The Mermaid Experience Chapters 26-50

Chapter 26 – Moving In

October 11

 

Allen and Katherine spent their days off considering what they wanted to bring with them on Tuesday morning.  There wasn’t a whole lot that they would need, other than some books to read and toiletry supplies.  They put everything into large reseal-able bags to protect it from the water.  When they arrived at the basement room very early Tuesday morning, Cammy was waiting for them and a second table had been set up.  Katherine got onto one table and Cammy got right to work on her tail.  Allen helped out with the slit in the front of the silicone material and the soft anal fin that hid the hole from view.  Once Cammy had the tube sealed around Katherine’s legs, she worked on Allen while waiting for Katherine’s glue to dry.  Then after he was set up she started putting the scales on Katherine’s tail.  Allen laid back on his table to wait.  He fell asleep until Cammy shook his shoulder.

“Wake up, sleepyhead.  It’s your turn now.”

Allen looked over at Katherine.  She was still strapped face down while the last of the scales on her back side dried.  Her hands were strapped to a board above her head so that webbing could be applied between the fingers.

“How did it go?”  Allen asked.

“Cammy says it went well.”  Katherine answered.  “I actually napped through some of it.  And we both got serenaded by some impressive snoring on your part.”

“Snoring?  I don’t snore!”

Katherine and Cammy both laughed at that, then Cammy continued working on Allen.  The process did go slightly faster than the week before, and Allen was ready by 11:30 AM.  He wheeled past Katherine’s office before going to the pool.

“How do you like the new tail?”

“Well, I hate how long it takes to put on, but it is very nice once you’re in the water and swimming with it.  I have to admit it looks better, as well.”

“What are you working on?”

“Well, Audra told me that the computers in the mermaid living area can access the work network, so I am moving all of the files that I might need to a network storage location.  Audra told me she wants to do a tour of the new mermaid living area at 3:00, and after that we can move in.”

“That sounds good.  Most of my files are already on the network, but I can move a few more before 3.  I’ll see you for lunch!”

Allen took his turn feeding the fish, then had a late lunch with Katherine.  They were both famished because they had gotten up and eaten breakfast very early that morning.  At 3:00, they joined the rest of the mermaids and Audra in the practice pool for the tour of the new mermaid living area.

“Allen, most of this is your design.  Would you like to do the honor of leading the tour?”  Audra asked.

“Certainly.”  Said Allen.  “Follow me ladies!”

Allen led the way into the greenhouse room, which they were all familiar with by now.  But instead of heading right to the mermaid swim pool, he turned left.  The barriers over this tube had been removed, and now Allen swam through it.  Although the tube was located high in the wall of the greenhouse pool, it curved up slightly as it entered the cafeteria pool.  This pool was much shallower than any of the others, with the water only about five feet deep.

“This is the cafeteria pool.”  Allen announced.  There were four large round tables lined up near the far side of the pool, each attached to the floor with a large center post.  The tops of the tables were about 6 inches above the surface of the water.  In the far wall of the pool above the water level was a sliding glass serving window.

“We can order food from the company cafeteria through the serving window.  They have special floating trays to put it on so that it will be easy to carry the food from the window to a table.”

Renna swam to one of the tables and sat on the bench that surrounded it.  It took her a moment to figure out the best way to maneuver her tail over the bench to allow her to sit comfortably.  The rest of the mermaids joined her at the table, finding that the five of them could easily fit.

“Planning for expansion, I suppose?”  Lacy said, indicating the other three tables.

“Those were Audra’s instructions.  As you will soon see, we have sleeping space for ten mermaids, and it wouldn’t be hard to add even more.”

Gulf Aquarium Cafeteria Pool

Cafeteria Pool

 

Once they had all had a chance to explore the cafeteria pool, Allen swam through another tube to the recreation and study pool.  The rest of the mermaids soon followed.

“We’re calling this the recreation and study pool, but I think it would be more accurate to say it is the living room.”  Explained Allen.  There were five tubes leading off from each side of the room, but dark curtains obscured what lay beyond the tubes.  On the opposite wall of the room there were eight smaller screens and one large screen embedded in the wall of the pool just above the water level.  Chairs were attached to the wall in front of each small screen, and a large, semicircular couch sat in front of the larger screen.

“The screens are touch-screen computers.”  Said Allen.  “You can use them to access the network and spend your work hours in here without ever having to leave the water.  The screens can also be used as televisions, or we can download movies to watch or play games.  The larger screen is the same, but it is there so that we can watch a movie as a group.  The tunnels to the sides lead to individual bedroom pools.  Shall we go look at one of them?”

“Let’s check out that one.”  Said Audra, pointing to the tube entrance in the far left corner.

So they all swam over to the tube indicated.  Allen pulled aside the curtain and they all swam through.  They entered a pool which would be rather large for a bedroom – 12 feet wide and 26 feet long.  There was a railing around the entire room right at the water level, and in one corner, a large air mattress had been lashed to the railing on two sides.  Allen seemed surprised and looked at Audra.

“Do you like it?”  Audra asked.  “I had the construction crew combine two of the rooms to make a double for you and Katherine.”

“Thank you.  It looks great.”

There were cabinets built into the walls all around the perimeter of the room, just above the water level.  Lacy and Renna swam over and looked into the cabinets, while Allen pulled himself up onto the air mattress.

“Is it comfortable?”  Katherine asked.

“Come hop on and see.”

So Katherine joined Allen on the mattress.

“It does seem very comfortable.”  She said, laying an arm over Allen’s chest and giving him a kiss.

“Hey, that can wait until the rest of us leave!”  Said Renna.

Allen grinned and he and Katherine slipped off the mattress.  They all swam back out into the main room and started investigating the touch screens.  It took Allen a few moments to navigate to the network and confirm that all of his files were accessible from here.  He checked out the TV icon and found a basic selection of local TV channels.

“I’ve set up a basic television connection.”  Audra said.  “If you want more than that, it would need to be paid for with your personal funds.  You can all get together and decide what you want—whether a more extensive package of cable TV channels or streaming service like Netflix.”

Gulf Aquarium Recreation and Sleeping Pools

Recreation and study pool with sleeping areas

 

It was almost 4:00, so Katherine swam back to take her turn feeding the fish.  The rest of the mermaids explored for a few more minutes before gradually trickling back to the practice pool to be lifted out by Fernando.  Allen followed, but he asked Fernando to lower the bags of personal supplies they had brought with them.  While Katherine worked, he organized their possessions in the cabinets in their room, then went to one of the computers and worked until 5:00.  One of the things he did was start a list of extra things they would like for the living area.  He added a few waterproof keyboards to the list.  The touch screen was convenient, but way too slow and cumbersome if you were trying to write a document or an e-mail.  Once Katherine was done, they swam to the cafeteria pool and ordered their dinner.  They had just started to eat when Audra swam back in.

“May I join you?”  She asked.

“Of course.”

“If you two don’t mind, I thought I would stay overnight tonight as well.  I’m very excited about our new facility, and I want to get first-hand experience with it.”

“Well, it is your money that is paying for it.”

“How do you like it so far?”

“It’s a bit overwhelming.”  Said Katherine.  “You really are planning for people to live here full-time, aren’t you?  Your end goal is to actually transform people into mermaids.”

“Yes, and I plan to be one of the first.  The technology doesn’t yet exist to make a fully biological mermaid, but your new tails are one way to get close.”

“I’ve been wondering.”  Allen said.

“Wondering about what?”

“Well, there are some details to wrap up, but the mermaid living area will be complete soon.  Will I still have a job after that?”

“Oh, I have lots more things for you to do.  We still need to complete the dolphin arena, and then there is one more thing lacking for the complete mermaid experience.”

“What’s that?”

“We need to figure out how to let our mermaids breathe water.  I’ve been doing some investigating, and I paid some consultants for some preliminary designs, but I need you to help develop something practical.  I’ll send the files over tomorrow and you can start looking at it.”

“That sounds like an interesting problem.  I’ll enjoy working on it.”

“Good.  Now, enough talk about work.  Shall we find a movie to watch tonight?”

Allen and Katherine agreed, and the three of them adjourned to the recreation pool.  Audra used her Netflix account and they searched through several movies until they found one that appealed to all three of them.  Then they sat on the couch and watched the movie together, though Allen and Katherine paid more attention to each other than they did to the movie.  When they were done, they split up and did their own individual activities until bedtime.  Allen logged into his Steam account and downloaded a game to one of the computers.  Katherine got out one of the books she had brought with her.  When it got late, they said good night to Audra and went to bed.  Being newlyweds, Allen and Katherine were both eager to try out the new bed.  They found that they had to make a few adjustments to accommodate the tails, but they were young and resourceful, and they enjoyed the challenge.  When they settled down to try and sleep, Allen had difficulty relaxing.  The room was warm and humid, so sheets and blankets were not needed, but Allen was used to having some kind of covers.  Eventually though, Allen was able to relax and go to sleep.

Mornings were certainly easier in the mermaid living quarters.  Allen and Katherine woke up a little later than they had in their apartment, and Katherine put on a new swimsuit top and combed her hair.  Allen went bare chested, but his hair needed a little combing as well.  It was starting to get a little long.  Perhaps he would get it cut on his days off.  There was a mirror on the inside of one of the cabinet doors, and he used that while shaving.  It was a little tricky to shave in a pool when you couldn’t stand on the bottom, but Allen found he could shave with one hand while holding onto the railing with the other.  Then they both used the potty pool and met Audra in the cafeteria.  Allen ordered an omelet for breakfast – much better than his usual bowl of cereal.  The three of them chatted over breakfast, and then Audra swam out to the practice pool to get out of the water and change.  Allen and Katherine went back to the recreation pool and logged in to separate computers.  By the time Allen had finished answering his e-mails, he got a new message from Audra with the information on the water breathing apparatus.

Apparently a lot of work had already been done on this problem.  Fish used gills and absorbed oxygen directly from the water, but since they were cold blooded their oxygen needs were low.  And gills required a large surface area in contact with the water, with water in constant motion across them.  Given the oxygen needs of a human, gills did not seem like a viable solution.  So some people had been investigating electrolysis.  Since water was made of oxygen and hydrogen, oxygen could be obtained by splitting the water molecules into their component parts.  All it took was an electric current and two electrodes.  Audra had hired some consultants to investigate this process and to try and minimize the size of the apparatus needed to make it happen.  It took Allen the rest of the day to read through the consultant’s reports and understand the many problems they had encountered while trying to package an electrolysis device.  The problems were numerous and the solution had not been found.  Oxygen can become toxic at high pressures underwater, so an electrolysis device that created pure oxygen might not be the best solution.  The hydrogen could simply be released into the water, but it might be necessary to introduce nitrogen or some other gas to maintain the proper oxygen pressure.  In addition, the energy required for electrolysis was high enough that the batteries required would not be easy to fit into a small package.  The problem looked like a difficult one.

As the week progressed, Allen researched other possibilities.  One promising lead was a material developed in Denmark.  Researchers had developed an organic crystal that rapidly absorbed oxygen from water.  Heating the material released the oxygen, and the cycle could be repeated.  Allen sent some requests to the researchers to find out more about the material and to see if samples could be obtained.  He also investigated various carbon dioxide scrubbing materials, as removing the carbon dioxide would be just as important as adding oxygen.

On Friday the weather was cool, and those who were out in the mermaid swim pool felt really chilled.  They spent most of their time in the water.  The event was still very popular, so the number of customers was still the maximum of 50 for each session, but many of them left early when they got too cold.  Saturday was a little warmer, but still cool, so Allen put his swimsuit on over his tail.  Many of the customers asked about it, but when he explained that even mermen needed to keep warm, they were understanding.  Katherine and Lacy chose their swimsuit tops with the most coverage, but both of them wished for something warmer.  They spoke to Audra that afternoon and asked if they could get something more appropriate for cool days.  Audra was very understanding and told Maria to order short sleeved wetsuit tops for all of the merfolk.

That afternoon after the last fish feeding, Allen and Katherine swam to the practice pool so that Fernando could lift them out.  When they got there, Audra was waiting at the edge of the pool.

“We have a problem.”  She said.

“What kind of problem?”  Allen asked.

“Cammy called me an hour ago.  She is feeling very sick and won’t be able to come remove your tails today.  How would you feel about keeping your tails on this weekend?  Of course, you can stay here if you want.”

“Well, I suppose we didn’t have any specific plans for our days off.”  Katherine said.

“I was hoping to get a haircut.”  Allen said.  “But I suppose I could use a wheelchair.”

“Oh, you can’t get your hair cut anyway.”  Audra said.  “Didn’t you read the requirement for all merfolk to keep their hair at least shoulder length?”

“Yes, but I thought that only applied to female mermaids.”

“No, I intended it to apply to mermen as well.  Haven’t you seen all the mermen shown in movies and stories?  They always have long flowing hair, though not usually as long as the mermaids.”

“Okay.  I guess I didn’t have any plans for the weekend after all.  I suppose we can stay here for another week.”

“Thanks.  I guess I need to find someone to be a backup for Cammy, but this will save us for now.”

“Audra, there is one other issue I want to talk about.”  Katherine said.

“What’s that?”

“Look at my skin.  It’s getting red and sore in spots.  I’m not sure what all this constant immersion is going to do to it.”

“I’ve actually been thinking about that, and I might have a solution in a day or two.”

“I guess I’ll use some lotion in the meantime.”

The next two days went quietly for Allen and Katherine.  They didn’t have their usual weekend chores, like shopping or cleaning their apartment, to occupy their time, so they were able to relax and read or watch TV or play on the computer.  They also didn’t have too many clothes to worry about, but their swimsuits and nightgowns needed to be washed, so they asked Lacy if she was willing to take them home and run them through her washing machine for them.  She agreed, but Allen made a note that some kind of laundry facility was needed.  He also decided that food preparation and storage would be needed.  It was convenient to have all their meals provided by the cafeteria, but it could become more expensive than cooking their own food.  Allen and Katherine both enjoyed cooking at least some of their own meals as well.

They began their normal work schedule again on Tuesday, and Allen continued his investigations into the absorbent materials.  One of the researchers contacted him and they began a correspondence.  With this first-hand knowledge, Allen learned about a lot of testing that had been done by the Danish researchers, and was even given instructions on how to make the material himself.  Allen also contacted the consultants that Audra had used and arranged for their help investigating this new possibility.  The rest of Allen’s time was taken up by plans to incorporate new additions into the mermaid living area.  Audra was very pleased with his list.

“That was one of the reasons I wanted you and Katherine to spend time in the facility.”  She said.  “I figured that with actual use we would find things that needed to be added or changed.”

On Thursday, Audra asked them to come to the practice pool.  When they got there, Audra was standing at the side, dressed formally in a long skirt and blouse.

“I have a meeting today so I couldn’t come join you.”  She said.  “But I wanted to give you something to try out.”

She held up a squirt bottle from the lab with a label on it that said “Experimental.”

“This is what I hope will be the solution to protecting our skin from the constant immersion in salt water.  The solution contains Corynebacterium, a species of beneficial bacteria normally found on our skin, but these have been modified with a few genes from the slime found on discus fish.  My testing shows that spreading this on your skin should help to protect it from the drying effects of the salt water.”

“That sounds promising.”  Katherine said.  “How often do we need to apply it?”

“Just once, I hope.”  Answered Audra.  “once the modified corynebacteria become established, they should naturally reproduce themselves just like the ones already on your skin do.”

“Let’s try it out then.”

Audra lifted Katherine up in the sling and handed her the bottle, and then they took it back to their room and applied it liberally over their bodies.  By the next day, Katherine noticed that the red spots had disappeared, and her hair and skin didn’t seem to dry out like before.  She also noticed an extra shine and slight slipperiness to their skin.

Their second week of living full time as mermaids came to a close on Saturday.  Allen and Katherine were lifted out of the pool at the end of the day and taken down to the changing room, where Cammy applied the solvent and removed their tails.  Katherine inspected her own and Allen’s legs carefully to see if two weeks with the special adhesive did any damage.  She found healthy pink skin with nothing unusual other than the loss of hair.  They went back to their empty apartment late at night and fell into bed.  There were a few errands to run over the next two days, and the young couple took advantage of the opportunity to get out and spend some time in a park.  They also contacted Beth, Allen’s physical therapist, and got the contact information of the woman who made Allen’s swimsuit.  They called her up and arranged for some measurements so she could make a couple of longer suits for Katherine as well as a couple more for Allen.  They asked her to have them delivered to the aquarium when they were ready.  By the end of the day on Sunday, however, both of them had very dry skin that was starting to crack in places.  Allen’s fingers got cracks so deep they were bleeding.  They called Audra up on the phone and told her what was happening.

“Hmm, that wasn’t something I was expecting.”  Audra said.  “I wonder if the corynebacteria need water to create their protective coating.  Have you tried soaking in the tub?”

“No, we’ve just been taking showers.”  Allen answered.

“Try spending an hour or so in the tub and see if it helps.  I’ll take some samples when you come to work on Tuesday and see what’s going on.”

“OK.”

As soon as he got off the phone, Allen got undressed and climbed into the bathtub.  He relaxed in the warm water for an hour, and when he got out he noticed an immediate improvement.  The slippery feeling had returned to his skin and it no longer felt dry and sore.  Seeing the improvement, Katherine also got into the tub and soon she was feeling better as well.   When they woke up on Monday morning, their skin was starting to feel slightly dry again, so they both got into the tub, which resulted in some newlywed antics as well as moisturizing their skin.

That afternoon they got a call from Audra.

“Are the baths helping?”  She asked.

“Yes.  They work like a charm.”  Said Katherine.

“I did some testing here in the lab, and when the corynebacteria are in a dry environment they absorb any water they can find in order to keep making their protective slime.  So on your bodies they must be pulling water out of the skin.”

“What can we do about it?”

“I think you have two options – you can just take a bath every 8 to 10 hours, or use a strong antibacterial soap to wash your skin and clean all the bacteria off.”

“Wouldn’t that kill off all the other beneficial bacteria?”

“Yes, but they will re-establish themselves over a few days.”

“Well, since we’re just going to be going back into the water tomorrow, I think we’ll stick to the baths.”

“That reminds me.  Would you be willing to spend another two-week stint in the mermaid facility?”  Audra asked.

“I suppose so.”  Katherine answered.  “Is Cammy taking time off or something?”

“No, but the tail-making process is so time-consuming that I want to minimize how often we do it.”

Allen heard the conversation from across the room.  “Just as long as I am free on November 9.  I don’t want to miss that doctor appointment.”

Katherine relayed Allen’s statement to Audra.

“Of course.  I guess you can both go back to the regular tails that second week of November.  Some of the other mermaids can use the new tails that week.  Maria is already joining you for this week.”

 

Chapter 27 –More Bad News

October 25

 

When Allen and Katherine swam into the recreation pool with their bags of supplies for the next two weeks, they found Maria already there.

“How do you like my new tail?”  She asked.

Both of them swam around her, looking at her new tail.

“It looks great.”  Allen said.  “When did you get it put on?”

“Cammy did it on Sunday, while you were off.  I’m going to be staying here the next two weeks, trying out the living facility with you.”

“That’s great!  Welcome to our watery home away from home.”

The three of them settled in.  Allen noticed that a few changes had been made while he and Katherine were out.  There were now name plaques on five of the sleeping pools.  Theirs said “Mermaid Katherine and Merman Allen,” and each of the other mermaids were represented, including Audra.  Waterproof keyboards had also been installed under each of the screens in the recreation pool.  As the weeks progressed, more of the updates requested by Allen were added to the mermaid living quarters.  A refrigerator, cabinets, and a microwave were installed in the wall of the cafeteria pool above the water level, followed by a wall oven, a cooktop, and a fresh water sink.  That wall of the pool became the kitchen, and a bench was installed just below water level so that the mermaids could sit while preparing food.  Allen asked them to install railings and grab bars in the area as well, to give them a variety of options for holding on while moving around with the food.  Allen found a local grocery store that would deliver food, so he and Katherine ordered some groceries and started doing some of their own cooking.  Maria joined in and soon they were enjoying some delicious Mexican food as well as their own specialties.

The last weekend in October was the last mermaid swim event of the year, as it would be getting too cool for comfort in the outdoor area.  That pool was still open to the mermaids, however, and they would visit it on warmer, sunny days.  Their new swimming suits arrived and both Allen and his wife wore them around the living area.  Even though the water and the air in the mermaid areas was warm enough that a covering was not needed, they both felt more comfortable with a bit more coverage on top.  Maria thought it was a good idea as well, so they gave her the contact information of the seamstress.  Audra joined them in the pool several times during the two weeks, spending the night on a couple of occasions.  On Friday of their second week, Renna got her new tail and joined the overnight group.  Lacy followed on Saturday, so for that day all five merpeople were together with their new tails.  Audra took advantage of the moment and had them all go out to the mermaid swim pool and pose on the central rock for updated publicity photos.

