, you seem to be making good progress at getting stronger.  You look very healthy to me.”

“Thank you.  I feel much better as well.”

On Monday, they all visited the Houston Space Center.  For convenience, they took the wheelchair for Allen instead of his crutches.  Despite being in the area for several months, this was the first visit for Allen and Katherine, and they enjoyed seeing the historic site as much as Janice did.  The Saturn V rocket was very impressive, as was the mission control from the Apollo flights.  Allen and Katherine returned to work on Tuesday, so Janice had to entertain herself during the day.  They kept coming back in the evening to find little changes in their apartment.  One of the rooms would be extra clean, or they would find some new dishes in the cupboards.  Janice even had dinner ready for them in the evenings.  Some couples would feel upset about this “interference” with their apartment, but Janice was conservative and did not make any drastic changes.  Rather, she noticed things that the new couple might be missing and tried to help them out.  They were grateful for her help, all the while insisting that they didn’t need it.

“I know you can manage just fine by yourselves.”  She said.  “But please let me mother you a little bit.”

On Friday, Katherine and Renna were the first two mermaids to participate in the swim with mermaids activity.  The greenhouse pool and connections were not ready yet, so they put on their tails and got into wheelchairs.  Fernando went with them as they rode the elevator down to the first floor and then out the back door of the practice pool building into the swim with mermaids area.  A group of customers was already there, milling around the cabanas.  One lifeguard was sitting in a tower at the edge of the pool, and the other two were working with the customers, finding spandex mermaid tails to fit them.  The lifeguards wore red swimsuits with the Gulf Aquarium logo on it, and they all looked tan and fit—it looked like Audra had hired some experienced people and not just local high schoolers.  When the two mermaids wheeled up to the edge of the pool, one of the lifeguards called out.

“Presenting Mermaid Renna and Mermaid Katherine!  These two lovely young creatures are the mermaids you will be swimming with this morning.  Please give them a big hand!”

The customers all clapped, enhanced by a few squeals of delight from some of the young girls in attendance.  The customers seemed to be mostly younger girls, often accompanied by their mothers.  One or two dads were present as well, and a couple of families had their sons with them.  It was mostly the girls who were putting on the mermaid tails.  The parents and brothers mostly seemed content to just swim in the pool, though there were one or two boys and dads gamely joining in with the mermaid tail wearing.  Renna and Katherine wheeled over to the side of the pool, and Fernando lifted them out of the wheelchairs and tossed them in the water.  Katherine swam over to the shallow section of the pool and was soon surrounded by little girls and their mothers.  She answered questions and helped some of the older girls learn how to swim with their tails.  The pool was not crowded, as Audra had set a limit of 50 people in each swim with mermaid session.  The session lasted three hours, though some of the customers trickled out well before the time was up.  When the time was up, Fernando came back with the wheelchairs.  Katherine and Renna swam up into the shallow end of the pool and Fernando came down into the water to carry them out of the pool and put them back in the wheelchairs.  Katherine hoped it wouldn’t be long until the greenhouse pool and the connecting tubes were completed.

On Saturday, Katherine and Allen were both assigned the morning session in the mermaid swim pool.  Katherine was pleasantly surprised to see that the little girls flocked around Allen, and to see how kind he was with the children.  They were both surprised when they noticed that one of the customers was Janice.

“Mom!  What are you doing here?”  Asked Katherine.

“I thought I would join in on the fun.”  She answered.  “I called Audra and she arranged for a ticket for me.”

Janice put on one of the spandex tails, and Katherine showed her how to swim with a monofin.  One of the girls asked Allen if he was married to Katherine, and her mother seemed a little doubtful when he said that he was.  He turned around to help another customer and he heard the girl’s mother tell her- “They probably aren’t really married.  They just say that for fun, like the tails are just pretend.”  Allen decided to give the girl a show, so when he had a moment free, he swam over to Katherine, hooked his tail around hers, and gave her a long, lingering kiss.  They were in the deep area at the time, so they sank to the bottom as they kissed.  When they released their clinch and returned to the surface, many of the patrons clapped.  Allen winked at the little girl and grinned.  Before long the morning session was done and Fernando came to help them out of the pool.  Fernando took them to the practice pool so they could use the potty pool, then lifted them back out and they both dried off and left their tails on.  They had lunch in the employee cafeteria, then Katherine went to her office.  She would be feeding the fish in the aquarium at 2:00 and 4:00.  Allen returned to the mermaid swim pool, this time accompanied by Lacy.  Since both Maria and Renna were off on Saturdays, the mermaid duties were shared by the remaining three.