That evening, Cammy removed Allen and Katherine’s tails.  Katherine felt strange with her legs separated, and her first few steps were a little wobbly.  They returned to their apartment, which felt cold and empty.  They spent their days off doing laundry and shopping for groceries to re-stock their apartment fridge.  When they went back to work on Tuesday, they slipped into their old tails.  Rather than take them on and off, however, they spent the whole day in the mermaid quarters, using the wall screens to do their office work.

On Wednesday, the day finally came for Allen’s appointment with the insurance doctor.  He asked Maria to cover his feeding shift, and Renna agreed to take him to the appointment on her day off.  She picked him up at his apartment and they drove to the address Allen had been given.  The street where the office was located looked run-down, with liquor stores, boarded-up buildings, and trash strewn along the road.  The GPS on Allen’s phone led them to a shabby building on a corner.  There were bars on the windows, but the door had lettering on it:

Dr. Anand Chopra, M.D.

They got out and went in.  Renna held the door open so that Allen could pass through on his crutches.  Allen gave his name to the receptionist and filled out the obligatory pile of medical history forms.  Several other people waited in the hard plastic chairs, reading two-year-old copies of Time magazine.  A few of them looked strangely at Allen’s skirt, but most of the people looked away or down at their phones.  Finally, about 45 minutes after his appointment was supposed to start, Allen was called back to see the doctor.  A harried looking man with Indian features came into the examining room.

“Mr. Landry?”

“Yes, that’s me.”

“I’m Dr. Chopra.  Nice to meet you.”

“It’s nice to finally meet you as well.”

“What seems to be the problem today?”

“Well, I’m here for an insurance release.  My legs are grown together and I can’t walk, but the insurance company doesn’t want to pay for an operation to separate them.”

“I see.  That is quite unusual.  What caused your legs to grow together?”

“I was in a fire and they were badly burned.  We were rescued by a drug smuggler and my friend covered my legs with healgel and then wrapped them together with bandages.  There weren’t enough bandages to wrap the legs individually.  By the time we escaped, the skin had grown together.”

“Well, that’s quite a story.  Would you mind taking off your skirt so I can see your legs?”

“Okay.”

Allen took off his shoes and socks, then slid his skirt off.

“Thank you.”  Said the doctor.  “May I ask if you commonly wore skirts before your accident?”

“No, the skirts were my wife’s idea.  Pants won’t work with my legs like this.”

“I see.  And the girdle?”

“Also the only thing that fits.  And it smooths out any bumps from my male parts.”

“Would you mind taking it off?  I need to see the entire affected area.”

Allen pulled the girdle down, and the doctor examined his legs carefully.  He had Allen stand up and turn around so he could see all sides, then he pressed his fingers firmly into the skin between his legs.

“Does that hurt?”  He asked.

“No.”

“And you have to use crutches to walk?”

“Yes.”

“Does it impact your work?”

“Well, no.  I wear a mermaid tail at work, and I can swim just fine.”

“A mermaid tail?”

“Yes.  I work for the Gulf Aquarium as an engineer and a diver, and we use mermaid tails to help attract customers.”

“How many other people work with you?”

“There are five of us.”

“And how many of the others are men?”

“None.  I’m currently the only male mermaid– or merman I should say.”

“That’s very interesting.  All right, I’m done here.  You can put your clothes back on.”

“So will you write the request for me to get the operation?”

“I’ll be sending a report to the insurance company in a day or two.  I just have to look up their policies and make sure I format everything properly.”

“Good.  Thank you.”

A nurse showed Allen back out to the lobby and he and Renna left.

“Did he write the request you needed?”  Renna asked.

“He said he would send it to the insurance company.  He had to look up their policies.”

“Well, if you don’t hear from them in a day or two, I would call and complain.”

“Oh, I will.  I can’t believe they’re even making me go through this.”

“It’s a typical knee-jerk bureaucratic response.  You don’t fit into any of their existing little boxes, so they send you on a wild goose chase.”

Renna dropped Allen back off at his apartment.  Most of the day had been used up by the doctor visit, so it didn’t make sense to go in to work.  Katherine came home an hour or so later.

“How did it go?”  She asked.

“Well, he gave me a good looking over, and then said he would send a report in a day or two.”

Allen and Katherine got up very early Thursday morning and Cammy put their new tails back on.  Audra was now asking all of the mermaids to wear the new tails whenever possible, and to keep the tails on for at least two weeks each time.  Since Allen and Katherine were starting in the middle of a week, it would be two weeks and three days with the new tails this time.  On Friday, Audra announced that she had made arrangements with a local laundry to pick up and wash clothes two days a week.  Each mermaid received a laundry bag with his or her name on it, and they could fill it with clothes to be laundered on Tuesdays and Fridays.  The cost was reasonable and could be taken out of their paychecks.  Saturday around noon, Audra showed up in the living area, with one of the new tails.

“I don’t have any customer meetings for the next couple of weeks, so I thought I would see what it was like to spend two weeks in here.”  She told them.

Allen also received a letter in the mail from the insurance company.  “Coverage Denied.”  It said.  The reason stated was that the patient was in good health and the procedure requested was not medically necessary.  Doctor Chopra’s report was attached.

 

Patient presented with legs fused together.  Patient walks using crutches, but stated that he spends the majority of his time swimming and the fused legs do not impair his swimming.  Firm muscle tone and good strength noted in the legs.  The skin is healthy and blood circulation appears to be adequate.  In this doctor’s opinion, the operation to separate the legs would be high risk and very expensive.  Chances of complications would be high.  Given the apparent good health of the patient, I would not recommend proceeding.

Note:  Patient presented wearing women’s clothing, to include undergarments.  Although he stated this was a practical matter because of the legs, all hair had been removed from the legs, and the patient referred to himself as a “mermaid.”  I recommend the patient be examined by a psychologist to check for gender dysphoria.

 

“What!”  Yelled Allen after reading the report.  He handed it across the cafeteria table to Katherine.  She read it as well.

“Gender dysphoria?”  She said.  “That’s funny.”

“I think that doctor’s only purpose is to save the insurance company money.”

“He does state that he thinks the operation would be very expensive.  Would it really be as dangerous as he says?”

“I don’t know.  Doctor Hansen didn’t say it would be dangerous, but we hadn’t talked about it much.”

“Let’s call her and ask.”

They swam back to their room and got Allen’s phone out of the cabinet.  Katherine looked up her number on the computer in the rec room and Allen dialed.

“Dr. Hansen’s office, how may I help you?”  Answered a receptionist.

“This is Allen Landry, a patient of Doctor Hansen.  Would it be possible to speak to the doctor directly for a few minutes?”

“Let me check her schedule.  Please hold for a moment.”

After a minute or two of hold music, the receptionist came back on the line.

“The doctor is doing her rounds right now, but she could talk to you for a few minutes when she is done.  Can she call you back at this number?”

“Yes, that will be fine.”

Allen put his phone in a baggie and swam to one of the computers to work while he waited for the return call.  It wasn’t very long before it came.

“Hello?”

“Hello, Allen.  This is Dr. Hansen.”

“Hi Doctor.  Thanks for calling me back.”

“I’m happy to do so.  So why are you calling?  Did you get the answer from your insurance company?”

“I did.  I went to their doctor, a Dr. Chopra, and he recommended they don’t pay for the operation.  He said it would be dangerous and expensive.  Would it really be that dangerous?”

“Well any major surgery has an element of danger.  The main danger with this particular surgery is that it is not something any of us here have done before.  The only precedent is the rare birth defect called Sirenomelia, and most children born with that defect have other serious problems and seldom live more than a few days.  I think three or four have survived long enough to have their legs surgically separated and the operations were difficult and did not always have good results.  I’m sure those cases would be the kind of thing Dr. Chopra might cite as reasons not to have the surgery.  But the truth is, your case is quite different from those.  All of your internal organs are intact and functioning properly, and your leg bones are strong.  I think the surgery in your case would be much more successful.  But it would be long, difficult, and expensive.  We might have to do the surgery in stages to help stretch the skin out before we can separate your legs.  And you would be hospitalized for a long time with major wounds to heal all along your legs, so there would be a chance of complications and infections.”

“You’re not making this any easier.”

“Well, I don’t want to give you any false impressions.  The surgery would be long and complicated, and the recovery will be difficult.  But you have recovered extremely well from your burns, and I am confident that we could be successful and that you would be happy with the eventual result.”

“I think the most difficult part will be figuring out how to pay for it.”

“I’ve heard of Dr. Chopra before, and I’m not surprised at his recommendation.  I’m pretty sure he’s in the pocket of the insurance companies.  If it would help, I would be willing to donate my services.  Unfortunately my salary is only a small part of the expense.  I would estimate that by the time the hospital is done adding everything up, the cost will be anywhere from $200,000 to $400,000.”

“No wonder the insurance company doesn’t want to pay.”

“Do you have any other questions for me?”

“No, I guess not.”

“Then I need to go.  I have a patient waiting for me.  I hope you can get this all worked out somehow.”

“Thank you.”

Allen carried his phone back into their room and put it in the cabinet, then he lay on their bed, pondering what to do next.  After a few minutes, Katherine joined him.

“I take it the call from Dr. Hansen didn’t go well?”  She asked.

“She says she is confident that the operation would be successful, and it is as safe as any other major operation.  But it would be long, complicated, and expensive.  She didn’t say it, but I imagine it would be painful as well.  How can we afford $200,000 or more for an operation?”

“We can’t.  Since your insurance company isn’t helping, maybe it’s time to drop the COBRA payments and switch to the Burns Pharma insurance plan.  It would save money on our monthly bills, and maybe we can convince that insurance company to pay for the operation.”

“That sounds like a good idea.  I’ll make the change this afternoon.  I’m well past the 90 day probation period, so I should be able to switch without a problem.”

Allen tried to forget about operations and insurance over the next few days.  He decided he would give it a rest for a while before trying again with the new insurance company.  He and Katherine tried to enjoy their days off.  Lacy had brought a few board games and she was eager to introduce the other mermaids to them.  So in the evenings, Allen and Katherine joined her and whoever else was interested in playing the games.  They found that they really enjoyed them, though they had to be careful not to drop any of the cardboard tokens into the water.  After losing one or two tokens, Lacy put her games away until after she had a chance to take them out and get everything laminated.

Chapter 28 – Dolphin Training

November 15

 

On Tuesday, Audra called everyone in to the practice pool.  When they got there, they saw a woman sitting on the side of the pool wearing a wetsuit and a monofin.  She had dark skin and her hair was done up in a long braid down her back.

“I’d like to introduce you all to Daphne, who has just been hired as our dolphin trainer.  She was previously head trainer at Sea World, but has agreed to come here and try our new training method.  She’ll be getting a dolphin-themed tail in a couple of weeks, and I will need you all to help her learn the ropes.”

“Does this mean the dolphin arena is finished?”  Allen asked.

“The pool and connecting tubes are done, but they are still working on the stadium.  But with the pool complete we can start the training.”

“And just what is this new style of training you mentioned?”

“I’ll let Daphne answer that one.  Why don’t you join us in the pool, Daphne?”

Daphne indicated her agreement by pushing off the edge of the pool and diving in.  She swam over to the group of mermaids, struggling a little to get used to the monofin.

“Now that you’re a little closer, why doesn’t everyone introduce themselves first, and tell Daphne what you each do aside from being a mermaid.”

They formed into a rough circle and went around, telling the new girl what they did when not feeding the fish.  They ended with Lacy, who told Daphne she was the Aquarium Marketing Specialist.

“Thank you for welcoming me.”  Daphne started.  “I came here because Audra has a fascinating idea about training dolphins.  As you know, there have been quite a few protests lately from people who claim places like Sea World are abusing their animals by holding them captive in relatively small pools.  Audra’s plan is to use wild dolphins for our show.”

“How can that work?”  Renna asked.  “You mean we won’t train them?”

“No, we’ll train them.  What I mean is we will work with the wild dolphins that live in Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.  I think Allen is aware, but the rest of you may not know that the pool in the dolphin arena has a channel that connects it directly to the bay.  We plan to use food to encourage dolphins to enter that channel, and if we can get a consistent group of dolphins to come up the channel into the arena, we will start to train them in the traditional manner, with lots of love and lots of treats.”

“Won’t it be hard to have regularly scheduled shows?  What if the dolphins don’t show up?”

“That is the chance we are willing to take.  We might need to develop an alternative show for times when the dolphins don’t cooperate.”

“That sounds like a really ambitious idea.  Do you think it will work?”

“I’m counting on it.  We may need to try different techniques until we find out what works.  That is why we are starting now.  We hope to maybe start having shows in the summer, but that will all depend on the dolphins.”

They talked for a few minutes longer, getting to know Daphne a bit, before Allen had to leave and feed the fish.  Daphne wanted to watch, so she swam to the edge of the aquarium to watch while Allen did his thing.  She watched him for a few minutes, then left with Katherine, who showed her around the mermaid living area.  When Allen finished, he found all the mermaids back in the rec room and asked Audra if they could see the dolphin arena.

“I think so.”  Audra answered.  “Let me call and make sure the construction crew has removed the barrier in front of the access tube.”

Audra made her phone call, and the answer was yes.  “You might want to put your warm tops on.”  She told the mermaids.  “It is pretty cool outside today.”

They all swam back to their rooms and put on their wetsuit tops, except for Allen, who was already wearing his swimsuit.  Then Audra led them through the greenhouse and down the slide into the mermaid swim pool.  The weather was cool, but sunny, so it didn’t feel too bad to be outside.  They followed Audra across the pool to the new access tube.  This tube was the longest in the whole complex, and when they reached the end they found they were in a large round pool with transparent sides.  A set of concrete bleachers was being built around the pool, with an opening in one end for customers to enter.  A second tube left the side of the pool, but this one was not enclosed like all the others.  Rather it was a “U” shaped trough with an open top.

“If you swim out that, you’ll soon find yourself in Galveston Bay.”  Said Audra.  “We won’t go that far on our tour today, but in the future Daphne and some of the rest of you might be going out there to meet the dolphins with food and show them the way back to the arena.”

“Our plan is to have a boat out in the bay that drops fish in front of the dolphins and leads them back here to the entrance to the channel into the arena.”  Chimed in Daphne.  “We may need to go out to the entrance with buckets of fish to lead them through the channel to the arena.”

Allen could tell that the arena was connected to the bay, because a few fish swam around in the pool, darting down to the bottom whenever one of the mermaids approached, and then rushing to the channel and out when the mermaids moved away from it.  There was a circular platform in the middle of the pool, and it had a pole with an arm and a swing near the center.  At the top of the pole was an 8-sided video screen similar to those seen in sports arenas.  Next to the pole was a large fake rocky hill that hid the control room and storage area for the presenters.

“What’s the swing for?”  He asked.

“Well, most of these kind of shows have the trainer standing next to the water.  Since Daphne will be a mermaid, she will need somewhere she can sit above the water and make her presentation.  There will be a control room under the hill where an aquarium employee can rotate the pole and raise or lower the swing, along with managing lights, audio-visual presentations, and such.”

 

Gulf Aquarium Dolphin Arena (1)

Dolphin Arena

As they swam back to the mermaid swim pool, Allen noticed an open gate at the end.  “Is this to keep customers out of the tunnel?”  He asked Audra.

“Yes.  We’ll have a keypad with the same code we use for the lock entrance.  We wouldn’t want a customer wandering out into the arena during a show.”

They returned to the warmth of the living quarters and went back to their normal daily tasks, with the mermaids taking turns helping Daphne learn to swim better with her monofin and hold her breath.

The next week was Thanksgiving, which Audra expected to be a very busy time at the aquarium.  Because nearly everyone wanted to have a holiday, Audra picked a random name out of a hat.  Lacy was chosen, so she got to take the week off and go visit her family.  The rest of the mermaids were needed to help out at the aquarium.  Janice wanted to come and visit Allen and Katherine, so they arranged to have her take a taxi from the airport on Monday.  The young couple met her at the aquarium entrance in wheelchairs.  They paid the taxi driver and then rolled out to Allen’s car.  By this time, Allen and Katherine were both pretty adept at hauling themselves out of the wheelchairs and into the car seat, but Janice had to figure out how to fold the wheelchairs and put them in the trunk.  They drove to their apartment and reversed the process.

“This seems like a lot of work.”  Janice said.  “Is it really worth it to be stuck in those tails all the time?”

“Well, we don’t spend much time on land, and in the water the tails really help.”  Katherine told her.  “I think it is still an experiment for Allen and me.  Right now it’s a fun job and a different experience.  If it gets old after a few months, we can always find something else.”

“I guess that’s one way to look at it.  Can I come visit your mermaid living area?”

“I don’t know.  So far, only the mermaids and a few aquarium workers have been allowed in.  We’ll have to ask Audra.  You realize there’s no place to stand in our area.  If you came to visit, you would have to be swimming.”

“That’s OK.  It might be fun.”

“We’ll ask Audra tomorrow then.”

The next day they woke up early and Janice drove them back to the aquarium.  For Thanksgiving week, Audra was having the mermaids come out into the aquarium galleries to hand out goodies again.  This time it was small plush lionfish dolls, since turkey fish is another name for the zebra lionfish.  They also had coloring books for kids who didn’t want the stuffed animals.  With the extra tasks added to the day, they were both pretty busy, but Katherine did find a moment to meet with Audra and ask if her mother could visit them in the mermaid quarters.

“I guess since you are living here nearly all the time, we ought to set up some kind of a visitor policy.”  Audra said.  “I think to start it will be this—one visitor per mermaid is allowed during non-work hours.  But they need to leave by 10:00 P.M., and they will have to arrange with Fernando or Jonas to get them out when they go.  Does that sound reasonable?”

“Yes, it does.”

“Good.  I’ll pass the word on to the others when I see them.”

So Allen and Katherine went back to their apartment on Tuesday night, but on Wednesday evening, Janice brought her swimming suit and met them at the entrance guard post.  She signed in and followed them to the practice pool, where Fernando lowered the three of them into the water.  Katherine gave her mom a tour of the facility, although she left out the mermaid swim pool.  Her mom had been there before, and it was a cold, rainy night.  Katherine also introduced her mom to all of the mermaids except Lacy, who wasn’t there.  After the tour, they all sat around one of the cafeteria tables and talked.  Audra and Renna came and sat with them for a time, and Janice got to know her daughter’s friends a bit.  Before long it was 10:00 and they had to take Janice back out to the practice pool so that Fernando could lift them out.

“Thanks for coming in on the day before Thanksgiving.”  Allen told him.

“That’s OK.”  He replied.  “Anna and her mother are cooking and they would have kicked me out of the house anyway.”

Thanksgiving day the aquarium was closed, so Allen and Katherine stayed in their apartment with Janice and cooked a celebratory dinner for the three of them.  Friday and Saturday were busy once again asholiday travelers and their families came to the aquarium.  On Sunday, Allen had agreed to take Lacy’s place, so Katherine spent the morning with her mom and then rode back to the aquarium parking lot where a taxi was waiting to take Janice back to the airport.

At the end of the next week, Daphne got her first mermaid tail.  One of the sleeping pools in the living area was already set aside for her, but she started with one of the one-piece tails and she hadn’t stayed overnight yet.  She needed to be able to take the tail off and go out on the boat in the bay as it worked to lead the dolphins to the arena entrance.  Audra spent a week without a tail so that she could have some meetings and travel to visit suppliers, but as soon as she was able, she was back in with the other mermaids, doing business with a computer screen and phone in the rec pool.  Maria came back from one of her weekends off and declared that she had put her possessions in storage and cleaned out her apartment.

“It makes no sense to pay rent on an empty apartment.”  She said.  “I have everything I need here now.”

The other mermaids thought hard about Maria’s decision, but weren’t quite ready to completely abandon the land.  Allen and Katherine wanted to make sure there was still a place for Katherine’s Mom to come and visit.

Chapter 29 – Breathing

December 6

When Allen checked his e-mail on December 6, he found a message from the consultant who had been investigating the absorbent materials.

The e-mail said that they had developed a prototype device and would like to demonstrate it.  Allen excitedly told Audra and they arranged for the consultant to come on the 8th.  When the man arrived that Thursday morning, all of the mermaids except for Maria were in the practice pool waiting to see the demonstration.

Allen was sitting in a wheelchair at the edge of the pool when Fernando escorted a man into the room.

“You must be Grant Hightower.”  Allen said, reaching out for a handshake.

“And you must be Allen.  It’s nice to meet you at last.”

“It’s nice to meet you as well.  Thank you for being willing to come.”

“I’m almost as excited as you are.  We’ve done some testing in our lab, but we’re very interested to see if our device works under field conditions.  Are you ready to try it out?”

“You bet.  Do you have it here?”

Grant held up the hard-sided equipment case he was carrying.  “It’s right here.”  He said, then opened the case and pulled out what was inside.  It was a plastic box about 1 inch by three inches by two inches, with a set of clear tubes coming out of it and entering a clear flexible face mask.  Grant placed the mask over Allen’s nose and mouth and adjusted the elastic strap that held it in place, then pressed a sealed button on the box.