They said goodbye to Janice on Monday.  Allen was sad to see her go.  As he got to know her better she was becoming a replacement for the mother he lost to a drunk driver.  They returned to work and settled into a routine.  On Thursday a couple of weeks later, Audra called the mermaids together to tell them that the greenhouse pool and connections were complete.  She suggested they take a tour, so at 3:00 they all went to the locker room and changed into their tails.  Katherine and Maria were already changed from earlier shifts at feeding the sharks.  Once they were all ready, Audra led them to the side of the pool and showed them the new tube.  They had all seen the construction for the past few days, but the construction crew had lowered barriers into the water so that they could have a dry area to work.  Audra waved at the construction supervisor, who was in the pool room for the unveiling.  He pushed a button and a crane lifted the barriers out of the way.  The area behind had already been filled with water, so there was no sudden rush of current, only some waves and sloshing from the removal of the barrier.  Audra Swam into the tube, followed by Allen and the other mermaids.  The tube was ten feet in diameter, with the top two feet out of the water and the rest submerged.  As they swam through the tube, they could see that it was dimly lit by lights in the ceiling outside the tube.  After swimming just a few feet they passed out of the practice pool building and into the living quarters building.  Almost immediately a second tube exited to their left.

“This is the way to the new potty pool.”  Audra explained.  She swam down the cross passage.  After a short distance, they came to an opaque wall that blocked the end of the tube and extended up to a few inches above the surface of the water.  The top of the wall was rounded, and with a flick of her tail, Audra slipped over the wall and into the pool beyond.  The potty pool was cylindrical in shape and about 15 feet in diameter.  There were grab bars along the walls at the water level, and Allen could feel a strong current from several water inlets around the perimeter of the pool.

“We made the walls of the potty pool opaque for privacy.”  Audra explained.  “The water in this pool circulates separately from all of the other aquarium water.  You can do your business in here and it will quickly be sucked away and filtered.  Now let’s go back and out to the greenhouse pool.  Allen had a great idea and I think you will really like it.”

Audra led the way back out to the tunnel and further along into another large pool.  Bright light shone through skylights, illuminating the pool below.  In the pool, large patches of sea grass and kelp grew in the sandy bottom.  Several terraces with aquatic plants growing in them had been built at different heights, making the room into a garden with multiple winding paths on different levels.  At present many of the plants were small, but Allen knew that many of them would eventually grow to great heights.  The mermaids were delighted to see the new pool, and most of them immediately dove deeper into the water to explore.  After letting them look around for a few minutes, Audra motioned for them all to follow her.  They swam to the far end of the pool.  There were two barriers in place at this end of the pool—one on the left, and one at the end.  To the right, two more tubes could be seen.

“The barriers cover openings for two more tubes, which will lead to eating and sleeping areas.”  Said Audra.  “Both of the tubes on the right lead to the mermaid swim pool.  Let’s take the top one.”

The top tube was mounted higher in the wall of the pool and sloped upward.  After a few feet, it rose above the water level, and there were handrails along the sides.  Audra swam up the tube and then pulled herself up to the top with the handrails.  The handrails extended up a few feet and then ended, and the tube curved quickly back down at that point.  Water sprayed into the side of the tube, making the next part a slippery water slide.  Audra pointed to a big red button on the side of the tube.

“We have a gate at the bottom of this slide to keep guests out of the mermaid quarters.  Push this button to open the gate before you slide, and go one at a time.”

Audra then pushed the button and launched herself head first down the tube.  They all heard her “Whee!” As she slid down, followed by a splash.  Allen and Katherine were right behind Audra.  They could see the gate closing quickly after Audra left the slide.  Katherine pushed the button and let herself slide down the tube.  The gate opened in front of her just in time for her to shoot out of the slide into the deep end of the mermaid swim pool.  Allen, Lacy and Maria quickly followed.

“That was fun!”  Maria exclaimed.

“It will also make for a dramatic entrance.”  Audra added.  “We’ll go back by way of the bottom tube.”

The second tube was just to the left of the exit from the slide tube.  It had a gate across the entrance, and a waterproof keypad was embedded in the wall next to it.  Audra entered a 6-digit code into the keypad and the gate slid to the left.  They all swam into the new tube, which went straight out from the pool.  Once they were all in, Audra had Lacy push a button on the wall to close the gate behind them.  They swam down the tube and came to a small rectangular room.

“This is our lock.”  Audra said.  “Everyone crowd inside.”

The room was as large as a big freight elevator, so the five of them fit inside without much crowding.  There was a control panel on one wall, and Audra pressed a button.  A door slid across behind them, sealing the room off.

“Be ready to hold your breath, because when I open the other door the room will fill with water.”  Audra said.  She pressed another button and a door opened in front of them, allowing the water from the tube beyond to rush in and fill the room completely.  Thanks to the warning, all the mermaids held their breath and then swam into the tube on the other side, which curved upward and exited in the greenhouse pool.  Audra closed the door behind them and followed.  Once they had all surfaced, she asked them what they thought of the new pool.

“I love it!”  Said Lacy.  “The plants make it seem like an underwater garden.  I think it will be a fun place to swim and relax.”

“I liked the slide.  What a fun way to start work in the morning.”  Said Maria.

Katherine chimed in as well.  “And I like the practical aspect of being able to swim from the practice pool out to the mermaid swim pool and back.  Getting around in a wheelchair gets old pretty fast.  When will the rest of the mermaid quarters be finished?”

“It will take about another month.”

“I can’t wait to see the whole thing completed.”

That weekend they all enjoyed the new pool and the access to the mermaid swim area without having to use a wheelchair.  They developed a system where they would tap on the side of the tube when they were ready to slide into the pool, and one of the lifeguards would introduce them as they slid down and dove into the water.  They would dive deep and swim around the pool for a couple of minutes before coming up to meet the customers.  Renna felt that there should be an educational element to their show, so they started setting up an aquarium on the island with a few of the hardier fish species in it.  The two mermaids would sit next to it and tell the customers some facts about the fish inside.  This made the mermaid swim an even more popular attraction, and by the middle of September it was sold out every weekend.

 

Chapter 24 – Insurance Issues

September 13

On September 13, Allen received a call from Dr. Hansen’s receptionist.

“Allen, you had an appointment to see Dr. Hansen tomorrow?”

“Yes.  She was going to see if I was ready for the operation to separate my legs.”

“Well, your insurance just called us and said they wouldn’t pay for the operation.”

“What?!  Why not?”

“They wouldn’t say.  You’ll have to contact them directly to find out.  In the meantime, we’ll cancel your appointment with Dr. Hansen.  You can set it up again once we have the insurance situation figured out.”

Allen looked up the number for his insurance.  He was paying extra to use the insurance company from his time at Orca under the COBRA program, because his insurance with Burns Pharmaceuticals didn’t kick in until 90 days after he was hired.  After navigating through a mind-numbingly long phone tree and waiting on hold for 20 minutes, he finally got with a representative.

“Why is your company denying coverage for my operation?”  He asked.

“We don’t cover elective cosmetic surgery.”

“This isn’t elective surgery.  My legs have grown together and I can’t walk.  The surgery is to correct that situation.”

“Well, according to our records, your legs were badly burned.  We paid for all of your hospital expenses beyond your deductible, and it says that the burns have completely healed.”

“The burns have healed, but my legs are still stuck together.”

“I understand how this might be frustrating for you.  But we don’t have any codes for legs being stuck together.  Did you suffer another injury beyond the burns?”

“No.  It was just the burns.  But my legs were bound together for about a week after I was burned, and the healing skin grew together.”

“I see.  Do you have the medical records from the hospital that bound your legs together?”

“No, I wasn’t in a hospital.  I was being held captive by drug smugglers.”

“Oh my, that’s quite a story.  It’s too bad you weren’t in a hospital.  Then we could have looked at their records and charged the operation to them as a medical malpractice case.  I’m not sure what we can do about treatment received while captive.  That’s not on my list of options.”

“Well, I’m still sitting here with my legs stuck together, and I’ve been paying for your insurance to cover me for this kind of thing.”

“I’m going to have to talk to my supervisor.  Please hold.”

Twenty minutes later, the hold music ended and the representative spoke again.

“Mr. Landry, are you still there?”

“Yes, I’m here.  Did you figure something out?”

“We think so.  Your case is a very unique one, so we will need to go through a special appeal process.  Once we do that I’m sure we will be able to work something out.”

“Okay.  What do I have to do to start the process?”

“I’ve already opened up an appeal for you.  The first thing you need to do is see our appeal doctor.  He will confirm your condition and verify the need for an operation.  Then once we have his signature we can go ahead and schedule the operation with your normal doctor.”

“Okay.  Can you give me the contact information for your appeal doctor?”

“I’ve just sent you an e-mail with all the information.”

“Thank you.”

A few minutes later, the name and phone number of the insurance company doctor showed up in Allen’s inbox.  He called the number, only to hear a message saying that the office was closed on Tuesdays and he should call back tomorrow.  Allen was not in a good mood when he met Katherine for the drive home after work that day.

“What’s wrong?”  Katherine asked.

Allen repeated the conversation with Dr. Hansen’s receptionist and the insurance company.

“At least the insurance person figured out what to do.”  Katherine said when he was done.  “I’m sure once this insurance company doctor sees you it will all be handled in a day or two.”

The next morning, Allen called the insurance doctor.

“Dr. Chopra’s office, how may I help you?”

“I need an appointment to see the doctor for an insurance appeal.”

“I will be happy to help you with that.  When do you want to see him?”

“As soon as possible, please.”

“Okay.  I have an opening on November 9th.  Does that work for you?”
“November 9th?  That’s your earliest opening?”

“I’m afraid so.  Doctor Chopra is very busy right now.  Should I put you down for November 9th?