“Just breathe normally.”  He said.  “Then maybe you can get in the water and see how it feels.”

Allen got into the sling and Fernando lowered him into the water.  He dove down to the bottom of the pool and swam in a slow circle for about 20 minutes, breathing normally through the mask.  Other than feeling a gentle air flow into and out of the mask, he really didn’t feel anything unusual about his breathing.  When he felt like the test had lasted long enough, he swam back to the sling and Fernando pulled him back out of the water.

“That worked remarkably well.”  Allen said.  “How long is it good for?”

“Well, of course this is just a prototype, but we think we can make a production model that will last for 24 hours or more.  It really just depends on how much absorbent material you have and how long your battery lasts.  This unit should be good for several hours more.”

“I’m sure there are some others who want to try it.  Can you hang around for a few hours?”

“Yes, if there is a corner where I can sit with my laptop I can be here all day.  My flight doesn’t leave until tomorrow morning.”

“Wonderful.  Fernando can show you to one of our conference rooms while we give your unit a thorough testing.”

Fernando lowered Allen back into the pool and then left with Grant.  Allen passed the test unit on to Audra, who was practically jumping out of the water in her eagerness to try it out.  Over the next few hours, they all tried the underwater breathing prototype, and everyone agreed that it worked extremely well.  When they felt they had used the prototype long enough, Allen got out of the pool and took it to the conference room where Grant was waiting.

“That works amazingly well.”  He said.

“Thank you.  We were able to take the original cobalt salt material developed in Denmark and make it even more efficient at absorbing and releasing oxygen.  Then we found a promising new magnesium based organic material that absorbs carbon dioxide and releases it when heated.  The device you just used has about 5 cc’s of each material in it.  The oxygen absorber is already saturated with oxygen, and we heat it at a controlled rate to release the amount needed.  The CO2 absorbing material removes the carbon dioxide from your breath and stores it.  It can be regenerated by heating it to a high temperature.”

“So what do you envision a production device would look like?”

“We believe we can reduce the size of the system down to maybe the size of a fat cell-phone.  You could strap that to an arm or hide it in your tail, and then clear tubes would run to your mask.  We would make the absorbent materials into two replaceable cartridges that you could swap out once a day, and the battery could be re-charged at the same time.”

“What about pressure differences for different depths?”

“You didn’t notice any difference when you dove to the bottom, did you?”

“No.”

“The system automatically compensates for pressure changes, down to about a depth of 30 or 40 feet.  To control for deeper dives we might have to add nitrogen in some way, and the device would get bigger.”

“This is great.  Can you send me the specs for your miniaturized production device?  I want to work on figuring out where to put it so that it will be as unobtrusive as possible.”

Though he dearly wanted to keep the prototype and try it out some more, Allen let Grant take it with him for analysis.  Then he went back to the rec room and told Audra what he had learned.

“I really like it.”  Audra said.  “The function is perfect.  The only problem is the size and the ugly mask.  Somehow we need to get something that is less obtrusive.”

“Well, Grant is sending me the information on their miniaturized version.  I’ll try to come up with some ways to package it that are a bit less obvious.”

“Good.  I hope you come up with something good.”

Allen got all the information from Grant the next day, and he immediately started to work.  His idea was to arrange everything around the mermaid’s neck.  They could disguise it by making it look like a large necklace or choker, or they could put silicone scales over it and make it look like part of the mermaid’s natural covering.  It was a difficult problem and it took Allen a couple of weeks, but eventually he figured out how to arrange all of the parts in a two inch tall cylinder less than half an inch thick.  The two discs of absorbent material went into slots on either side of the back of the neck.  That was the thickest part.  The electronics were spread out around the rest of the neck on flexible circuit boards, and the two tubes came out the sides and wrapped up to the mouth.  Allen’s plan was to have the tubes enter the mouth on each side, and meet in a mouthpiece inside.  Hopefully, someone outside looking in at a mermaid in the water would not see the two clear tubes.  Allen spent a day modeling some scales on the outside of the apparatus and then called Audra over to look at his CAD model.  He rotated it around on the screen and explained it all to her.

“So do you like it?”  He asked.

“I do.  I think it is almost perfect.  We can get Cammy to sculpt some scales on the outside that will match our tails, and it will look like it belongs.  You showed me how the discs get changed, but how do you recharge the battery?”

“It has a standard charging port on the bottom of the back side.  You just plug it in like you would a phone.”

“Now if only we could figure out a way to get rid of those tubes.  Why don’t you contact some manufacturers and see if we can get a few samples made?  And send me a link to your model.  I want to think about those tubes for a bit.”

Allen contacted some of the contract manufacturers that Burns Pharma had used in the past.  Within a few days, he had a quote for producing three samples.  Audra approved the cost, so he ordered the parts, which would come near the end of January.  Audra added a sample of her own design to the order, but she wouldn’t tell Allen the details about what it was.

Before long it was Christmas week.  Like Thanksgiving, it was a busy time for the mermaids as they went out into the galleries for customer interaction.  Lacy had designed red and white elf-themed swimsuit tops for the mermaids and a red Santa top for Allen to wear.  This time Renna won the draw and took the week before Christmas off.  The aquarium was closed on Christmas day, which was a Sunday.  Maria had the week after Christmas off.  And finally, Allen and Katherine took their vacation the first week of January.  They flew to Ohio to visit Cherise, Allen’s sister.  Allen got his first taste of going through airport security with his crutches.  The guards didn’t seem to know what to do with his fused legs and skirt, but eventually satisfied themselves with a thorough wanding and a pat-down.  Cherise hadn’t seen Allen since the accident, so she spent some time in the first day or two staring at his legs.  Eventually, she got used to the situation, and even suggested they go shopping for a new skirt for Allen.

“Not you, too.”  Allen said.  “Katherine thinks it’s quite a fun game to take me shopping and play dress-up with all the skirts.  But we’re in the mermaid quarters most of the time now anyway.  I really have plenty of skirts to wear for the four days a month when we aren’t in our tails.”

Katherine had to agree and Allen escaped another shopping trip.  They had an enjoyable time with Cherise and made sure to invite her to come visit and see them in the aquarium.  As a nursing student, she didn’t have a lot of money or time for a visit, but they tentatively decided she would try to come during her spring break.

 

Chapter 30 – The Dolphins Come

January 16

 

A week or so after they got back from vacation, Daphne answered a phone call in the rec room.  Everyone heard her squeal.

“We’ve got dolphins at the arena entrance!”

She dove into the water and swam to the arena, with the rest of the mermaids following behind.  When they got to the arena, Daphne hoisted herself onto the central platform and opened a refrigerated case.  She started pulling out fish and handed two to each mermaid.

“Swim down the entrance channel and space yourselves out!”  She commanded.  “We need to teach the dolphins where to come for food.”

They did as she told them and swam down the entrance channel, taking up stations along the way.  Allen and Daphne led the procession all the way to the end, where Daphne motioned for Allen to take up his station.  Daphne swam on, out into the bay.  She came back a few minutes later, followed by three dolphins.  They seemed very curious about her tail, swimming up close and examining it carefully before circling back.  As they approached the entrance to the channel, they hesitated, concerned about this unnatural structure.  Allen swam out a little and waved his fish at them, trying to get their attention.  They seemed only slightly interested in the fish, instead concentrating on Allen’s tail.  As they pointed their noses at him, he felt a vibration in his legs.  Were they using their echolocation on him?  Not sure what to do, Allen dropped on of the fish and swam into the channel a short distance.  One of the dolphins snapped up the fish, and another one followed him into the channel.  Encouraged, Daphne swam into the channel as well, and after a short hesitation, the other two dolphins followed.  They both swam up the channel with the dolphins following.  When they got to Katherine, the dolphins investigated her tail as well.  She held out her two fish and two dolphins pulled them out of her hands.  They continued up the channel, gathering up Renna, Audra, Lacy, and Maria along the way.  They all swam out into the arena, and the dolphins followed.

“Now what do we do?”  Asked Maria.

“We just want them to understand that this is a safe place, and that there is food and affection here.  So just be friendly.  I’ll try to pass out some more fish.”

So they all swam around the pool, watching the dolphins to see what they would do.  The dolphins explored for a minute, swimming around the perimeter of the pool to see how big it was.  As the mermaids swam around, the dolphins investigated them, following along and passing them up.  They continued to show curiosity about the mermaid tails, repeatedly scanning them with their echolocation.  One dolphin approached Lacy very closely, and she reached out to stroke its side.  The dolphin nudged her with its beak and then swam quickly away.  Daphne retrieved several more fish from the case on the platform and passed them out to the dolphins, but the dolphins seemed to be more interested in the mermaids than in the food.  They gulped down the fish when they encountered them, but immediately returned to investigating the mermaids.  After a few minutes, the dolphins seemed to get more comfortable and began approaching the mermaids more closely, allowing them to touch their sides and feel the smooth leathery skin beneath their fingers.  They continued this interaction for perhaps fifteen minutes and then they seemed to decide they had seen enough.  With one more lap around the pool, the three dolphins headed out through the channel and back into the bay.

Daphne followed the dolphins out, but the rest of the mermaids stayed behind.  They had left in a hurry, without putting on wetsuit tops, and once the excitement of interacting with the dolphins wore off they started noticing how cool the air and water in the arena pool was.  Audra noticed that Allen’s lips were turning blue from the 60° water in the pool.

“We need to be more careful about preparing for cold water.”  She told him.  “Get the rest of the mermaids back inside.  I’ll go catch Daphne before she gets hypothermia.”

They quickly swam back through the mermaid swim pool and into the lock.  Once they were all inside and Allen pushed the button, the warm water from the greenhouse pool rushed in to fill the lock and they all luxuriated in the feeling of being warm again.  They went through into the greenhouse pool and huddled together for a few minutes as they let the warmth sink into their bodies.  It wasn’t long before Audra and Daphne joined them.

“Luckily, the dolphins were too fast and Daphne gave up on following them.”  Said Audra.  “Otherwise it might have been too late before she noticed how cold she was getting.”

Daphne looked a little sheepish.  “I would have noticed before long.  In the future I’m going to wear my wetsuit top so I’ll be ready.”

The dolphins came back the next day, and the day after.  Soon they had a regular group of visitors to the arena pool.  Daphne spent most of her time there, though she limited the feedings to 11:00 and 3:00.  She wanted to accustom the dolphins to the times when they planned to have shows.  Daphne got to know each individual dolphin, giving them names and starting to understand their personalities.  She asked Audra for an assistant, as she would need a backup once they started doing regular shows.  Soon after, Carla Hernandez came on board, bringing the total number of mermaids up to eight.  (Or seven mermaids and one merman)  Daphne and Carla did not help with the feedings in the aquarium, but rather spent their time in the arena pool with the dolphins.  After getting the dolphins used to visiting the pool at specific times each day, they started training them to do tricks and perform.  A few of the dolphins seemed to enjoy the process, while others would visit from time to time for the free fish and to satisfy their curiosity, but refused to perform for their supper.  Daphne hoped they would have a regular group who would show up regularly and be willing to perform by the time the weather got warmer.

After a minor but frustrating delay, the water breathing prototypes arrived on Groundhog Day.  Elaine, one of the cafeteria workers, passed the package through the sliding window with the rest of the day’s mail.  Allen quickly took the package over to one of the tables and opened it up.  Inside he found the three prototypes looking just like the model in his computer.  They even had the scales on the outside, though they were a uniform gray color and would need to be painted to match the mermaids that would use them.  There was a second box inside the main one that contained the 30 discs of each kind of absorbing material.  There were also three standard chargers in separate small boxes.  Allen slipped a black disc into the left slot on one of the prototypes and a red one in the other slot.  Then he took the whole thing over to the kitchen area and plugged it into one of the sockets there.  He prepared the other two parts as well, then headed off to the computer to work for a couple of hours while it charged.

Once the new breathing devices were charged, Allen went back to try one out.  The news had traveled through the mermaid quarters and he had an audience.  He picked up one of the devices and wrapped it around his neck.  The scales in the back had been designed to overlap so that the seam was not visible, and a series of hooks held it in place.  The device fit snugly around his neck, and the two tubes snaked up around his chin to the mouthpiece, which he put into his mouth.  He pressed down on the center scale right in front of his Adam’s apple, and he could feel the gentle brush of the air passing through the mouthpiece.  He slipped off of the bench and let himself sink to the bottom of the pool, where he sat, breathing through the mouthpiece as needed.  Audra swam down next to him and held her thumb up with a questioning look on her face.  Allen held both of his thumbs up to indicate everything was working properly.  Then Audra swam up next to him and examined the apparatus closely, looking at how the air tubes appeared under water.  Soon Katherine and Renna joined Allen, wearing the other two collars.  The three of them swam over to the greenhouse pool and spent a long time swimming there, never once coming up for air.

Finally, it was time for Renna to feed the fish in the aquarium, so she left to take the collar off in the cafeteria again.  Once she was gone, Allen took advantage of the time alone with Katherine to do a little underwater cuddling.  Unfortunately, the mouthpieces got in the way when he tried to kiss her.  By the time they tired of their game and went to the rec pool, they had been underwater for over an hour and a half.  They sat on the couch and pulled their mouthpieces out so they could talk.

“Do they work as well as you hoped?”  Asked Katherine.

“Yes!  Wasn’t it great to not have to worry about coming up for air every three minutes?”

“It was.  And now that we don’t have the mouthpieces in the way, I think we have some unfinished business.”

Allen needed no further encouragement to lean in and give his wife a long, lingering kiss.  They were interrupted by Audra clearing her throat.

“It seems like the breathing devices worked as planned.”

“They sure do.  Would you like to try one out?”

“I have one of my own getting ready.  But for now I need to be out of the water for a few days.  I can take the collars with me and get Cammy to paint them.  I assume the plan is still to match your tail, as well as Renna’s and Lacy’s?”

“Yes, that was what we all agreed on.  The manufacturer said he could have four more collars made up in a few days now that he is all set up.  Do you want me to order them?”

“Not just yet.  Let’s wait until I get back and test my collar.  There might be a few changes to make before we order any more.”

Allen and Katherine helped each other take their collars off, and they handed them to Audra, who took them with her out of the mermaid pools.  The next day, Fernando brought back the three breathing collars, and the mermaids started using them immediately.  Allen’s collar was a little larger because of his larger male neck, so he used his exclusively.  Renna and Lacy shared theirs with Maria and Katherine.  The collars made it much easier to do the fish feeding, since they didn’t have to surface for a breath.  The clear air tubes were nearly invisible to those looking into the aquarium from the galleries, and the customers were amazed when they noticed that the mermaids didn’t need to surface to breathe.  There were extra handprints on the acrylic walls from people cupping their hands around their eyes to get a better look at the mermaids and try to figure out how they were breathing.

A few days after they started using the collars, Lacy got a call from Channel 26 news.  Kari Davis wanted to do a story on the mermaids and how they could stay under the water for so long.  Lacy told her she would have to get Audra’s permission, but she thought it would be OK.  Then she tried to call Audra, but she just got an out of office message from her voicemail.  Lacy knew that Audra often turned her phone off when traveling, so she left a message, then sent an e-mail as a backup.  An hour or so later, she got an e-mail reply.

 

Lacy,

Of course it is fine for you or one of the other mermaids to give an interview.  We have applied for patents on the materials and construction of the collars, so don’t go into a lot of detail.  Whoever does the interview can just say that we have some proprietary materials that absorb and release oxygen and carbon dioxide.  You can show the collars and of course, make sure to put in as many plugs for the aquarium as they will let you.

I’ll be out for another week or so.  I hope the interview goes well.

 

Audra

 

After getting Audra’s e-mail, Lacy called the reporter back.

“We would be happy to arrange for an interview.”  She said.  “When would you like to do it?”

“This afternoon would be great.  We’re looking for a human interest story for this evening’s news.”

Lacy checked the time on her computer screen.  “How about 2:30?  I’ll meet you at the aquarium entrance.”

“That will work out just fine.  I’ll see you then.”

Lacy checked the schedule.  It looked like Katherine would be available until her turn to feed the fish at 4:00.  She didn’t see her sitting at the bank of computers, so Lacy had to hunt her down.  She activated her collar and swam through the complex, starting at the cafeteria.  Katherine wasn’t there, nor in the greenhouse.  Maybe she was out in the dolphin arena?  Lacy knew that Katherine liked to help out if there were any dolphins present.  So Lacy went back to her sleeping pool and pulled on a wetsuit top, then swam out to the arena to find Katherine.  She was indeed there, helping Daphne and Carla.  She was sitting on the center platform, operating the controls for the pole and swing, while Daphne sat in the swing and gave the signal to jump out of the water.  Two dolphins were in the pool, and Freddy, one of the dolphins most willing to perform, was one of them.  He jumped out of the pool at Daphne’s signal, making a big splash with his tail as he came down.  Daphne rewarded him with a fish, and Katherine lowered the swing to the water’s surface so that Daphne could reinforce the reward with a hug and a rub.

Lacy waved at Katherine, who slipped into the water and swam over to her.

“What’s up Lacy?”

“We have a reporter coming at 2:30 for an interview.  Would you be willing to help me talk to her?”

“Sure, I can do that.  Daphne and Carla can manage without me.”

They swam back to the mermaid living quarters together, though Lacy had to hold back a little.  Katherine didn’t have one of the collars on at the moment, so she had to surface for a breath every few minutes.  An outside observer would hardly have noticed the difference though.  After spending so much time in the water, both women moved through it almost as naturally as the dolphins they were leaving behind.

Once they were back at their respective sleeping pools, they prepared for the interview, taking off their wetsuit tops and replacing them with red halter-style swimsuit tops with the aquarium logo on them.  Katherine found Renna’s breathing collar and put it on, then combed her hair out.  Since they were going to be on TV, she also put on some waterproof makeup.  When they were ready, she and Lacy swam out to the practice pool and Fernando lifted them out of the water.  They rode their wheelchairs into the locker room, where there were some hair dryers that they could use to dry their hair.  Laci took off her collar and put it in her lap, but she asked Katherine to keep hers on.  By the time they were done, it was almost 2:30, so they went down to the entrance to greet Kari Davis.  She arrived right on time, followed by a cameraman and an assistant.

“Welcome to the Gulf Aquarium.”  Said Lacy, holding out her hand.  The reporter shook it and then thanked her for arranging the interview.

“Where would you like to set up?”

“Could we do it right in front of the two-story aquarium wall, where we can see the fish in the background?”

“Of course.  Come right this way.”  Lacy and Katherine wheeled over to the special wheelchair gate next to the turnstiles, and an aquarium employee let them all in.  They went directly to the tall wall of acrylic and turned around.  The cameraman took a few minutes to set up his tripod and test his sound equipment, and then Kari turned around and put on her reporter face.

“Kari Davis, Fox 26 news here at the Gulf Aquarium on Pelican Island.  I’m with Lacy Zelinski, Marketing Director for the Aquarium, who also happens to be one of their mermaid stars.  Also with us is Katherine Landry, Biomedical Engineer and also a mermaid.  Lacy, I’ve been hearing stories about mermaids staying underwater for as much as an hour without having to surface.  Is that true?”

“Yes it is.  We can actually stay underwater for much longer than an hour.”

“How can that be?”

“That’s why I asked Katherine to be here.  You have probably noticed the scales around her neck.”

“Yes.  And I can see some tubes coming out the sides.”

Katherine put her mouthpiece in, and Lacy continued her explanation.

“The tubes carry oxygen in and carbon dioxide out.  The scales on Katherine’s neck are actually part of a special collar that lets us breathe underwater.  Since the tubes are clear, you don’t notice them when we are in the water.”

“Wow!  How does it work?  Scuba divers need great big tanks of air on their back!”

“I’m not an expert on that.  Katherine here is the engineer.”  Said Lacy.

Katherine pulled the mouthpiece back out of her mouth.  “Think of your morning coffee.”  She said.  “You can mix in several spoons full of sugar, and yet it doesn’t take up any more room in your cup.  That is because the sugar molecules fit in between the water molecules and share the same space.  We have some special materials in our collars that work that same way with oxygen.  They absorb the oxygen molecules out of the air and store them in a very compact space by putting them in between the molecules of the material.  Then by applying a bit of heat, we can release that oxygen so we can breathe.”

“That actually makes sense!  Thank you.  I’m sure it’s more complicated than that.”

“Well, there are some other things as well.  We have to absorb the carbon dioxide from our breath so it doesn’t poison us.  Another specialized material does that.  And we also have some electronics and some valves that control the pressure of the gases as we go up and down in the water.”

“That’s very impressive.  Now, can you tell me what it is like being a mermaid?”

“I have always loved to swim and to be in the water.  Now I get to do that every day as part of my job.  I really enjoy it.”

“Our viewers may remember that you were one of a group of people kidnapped and shipped south in a train a few months ago.  Do you still have nightmares about that time?”