“Aren’t there any emergency appointments, or some way to see him earlier?  I want to be able to walk again.”

“For an emergency, you would need to go to the emergency room.  I can set up your appointment for November 9th and then put you on our list in case someone cancels.  Would you like me to do that?”

“I guess so.”

Allen met Katherine that afternoon as he was finishing his turn feeding the fish and she was practicing in the pool before her turn.

“It will be more than a couple of days.”  He told her.

“Why?  What happened?”

“The first available appointment was November 9th.”

“Really?  That’s almost two months away!”

“Yes.  The receptionist said the doctor was very busy, and I should go to the emergency room if it was urgent.”

“That’s unbelievable!  What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know.  Call the insurance company back, I suppose.  Maybe there is another doctor I can go to, or maybe I can convince them to accept Dr. Hansen’s opinion.”

“I sure hope so.”

Allen called the insurance company that afternoon.  They did not have another doctor, and they were unwilling to accept any substitutes.  As far as they were concerned, since his condition wasn’t getting any worse and he wasn’t in any danger of dying, he could wait for the doctor.  Eventually, Allen resigned himself to two more months of crutches and wheelchairs.  At least in the water he could feel free.

“We’d better buy you a few more skirts.”  Said Audra that evening.  “I’m getting tired of seeing you in the same five skirts over and over again, and I have to do laundry more often to make sure you have clean ones for work.”

“I suppose that makes sense.  I probably need a few more girdles for underneath as well.”

So they went shopping again and Allen let Katherine talk him into getting some skirts with patterns—one a kind of grey herringbone, and one in a tartan pattern.  He also picked one in a tan suede-like material.  Katherine talked him into getting a couple of relatively plain nightgowns for sleeping in as well.

“The nights will be cooler as November approaches.”  She explained.

Katherine seemed happy to be shopping for new clothes, even if they weren’t for herself.  Allen could only think of it as an indication of how long he would be stuck in his current state.

The next few weeks found Allen occupied with the details of the designs for the mermaid living area.  Construction was already in progress on the pools and connections, but questions came up from time to time as the construction crews worked.  Allen went out to view the construction progress once or twice a week.  He found the work to be interesting and satisfying, but he wondered what would happen when the construction was complete.  Would Audra still have a job for him?

Katherine was also occupied with her job.  They had been developing a new kind of gel that could be used as a medical adhesive.  It could be used to seal wounds while they healed or to attach prostheses to the body.  It was permanent but could be removed with the proper solvent.  Katherine helped develop the process to infuse the base jellyfish material with the adhesive materials.  They had tried numerous materials and processes until they finally found one that gave the proper stickiness as well as the flexibility to move with the body.

Near the end of September, Audra asked Allen to come into her office.

“What did you need me for?”  Allen asked.

“I was wondering if you would be willing to help me with an experiment I want to try.”

“What kind of experiment?”

“Well, I’ve been thinking about a new, more realistic-looking mermaid tail design.  I want to try applying individual scales to the skin.”

“That sounds like a difficult process.”

“It would be very time-consuming.  And you wouldn’t be able to take the tail off quickly.  It would require our special solvent.”

“And you think I would be an ideal person to try it because my legs are already stuck together.”

“Exactly.  Anyone else would be giving up the ability to walk for several days, but it wouldn’t be much of a change for you.  You might have a harder time using crutches, but for the most part life wouldn’t change much for you.”

“What about going to the bathroom?”

Audra’s cheeks turned a delicate pink color.  “Well, you know that I have studied sea life for many years.  Do you know how most fish pee?”

“Don’t they just have a hole on the bottom somewhere?”

“Pretty much.  It’s called a vent.  But that wouldn’t really work for you as a male, so I started thinking about a few fish species that develop their eggs internally.  In those species, the male often has a specially modified anal fin that he can insert into the cloaca of the female.  I think we could hide your penis inside an anal fin on your tail.”

“So my genitals would be hanging down in plain sight?”

“No, it would just look like a decorative fin.  No-one would know what was inside.”

Now it was Allen’s turn to flush a little bit.  “You do realize I’m recently married?  It doesn’t sound like this arrangement would work very well for making love with my wife.”

Audra’s face got even redder, and she cleared her throat once or twice.  “Well, actually I have thought about those kinds of things.  The tube in your anal fin would have to be a little oversized, so that when you had an… an erection, everything would still fit inside.  The rest of the fin would be softer and push out of the way so you could make love normally.  With the extra size imparted by the fin, it might even be a little more exciting for your wife.”

“You’ve really thought about this a lot, haven’t you?  This is why you are constructing the mermaid living area isn’t it?”

“Yes.  Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to be a mermaid.  Now I can do it for a few hours at a time, but I want to be able to live that way full-time.  I’m guessing I can find a few other people who want to join me.  So are you willing to help me make my dream come true?”