“I think we all do.  But it’s over with now and we are moving ahead with life.”

“May I see one of the collars in action?”

“Actually, if you look in the aquarium behind me, you may see one right now.  Allen should be feeding the fish for a few more minutes.”

After hearing about Allen, the reporter and her cameraman quickly moved to the aquarium wall and looked in.  Allen was on the other side at the moment, feeding the moray eels.   Kari Davis started to ask her cameraman to move farther along in the gallery, but Lacy stopped them.

“Just wait here a moment.  He’ll be swimming closer.”

So they set up the camera looking straight into the aquarium.  After he finished with the morays, Allen swam slowly around the aquarium, waving at the customers through the walls.  It took him about five minutes to get to the front wall of the aquarium, and he didn’t surface for a breath during that time.  When he saw the group gathered near the front wall, he approached and waved at them as well.  He was done with the groups of fish scheduled for a feeding, but one of the hammerhead sharks swam up and looked at him anyway, just in case he had a treat.  He patted it on the head and swam slowly away, waving at the customers on the other side of the aquarium, never once taking a breath.  Through the layers of acrylic and water, the clear tubes on his breathing collar were not really visible, so he appeared to be surviving completely without breathing assistance.  Once he had swum to the back of the aquarium and slipped over the side into the exit tube, the cameraman swung his camera back to Kari Davis.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve been looking at my watch while the merman behind us swam around.  I haven’t seen him take a breath for over 21 minutes.  Lacy, I wasn’t aware that the aquarium had mermen as well as mermaids.  Are there other mermen other than the one we just watched?”

“Not at the current time.  But who knows what may happen in the future?  We’ve been hiring some new mermaids lately to help in our Dolphin arena that will have its grand opening on April 1.”

“A dolphin arena?  I didn’t know you had any captive dolphins here at the Gulf Aquarium.”

“These aren’t captive dolphins.  We are starting a whole new, more humane way of working with cetaceans here at the Gulf aquarium.  These are wild dolphins who come to us by choice.  They live in the bay, not in a pool or a tank.”

“Wow!  How do they get to your dolphin arena then?”

“There is an open channel from the arena to the bay.  They can swim in and out whenever they want.”

“So do you lure them in with food?”

“We do give them food, but based on the interactions I’ve had with them so far, they come as much out of a love for the trainers as they do for the food.  They are developing a very close relationship with Daphne and Carla, our dolphin trainers.”

“Now you’ve got me wanting to see this.  I’m definitely coming back in April.”

“We look forward to seeing you again.”

The reporter and her entourage packed up their equipment and left, and Lacy and Katherine went back to their work.  That night, they watched the interview on the news.  Much of it had been cut, and the scene with Allen swimming was trimmed to only about 30 seconds, but Lacy expected an increase in aquarium attendance for a while due to the free advertising.

 

Chapter 31 – Audra’s Special Collar

February 13

 

Audra finally returned on a Monday.  Allen and Katherine weren’t working, so they were in the rec pool when Audra swam in.  She was wearing a collar painted to match her tail, but hers had no tubes coming out the sides.  Allen paused the TV show they were watching to talk to her.

“I like your new collar.”  He said.  “Is it just decorative?”

“No, it’s my special breathing collar.”  Audra said.  Her voice sounded a bit hoarse and raspy.

“Are the air tubes detachable?”

“No.  This collar is a bit more extreme than that.  I had a tracheotomy and the tubes go directly through my throat to a special valve in my trachea.”

“That does sound extreme.  Can you take it off?”

“We used the same adhesive that we use on the tails, so it can come off with a solvent.  But of course then I would have an open hole in my throat.  If I wanted to take it off, the doctor assures me that with a simple operation they can remove the valve and the hole in my throat would heal up.”

“Wow.  And what does the valve do?”

“Well, when I’m in underwater mode, it keeps water from going down into my lungs and provides a channel for the oxygen and carbon dioxide to move in and out of the collar.  In that mode, air doesn’t travel over my voice box so I can’t talk.  In air breathing mode like now, the valve opens and I can breathe and talk normally.”

“How do you switch between modes?  Is there a button or something in the collar?”

“No, there is a little sensor in the collar that detects if I am underwater or not.  It switches modes automatically.”

“Are you going to want us to get the same kind of collars?”

“Well, I’m not going to force anyone to have an operation.  I actually ordered a full set of the collars with tubes so that everyone can have one, and another set like mine, so anyone who wants to go all the way can do so.  Of course, the aquarium will pay for the medical expenses if you get the collars like mine.”

The mermaids spent the next day or so talking about Audra’s collar.  None of them seemed quite ready to commit to such an intrusive change to their bodies, except Daphne.  She wanted to be able to truly swim with the dolphins, and she didn’t want the tubes and mouthpiece in her way.  So she immediately talked to Audra and arranged for Carla and the other mermaids to cover for her during the 10 days it took to have the operation and recover.

While Daphne was gone, Renna called all the mermaids except Audra together.

“What did you want to talk about?”  Allen asked her.

“Well, as you all know, Maria stopped paying for an apartment and lives here full time now, but the rest of us haven’t been willing to give up our two weekends a month with legs.  I have a proposal for any of us who might be interested.”

“Okay, what is it?”  Lacy asked.

“Since we all have different weekends off, why don’t we share the rent on a single apartment?  That way we’ll all save some money and our apartments won’t be sitting empty all the time.”

They all agreed that it was a good idea, and after a bit of discussion they decided to use Lacy’s apartment.  She had two bedrooms, so there would be room for friends or relatives to come visit, and her apartment was on the ground floor and more easily accessible for Allen or for mermaids who wanted a day out of the aquarium without removing their tails.  Even Maria participated, as she wanted to have the option to get out occasionally.  Over the next couple of weeks, they each spent their days off making arrangements to move out of their old apartments and into Lacy’s apartment.  There was a storage unit available for items that they wanted to keep, but didn’t need from day to day.  Allen and Katherine boxed up a lot of their possessions and put them into the storage unit.  They moved their queen sized bed into the master bedroom, as Lacy only had two doubles.  Lacy sold the second double bed.  Most of the rest of their furniture they sold, as it was second-hand furniture already and they didn’t need it in the new place.  They contributed a few pots and pans to the kitchen, and then hung up their clothes in one of the closets.  Closet space was at a premium in the new apartment because all six mermaids and one merman had clothes they wanted to use when they were out of the aquarium.  The master bedroom had a walk-in closet, and Lacy offered half of it to Allen and Katherine since they were the only married couple.  Lacy took the other half, and Renna and Maria shared the closet in the second bedroom.  To accommodate Daphne and Carla, they bought a clothes rack and set it up in the second bedroom.  The dressers were also in high demand, but Renna contributed hers and Carla contributed hers and they all had a set of drawers to store their underwear in.  They put one of the extra dressers in the master bedroom and one in the dining room.  So the apartment ended up slightly crowded, but was functional for those days when they were out of the water.

In addition to selling a lot of their furniture, Allen and Katherine sold Katherine’s car.  Since Allen couldn’t drive there was no need for two vehicles, and Allen’s car was newer than his wife’s, so that was the one they decided to keep.  Between selling the furniture and car and their lower expenses from living in the mermaid facility, Allen and Katherine were able to start saving a good portion of their salaries.  Although he was pleased with their growing bank account, Allen knew it would take many years to save enough to pay for the operation to separate his legs.  He decided it was time to try his luck with the new insurance company.  He called Dr. Hansen’s office and gave them the new insurance information, then asked them to see if the operation could be pre-approved.

About a week later, Allen got a letter in the mail from the insurance company.  His pre-approval was denied because it was for a pre-existing condition.  He submitted an official appeal, which was also denied, listing many of the same reasons that the previous insurance company had used.  Audra listened to his complaints.

“Why can’t you over-rule them?”  Allen asked her.  “Isn’t Burns Pharma supposed to be self-insured?”

“Self-insured means that all the medical expenses come out of our pocket.  We still pay the insurance company to handle all the administration.  Government privacy laws prevent us from getting directly involved.  I know about your situation because we spend a lot of time together, but if I were to intervene with the insurance company I might be subject to fines, or the insurance company might sue me.”

While they were talking, a loud buzz began to sound over the PA.

“That’s the emergency alarm!”  Said Audra.  “Everyone needs to go to the potty pool!”

All of the mermaids swam to the potty pool.  Daphne and Carla arrived last, because they had to come all the way from the dolphin arena.  Once they were all there, Audra told them it was just a drill.  The security company had been working with Audra to develop plans for many situations, and they had encouraged Audra to have periodic safety drills.  The potty pool was chosen as the meeting place because it was structurally one of the strongest areas, and it was near the center of the complex.  Also, since the water in the potty pool was separate from the rest of the system, it would be safer in case the pools got contaminated.  When the drill was over and everyone started swimming back to where they had been, Audra asked Allen and Katherine to stay behind.

“There is one way we might be able to get Allen’s operation done.”  She said.  I could fund it out of Burns Pharmaceutical’s pocket if you were willing to sign an employment agreement with me.”

“What kind of agreement?”  Allen asked.

“Well, if you would both agree to the upgraded collars, and sign an agreement to stay with the company for two years, I could make the case to my investors and I think they would release the funds.”

“So would I get the operation right away?”

“I think we would have to set a time period first.  How about after you have worked for me for one year?  Then we do the operation and you agree to work at least one more year?”

“What do you think, Katherine?”

“Well, we both like our jobs, and we weren’t planning on leaving soon anyway.  So a two-year agreement doesn’t sound so bad.  Can you wait another year for the operation?”

“I’ve managed for the last seven months.  I suppose I can last another year.  When we’re here at the aquarium it doesn’t matter if my legs are separated anyway.  Does the tracheotomy scare you?”

“A little.  I’ve never had an operation before.  But Audra and Daphne seem to be managing just fine.”

“OK Audra.  It sounds like a deal we’re willing to make.”

“Good.  I’ll get the paperwork moving.”

The next day, Allen and Katherine signed the papers.  A few days later, Allen went to the hospital to have his new collar installed, and after his ten days of recovery were over, Katherine went next.  Their throats were sore and their voices were hoarse for a while, but before long they were healed and the collars became second nature.  To encourage the others to make the change, Audra offered a bonus to any mermaid willing to get the upgraded collars.  With that incentive, the rest of the mermaids each decided to make the change, and one by one they left for ten days and came back with the new collars.

A disc regenerator and a disc supply box were installed on a shelf in the rec room.  Every day before bed all the mermaids would take the used absorbent discs out of their collars and put them in the regenerator.  It would heat the CO2 absorbing material to drive out the carbon dioxide, and run a stream of oxygen over the oxygen-absorbing material so that it would fill up with oxygen.  Once the discs were regenerated, they would be vacuum-packed in plastic and put into their supply box, which had several hundred of the discs.  At night, they plugged a power cord into the back of their collars to re-charge the batteries while they slept.

With the new collars in place, it was not necessary to sleep on top of the water, so Audra and Daphne experimented with using a diver’s weight belt to become neutrally buoyant, and sleeping just under the surface of the water.  It took a little adjustment as their bodies naturally wanted to breathe through their nose, but Audra experimented with nose plugs and found that after a few nights sleeping with the nose plugs in place, her body learned to sleep with only the air from her collar.

 

Chapter 32 – Dolphin and Mermaid Shows

April 1

When April arrived, it was time to start the swim with mermaids events again.  Daphne did not feel like the dolphins were quite ready to start dolphin shows, though.  There were several who visited regularly, and they were happy to perform various tricks in return for attention and fish.  But they could not be counted on to be present twice a day at the appointed times.  They came early or late, and in varying numbers.  And sometimes they would stay for a significant time and perform tricks, but other times they might leave after a few minutes.  They discussed what to do for several days, until finally Carla made a little presentation to the group.  She started by showing them some video she had been creating for the dolphin show.  It gave a little history about how the gulf Aquarium’s training methods for non-captive dolphins worked.  It showed the dolphins traveling through the channel to the arena and some of the tricks they would perform.  Then it came to the part where they expected to shift to the live show.

“Here is the part I wanted you all to see.”  Carla said.  “If we have a good group of dolphins present and willing to perform for us, we proceed with our normal show.  Daphne and I have been planning for several variations to account for which dolphins are present and how cooperative they are.  But some days they just don’t choose to come, or they don’t show up at the planned show times.  My thought is, we need to have an alternate show for those days.  We don’t have dolphins, but we do have mermaids, and with a little audience participation I think we can make a show that people will still be happy to see.  The next part of this video is a storyboard that I have made up with a concept show we can build on.”

Carla started the video again.  It switched to a kind of power point show with slides explaining the plot to Carla’s alternate show.

show-slide-1

show-slide-2show-slide-3show-slide-4show-slide-5show-slide-6show-slide-7

When Carla was done, everyone crowded around and congratulated her on her idea.  Audra seemed very pleased with it.

“This is great, Carla.”  She said.  “I think we should flesh it out and start practicing immediately.  We can include a disclaimer in the dolphin arena tickets that explains that the dolphins don’t always appear, and that an alternate show will be given if they don’t come.  I think this is the solution we have been waiting for.  How long do you think it will take to be ready?”

“I was thinking maybe a month or so.”

“That sounds reasonable.  Let’s plan to have the grand opening of the dolphin arena on the first full weekend in May – I think May 5th is the first Friday.  Is everyone in agreement?”

Daphne agreed, followed by the rest of the group.  They all started practicing the show in whatever free time they had from feeding the fish or doing the swim with mermaids event.  Carla worked with a video production company on the video portion of the show, and obtained permission to use the familiar “Little Mermaid” music from Disney.  Audra even practiced with them when she could, saying that she wanted to be ready as a backup in case someone was sick or hurt.  The addition of the show made them all very busy, and there was not as much time to do their non-mermaid work as before.  Luckily Audra had non-mermaid employees who could help take up the slack.

When May 5 came around, they all felt excited for the first dolphin show.  As 11:00 AM rolled around, there were four of the trained dolphins present in the arena pool.  Kari Davis the news reporter was there with her camera, and Audra was also present, sitting on the “hill” in the central platform.  She introduced Daphne and Carla, thanked the audience for coming, and handed the microphone off to Daphne.  Allen and Maria watched the show hidden inside the tube from the mermaid swim pool.  The show was a great success, although one of the dolphins seemed disturbed by the noisy cheering of the crowd and left after a few tricks.  When the show was done and the audience had filed out of the arena, Kari Davis called across to Audra and asked if she could answer a few questions.  Audra called back and said that Daphne would be happy to answer them for her.  So Daphne rode the seat out over the water and dove in.  She swam to the edge of the pool and supported herself on the side of the pool with her elbows while she spoke to the reporter.  As she was speaking, the seat picked up Audra off of the hill and lowered her into the water.  She dove to the bottom and slipped out down the connecting tube, leaving Daphne and Carla to handle the reporter’s questions.

“This is Kari Davis, here with Daphne Rogers, dolphin trainer at the Gulf Aquarium.”  Said the reporter, starting her spiel.  “Daphne, that was a fantastic show we just saw.  How do you get wild dolphins to do those tricks?”

“Well, anyone who trains animals will tell you that they do it for love and approval as much as for the food we give them.  Dolphins are very intelligent, so it is even more that way with them.  We start out by giving them food, but as they become more comfortable, we become like a part of their group.”

“That’s amazing.  How long have you been working with this group of dolphins?”

“About four or five months.  We are really only just starting with these dolphins.  Come back in a year and I think you’ll see some really spectacular stuff!”

“And the dolphins are free to come and go?”

“Yes.  We didn’t want captive dolphins.  They are free to come or leave as they please.”

“How do you make sure they are here in time for the show?”

“Well, after a while they learn what time we want them here.  We always feed them and work with them at the same times each day.”

“Do they always show up?”

As they were speaking, Blacktip, one of the dolphins who had just performed, swam up behind Daphne and nudged her with his beak.

“Excuse me for just a moment.”  Daphne said.  “Blacktip wants to play.”

She turned around and rubbed the dolphin on each side of his head.  He bobbed his head back and forth and then leaped out of the water, splashing Kari and her cameraman.

“Silly thing.”  Said Daphne, and then she dove into the water and followed Blacktip, using powerful kicks with her tail to keep up with the fleet dolphin.  They made a quick circuit of the pool and then both jumped out of the water together, landing with a huge splash.  The dolphin started to swim around again, but Daphne swam back to the wall of the pool and the waiting reporter.

“Sorry about that.”  She said.  “He can be real pushy when he wants to play with you.”

Kari brushed her damp hair out of her face.  “He seems quite playful.”

“Yes, he is one of the younger dolphins, and one of the ones who most seems to like coming here and performing for us.”

“Back to my question, if we could.  Do the dolphins always show up at the right time?”

“No, they don’t.  They have their own lives to live and sometimes they don’t come on time or maybe even at all.”

“So what happens if someone buys a ticket for a show and the dolphins don’t come?”

“If you remember, it says on your ticket that we will have an alternative if the dolphins aren’t here.”

“I do remember.  What’s the alternative?”

“I think I’ll leave that as a surprise.  Keep coming back and perhaps you’ll get a chance to find out.”

The first chance to try the alternative show happened two days later.   A strong storm system had just moved through the area, so perhaps the dolphins were seeking shelter or taking advantage of some increased food in the bay.  When no dolphins had shown up by 10 minutes before show time, Daphne called over to the mermaid quarters on the intercom and said they would need mermaids for the alternate show.  Maria started getting ready, along with Allen and Katherine.  Technically, Allen and Katherine had the day off, but they were just hanging around the rec room that day so they were happy to help out.  They all grabbed their props and costumes and swam out to the dolphin arena.  Rather than take the slide into the mermaid swim pool, they went through the lock and swam through the deep water to the dolphin arena entrance tube.  Most of the customers in the mermaid swim experience didn’t even notice their passing.

They waited in the tunnel entrance for the appropriate point in the show.  They could see a young girl being escorted from the audience and across a temporary bridge to the central island by one of the aquarium workers.  He announced her name – Marcia – and then the show began.  Daphne and Carla were hiding under the water at the far side of the island until the time came for them to show up.  After a few minutes, they heard the music change, and Maria, Katherine, Daphne and Carla all swam out into the arena.  They did some quick leaps out of the water, splashing some of the patrons in the first few rows when they landed.  Then they did a synchronized swimming routine, staying under the water but near the surface so that the customers could see from above and through the transparent sides of the pool.  At the end, they all surfaced right at the edge of the central island.  They saw the girl there and acted surprised, then dove back under the water and swam out of sight into the entrance tube.  Then the aquarium worker asked the little girl if she wished she could be a mermaid.  While he was talking, Allen swam quietly under the water across to the island.  He had on a shiny crown and was carrying a brightly painted trident.  When the girl said she did wish she was a mermaid, he burst from the water and landed sitting on the edge of the island.  (It had taken a lot of practice to get that move right.)

“Beautiful Marcia.  I, King Triton, have heard your wish and it shall be granted!”  Allen spoke.  A hidden directional microphone picked up his voice and amplified it, and then hidden nozzles sprayed a curtain of water all around the central island.  Allen slipped off into the water while the aquarium employee escorted the girl into the hidden chamber in the hill and helped her slip into a mermaid costume.  The video screens showed an animated transformation sequence.  When Marcia was dressed in her costume, the helper brought her back out onto the island, carrying her in her arms.  The water spray stopped and all the mermaids swam back into the arena, approaching the island and inviting the girl to join them in the water.  After receiving a hesitant nod, the aquarium employee lowered her down between Maria and Carla, who took her hands and swam with her around the pool, making sure to keep her head out of the water.  Then they set her on Allen’s back, and he stayed still on the surface as the other mermaids swam around him, leaping out of the water and splashing the girl as they landed.  She squealed with delight and surprise.  Finally, Allen took her back to the island and the aquarium helper lifted her off of his back.  The music quieted and Daphne was lifted out of the water by the swing so that she could thank the audience and dismiss them.

An aquarium staff person replaced the bridge and escorted the girl’s parents across to their daughter.  She came back out of the changing room with her dry clothes on and a big smile because she was carrying a bag with the mermaid costume in it—her prize for participating in the show.  Once the girl and her parents had left, the mermaids all gathered around and discussed the show.  They were pleased with how it had worked out, and it seemed like the customers were happy.  As the next few weeks progressed, they had the opportunity to repeat the show every few days.  Sometimes there would even be dolphins present for part of the show, but they would come in late or not be interested in performing that day.  The mermaids got good at improvising small changes in the program to account for these less compliant dolphins, and the customers came in droves to see the show, which became the aquarium’s most popular event.  Audra and her partner made a lot of money.

 

Chapter 33 – Captured

May 17

Then one day after hours, the alarm went off.  “That’s not a drill!”  Said Audra as she swam towards the potty pool.  Soon all seven mermaids and one merman were gathered together in the pool.

“Do you know what the problem is?”  Renna asked Audra.

“No.  All I know is we didn’t have a drill planned.  It could be anything from a fire to bad weather to a gunman in the aquarium.  One of the security people should be around before long to tell us what’s going on.”

They started chatting with one another for a minute and then there was a soft “clunk.”  Lacy was the only one looking in that direction at the time, so she saw the door slide down from the ceiling and close off the entrance to the potty pool.

“I’ve never seen that door before.”  She said.  “Did you recently have this installed?”

Audra turned to look.  “No, I never ordered such a thing.  What’s going on here?”

Allen swam over to the door and tried to lift it up, but it must have been locked from the outside as it didn’t budge.  It sealed against the top of the pool entrance wall.

“Hey, the water is getting deeper!”  Said Katherine.

Once Katherine had mentioned it, they all noticed the water level rising.  It kept doing so for several minutes until the pool was completely filled to the top.  They were all fine of course, because of their underwater breathing collars, but conversation became impossible.  Allen pounded on the door, hoping to attract someone’s attention.  But after a minute or two he found his arms growing weak, and a deep lethargy came over him.  He looked around at the other mermaids and saw that they were swimming more slowly and their eyes were drooping.  He felt like he should resist falling asleep, but his body betrayed him and he lost consciousness.

When he woke up, Allen was hanging in darkness, still surrounded by water.  He could feel the soft flow of air from his throat into his lungs, so the breathing collar was still working.  His wrists were bound in some fashion and his arms were pulled out at an angle to each side.  He was still wearing his tail, which was attached to something below him.  He pulled and struggled for a minute but it soon became apparent that his bonds were secure and he could not escape them.  The darkness was as black as a cave, so he could see nothing around him.  He held very still and listened.  There were a few faint clinking sounds, as well as the sound of something rubbing.  He couldn’t really tell what the sounds were, but he thought they might be the sounds of another person struggling against bonds similar to his own.  After a time, he heard a clunking noise from somewhere ahead, and shortly thereafter he felt himself begin to move.  The motion reminded him of being in a car with a bit more jerkiness to it.  The motion went on for a long time.  Allen had no way of gauging exactly how long, except that he had to empty his bladder twice.  Since he was already underwater, he assumed that his urine would be washed safely away.  With nothing else to do, he dozed fitfully from time to time.

At last the movement stopped and a short time later, Allen heard clunks and thumps to his right.  Then there was a metallic scraping and a cylinder of light stabbed down in front of him.  With the light coming in, Allen could see that he was inside a cylindrical tank of water—probably the back of a tanker truck.  There were four people hanging in front of him, all lined up in a row:  Katherine, Lacy, Audra, and a man.  The man appeared to be wearing Allen’s old mermaid tail, but he was also wearing a breathing collar.  From the back, Allen wasn’t sure who it was, but he looked familiar.  He didn’t have much time to look at the others before his view was blocked by a man in a wetsuit entering via the hatch in front of him.  The man was wearing one of the old-style breathing collars with the tubing and mouthpiece, and he carried a bag in one hand.  He had a light attached to a headband which pierced the darkness in a cone ahead of him.  Allen watched as the man swam over behind Katherine and changed the discs in the back of her collar, taking new discs out of the bag.  Then he swam up to Lacy to repeat the process.  The light was just barely enough that Allen caught a glimpse of a black wire snaking down from above and connecting to Katherine’s collar.  So whoever had taken them wanted them alive and breathing as they were providing power to the collars and changing the discs when needed.  Apparently the trip they were on was not over yet.

The man finished with the people in front of Allen and then came back and changed Allen’s discs.  Allen wanted to grab him or hit him as he swam past, but his restraints allowed almost no movement and the man didn’t even notice Allen’s struggles.  After his own discs were changed, Allen could hear the man working on others, so apparently all of the merfolk were in the same predicament, including the man in the front.  When the diver was done replacing all of their discs, he handed his bag up through the hatch and another man climbed inside to join him.  They approached Allen and the new man pulled out a flexible plastic bag filled with some kind of pink liquid.  It had a screw-on cap on one end with a large nipple in it.  The man put the nipple up to Allen’s mouth and pushed it into his lips.  There didn’t seem to be much point in resisting, so Allen took the nipple in his mouth and sucked.  The pink liquid was some kind of strawberry-flavored protein shake.  Allen drank a few swallows but didn’t seem to be going fast enough for the man, who squeezed the bag and filled Allen’s mouth with the liquid.  Allen quickly swallowed and kept drinking until the bag was empty.  A second bag followed, filled with a clear liquid that turned out to be water.  Allen drank that as well, surprised at how thirsty he was while surrounded by water.  When some of that water leaked in around the nipple he found that it was salt water, just like the aquarium, so he needed what the man was giving him.  The two men repeated the feeding process with all the other inhabitants of the tank, then left by the hatch, closing it down and leaving them in darkness again.

The motion started again, and Allen hung in the darkness for a very long time.  The water around him grew warmer, likely being heated by the sun outside.  Although Allen was cushioned and supported by the water, his wrists grew sore as the manacles rubbed against his skin with the motion of the truck.  Time passed slowly, and Allen’s mind went round in circles as he tried to deduce who had kidnapped them and why.  What would somebody want with a bunch of mermaids?  Eventually, he slept some more.

At last the movement stopped again, and a few minutes later the same diver from before entered the tank.  Their discs were replaced and they were fed another bag of food and water, then the men left and the truck started moving again.  This time it didn’t seem as long before the motion stopped.  No-one came for some time after they stopped, but eventually the hatch opened again.  Several tablets dropped into the tank through the hatch and Allen could see them fizz as they sank to the bottom.  Before long the weakness and lethargy came again, and sleep claimed him.

 

Chapter 34 – Search for Some Missing Persons

May 26

 

Janice listened to the phone ring again, before switching over to a message that told her the mailbox was full.  She didn’t really need to leave a message anyway.  The mailbox was full of all her other messages.  She had been trying to contact Katherine for days, and it wasn’t like her not to call back.  She hadn’t answered any of the e-mails she had sent or the facebook messages.  She was starting to get worried.  Should she call the police?  She decided to try one more number first.  Somewhere she still had the number for Audra Burns.  Maybe she could tell her what was going on.

“I’m sorry, but this number is no longer in service.”  Was the robotic message she got when she tried the number.  She double-checked and tried again, but got the same message.  So she looked up the main number for the Gulf Aquarium on the web site and called that one.

“Gulf Aquarium, we bring the ocean to you.  How may I help you?”  Said the representative on the phone.

“My daughter Katherine Jackson and her husband Allen both work for the aquarium.  Could you please connect me to one of them?”

“One moment please.”  Hold music played.  “Ma’am, are you still there?”

“Yes, I am.”

“According to our records, Allen and Katherine Jackson no longer work for the aquarium.”

“What!  They never told me they were leaving.  Can you connect me to Audra Burns?”

“I’m sorry, she’s gone on a long business trip.”

“Oh, I see.  Well I’m sorry to bother you then.  Thank you.”

Something was definitely wrong.  Janice went to her computer and looked up the number of the police department.  She called and filed a report with a very helpful clerk who stayed calm and cool even when Janice got upset and wept.  Once she had passed along all of the information she could, Janice tried to relax and wait for the police to do their job. After a sleepless night, she got a call from the police department.

 

“Is this Janice Jackson?”

“Yes it is.”

“Mrs. Jackson, my name is Gloria Osval, and I’m the officer assigned to the missing person’s case for your daughter and son-in-law.”

“Yes.  Have you found them?”

“I’m sorry to say that I haven’t.  You listed two addresses for them, an apartment and also the gulf aquarium mermaid quarters, is that correct?”

“Yes.  They spend most of their time at the aquarium.”

“Well, the people at the aquarium said they no longer work there.  They quit on May 17th.  So we checked out the apartment.  There was nobody home, and the landlord says it is a shared apartment used by a group of girls and one couple, but she hadn’t seen any of them for over a week.”

“Was their car in the lot?”

“I did check that out, with your description and our license plate records.  Their car was not there or in the aquarium lot.  The landlord let us into the apartment, but it was empty.  There were no signs of a struggle or that anyone left in a hurry.  Everything was neat and tidy.  I’m having a hard time finding any clues in this case.  Is there anyone else that might know where they are?”

“Their main friends were mostly the other mermaids that work at the aquarium.  They are the people who shared the apartment with them.  You could also try Audra Burns, the aquarium owner, and Fernando.  I don’t know his last name or address, but he works at the aquarium as well.”

“Thank you Mrs. Jackson.  I’ll go make some interviews and see if anyone knows what happened to them.  I want you to know that we are doing everything in our power to find your daughter and her husband.  We won’t stop looking until we find them.”

“Thank you.  I appreciate your call.”

Once she hung up, Janice called her boss and told her that she would be taking several days off to go look for her daughter.  Then she started packing for a trip.  She couldn’t stand sitting and waiting.  She had to go there herself and see what she could do to help find them.

 

Chapter 35 – In Carlos’ Clutches

May 21

 

When Katherine woke up, she was laying on a hard surface with her head raised.  Water covered her body, but her neck and head were in air.  She opened her eyes and tried to lift her head, but it would only move about half an inch before being stopped.  It felt like something was connecting her collar down to the surface beneath.  Her hands were free, though her wrists were chafed and bruised from the manacles and the trip to wherever they now were.  She felt around behind her head and found a wire plugged into the charging port on the back of her collar.  There was also a steel collar closed around the outside of her breathing collar that was attached to the wall underneath her.  It was this extra collar that prevented her from lifting her head.  Next Katherine tried moving her tail, but she found that there was still something around her ankles that prevented movement there.  She could feel a tingling sensation in her legs, and a kind of “squishiness” as she squirmed in her bonds.  It felt like the space between her tail and legs had been filled up with some kind of viscous fluid.  Finally, she opened her eyes.  She was in a darkened room, but it was not the kind of deep darkness they had experienced inside the tanker truck.  This felt more like a room in a house at night, with a trickle of moonlight seeping in through cracks in some curtains.

Katherine looked around, trying to make out details in the gloom.  To her right and left, she could see the heads of some of the other mermaids.  It looked like Lacy was to her right and Carla to her left.  Beyond her immediate neighbors she could not see well enough to make out faces.  Whatever window let in the light was behind her head and she couldn’t turn far enough to see it.  They seemed to be in some kind of long, narrow pool that was partially covered.  The uncovered part was only a couple of feet wide, and their bodies and tails extended down below the covered portion.  The light did not reach down into that part of the pool, so Katherine could not see how deep it was or how far it extended.  She opened her mouth to try and talk to the others, but found her airway blocked.  Only then did she notice the gentle flow of air in and out of her lungs from her collar.  Strangely, it was still set to underwater mode even though her head was in air.  She resorted to splashing the water with her hands.  Lacy and Carla seemed to come around slowly when they heard the splashing, and they both reached out their hands.  Katherine found that she could just reach the hands of her neighbors, and their fingers touched and then clasped, holding on to each other for comfort.

The light from behind gradually grew brighter, and Katherine could hear occasional splashing from each side as the mermaids moved around.  Eventually, a door opened and the lights were turned on.  There was the sound of waves and seagulls for a few moments, and then a familiar person moved into view.  He walked around from somewhere behind them and strode out to stand in front of the whole group of mermaids.  He waved his ring-covered hands and seemed very pleased with himself as he spoke.

“At last my plan comes together.  Welcome to my Central American hideaway.  I’m so glad you could come.  I’ve been hearing about how entertaining the mermaid show was, but I’ve never had a chance to see it, so I decided to make my own mermaid show here.  You may have escaped the Kings before, but now I don’t think you will.  The government here doesn’t like to cooperate with the United States much, so there will be no help from your policeman friends.  And I now have an ace up my sleeve.  Let me demonstrate.”

He pulled out a small electronic box and pushed a button.  When he did, the flow of air from Katherine’s collar stopped, but the valve didn’t open to allow her to breathe.  With her extensive practice at holding her breath, she didn’t feel distress for a minute or two, but as the time extended to three minutes and more, she started to feel the familiar pressure and desire to breathe.  She tried gasping to bring in air, but it only filled her stomach, blocked from her lungs by the valve in her trachea.  When he saw the panicked looks and gasping from all of the mermaids, Carlos pressed the button on his controller again and allowed the air to flow once more.

“As you can see, I now control the very air you breathe.  You may have heard of the Kings gang and thought we were just a bunch of street thugs.  While it may be true that we have some of those kinds of people in our employ, what you may not know is that we own a legitimate business called Crown Holdings that just happens to hold the security contract at the Gulf Aquarium.  Our company also has an interest in several contract manufacturing houses in the Houston area, so it was we who actually manufactured your collars, and I arranged to have some extra circuitry added to the design.”

“Now, I often have visitors and I expect them to be entertained, so I want to introduce you to Gretchen, my mermaid trainer.  She’ll be in charge of keeping you fed and watered as well as working on your choreography.  I expect you to do what she says.”

A large blonde woman came to stand next to the man with the rings.  She was dressed in a black one-piece swimsuit with a sheer black cover-up, but the look on her face was more drill sergeant than beach babe.  Surprisingly, she appeared to be wearing pantyhose underneath her swimsuit.  Carlos handed her the remote control and left.  The woman put her hands on her hips and began to speak.

“Well, girls, we are going to be getting to know one another well in the next days and months.  But right now you are still recovering from your trip, so I will just tell you the rules and then come back later for our first practice.  Currently you are in the sleeping and eating position.  Most of the time, you will be free to swim and practice in the pool, but when I call you will come to this wall and position yourselves in the tail clamps and neck clamps like you are now.  It will be obvious how to do so once you can turn around and look at it.  As a demonstration, I will release you into the pool now.  I want you to swim one lap of the pool and come back and get into this position again so that you can see how it works.”

Gretchen walked to the side of the room, where there was some kind of control panel.  She activated some of the controls and suddenly the bottom of the surface they were resting on started to lower.  They were rotated down until they were in a standing position, and lowered until their heads were under the water.  At the same time, the cover over the pool extended until the narrow open area was closed.  Katherine could now look down and watch the metal clamp that encircled the bottom of her tail open at the same time as the extra steel collar around her neck opened.  She was now free to move about, but the power cord for her breathing collar was still in place.  She reached up behind her neck and pulled it out, then swam away from the wall.  Now that she was down in the water, she could see the full extent of the pool they were in.  It was D-shaped, with the back metal wall containing the clamps the mermaids had been attached to.  The curved section of wall was clear acrylic, and beyond that wall she could see what looked like a restaurant or dining area with round tables and plush furnishings.  The two flat side walls of the pool were decorated with colorful tiles, and a fake reef with brightly colored artificial corals made a hump in the middle of the pool.  Katherine followed the other mermaids as they swam a circuit of the pool.  Now that she could see all of their faces she could confirm that they were all present, with the addition of Fernando’s wife Anna.  Why was she here?  And how had she been captured?  She didn’t live in the aquarium with the rest of them.  Unlike the other mermaids, who were wearing the swimsuit tops they had on when they were abducted, Anna’s breasts were bare.  She seemed to be struggling to control her monofin, so Katherine swam next to her and held her hand.  Renna took her other hand and they pulled her through the water as they made their circuit.

As she passed by the back wall, Katherine could see that the name of each mermaid was painted on the wall in their spot, though there were two spots more than there were mermaids.  One had the name “Ellen,” painted above it, and the other said “Fern.”  When Katherine got to her spot, she could see the open metal clamp for her tail, and a second clamp at neck level.  She backed up against the wall and lowered her tail into the clamp, at the same time easing her neck back into the upper clamp.  As soon as she did so, the two clamps closed.  She plugged the power cord back into her collar and waited as the other mermaids copied her actions.  Once they were all in place, the pool cover opened and the metal wall rotated and lifted back into the reclined position with their heads just out of the water.  Gretchen sat on a stool in front of them.

“Very good.”  She said.  “I am pleased that you all chose to be obedient, though you were a little slow.  Next time I will expect you to move faster.  Now I will leave you to rest for a bit and then we will have breakfast.”

About an hour later, Gretchen returned.  She was carrying a bag and she stopped at Renna, who was the first in line.  She pulled out a foil package and handed it to Renna.

“These are emergency ration bars.  According to the literature, they have all the nutrition and calories that you will need for a whole day.  I don’t want to spend a whole lot of time feeding you multiple times per day, so I intend to give you a breakfast and a dinner.  One of these bars is intended to supply a whole day’s supply of food, but you will be using extra calories as you swim and practice, so you will get two per day.”

Gretchen handed one package of two bars to every other person along the line.  Lacy received one, opened the package, and handed one bar to Katherine.  It tasted like a mild cookie with a slight honey flavor.  It was very dense and took some serious chewing to break down the bar, but it wasn’t too bad.  Everyone worked on biting and chewing for a while, and then Gretchen left and came back with a hose.  Cold fresh water came out of the hose, and each mermaid took a long drink from the hose before passing it along to the next.  The hose went down the row and back a couple of times as they each worked on finishing their half of a ration bar.  When they were all done eating and drinking, Gretchen took the hose away and then came back carrying the small remote control.

“I don’t want to repeat Carlos’s demonstration from earlier, but I want you to remember what I have in my hand.”  She said.  “I expect strict obedience to my instructions, and if you give me trouble, you will find yourselves without food or water for a time.  Now, I am still working out exactly what kind of show we’re going to put on, so we won’t be having a regular practice today.  I’m going to use this time to assess your abilities and get some ideas.  I have underwater speakers installed in the pool, so I’m going to release you into the pool and then go down to the dining area where I can watch you swim.”

After they were lowered into the water and freed from the steel clamps, the mermaids all swam together into a group.  They couldn’t talk, but through holding hands and patting backs they communicated their support for each other.  They only had a few minutes before they heard Gretchen’s voice through the speakers.

“All right, come over here next to the window where I can see you all.”

They swam to the window.  Anna, who was still having troubles getting used to the monofin, struggled to keep up, but eventually they all got to the window and noticed Gretchen on the other side.  She was standing in front of one of the tables and she had a headset on.

“It’s time to start the day’s practice.”  Gretchen said.  “As I mentioned earlier, I don’t have a specific routine to practice this morning.  Instead I want to see in general what you can do.  To start with, I want you all to swim around the perimeter of the pool as fast as you can 10 times.  Go!”

They got off to a ragged start, but once the mermaids understood that Gretchen wanted them to swim right now, they moved pretty quickly.  Anna lagged behind, but she watched the other mermaids and quickly improved her technique.  When all of the women had finished their ten laps, Gretchen told them that they could stop.  Then Gretchen had the mermaids go through a series of moves – underwater flips and twists, synchronized movements and team movements like making shapes with their bodies.  She worked with them for a couple of hours, and by the end of the time Anna was feeling very sore and weak.  The others felt a little tired, but they were more used to being in the water and swimming all day.

“Well, I think that is enough for the day.  You have all been very cooperative, so you can have the rest of the day to rest.  Once Anna regains her strength, I think she should practice her swimming.  She will need to quickly get to the same level as the rest of you.  I’ll be back in time for dinner.”

Gretchen left them alone and they all swam into the back of the pool and sat on the bottom.  They sat in a circle on the sand and held each other’s hands.  By this time most of them needed to use the bathroom.  There was no potty pool here, but there was a large filter intake at the bottom of the pool in a back corner.  With a bit of pantomime and pointing, they all agreed to use that area of the pool as their toilet and they took turns doing so.  Afterward they gathered together and tried to communicate using hand signals, but it was difficult to get any message across.  After a few minutes, Lacy got excited and started making shapes with her fingers.  It took the rest of them a bit to understand what she was doing, but then Carla realized she was using sign language.  She got excited too, and pointed at Lacy so that the others would understand.  Before long all of them were watching Lacy intently.

Lacy started by holding her hand up with her fingers closed and her thumb beside them, then she unfolded her fingers and folded her thumb across her palm.  Next she held her fingers and thumb in a “C” shape.  As she continued, everyone realized that she was showing them the alphabet.  They started following along, imitating the signs as Lacy made them.  A few of the letters had to be modified slightly to account for the webbing between their fingers, but once Lacy chose an alternate, the rest of them followed along.  They practiced for a couple of hours until they could all run through the alphabet without error or prompting.  From there they quickly moved on to spelling out words.

“A.R.E. Y.O.U. O.K?”  Was the first thing Katherine spelled to Daphne.

“Y.E.S. J.U.S.T. A. L.I.T.T.L.E. S.C.A.R.E.D. H.O.W. A.R.E Y.O.U?”

“I.M. O.K. B.U.T. I. F.E.E.L B.A.D. A.R.E. W.E. S.T.U.C.K H.E.R.E?”

“L.O.O.K.S B.A.D. B.U.T. D.O.N.T. L.O.S.E H.O.P.E. K.E.E.P. E.Y.E.S O.P.E.N.”