“When you put it that way, I suppose I could.  Can I have time to talk it over with Katherine and let you know for sure tomorrow?”

“Of course.  Here, take this sample scale with you.”

Audra handed Allen a largish scale made of the same kind of silicone material as the mermaid tails.  It was greenish in color and had very small scalloped ridges on the outside, and was very smooth on the inside.  It was about an inch and a half wide and maybe two inches long, and it was a bit firmer than the tails but still flexible.  Allen showed it to Katherine that evening and asked her what she thought about Audra’s request.

“Did she say how long she wanted you to wear this new tail?”  Katherine asked.

“Not exactly.  She said several days.  I think she’s working up to something permanent, but this is a partial step along the way.”

“Do you think this tube thing she talked about will interfere with our making love?”

“Audra seemed to think it might even improve things.”  Allen said.  “But I suppose we could try it for a day or two and if it doesn’t work we can tell her no.  Assuming the sex works out, are you OK with this?”

“Yes, as long as you can remove the tail for our days off.”

So the next day Allen talked to Audra.  After she assured him that he could back out if it didn’t work the way they expected, he agreed to participate.  They decided his first day would be the next Tuesday, after his two days off.

Chapter 25 – Allen Gets a New Tail

October 4

Allen woke up early on Tuesday morning and took the bottle of Nair into the shower with him.  Katherine had suggested he remove any body hair before getting his new tail to prevent painful pulling when the time came to take it off.  He applied the hair remover from his waist down and followed the directions to remove all the hair.  When he was done and dried off he went out into the bedroom where Katherine was waiting.  She had the special anal fin that Audra had designed.  It had a flexible cup on the bottom to enclose his testicles and a one inch diameter tube coming out of it, with a soft, flexible fin on the underside of the tube.

“You should probably lay down on the bed for this part.”  Katherine told him.  “It takes about 20 minutes for the adhesive to cure and you’ll have to hold still for that time.”

Allen agreed, so he went out and laid on the bed.  Katherine handed him a tube of the adhesive.  He applied it around the edges of the cup and then put the cup into place over his genitals, guiding his male part into the tube and seating the cup between his legs.  Then he lay on the bed with his legs spread for 20 minutes while Katherine took her shower.

“Do you think the glue is dry now?”  He asked her when she got out.

“It’s been 22 minutes, so it should be.  Shall we test it?”

They spent the next ten minutes verifying that the fin was securely in place and that it did not impede marital relations.  Then they both got dressed and headed to work.  When they got there, Paul, who had been the guard at the desk for some time, shook their hands and told them goodbye.

“You’re leaving?  Why?”  Katherine asked.

“Our security company was bought out by a big conglomerate called Crown Holdings, and they are moving me to another job across town.”

“That’s too bad.”  Allen said.

“It’s been good working with you two.”  Paul continued.  “I just wanted to wish you good luck.”

“We hope everything turns out well for you also.”  Katherine said.

They continued to their offices, and once Allen had settled in, Audra came to see him, followed by a woman wearing a short pleated skirt with torn leggings.  Her hair was shaved on one side of her head, and dyed pink and long on the other half.

“Allen, I’d like to introduce you to Cammy Green.  She works for Mermaid Fantasies as one of the artists who makes the mermaid tails for us.”  Said Audra.

“Nice to meet you, Cammy.”  Said Allen, shaking her hand.

“Good to meet you too.”  Cammy replied.  “I’m looking forward to this transformation.”

Audra led Allen, Katherine, and Cammy down into the basement, where an unused room had been set aside for the process.  They made sure that Allen stopped in the bathroom first.  The room was mostly bare except for a padded examination table like you would find in a doctor’s office and several bins and cans stacked neatly to one side.

“This first part might be a little embarrassing.”  Audra said.  “That’s one reason I asked Katherine to come down with you.  She can help with the adhesive around the sensitive areas.  Now, Cammy and I will wait in the hall while you take your clothes off.  Call us when you are ready.”

Allen undressed.  At least the special fin around his genitals provided a modicum of privacy.  Still, there was a stack of absorbent pads on the examination table, and Allen held one in front of himself when they called Cammy and Audra back in.  When they came in, they were both wearing medical scrubs and latex gloves.  They opened one of the containers and pulled out a large trapezoidal piece of thick flexible silicone.  Allen could see two holes in the sheet about 8 inches down from the top edge.

“This is the base material.”  Audra said.

Cammy put the material on the exam bed.  Then she opened a bucket of the adhesive and started slathering it all over his legs.

“Katherine, he might be more comfortable if you helped put the adhesive on his more private areas.”  Audra said.

She handed a pair of latex gloves to Katherine, who applied the material to Allen’s bottom.  Once he was well covered, they had Allen lay on the sheet of silicone on his side.  Katherine guide the anal fin through the hole in the front of the sheet, then applied adhesive around the edges.  She likewise matched up the hole in the back of the sheet to his anus.  Then Audra and Cammy wrapped the rest of the sheet around his legs until the two edges butted neatly together along the top side of his leg.  Audra held the edges of the sheet together while Cammy used duct tape to hold them in place.  She placed long strips of the tape next to each other across the seam all the way up the side of his leg, until the silicone sheet was completely sealed around his legs with the seam held tightly together.

“Now we have to wait twenty minutes while the adhesive sets.”  Audra said.  “We need you to keep your legs still during that time.  The rest of this process will be handled by Cammy, but I’ll check in on you from time to time, and Katherine will probably come down to see you when she can.”

Audra left, and Cammy asked.  “Is there anything I can do for you while you wait?  Would you like a drink?”

“No thanks, I’m not thirsty yet.  So were you the one who made my original tail?”

“Yes.  Do you like it?”

“Yes, it looks very nice, and it fits well.”

“So I heard your legs are stuck together because they were burned.  Would you mind telling me the story of how that happened?  Or is it too personal?  I’ll shut up if you want me to.”

“No, I don’t mind.  I’ll tell you how it all happened.”

So Allen spent most of the next 20 minutes telling Cammy about the accident with the sub and how he was held captive afterward.  Cammy’s phone beeped just as he was finishing.

“That means the glue should be dry.”  Cammy said.  “Let me just check and make sure.”

She peeled off some of the duct tape over the seam near his ankles and poked at it with her finger.  She seemed satisfied with the result, because she started removing the rest of the tape.  Once the tape was all gone, Cammy let him roll over onto his back.  When he was comfortable, she slathered adhesive on Allen’s feet, then pulled out a large tail fin and slipped it onto them.  It was painted to match the tail he usually wore, but this one ended at his ankles.  Allen wiggled his toes and felt the adhesive fill the gaps between his feet and the tail fin material.

“Now for this next part, I’m going to strap your legs down, because I need them to be as still as possible, OK?”

“OK.”

Cammy pulled several straps out of the side of the bed, and fastened them across Allen’s legs just below his knees, above the knees, and then across his torso as well.
“This way you won’t roll your body and inadvertently move your legs.”  She said.  “And this is going to take a while, so the rest of you can go away while I work.”

Katherine gave Allen a kiss and then left with Audra.  It was now much harder to see what Cammy was doing, but by craning his neck a bit, Allen could get the general idea.  Cammy was taking the adhesive gel and applying it to the silicone sheet, then attaching rows of scales around Allen’s legs.  She couldn’t reach the back side, so Allen assumed that would be done later.  Each row of scales overlapped the one below it, like the shingles on a roof.  Or like the scales on a fish, now that Allen thought of it.  Most of the scales were green, though they were of varying shades.  Some of them were orange or had orange parts on them.  As Cammy worked up his legs, Allen realized that she was duplicating the mandarin fish design that he had on his old tail.  Audra came to check on the progress once or twice, but Katherine didn’t show up until Cammy was nearly to the tops of his thighs.  She rolled through the door in her wheelchair with her tail on after doing the 10:00 feeding.

“Wow! That looks really good.”  She said.

Cammy was looking at Katherine’s tail.

“Hi Katherine.  I don’t remember doing your tail.  That must have been Linda’s work.  Is it holding up well for you?”

“Oh, yes.  It has been very durable.  I just thought I would stop down and see how things were going.”

“Isn’t it my turn to feed the fish?”  Allen asked.

“Yes, but Renna is taking your place today.  Audra said you wouldn’t be ready in time.”

“He’s not quite half way done.”  Said Cammy.

“I’m beginning to get thirsty now.”  Allen said.

“Of course.”  Said Katherine.  “I’d be happy to bring you something.  Do you want water or something else?”

“Water will be fine.”

Katherine left the room for a minute and came back with a bottle of water from the cafeteria.  Cammy handed her a sports drink bottle with a straw and she poured it in, then handed it to Allen.  He sucked at the straw until his thirst was quenched, then handed back the bottle.

“So are you ready to continue now?”

“Well, there is one other thing.”

“Yes?”

“I really need to go to the bathroom as well.”

“We can’t have you moving around just yet.  The glue is still drying.  That’s why we have these pads.  Would you be more comfortable if we left the room for a minute?”

“Yes, please.”

Cammy handed Allen one of the absorbent pads and then the two women left the room.  Allen wrapped the pad over the tip of his anal fin and let the urine flow.  A few minutes later Katherine poked her head in the room.

“Are you done?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll help you clean up.”

Katherine cleaned him up with a baby wipe, and then took the pad out and threw it away in the bathroom trash can.  Once Allen was cleaned up, and after they had shared a long kiss, Katherine went out and told Cammy they were ready.