They kept spelling slowly with lots of mistakes, but eventually they were all able to communicate with each other.  They felt pretty helpless and stuck.  Renna wanted to try and grab Gretchen and pull her into the water, but their discussions calmed her down.  For now they needed to cooperate while they learned as much as they could about their situation.  They would hope for a rescue, but seek ways to help themselves if they needed.  Their discussions took the rest of the morning and afternoon, though Anna did take some breaks to practice swimming with the help of some of the other mermaids.  She was determined to strengthen her petite frame and keep up with the others.  When the evening came, they heard Gretchen’s voice through the speakers.

“Dinner time!  Get to your places!”

They all swam to the back wall and lined up against the clamps, which closed around their necks and tails.  Then the wall raised and the pool cover opened, but they couldn’t see Gretchen.  Renna heard Gretchen approach her from behind.

“Hold your arms out to your sides, Renna.”  Said the trainer.

Renna was a little startled by the touch of a pair of scissors to her shoulder.  Gretchen cut through the shoulder straps and the side of Renna’s top and pulled it off.

“Mr. Ruiz doesn’t want anything to block his view of your assets.”  Commented Gretchen.

She continued down the line of mermaids, removing all of their swimsuit tops.  When she was done, Gretchen brought them more energy bars and drinks from the hose.  They all ate and drank their fill.  When they were done, Gretchen sat on the stool and gave them their instructions for the evening.

“Mr. Ruiz doesn’t have any guests tonight, so he will be dining alone.  You will be released from your clamps and I want you to swim around near the front window of the pool so that the boss can enjoy the scenery while he eats.  Once he leaves the table, it will be bedtime and I’ll call you back here to sleep.  Understand?”

Unable to reply vocally, they nodded their heads as much as they could.  Then Gretchen activated her remote and the clamps opened for all the mermaids.  They swam toward the front of the pool as instructed.  With people watching, they didn’t use their sign language.  They just swam back and forth in front of the window.  A few minutes later, they saw Carlos enter the room, easily recognizable by his silk shirt and be-ringed hands.  A young woman followed him, dressed in white tights and a pink leotard with a very short pink skirt.  She was carrying a tray with a plate, cup and silverware, and she set a place at the center table for him.  He watched with interest as the mermaids swam around the pool in front of him.  The young woman left and then came back carrying a tray of food.  She poured a drink into the cup and spooned the food onto the plate, then set her tray down on one of the other tables and stood behind Carlos in case he needed something else.

Carlos ate a long, leisurely meal, watching the mermaids intently as they swam back and forth in front of him.  The mermaids watched him back, but there wasn’t much to see other than the one or two times when he signaled his waitress to freshen his drink.  At last he left, the young woman staying behind to clean up his place setting.  A few minutes later, Gretchen called them all back to the wall and told them it was bedtime.  Clamps in place, the wall rotated back up into position.  Then Gretchen went down the row of mermaids and changed the discs in their breathing collars.  Finally, she turned off the lights and told them to sleep well.

“We will have much work to do tomorrow.  I have your performance choreographed and we will begin to practice in earnest.”

Gretchen turned out the lights and left the room.  Once again they could hear the waves of the sea when she opened the door.  They all found sleep difficult in their restrained position, especially Katherine.  She knew Allen had been taken with the rest of them, so where was he?  What were they doing to him?  She had a sinking feeling about the clamps marked “Ellen” and “Fern,” and she spent a long time worrying it out in her mind.  Eventually, the efforts of the day caught up with her and she fell asleep.  When the morning came, Gretchen came into the room and opened the pool cover to feed the mermaids their ration bar breakfast.  While they were eating, she dropped a large artificial clamshell into the pool, and it settled down to the bottom near the back.  When they were done eating she lowered the mermaids into the pool and released them.  Then she went around and assumed her position in front of the glass where she could see them, and started giving orders. Gretchen started the mermaids practicing their new routine.  At first, she just wanted to run through the whole performance so they would get an idea of how it went.  It was much like a synchronized swimming routine or a Broadway dance number, with the mermaids swimming in time with music and coordinating their moves together.  It was very athletic, requiring flips and spins under the water.  When they approached the end of their routine, Gretchen made some comments.

“You may have noticed that there is room for two more mermaids on the back wall.  Ellen and Fern will be joining you in a week or so.  In the meantime, we are going to pretend they are already here.”

The final segment started with the mermaids apparently noticing two new friends sitting on the bottom.  Gretchen had them all swim in a circle that spiraled in towards where the two others would be seated, with them jumping back occasionally as if they were startled by these two newcomers.  Then Gretchen had them gradually spiral in close and get a good look at the two seated merfolk.  Next they acted as if they were trying to get the two seated merfolk to swim with them, but the imaginary new mermaids would seem to have difficulty following.  The mermaids then did a sad little dance while the around their new imaginary friends in the center.  Gretchen had Renna swim towards the back of the tank and bring back the artificial clam, then open it to show what was inside.  Inside the clam there was an assortment of waterproof makeup enclosed in sea-related containers, mostly shells of various sizes and shapes.

“Which one of you is good with makeup?”  She asked.

Lacy raised her hand.  “Good.  When our new mermaids arrive, you will be giving them a makeup job in this part.  For now, just pretend.  Gretchen asked for a second person to do makeup for the other future mermaid, and Anna quickly raised her hand.  Meanwhile Gretchen had the other mermaids swim around in front to block the view.  As a finale, the mermaids all joined hands, with a space for the new mermaids in the center, then swam to the front of the tank to take a bow and show off the newly made up faces of their friends.

When they got to the end of the first run-through, Gretchen let them rest for a few minutes, and then the practice continued, with Gretchen now concentrating on the first few moves, having the mermaids repeat them over and over as they tried to synchronize their movements with each other and with the music.  The practice lasted for four hours, and by the time they were done, Anna could hardly move.  Even the other mermaids were tired.  After Gretchen left, they all kind of collapsed to the floor of the pool.

That evening went the same as the one before, with Carlos eating dinner and the mermaids swimming around for his entertainment.  The only difference was that a different young woman was serving him, as her leotard and skirt were yellow instead of pink.  When they were done, Gretchen gave them orange juice to drink in addition to their ration bar and water.

“We wouldn’t want our mermaids to get scurvy.”  She told them.

 

Chapter 35A – Allen’s New Look

 

When Allen woke up, he was strapped to a bed in what looked like a hospital room.  He tried to call out, but his collar was still set in underwater mode, so only a few gurgles escaped his throat.  Apparently, his efforts drew someone’s attention, because a man dressed in the white coat of a doctor approached his bed.

“Ah, you are awake.  Welcome to my little clinic.  I hope you will be comfortable here for a few days.  There is no need to be concerned, you are perfectly healthy.  Mr. Ruiz just sent you to me so I could make a few cosmetic changes.  I must say, the mermaid tail is a fantastic work of art.  It looks so realistic it could be an actual part of your body.  It did take us a while to figure out where to insert your catheter – that is quite an ingenious way to hide your penis while still allowing it to function normally.”

The mention of a catheter centered Allen’s mind on the strange tugging feeling he had below.  He lifted his head enough to see a tube coming out of his anal fin and trailing off to one side of the bed.  He couldn’t see much more, though, because his upper arms were encircled by the straps holding him firmly down to the bed.  He did notice an IV in his left hand.

“Enfermera!”  The doctor called out.  “Traiga el carro!”

Allen’s rusty Spanish wasn’t up to translating “enfermera,” but he deduced the meaning when a nurse came into the room pushing a cart laden with various unfamiliar-looking instruments.  On the bottom of the cart was a large jar of liquid with some kind of pumping mechanism on top.  A tube from the mechanism led up to a large hypodermic syringe which the nurse handed to the doctor.

“I understand that your tail is held on with a dissolvable medical adhesive.”  The doctor said.  “Mr. Ruiz wants a bit more permanent solution, so he managed to obtain a large supply of healglue.”

The doctor inserted the syringe through the silicone material near Allen’s ankles.  He pressed the plunger and Allen felt the cool material squeeze in to fill the gaps between his ankles and feet.

“I understand you work directly with Audra Burns, so you no doubt are aware of the properties of healglue.  Medical science still doesn’t completely understand how it works, but apparently it stimulates the tissues of your body to grow into and around whatever they are in contact with.  Within a few days, your tail will become a permanent part of your body.”

The doctor continued to work methodically with his needle, inserting the healglue into the gap between Allen’s legs.  He also worked around the sides of his legs, sliding the needle underneath the scales to squeeze a thin layer of the material between his legs and the silicone covering.  Allen tried to jerk his body free of his restraints, but the strong straps across his legs and body held him firmly in place.  The doctor just waited a moment until he stopped moving and then proceeded with his injections.  When he got to the top part of Allen’s tail where the scales were glued directly to his skin, the doctor applied a thin bead of the healglue under and around the top edge of each scale.  When the doctor was done, he spoke to the nurse in Spanish again.  The words sounded technical and Allen didn’t understand any of them.  The nurse inserted a needle into Allen’s IV and injected some kind of drug.  The doctor looked at his watch for a few minutes and Allen expected to fall asleep, but he did not.

“This is just a precaution because I need to work on your back side as well.”  The doctor said.

Apparently satisfied that the drug had taken effect, the doctor started undoing the straps around Allen’s legs.  Allen tried to kick his feet but discovered that he couldn’t move.  Panic flooded through him as he tried to wiggle his arms or even blink his eyes, but his body didn’t respond to his brain’s commands in any way.  When all the straps had been removed, the nurse came over to Allen’s head and gently pushed his eyelids closed.  Then she and the doctor rolled Allen over onto his stomach, taking care not to allow his IV to pull out of his hand.  Allen felt the healglue being injected along the backs of his legs and heard the occasional mutter in Spanish as the doctor and the nurse talked.  When they were finally finished, they rolled him back over onto his back and strapped him back down to the bed.  The doctor ran his fingers across Allen’s skin and rubbed them together.

“Apparently this secretion protects you from the water.”  The doctor said.  “I hadn’t heard about this particular detail, but it will no doubt be important for the new mermaids.  I’ll need to get some samples so we can duplicate it.  The paralytic should wear off in a half hour or so.  In the meantime, the nurse will start with your electrolysis.  Mr. Ruiz wants all of your facial and chest hair removed.  Normally, this is done in many sessions over a long period of time, but you are a bit of a rush job, so we’ll do as much as we can all at once.  The nurse will give you something to dull the pain a bit.  Get used to the sensation, because there will need to be weekly follow-up sessions for a time.”

The nurse turned Allen’s head to one side and he started to feel needle pricks in his cheek.  Each prick was followed by a burning sensation and a little tug as a hair was pulled out.  The pricks continued for a long time, and after a while Allen was able to open his eyes and wiggle his fingers a little.  But he didn’t move his head because he didn’t want a needle in his eye.  The nurse had earbuds in her ears and she hummed as she methodically inserted her needle into each hair follicle.  Allen lay still, concentrating on hearing the faint music from the nurse’s earbuds.  Trying to see how many of the Spanish words he could understand helped him to keep his mind off of the innumerable needle pricks that went on for hours and hours.  Occasionally, the nurse would stop for a few minutes to adjust whatever was going into Allen’s IV.  She also had a large baby bottle full of water on the cart, and she would fill it up and stick it into Allen’s mouth when she took her little breaks.  Allen gratefully sucked it dry as he was quite thirsty.  Once or twice, the doctor poked his head in the room and asked the nurse for something.  She would leave for a time, then return and pick up where she had left off.  Eventually she moved down to his chest, and after a few hours spent plying her needle there, she seemed to be finished.

The nurse spent a few minutes cleaning up her electrolysis apparatus, then spoke to Allen.

“Quieres comida ahora?”  She asked.

Allen knew the word for food, and he nodded his head.  The nurse left for a few minutes and came back with two of the large baby bottles.  Apparently it was going to be a liquid supper.  The first bottle had some kind of strawberry-flavored drink in it.  Allen guessed it was some kind of protein shake.  The second bottle was full of milk.  When he had finished drinking his dinner, the nurse left the room, turning off the light as she left.  With nothing else to do, Allen drifted off into a fitful sleep.

When he woke in the morning, Allen’s skin was dry and cracked.  The nurse returned and gave Allen a breakfast of milk and some kind of watery oatmeal, still feeding him from bottles.  The nurse noticed the condition of his skin and after Allen was done eating she left to find the doctor.  She came back with him in just a few minutes.

“It looks like he’s become adapted to constant immersion.”  The doctor said.  “I think his skin needs to be wet.”

Allen nodded his head, and the doctor gave the nurse instructions in Spanish.  She returned a few minutes later with a plastic tub filled with wet towels that she proceeded to wrap around Allen’s body and arms.  The doctor watched the proceedings.

“Is this what you need Ellen?”  He asked.

Ellen?  Was that deliberate?  Allen nodded his head.  His skin was already starting to feel better.

“Good.”  The doctor said.  “Are you ready for your operation?”

Allen shook his head.  He was definitely not interested in any operation, not that he was likely to be given a choice.

“Oh, there is no need to be concerned.”  The doctor told him.  “What with healglue covered implants filled with healgel, these procedures have become even safer and more effective than before.  The implants will gradually be absorbed into your body and the healgel will cause your own tissue to fill the space, creating breasts indistinguishable from natural ones.  We will have to leave a port under your arm though, so we can gradually increase the size of the implant.  It will take time for your skin to stretch enough to accommodate your new size.”

The doctor then issued some instructions to the nurse, who injected something into Allen’s IV.  A few moments later he fell asleep.  When he woke, he could feel a weight on his chest and the pressure of some kind of elastic garment around his torso.  He opened his eyes and saw two mounds covered with a white spandex material.  He looked around for the doctor or nurse, but neither one was present.  The drugs had not completely worn off, because Allen drifted in and out for a time, but eventually he became aware as the doctor returned to the room.

“How do you like your new breasts?”  The doctor asked.  “I’m pleased to say that the operation went smoothly and I expect you will have beautiful results.  If it was my decision, I would leave them small and perky like they are now, but Mr. Ruiz wants really big ones, so the final result will take a few weeks.  Now it is time for me to go work on your friend, but the nurse will be here to attend you while you heal.  You should be ready to go in a week.”

The doctor left the room, leaving Allen to wonder.  Who was the friend he was talking about?  What happened to the other mermaids?  And where would he be taken after the week was up?

The next few days were the most boring time Allen had ever experienced.  Strapped to the bed, he had nothing to read, nothing to watch other than the ceiling, and nothing to do but worry about what was happening to him and his friends.  The nurse came through every few hours, renewing the wet towels, bringing Allen his liquid meals, and checking the dressings under his arms.  Other than that, Allen was left completely on his own.  At the end of the week, there was another long session of electrolysis, followed by a day to recover.  Finally the nurse came and removed Allen’s dressings completely.  As the doctor had said, there was still the small lump of a port under each arm.  The nurse inserted a needle into each port and Allen could feel his breasts expand slightly, stretching the skin over his chest.  Then the nurse removed the IV from Allen’s hand and the catheter from his groin.  She left the room for a moment and returned with the doctor, and the two of them made some adjustments to his bed, which apparently had wheels.  They rolled him out of the room, down a short hall, and out a pair of double doors.  Allen squinted as his eyes were assaulted with unaccustomed sunlight.  Then his bed was rolled into the back of an unmarked ambulance and the nurse locked it down to the floor.

The nurse and doctor disappeared for a few minutes, then returned pushing another bed with a mermaid on it.  She had long black hair and a tail that Allen didn’t recognize.  Was this the friend the doctor spoke of?  Allen strained to lift his head and get a better look.  Finally, the other mermaid turned her head so that Allen could see her face.  It looked very familiar, but Allen couldn’t quite place it.  From the look on the other mermaid’s face, however, Allen could tell that she recognized him.  She tried to say something but no sound came from her throat.  Finally, something clicked in Allen’s brain and he realized he was looking at Fernando.  The long hair and breasts had confused him for a time.  Apparently Fernando was also a captive.  Was he the only one?  And where were the others?

The doctor and nurse got into the front of the ambulance and they drove for a time.  Eventually they stopped and the nurse brought a small bottle of juice for each of them.  Allen drank his and quickly fell asleep.

Chapter 35B – Allen and Fernando Join the Others

 

Katherine and the other mermaids fell into a routine of eating, sleeping and practicing.  Anna quickly got better at swimming with her mermaid tail, and by the time a week had passed she was almost as proficient as the others.  They all got better at the synchronized moves Gretchen required of them, and they got better at communicating via sign language when they were alone.  Then one morning Gretchen seemed excited.  They had their breakfast but she left them clamped to the wall.  Katherine heard the door open and the surf from outside, followed by the steps of several feet.  Somewhere behind her and to the side, men worked to lift a heavy weight, and Katherine could see a mermaid being lowered down into one of the two empty spots on the wall.  She immediately recognized the mermaid as Allen, who now sported breasts under a white swimsuit top.  A diver in a wetsuit jumped into the water and guided Allen’s tail into the clamp, then his neck into the upper clamp.  His wrists too, were seated in clamps on the wall, unlike the rest of the mermaids.  Other than being unconscious, he looked healthy.  Then another tail plopped into the water beside him, and the diver guided it into the other set of clamps.  It was a little hard to tell from where she was located, but Katherine was pretty sure the second mermaid was Fernando.  He too had been given breasts, and somehow they had also lengthened his short hair.  Extensions perhaps?  Once the two new mermaids were situated and the diver had left, Gretchen spoke again.

“As you can see, Ellen and Fern have arrived.  They should wake up in a few minutes, so I’m going to leave you all in the clamps for a while.  I will need to explain things to our new guests.”

Gretchen left for half an hour or so, and by the time she returned Allen and Fernando were indeed awake.  Katherine craned her neck to see her husband but with their restraints in place there wasn’t much to do other than look.  When Gretchen returned, she stood directly in front of the two men and explained her remote control.  She demonstrated it on all of them, and they all felt the unsettling experience of running out of air before she finally activated their collars again.

“Will you do as I tell you?”  Gretchen asked the men after her little demonstration.

Both of them nodded their heads.

“Good.  Your friends have been very obedient and we’re all getting along swimmingly.  You may wonder why your wrists are shackled and theirs are not.  It’s because the doctor said you should avoid raising your arms above your heads for a time.  This will help keep you from damaging anything while you continue to heal.  Now that the introductions are done, it is time for our daily practice.  Ellen and Fern can just go sit in the center of the pool.  The rest of you know what to do.  Let’s get to it!”

Katherine and Anna both met their husbands for a quick kiss before swimming to their assigned starting locations.  It felt strange to Katherine to feel her breasts rubbing up against her husband’s breasts when they kissed.  Allen tried to hold onto her for a longer time, but she just guided him to the center of the pool and shook her head.  They would have time to do more later.

The practice went as usual, though this time the men both sat watching the process.  When it came time for the finale, the mermaids finally had actual people to work with.  Gretchen coached the two newcomers through their parts, which were relatively passive.  When it came time to apply the makeup, Allen initially recoiled from Lacy’s ministrations.  But a warning from Gretchen convinced him to participate.  Anna applied her makeup on Fernando.  Then they all swam to the front for their final bow.  Gretchen had them work on this section for some time now that all the participants were present.  By the time they were done and Gretchen had left for the afternoon, Allen and Fernando were both covered in rather thick layers of makeup.

Katherine spent a long time hugging and kissing her husband, then started to teach him sign language.  He and Fernando understood very quickly and before long they were able to communicate with some help from the others.  They spent some time catching each other up on the events of the past week.

“DO YOU THINK WE HAVE ANY HOPE OF GETTING OUT OF HERE?”  Katherine asked her husband.

“THERE IS ALWAYS A WAY.  YOU DID THE RIGHT THING TO COOPERATE AND WAIT FOR THE RIGHT MOMENT.  I’M SURE PEOPLE ARE LOOKING FOR US, AND CARLOS IS BOUND TO MAKE A MISTAKE SOME TIME.  OUR CHANCE WILL COME.”

“DO YOU REALLY BELIEVE THAT?”

“YES I DO.  NOW I HAVE A QUESTION FOR YOU?”

“OK”

“HOW DO I GET THIS STUFF OFF?” Allen signed, pointing to his makeup-caked face.

“USUALLY YOU CLEAN IT OFF WITH COLD CREAM.”  She answered.  “BUT I DIDN’T SEE ANY IN THE CLAMSHELL.  EVEN THE BEST WATERPROOF MAKEUP WILL WASH OFF IN TIME THOUGH, ESPECIALLY IF YOU RUB AT IT.”

Allen rubbed at the makeup for a minute, then picked up a little sand in his hand and used it to rub his face.  Eventually, he felt like most of the makeup was gone, though it was hard to tell without a mirror.  While the rest of the mermaids rested, Allen investigated their prison.  He went to one of the clamps and looked at it closely, hoping to understand how it worked.  The two half-circles of steel were connected to flat sections at the back that passed through a rubber gasket to the mechanism behind the wall.  Allen pushed on one half of the clamp and felt resistance.  There must be springs behind the wall, he thought.  And a solenoid to press the clamp closed.  But how did the clamps stay closed?  Did they continue to apply power to the solenoid, or was there some latching mechanism that held it in place?  He decided to pay close attention when they were locked in place for the night.

When Allen backed into his clamps that evening, he listened very carefully to see if he could hear a latch clicking into place, but it was very hard to distinguish the various sounds he could hear as the clamp locked.  Was that little clink at the end a latch, or some other mechanical component moving behind the wall?  Allen tried to move his neck from side to side to see if his clamp moved or jiggled, but if there was any movement there it was very slight.

Gretchen came with their dinner of emergency bars that evening.  Allen was happy to just have solid food to eat, even though Gretchen had to sit on the edge of the pool and feed it to him.  She dangled her feet in the water and held a ration bar in each hand so that Allen and Fernando could both eat.  When they were done, she passed out glasses of orange juice to each of the mermaids.  For Allen and Fernando, she had two large baby bottles full of juice that she held for them to drink from.  When they were done, she patted them on their heads.

“Such good little girls.  I’m so glad you finished your din-din!”  She said.

Then she leaned over until her ample bosom pressed into Allen’s face.  She kissed him on the top of the head and said, “Sleep tight!  We have another big day tomorrow!”  She repeated the action with Fernando before leaving for the night.

The next day after their practice time, Allen used his sign language to ask the mermaids to feel their neck clamps.  Was there any give to them after they locked?  Or were the held firmly together? If it was the latter, then there was some kind of mechanical locking mechanism back there.  Allen wasn’t sure how that would help them, but he had a feeling it would be good to know.

Another day passed, and when they were done with practice for the afternoon, Allen used his improving sign language to ask about the clamps.

“DID YOU FEEL THE CLAMPS?”  He signed to Katherine.

“YES”

“DID THEY MOVE AT ALL?  DID IT FEEL LIKE A STRONG SPRING OR LIKE A HARD STOP?”

“THEY MOVED A TINY BIT, AND THEN STOPPED FIRMLY.”

“THAT’S WHAT I THOUGHT MIGHT HAPPEN.  THERE MUST BE A MECHANICAL CATCH BACK THERE THAT HOLDS THEM CLOSED.”

Now if only Allen could figure out what to do with the information.  He pondered the situation over the next several days, wiggling the clamps and wondering what they could do.  When he and Fernando had been there for a week, Gretchen stayed after dinner time.

“Now it’s time to check on your progress.”  She told them.  “Nurse Sophia is here to do that.”

At Gretchen’s invitation, a woman in a white leotard and tights approached.  She went to Allen first, pulling aside the straps on his swimsuit top to reveal the breasts underneath.  She carefully felt each breast with her hand, asking Allen to nod if he felt pain.  Then she repeated the examination on Fernando.

“Are they ready for more healgel?”  Gretchen asked.

“I don’t want to stress them too much, but we could probably add 100 cc’s or so.”  The nurse answered.

“Go ahead then.  Mr. Ruiz wants them big enough that nobody will look at their faces.”

“Yes ma’am”

The nurse felt around under Fernando’s right arm until she found the small plastic port.  Then she prepared a syringe of liquid and inserted it into the port, pressing the plunger until the syringe was empty.  Fernando gritted his teeth as his breast stretched to accommodate the newly introduced liquid and the tissue in his breast and skin strained.

“Breast augmentation has become so much easier since Audra over there invented healgel.”  Said Gretchen.  “All the plastic surgeon has to do is insert a dissolvable implant under the skin of the breast and fill it with a little healgel.  The healgel stimulates your body to create more tissue and the breast expands.  The size of the breast can be adjusted by simply adding more healgel.  It is truly a marvelous substance.  I’ll tell you a secret—I’ve even had the procedure done myself.  I used to have such small, uninteresting boobs, but now I get a lot more attention from the guys.  I understand the process still hasn’t been approved in the United States, but it’s all the rage here in Guatemala.”

While Gretchen was talking, the nurse injected another syringe full of liquid into Fernando’s left breast.  Then she returned to Allen and did the same for him.  When the nurse was done, Gretchen waved her away and then sat down on the pool cover with her feet dangling in the water.  She reached out and gently replaced the swimsuit tops over the newly expanded breasts of the two longsuffering men.

“The doctor advised us that your new breasts need support for a few weeks while they heal.  We will probably have to increase the size of your swimsuit tops a few times before we’re done.”  She said.

Then she looked closely at Allen for a moment.  “You keep cleaning your makeup off, Ellen.  You look much better with it on.  At least your hair is relatively long, so you make a pretty passable mermaid.  Fern looks even better with those long extensions in her hair.”

Then she leaned back and lifted her feet up, using the tops of her feet to caress each man on the cheek before she stood up and left for the night.

 

Chapter 36 – Continuing the Search

May 28

Once she got to Galveston, Janice drove directly to the aquarium.  Rather than go through the public aquarium entrance, she went to the entrance in back where Katherine would go in.  She spoke to the guard at the reception desk.

“May I speak to Audra Burns, please?”

“I’m sorry ma’am, but Ms. Burns is away on business.  Is there someone else I can get for you?”

“Well, you see, my daughter Katherine used to work here and she’s gone missing.  I’m trying to talk to her friends to see if they might know where she’s gone.  Can I talk to one of the other mermaids?  They were all pretty close.”

“I think Nancy is free now.  Would you like to talk to her?”

“Nancy?  That name’s not familiar.  What about Renna or Lacy or Maria?”

“Those three all left the same time as Katherine did.”

“Really?  What caused them all to leave?”

“I don’t know.  We never did see them much.”
“I guess I’ll talk to Nancy then.”

“I’ll give her a call.”

Janice paced the lobby for a few minutes until a young lady in a wheelchair came through the door.  She was wearing one of the older slip-on tails and a sequined gold bikini top.  She had blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail and she was chewing gum.

“Mrs. Jackson?”  She asked.

“Yes.  That’s me.  You must be Nancy.”

“Yeah.  Nice ta meet ya.”

“Nice to meet you as well.  Did you know my daughter Katherine?”

“Fraid not.  I hear she was one of the old mermaids?”

“Yes.  She’s been working here since the aquarium opened.  Do you have any idea why she left?”

“Nope.  Mr. Fulton just said there was a dispute and all the old mermaids quit.  That’s when I got the job.  I’m not sure why they would leave.  It’s a fun job.”

“And I always thought Katherine liked it.  You say all of the old mermaids left?”

“Yup.  Me and the other new girls had to learn on our own.  They didn’t even stick around to help train us!”

“Thank you for your help Nancy.”

“No sweat.  Hope you find your daughter.”

Janice turned back to the guard.  “May I speak to Mr. Fulton?”  She asked.

“Let me call his secretary.”

The guard made a call and spoke for a few moments.

“Mr. Fulton is all booked up for today.”  He told Janice.  “But he has some time free in the morning if you would like to come back tomorrow.”

“Yes I would.  What time should I be here?”

“10:30.”

“Thank you.  I’ll be here at 10:30 tomorrow then.  Have a good day.”

Janice found a hotel room for the night and showed up at the aquarium at 10:30 the next morning.  A secretary escorted her upstairs to Jonas Fulton’s office, where she was introduced to a handsome man in an expensive suit.

“What can I do for you, Mrs. Jackson?”

“I’m looking for my daughter Katherine.  She used to work here as a mermaid and biomedical engineer, but I have been told that she and all the other mermaids quit a short time ago.”

“Unfortunately that’s true.  On May 17th they all quit without notice.  They left us in quite a bind.”

“Do you know why they quit?”
“No.  I only found out afterwards when Ms. Burns sent me an e-mail.”

“Did she tell you what happened?”

“No.”

“Where is she?  Can I call her or send her an e-mail?”

“She’s in South America working to build another aquarium.  But I’m afraid she’s in a remote location and doesn’t have phone or e-mail access.”
“That sounds very strange.”

“Sometimes on big projects like this it’s better to keep things under wraps as long as possible.  That prevents speculators from buying up the land you’re interested in or from trying to pressure the government for additional taxes and regulations.  So she will be incognito for some time.”

“Did Katherine leave a forwarding address or anything when she left?  Where do you send her paychecks?”

“Her address wasn’t changed as far as I know.  And of course our paychecks are all direct deposit.”

“Do you know anything that might help me?”

“I’m very sorry, but I can’t think of anything.  Your daughter is an adult.  Maybe she just chose to leave?”

“Not Katherine.  She would never leave without telling me.  Thank you for your time.”

“If I hear anything about your daughter I’ll be in touch.”

“Good.  Thank you.”

Janice returned to her hotel and threw herself on the bed, crying into the pillow for a time.  Where could she go next?  In time, she remembered Dave Johnson, the policeman who had rescued Katherine before.  Perhaps he could help.  Janice did not have a phone number, but she remembered he was with a special unit of the Houston police, so she looked up the main number and worked the phone tree until she got connected to his office.

“Dave Johnson here.  How can I help you?”  He answered.

“Hello Detective.  My name is Janice Jackson.  You rescued my daughter and her friends from a gang a few months ago.”

“It wasn’t just me.  We had a lot of help, including from your daughter and her boyfriend.”

“The reason I am calling you is that my daughter and her husband have gone missing, along with the entire group who were kidnapped before.”

“When was the last time you heard from them?”

“I talked to Katherine on the phone on the 15th, but the people at the aquarium say they last saw them on the 17th.”

“Eleven days.  That doesn’t sound good.  Can you come to my office?  I need to get working on this at once.”

“I’ll be right there.”

 

Chapter 37 – Making Plans

June 4

 

The next morning, two guards came in after Gretchen had fed the mermaids breakfast.  They carried a rescue stretcher between them, and they lowered it to the bottom of the pool with ropes.

“It’s time for your next electrolysis session, Ellen.”  Said Gretchen.  “I need you to go lay down in the stretcher.”

Gretchen released Allen’s clamps, leaving the rest of the mermaids fastened to the wall.  Allen saw little choice but to do as he was told.  Gretchen still had the remote that controlled their collars.  So he swam down to the bottom of the pool and laid down in the stretcher.  Gretchen put on one of the old style collars with the mouthpiece and slipped into the pool.  She swam down next to Allen and used the straps on the stretcher to fasten Allen firmly in place.  Then she made a thumbs-up signal to the guards and they pulled the stretcher up out of the water, with Gretchen guiding it so that it didn’t bump into any of the other mermaids.  The guards lifted the stretcher up and placed it on a set of sawhorses that had been set up to one side of the room.  The same nurse that had done the electrolysis before was waiting nearby with her equipment.

While the other mermaids practiced, Allen spent a long and uncomfortable day with the nurse and her needle.  She seemed quite pleased with his progress, telling him that she was already seeing a marked reduction in facial and chest hair.  Every couple of hours she would take a short break, giving Allen a drink from the hose and then wetting down his body with the water.

“If you need to pee, do it now.”  She told him, and then simply rinsed off the urine that dribbled out the tip of his anal fin.

The session lasted the entire day and Allen’s skin was aflame with the pain of ten-thousand needle pricks when the guards came back to lower his stretcher back into the pool.  Gretchen made all of the other mermaids return to their clamps before they did so, and then swam down to release his bonds.  He only experienced a few moments of freedom before he had to return to his clamps on the wall so that Gretchen could feed them dinner.

“You look so sore and uncomfortable.”  Gretchen said as she fed Allen his bottle of juice.  “I added some pain reliever to your juice that should help a little.  Fern, it will be your turn tomorrow.”

The mermaids quickly slipped into a routine of practicing their show in the morning, followed by an afternoon alone.  On most days Carlos would eat dinner in the dining room, alone except for his server.  The mermaids noticed several different young women who would serve him at different times.  The mermaids were expected to swim around for his entertainment, although the men were usually told to go to their clamps on the wall during this time.  Gretchen told them that Mr. Ruiz wasn’t interested in seeing them until they were done.  After Carlos was done eating they would all be given their dinner and get locked up for the night.  Every two or three days, the nurse would return and inject more healgel into Allen and Fernando’s breasts.  Every time they felt like the pain was about gone, the nurse would inject more healgel, so the soreness and discomfort from their stretching skin continued.  At the end of each week, Allen and Fernando would be pulled out for more electrolysis, though the sessions gradually shortened as the nurse found less and less hair to remove.  Allen kept investigating the pool, looking for anything that would help them get out of their situation, but for a long time escape seemed hopeless.

Gretchen replaced the boy’s swimsuit tops three times, and after a month and a half, they both had larger breasts than any of the real women in the pool.  Finally, Gretchen pronounced them done and removed the swimsuits for good, leaving them bare breasted like the others.  Although not happy about their large cumbersome breasts, the two men were happy to be relieved of the pain from the stretching and growing process.

As their hopes for rescue faded, they found joy in the afternoons when they could spend time together and rest from the relentless practices.  Allen continued to think about the clamps, and one day he was swimming through the patch of fake coral in the center of the pool.  One of the corals had some thin branching filaments, and Allen noticed how thin and flexible they were.  He grabbed a long filament and bent it back and forth until it broke, giving him a small thin wire to use.  He spoke to Katherine about what he wanted done with it.

“KATHERINE, I THINK WE MIGHT USE SOMETHING LIKE THIS TO DEFEAT THE CLAMPS, BUT I CANT DO IT MYSELF WITH MY WRISTS CLAMPED TO THE WALL.”

“SO YOU WANT ME TO DO SOMETHING FOR YOU?”

“YES.  COME OVER BY ONE OF THE CLAMPS AND I WILL SHOW YOU.”

Allen swam over to one of the lower clamps.  Then he poked the filament between the top of the clamp and the rubber gasket.

“I THINK THAT MAYBE WE COULD POKE THIS IN HERE AND RELEASE THE CATCH ON THE CLAMP.”

“YOU WANT ME TO DO THAT?”

“YES, BUT ONLY AT THE RIGHT TIME.  IF GRETCHEN SEES YOU WITH THE CLAMP RELEASED, SHE WILL CATCH ON.”

“WHEN SHOULD I DO IT THEN?”

“RIGHT AFTER BREAKFAST WHEN SHE LOWERS US DOWN TO RELEASE US.  IF YOU CAN RELEASE THE CLAMP JUST A FEW SECONDS EARLY WE WILL KNOW THIS WORKS BUT GRETCHEN WON’T NOTICES.”

“THAT SOUNDS LIKE A GOOD PLAN.  GIVE ME THE WIRE THINGY AND I’LL TRY IT IN THE MORNING.”

“I’LL HAVE THE REST OF THE MERMAIDS WATCH GRETCHEN, AND IF SHE LOOKS YOUR WAY WE WILL SPLASH SO YOU KNOW NOT TO DO IT.”

“OKAY, GOOD PLAN.”

The next morning, Katherine tried to poke the filament through the gasket up by her neck, but she found it difficult to do and ran out of time before Gretchen hit the release.  The morning after, she tried again but heard splashing so she stopped.  The morning after that, she managed to get the filament under the gasket and feel around.  There was definitely something movable back there, but it took time to figure out just where she needed to poke it to make something happen.  Finally, after over a week of trying, she was able to lift the latch.  Her neck clamp popped open several seconds before all the others released.

“NOW WE KNOW YOUR IDEA WORKS, BUT HOW CAN WE USE IT?”  Katherine asked.  “EVEN IF I RELEASE MY NECK CLAMP, MY TAIL IS STILL STUCK.”

“ONCE YOUR NECK WAS FREE, COULD YOU BEND OVER AND RELEASE YOUR TAIL AS WELL?”

“PROBABLY, BUT WHEN WOULD I DO IT?”

“WELL, I THOUGHT OF TWO POSSIBLE PLANS.  FOR THE FIRST ONE, ONE OR TWO OF YOU COULD GET LOOSE DURING THE NIGHT AND CLIMB UP INTO THE ROOM.  THEN YOU COULD GRAB GRETCHEN WHEN SHE COMES INTO THE POOL ROOM IN THE MORNING.”

“THAT MIGHT WORK.  WHAT’S YOUR SECOND PLAN?”

“GRETCHEN ALWAYS SITS DOWN ON THE POOL COVER TO FEED FERNANDO AND I.  IF AUDRA COULD RELEASE HERSELF QUICKLY, SHE COULD GRAB GRETCHEN AND PULL HER INTO THE WATER.”

“THAT SOUNDS REALLY RISKY.  IF SHE CAN’T GET LOOSE FAST ENOUGH GRETCHEN WILL SEE WHAT SHE’S DOING AND GET AWAY.”

“I AGREE.  LET’S GO WITH THE FIRST PLAN.”

“WHEN?”

“WHY NOT TONIGHT?”

“OKAY.  LET’S TELL THE OTHERS.”

They waited for several hours after going to bed, and then Katherine used the filament to release the catch at her neck.  It popped open and she bent over to release her tail as well.  It was a difficult reach, and it took her quite some time to get the filament into the right place, but at last the clamp released and she was free.  As they had discussed, she released Renna as well, and then they kicked hard with their tails and climbed out of the pool.  They looked toward the back of the room and were almost immediately disappointed.  The back wall was all windows with a glass door in the center.  Blinds covered many of the windows, but the two next to the door were open, which would make it hard to hide near the door and ambush Gretchen as she entered.  Through the uncovered windows they could see a narrow beach and the ocean shore beyond.  But getting near the wall of windows would be almost impossible, as there was a barrier in place on the floor in front of the windows.  A four or five foot wide stretch of the floor was slightly lower than the floor in the rest of the room, and in that depressed area, shards of broken glass had been set into concrete.  Any mermaid trying to cross that moat would be cut to ribbons by the sharp glass.  Even the space directly in front of the door was covered with the glass.  It looked like there was a bridge that extended from underneath the door when it was opened.

“WHAT DO YOU THINK?”  Katherine signed to Renna.”

“I DON’T THINK WE WILL BE ABLE TO CATCH GRETCHEN BY SURPRISE.  MAYBE WE COULD LET EVERYONE LOOSE AND TRY TO OVERWHELM HER?”

“NO.  SHE WOULD JUST SEE US FROM OUTSIDE AND NOT COME IN.  THEN SHE COULD USE HER REMOTE TO CUT OFF OUR AIR.”

“SO WHAT DO WE DO NEXT?”

“LET’S AT LEAST LOOK AROUND THE ROOM AND LEARN WHAT WE CAN, THEN GET BACK IN THE WATER AND THINK ABOUT ANOTHER PLAN.”

They crawled around the room, but there was not much to see.  Most of the room consisted of the pool cover, with a narrow rim of floor around it.  On one side there was a counter with a computer tablet mounted on top of it.  Currently the tablet was turned off, but they had seen Gretchen use the tablet to control the clamps and the pool cover.  Next to the tablet was the regenerator for the breathing collar discs.  There was a cabinet under the counter, and inside was a box containing extra discs of both types for the breathing collars.  The rest of the room was devoid of decoration or furniture, so Katherine and Renna crawled back to the pool and slipped in.  It was too dark to see their hands in the water, so they couldn’t explain their failure to the others yet.  Renna positioned herself in her clamps, and Katherine pushed them together with her hands until the latch behind dropped into place, locking them again.  Then Katherine got into her own clamps.  She leaned over and closed the tail clamp, then straightened up and pushed the neck clamp closed.  It felt like the end of her hopes.

When Gretchen came into the room in the morning, she stepped into a puddle of water.

“Why is the floor all wet?”  She asked.

Of course, the mermaids couldn’t answer even if they had been inclined to.  Gretchen walked around the room, noticing the pattern of the wet areas.

“This is very interesting.”  She said.  “It looks like someone has been splashing water in the night, and they seem to have had a particular target.”

Gretchen walked over in front of Renna and activated her remote.  “So, Renna.  Why were you trying to splash the controls?  Did you think getting them wet would open your clamps?”

Renna felt the now strange sensation of air going into her lungs from outside and realized that Gretchen had opened the valve in her throat so she could talk.  Thankfully Gretchen had already provided an excuse for her.  Apparently the thought that someone had gotten out of the pool hadn’t even entered Gretchen’s mind.

“Y-yes, Gretchen.  I thought maybe we could short out the controls and it might open the clamps.”  Renna said.

Gretchen closed the valve again, cutting off any further explanation.  “And it looks like Renna wasn’t the only one splashing water.  Was it Katherine or Carla that joined in the hopeless splashing plan?”

Katherine sheepishly raised her hand.

“Well, even though it accomplished nothing, I cannot let this go unpunished.  But for now we have more important things to do.  We will be training extra hard today because Mr. Ruiz is having company tonight.  This will be your first real live performance.  Normally, a stunt like what happened last night would mean no breakfast, but you will need your strength for the performance.”

Gretchen proceeded to feed them their breakfast, and then they began an intensive practice session.  She produced a new set of waterproof makeup to replenish the rapidly diminishing supplies in the artificial clamshell.  Then they practiced their performance all day with only short breaks when Gretchen needed to use the bathroom or eat lunch.  She fed them dinner and then left them alone, telling them they had an hour to rest before showtime.