Cammy continued to apply more scales, now working in the front near the anal fin.  She placed the scales around the fin strategically so that it looked like the fin grew naturally out of his tail.  Eventually Cammy progressed up beyond the silicone sheet and started gluing scales directly to Allen’s skin.  Because the scales overlapped, the seam between the silicone tube around his legs and his own skin was hidden.  She continued adding rows of scales up his belly to just below his belly button.  The last two rows of scales were a little smaller and tapered so that they looked like they naturally stopped at the belly button level.  When they were done, it was well past lunch time, so Cammy and Katherine went to the cafeteria while Allen waited for adhesive to cure.  Katherine brought back a sandwich for Allen to eat, and he drank some more water as well.  Then it was time for Katherine to return to work and for Cammy to start working on the back of Allen’s legs.  Cammy released the straps holding him down and had Allen roll over before strapping him down again.

It took another three hours or so for Cammy to glue all the scales onto the back of Allen’s legs.  Katherine left and finished out her work day, then came down to help with the last half hour or so of the whole process.  She stayed in the room and chatted with Allen and Katherine while they waited for the last of the adhesive to dry.  When the time was up, Katherine brought a wheelchair for Allen to ride in and Cammy undid the straps.

“Can I move around normally now?”  Allen asked.

“Oh, yes.”  Katherine answered.  “The adhesive gel is very strong and durable once cured.  Without the solvent, it won’t come off without tearing your skin.”

They rode the elevator up to the first floor and escorted Cammy out to the lobby.  Audra was waiting there, chatting with the new lobby guard at the desk.  When she saw Allen, she immediately came to look at his new tail.

“Cammy, that tail looks fantastic!”

“Thank you.  It will probably go a little faster the next time, but the process for building it seems to work well.”

“Now I understand why you need the mermaid living quarters.”  Allen said.  “There is no way we could do that every day.”

Allen’s tail did look much more lifelike and realistic.  The overlapping scales rippled and moved against each other in a natural-looking three-dimensional way.  Allen wondered what the customers would think about his new tail.  They said goodbye to Cammy and then went home.  It was no more difficult to use the wheelchair, but the crutches just wouldn’t work with the wide tail, and Allen was used to getting around using either aid.  That night they tested whether the tail would allow them to have normal marital relations and found that they could manage just fine.  In fact, Katherine seemed to enjoy the feel of the extra stimulation provided by the soft parts of the fin on the outside while the main part did it’s work on the inside.  The tail didn’t work too well with the bedsheets, however, as the wide flukes lapped over the end of the bed.  So Allen slept without covers and wore one of his nightgowns for warmth.  He reluctantly admitted to Katherine that getting them was a good idea.  It took Allen a while to go to sleep, because the tail fluke prevented him from rolling onto his side, but eventually he managed.

The next day, Allen’s turn at feeding the fish wasn’t normally scheduled until 2:00 on Wednesdays, but Audra found him first thing in the morning.

“I really want to see how your new tail works in the water.  Would you mind coming for a swim this morning?”

Allen didn’t mind, so they both went to their respective locker rooms and changed.  All Allen had to do was take his shirt off, but Audra took longer as she squirmed into her tail.  When they were both ready, Fernando lowered them into the pool.  Audra watched as Allen swam around the practice pool, then they both swam through the tunnel into the greenhouse pool.  After exploring the plant life for a time, they surfaced and Audra asked Allen how the new tail felt.

“Very good.”  He answered.  “It has a snugger fit, so it’s a little easier to bend my legs and kick.”

“I like how it looks, as well.  I have had one thought about an improvement.”

“What’s that?”

“How would you feel about having webbed fingers?”

“I don’t know.  Would it make it hard to hold things?”
“I don’t think so.  I have some clear, flexible silicone sheet material that I think we could glue between your fingers to make webbing.  You would still be able to hold onto things, you just couldn’t have anything between your fingers.  Shall we give it a try?”

“Why not?  If it doesn’t work out we can always take it off again.”

“OK, now how about one time down the slide before we get back to work?”

“You’re the boss.”

They swam over to the slide tube and took turns sliding into the mermaid swim pool, which was empty on a weekday.  They came back through the lock and then went into the practice pool so Fernando could lift them out.  Allen dried off and went back to his office, leaving Audra to the longer process of getting out of her tail.  He’d been working for about half an hour when Audra sent him a message asking him to come to her office.  When he went in, Audra had him pull his wheelchair under the small table she had in one corner.  On the table was a board with a number of thin straps attached to it.

“I had one of our machine shop guys make this board so that we could hold your hands still for the glue to dry.”  Said Audra.

“I guess you were pretty sure I would agree to this, then.”

“If you hadn’t, I probably would have tried it on myself.  Are you ready to get started?”

“Sure.”

“OK then, put your left hand right here on the board.”

Allen put his hand in the spot indicated.  His wrist was right over one of the straps, and Audra tightened it down, holding his hand in place.  There were also small straps for the tips of each of his fingers and his thumb, and Audra tightened them down as well, fixing Allen’s hand in place with his fingers spread.  Audra opened a box under her desk and pulled out a jar of the adhesive gel and a thin roll of flexible silicone.  She measured the spaces between Allen’s fingers and then cut out segments of the flexible silicone.  Then she used the adhesive gel to glue the segments to the sides of his fingers.  When she was finished, Audra asked Allen to put his left hand on the board, and she secured it in place and repeated the process of attaching the webbing to the fingers.  About halfway through, Allen’s nose began to itch uncontrollably.  He knew it was all psychological, but he had to ask Audra to scratch it.  She grinned and complied with his request, then went back to her gluing.  When she was done, Audra looked at the clock and stood up.

“I forgot about a meeting with the new head of security.  It shouldn’t take long, so I’ll be back to release your hands.  Don’t go anywhere.”

Although it was only Allen’s hands that were strapped down, he really couldn’t go anywhere.  He had locked the wheels on his wheelchair when he pulled up under the table, and without his hands he couldn’t unlock them or move the chair.  So Allen sat quietly for a time, wondering what Audra’s next idea would be.  Audra’s meeting took longer than 20 minutes, and Allen was considering whether or not he should yell for someone to come help him when she came back.

“Sorry about that.”  Audra said.  “Now let’s just free your hands.”

She undid the straps on his fingers and wrists, and Allen lifted his hands and flexed his fingers.  When he pressed his fingers together, the webbing folded up in between his fingers and he could hold a pencil almost normally, although he had to hold it with the tips of his fingers instead of in between them.  It didn’t seem like the webbing would interfere with most of his normal activities.  He wondered if it would make a difference when swimming.  Audra also inspected his hands carefully and seemed pleased with the results.  Since it was now almost lunch time, Allen went to the cafeteria and met his wife.  He showed her his new webbed fingers.

“What do you think?”  He asked.

Katherine looked carefully at his hands.  “I think Audra is really getting carried away.  Does that get in the way?”

Allen showed her by taking a few bites of his lunch, holding his fork almost normally.  He reached out with his left hand and took Katherine’s hand in his.  “I guess we can’t interlace our fingers, but we can still hold hands.”  He said.  Katherine seemed happy enough and gave him a kiss.  Then they finished their lunch and returned to work.

At 2:00, Allen got back in the water for his turn at feeding the fish.  He swam a few laps of the practice pool to see if the webbing helped.  It seemed like the webbed hands helped him maneuver and steer more than they helped with speed.  He used his legs and tail for that.  Allen finished out the week with his new tail and webbed hands.  When Friday and Saturday came around, the customers in the mermaid swim area seemed very impressed with his new tail.  Many of them commented on how realistic it looked.  When Allen’s last shift in the pool ended on Saturday afternoon, he rode his wheelchair back down to the room where Cammy had put his tail on at the beginning of the week.  Audra and Katherine were both there.  They had him lay on the table and then started painting the tops of his scales with solvent.  A vinegary smell filled the room as the solvent slowly dissolved the glue holding the scales in place.  It took several coats of solvent to remove the scales, and as they came loose, Audra or Katherine would wipe them off and then sort them into several bins depending on their size and color.  The work was slow, but at least Allen didn’t have to stay immobile.  They took a break for dinner and finally completed the tail removal at about 9:00 PM.

“I’m glad that’s finally done.”  Allen said when the fluke was finally pulled off of his feet.

“Yes, it is quite a time-consuming process.”  Said Audra.  Are you willing to go through it again next week?”

“Do you want me to?”

“Oh, definitely.  Our customers certainly noticed the change.  I got a lot of favorable comments.  In fact, I would love it if Katherine could join you.”
“Me?  You want me to trade in my legs for a tail for a whole week?”

“Well, you’ve seen how Allen gets along.  And remember, the rest of the mermaid living quarters opens up next week.  You wouldn’t have to get in a wheelchair at all if you didn’t want to.”

“What do you think, Allen?”

“I’ve invested months of my time into the mermaid living facility.  It would be interesting to try it out.  But I wouldn’t want to spend my nights there without you.”  Allen answered.

“All right, Audra, I guess I’d be willing to try it out.”

“Wonderful!  If I remember right, you have the 10:00 AM shift on Tuesday morning, Katherine.  So I will need you to be here about 2:30 in the morning so that Cammy can have you ready in time for your turn.  Allen, you can come in with your wife or show up at 6:00 AM.  Cammy figures that she can put on one of the new design tails in about 4-1/2 hours now that she’s done it once.  This way we can have Katherine ready for her shift and then you ready for yours at noon.”

“Wow!”  Said Katherine.  “Two-thirty in the morning is awful early.”

“Well, we can’t let the process take all day like it did for Allen this week.  We still need you to be able to cover your shifts.”

“I guess.”

Link to Chapters 26-50

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