After Gretchen left they finally had a chance to “talk” about their experience with the other mermaids.  Katherine and Renna explained what they had seen and why they had abandoned the plan to ambush Gretchen.  Allen could see how depressed Katherine was feeling.

“DON’T LOSE HOPE.  IT IS BETTER THIS WAY.  THERE ARE PROBABLY MORE GUARDS AROUND WHILE CARLOS HAS COMPANY, SO OUR ESCAPE WOULD HAVE BEEN MORE DIFFICULT.  WE WILL WAIT FOR THE GUESTS TO LEAVE AND THEN TRY AGAIN.”

“BUT HOW?  THERE IS NO WAY WE CAN CRAWL ACROSS THAT BROKEN GLASS.”

“IT LOOKS LIKE WE WILL HAVE TO SWITCH TO MY OTHER PLAN.  WITH GRETCHEN INSIDE THE ROOM THE BRIDGE OVER THE GLASS SHOULD BE IN PLACE AND WE WILL BE ABLE TO GET OUT.”

“BUT WHAT WILL WE DO THEN?  I HAD A HARD TIME CRAWLING A FEW FEET IN THE POOL ROOM.  WE MAY GET OUT THE DOOR BUT I’M SURE CARLOS WILL STILL HAVE GUARDS ALL AROUND EVEN WHEN HIS GUESTS ARE GONE.  WE WON’T GET FAR BEFORE THEY CATCH US AND THEN WE’LL BE RIGHT BACK HERE OR WORSE.”

“YOU SAID THE OCEAN WAS RIGHT OUT THAT DOOR, DIDN’T YOU?  WE ONLY HAVE TO CRAWL THAT FAR AND THEN WE CAN USE OUR TAILS LIKE FOR WHAT THEY WERE DESIGNED TO DO AND SWIM AWAY FROM HERE.  WE’LL GO UP THE COAST TO THE NEXT TOWN AND FIND HELP.”

“I SUPPOSE THAT MIGHT WORK.”

“I KNOW IT’S A GAMBLE, BUT IT BEATS STAYING HERE.”

“SO HOW DO WE MAKE YOUR PLAN WORK?”

“REMEMBER OUR ALTERNATE PLAN?”  Audra interrupted.

“WHAT?”

“GRETCHEN LIKES TO SIT ON THE EDGE OF THE POOL AND FEED ALLEN AND FERNANDO.  I THINK SHE ENJOYS TAUNTING THEM.  I’M RIGHT NEXT TO ALLEN, SO WHILE SHE IS INVOLVED WITH GIVING HIM BREAKFAST, I CAN RELEASE MY CLAMP AND GRAB HER.”

“OK, THAT MIGHT WORK.  BUT HOW WILL YOU GET YOUR TAIL CLAMP OFF?”

“WE CAN RELEASE IT DURING THE NIGHT.  OUR TAILS ARE HIDDEN UNDER THE POOL COVER SO SHE WON’T SEE.  THEN ALL I HAVE TO DO IS RELEASE MY NECK CLAMP AND ATTACK.”

“YOU’LL HAVE TO PRACTICE UNTIL YOU CAN RELEASE YOUR CLAMP VERY QUICKLY.”

“WE’VE GOT ALL NIGHT.”

“OK.  IF THE OTHERS AGREE WE’LL TRY IT, BUT ONLY AFTER THE GUESTS ARE GONE.”

They didn’t have much more time to discuss their plan before they noticed a few people being escorted into the dining area.  Gretchen also appeared, dressed in a long black dress instead of her usual swimming suit.

“OK mermaids.”  She said through her headset.  “Swim around and look pretty.  The guests will be settling in and ordering their dinner.  I’ll let you know when to start the performance.”

Muscular men wearing dark suits escorted several groups of guests to their seats at the tables.  By the look of them, they were guards drafted into being ushers for the occasion.  Young women scurried between the tables getting orders for drinks and appetizers.  They were dressed in black leotards and tights, but they had knee-length skirts instead of the extremely short filmy skirts they usually wore.  They all had their hair braided into a single long braid at the back.  Carlos must have found or hired more women for the occasion, beside the few the mermaids were used to seeing.  The guests had an Asian look about them.  There were 5 or 6 men all wearing dark suits, and an equal number of women wearing formal dresses.  The last group to enter consisted of Carlos, who now wore an expensive jacket over his silk shirt, and another Asian man and woman.  The man was obviously the highest ranking member of the delegation, as the other guests bowed their heads in respect as he passed.  Carlos and his two main guests were seated at the central table, and as soon as they seated themselves the young serving women started setting drinks and appetizers in front of them.  The mermaids swam around as the guests worked through their initial courses, and the guests were all obviously fascinated by the scene in the pool in front of them.  Once the main course had been brought out to all of the tables, Gretchen kicked off the performance.

“Places mermaids.”  She said, and then the music started.

The mermaids swam their well-practiced routine, making a few minor mistakes, but nothing that would be picked up by the audience.  The guests seemed to be suitably impressed by the show, and there was even applause at the end when the newly made-up mermaids joined the others and took their bow.

 

Chapter 38 – Escape!

June 22

 

Once the show was over, Gretchen instructed the mermaids to continue swimming around and looking pretty.  They watched the guests continue to eat and chat until their plates were taken away.  Carlos and his guest seemed to be involved in an intense conversation, and apparently their subject did not make the woman sitting with them very happy, as she pouted and turned away from the two men.  As the conversation continued, the other guests seemed to be getting bored, until the man at Carlos’s table made a dismissing motion with his hand.  Carlos followed up by speaking to the servants, and soon the other guests were escorted back out of the room.  The serving women quickly cleared the other tables and all but one of them left the room as well.  Gretchen stayed, seated by herself at a table in the far corner of the room.  After a few more minutes of conversation, Carlos signaled to Gretchen, who walked over to stand next to him.  He spoke a few words to her, and she put her headset on and issued some commands.

“I need Katherine and Daphne to come to the center of the window.  The rest of you go get into your clamps.”  Gretchen ordered.

The two men turned to fully face the pool as the mermaids obeyed.  Katherine and Daphne held their position in the center of the window so the men could look at them closely.  The guest seemed to be very interested.  Carlos made a circling motion with his hand, and Gretchen told the two mermaids to twirl around.  They each made a slow revolution with the guest watching intently.  He spoke to Carlos for a moment more, and Carlos spoke to Gretchen, who relayed their command.

“Come closer to the window.”  She told them.

They swam up until they were almost touching the window.  The man looked at them intently for a minute or two, staring closely below their waists to try and make out the hidden slits behind the anal fins.  The two men continued to talk for a time, and Katherine noticed Carlos rub his fingers together in the universal symbol for money.  At last the two men finished and walked out of the room, followed by Gretchen, who told Katherine and Daphne to get into their clamps first.  A few minutes later, Gretchen entered the pool room and rotated the mermaids up into their eating and sleeping position.  She was still in her black dress, but she had apparently kicked off her shoes before entering.  She walked in front of the mermaids and crouched down.

“The performance was a great success, though I noticed one or two mistakes.”  She said.  “General Pak seemed quite taken with you, especially Katherine and Daphne.  Now, let’s get your dinner.”

She brought the usual ration bars and water, supplemented with orange juice.  Allen was almost ashamed at how eagerly he sucked the juice from the bottle as Gretchen held it for him, but the occasional juice treat was one of the few bright moments in their days of captivity.  Gretchen still sat on the pool cover for the feeding, though the bottom of her dress got wet with pool water.  Even though it meant getting her dress even wetter, she still rubbed Allen and Fernando on the shoulders and neck with her feet while she gave them their food and orange juice.

“Get a good night’s rest.”  Gretchen told them all when she was done.  “The guests will be here tomorrow night for an encore performance.  No splashing this time.”

Before leaving, Gretchen lowered the wall slightly until their heads were under water, then activated the pool cover, closing it completely.  There would be no nighttime excursions that night.  Since the guests were still present, Audra did not practice opening her neck clamp.  Instead she tried to get rest as ordered.  The next day went pretty much the same, with an all-day practice followed by a short rest before the performance.  Fewer guests filed in this time.  There were two couples who sat at one table and Carlos sat at the other with the same Asian man and woman from the day before.  Gretchen still sat at a table in the corner, dressed in green this time.  Once again the mermaids were told to swim around and look pretty until the main course was served, and then they began their performance.  With the extra day’s practice, their performance had fewer hiccups this time, and they all felt pretty good about how well it went.  Carlos’s main guest didn’t even pretend to talk business during the performance this time, instead turning his chair so he could watch the whole thing attentively.  Once the dancing was done, the man turned to his dinner and ate.  This time all of the guests and Carlos left at the same time, and Gretchen sent the mermaids to their places on the wall.

Gretchen gave them juice for a second night in a row.

“You all performed very well today.  I am very proud of you.”  She said when they were done eating.  “Carlos and his guests will be leaving tomorrow, so we will have a few days rest from performing.  That will give us time to practice a second routine in case we have two nights in a row again.  I have not forgotten the splashing incident, so there will be no breakfast tomorrow.  But I will still give you water to drink—I need you to stay healthy for Mr. Ruiz.”

Gretchen closed the pool cover all the way again.  Apparently this was going to be the new normal.  Did she suspect more than just splashing?  Audra had the length of broken off filament, and she spent that night practicing the technique to open her neck clamp.  She spent several hours learning where to insert the filament under the gasket behind her neck and how to twist it just right to lift the hidden catch.  Each time her neck clamp released she closed it again and went back to work.  When her fingers got so sore that she almost dropped the filament, she finally had to stop, and she wasn’t yet consistent enough to try an escape.  Allen patted her hand and made a thumbs-up sign to indicate that it was OK.  They could go a few more days while she got it right.  Audra hid the filament under a scale and went to sleep.

They went without breakfast that day, and Gretchen introduced some new routines for them to practice.  They were all grateful when she left them alone for the afternoon.  That evening and for the next few nights Audra continued to practice releasing her neck clamp.  At last she felt like she was ready, and the mermaids all agreed that they would try their escape in the morning.  They were disappointed when Gretchen told them that Mr. Ruiz was back and they needed to swim around while he ate, but they were still determined to make their attempt.  When Gretchen came to feed them dinner that evening, she seemed strangely subdued.  Instead of her usual foot games while feeding Allen and Fernando, she just gave them their food and water and stared off into space.  Then she sat down on the pool cover and cupped Katherine’s cheek in her hand.

“You are a pretty one my dear.”  She said, sighing.  Then she stood up and announced.  “And you will all be getting a special treat tonight.  Tomato juice!”

Though Allen had never been fond of tomato juice, he guzzled down his bottle, happy for anything different than the usual fare.  Since this was the night before their planned escape, he tried to stay awake, but he found that his eyes were extremely heavy and he soon fell into a deep sleep.  It was nearly morning when he woke suddenly at the touch of Audra’s hand.  She had opened her neck clamp and was getting ready to release her tail clamp.  He squeezed her fingers to indicate he was aware of her.  Audra continued her work and soon had her tail clamp released.  With her tail free, she put her neck back in its clamp and closed it, then waited for morning.  It didn’t take long—apparently they had all slept through most of the night.  Once the lights came on and the pool cover opened, a ripple of shock spread through the mermaids.  There was a gap between Lacy and Carla where Katherine used to be.  As each mermaid noticed the missing member of their group, they splashed or reached out to the mermaid beside her to communicate the news.  When she understood what had happened, Audra splashed some water on Allen.  He turned and when he saw the panicked look in her eyes he scanned the row of mermaids and saw the gap in the line.  His stomach felt like it was full of lead, and his heart started pounding.  He thrashed back and forth but was held in place by the clamps.

“I understand.”  Gretchen said, leaning down and patting Allen’s head.  “It was distressing to me as well when Mr. Ruiz told me he had sold Katherine to General Pak.  But he promised me that he wouldn’t sell anyone else for a while.  I brought some milk to drink, so maybe that will help you feel a little bit better.”

Gretchen got up and handed out the ration bars.  Audra watched as Gretchen fed Allen and Fernando, waiting patiently until they were done with the bars and Gretchen came back with the milk.  Audra drank it very quickly and then slowly raised her hand up behind her neck.  As usual, Gretchen sat on the pool cover and held bottles for Allen and Fernando, rubbing them on the neck with her feet as she did.  This time Allen turned his head into her toes, as if seeking comfort even in that demeaning touch.  Gretchen leaned forward a little, and then Audra made her move.  She used the filament to release her neck clamp, and then with a powerful kick of her tail she raised herself out of the water.  She grabbed Gretchen’s left arm and pulled, causing her to fall forward into the water.  Gretchen kicked with her feet and tried to punch Audra with her free arm.  She started to call out, but Audra pulled her under the water before she could make a sound other than a startled yell.  Gretchen was a large and strong woman, and it was hard for Audra to hold onto her as she fought desperately, but Audra had been swimming hard every day for months and she was very strong as well.  She held on to Gretchen’s left hand and dove deep with powerful kicks of her tail.

Gretchen changed strategies, giving up on pulling away from Audra.  Instead she reached into the top of her swimsuit and pulled out the remote she had stashed in her bra.  Seeing her, Audra let go with one hand and pulled with the other to bring Gretchen close so she could try and grab the remote.  She did not succeed in getting it, but she did manage to knock it out of Gretchen’s hand.  It drifted down to the bottom of the pool.  With Audra holding only one hand, Gretchen saw her chance and yanked hard on her left hand, trying to break Audra’s grip.  She almost succeeded, but as Gretchen yanked, Audra propelled herself closer and wrapped her left arm around Gretchen’s neck.  Their struggles soon exhausted Gretchen’s supply of oxygen, and she panicked as her lungs strained to breathe.  Audra held on tight until Gretchen went limp, then quickly swam back towards the wall, pulling Gretchen up over the edge and lining her neck up with Audra’s neck clamp.  As Gretchen gasped for air, Audra closed the clamp.  Now that Gretchen was able to breathe, she recovered slightly and started to scream and claw at the neck clamp, kicking her feet.  Audra took her filament and released Daphne.

“FIND SOMETHING TO SHUT HER UP.”  Audra signed to Daphne.

Then Audra released Maria and motioned for her to come help.  They swam down to Gretchen’s thrashing legs and each caught one leg.  Despite Gretchen’s struggles, they were able to pull the legs together and down into the tail clamp, then close the clamp around them.  Without the material of the tail to pad them, there was room around Gretchen’s ankles, but it appeared it would take some careful maneuvering to get them out of the clamp.  In her current panicked state, it didn’t seem like Gretchen would be doing that any time soon.

When Audra and Maria surfaced, Gretchen’s screams were now muffled.  Daphne had climbed out of the pool, grabbed Gretchen’s cover-up, and used it to gag their former captor.  The three women crawled across the room to the control panel to see if they could use it to release the remaining clamps.  Unfortunately, they quickly found that a password was required to activate any of the controls.  So Audra got back into the pool and used her filament to release the remaining mermaids and mermen.  Daphne swam down and retrieved the remote control, but it appeared to be broken due to being submerged in the water.  Once all of the mermaids were out of the pool, they had a quick conference to decide what to do next.

“WE NEED TO FIND THE EXTRA BREATHING DISCS AND TAKE THEM WITH US.”  Allen signed.

“THEY ARE IN A BOX IN THE CABINET.  THERE ARE HUNDREDS OF THEM.”  Answered Renna.

“GOOD.  THAT MEANS WE CAN BE UNDER WATER FOR A LONG TIME.  IS THERE ANYTHING TO CARRY THEM IN?”

“I DON’T KNOW.  I’LL LOOK AROUND.”  Fernando signed.

“WHAT ABOUT CHARGING OUR COLLARS?”  Maria asked.  “WE’VE ONLY GOT ABOUT 24 HOURS BEFORE THEY STOP WORKING IF WE CAN’T PLUG IN.”

“I HAVE AN IDEA, BUT WE WILL HAVE TO BE LUCKY.” Allen answered.

Fernando found a closet with a few towels and extra black swimsuits in it.  By tying a knot in the bottom of the swimsuit he was able to make a stretchy bag for carrying the breathing discs in.  He also found a bag loaded with thirty or forty of the emergency ration bars.  They decided to take that with them.  The bridge from the door was extended across the glass, and Carla crawled across it and opened the door.  There were no guards in sight on the small stretch of beach behind the pool room, so they all followed Carla out onto the beach.  The mermaids were able to crawl pretty well on their hands and knees, though they couldn’t move their knees individually so they needed to lift up with their hands and scoot their knees forward.  Although they couldn’t move very quickly, they managed a steady pace that got them down to the water in a few minutes.   Allen pointed to the left, where they could see a small dock with a large yacht and several small speedboats tied up to it.

They slipped into the water and crawled out until it got deep enough to use their tails.  Then they were able to move much faster.  They swam along the shore until they got close to the dock with the boats.  Apparently the alarm had not yet been raised, as the dock and the boats were deserted.  Lacy climbed up into the first small boat while the other mermaids waited under the water.  She did not find what they were looking for, so she slipped back over the side and tried the next small boat.  In this one, she had more luck.  As Allen had hoped, the boat had a solar-panel on top.  Not only that, but the panel had a charging cord for a fishing sonar attached to it.  Lacy pulled the cord out of the sonar and it had a standard charging plug that matched the port in their collars.  Lacy found a tool box in the bottom of the boat and got a screwdriver so she could take the solar panel off of the boat.  After removing four screws, the panel came off.  While Lacy worked on the second boat, Carla climbed into the third.  It too had a solar panel, along with two small marine batteries that fit into a waterproof case.  The case had an assortment of different charging cords inside for connecting the panel to the batteries and for charging various electronic devices.  The two mermaids collected their loot and put it all into the case, then slipped back into the water.  Meanwhile, underneath the water, the other mermaids had been pounding on the propellers of the boats with rocks they had found on the bottom.

Once they had their charging equipment, the mermaids swam straight out to sea, getting as far and as deep as they could go before stopping.  They finally decided to rest in the shelter of a kelp bed in water about 30 feet deep.

“WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT KATHERINE?”  Allen asked the others.

“I DON’T THINK WE CAN DO ANYTHING ALONE.  WE NEED TO GET HELP.”  Maria answered.

“I AGREE.”  Fernando added.  “WE NEED TO GET OURSELVES TO SAFETY FIRST, THEN FIND HELP FOR KATHERINE.”

“WHERE SHOULD WE GO?”  Asked Anna.  “I’M SURE CARLOS WILL HAVE BOATS OUT SEARCHING FOR US SOON.”

“WE HAVE FOOD AND BREATHING DISCS, SO WE CAN GO A LONG WAYS WITHOUT SURFACING.  BUT EVENTUALLY WE WILL NEED TO FIND FRESH WATER.”  Commented Allen.

Renna added her thoughts: “WE WILL HAVE TO GO TO SHORE FOR WATER.  AND I’M SURE THAT IS WHERE CARLOS WILL CONCENTRATE HIS SEARCHES.”

“WE SHOULD SWIM AS FAR AS WE CAN BEFORE HEADING TO SHORE, THEN.”

“AND AS FAST AS WE CAN.  MAYBE HE WILL UNDER-ESTIMATE OUR SWIMMING ABILITY.”

“WHICH WAY DO WE GO THEN?”

“THE OBVIOUS DIRECTION IS NORTH.  CARLOS SAID WE WERE IN CENTRAL AMERICA.”

“BUT WE STAY AWAY FROM SHORE UNTIL WE HAVE TO GET WATER.”

“AGREED.”

Their discussion done, the mermaids swam north, keeping the shoreline just barely in sight as a faint smudge on the horizon to their left.  They hadn’t gone far before they heard the noise of engines through the water.  They risked sending Audra to the surface to see what was making the noise.  She saw the yacht moving slowly out to sea, accompanied by a long black cigarette boat.  The cigarette boat was following a zig-zag search pattern in front of the yacht, and they were both getting closer.  Audra quickly dove to inform the others of what she had seen.  The mermaids also began hearing another noise—a regular chirping sound.  The regularly spaced high frequency chirps were obviously artificial.

“THEY’RE USING SONAR!”  Allen signed.

The mermaids immediately swam harder, staying close to the bottom and trying to get away from the boats following them.  Before long, however, the speed boat had caught up to them, and the dark shapes of divers splashed into the water from the sides of the boat.  Four men swam down towards the mermaids, each armed with a spear gun.  With their tails and their months of practice swimming, however, the mermaids were much faster than the divers.  They continued swimming and easily put some distance between themselves and their pursuers.

The engine noise got louder as the yacht pulled ahead of the mermaids and dropped two divers in front of them.  Allen tugged on Renna’s hand and his fingers flew as he explained an idea to her.  She tapped Carla on the shoulder and the two of them swam off at a right angle, going very fast and hugging the bottom.  The remaining mermaids circled around in a defensive posture.  The two divers from the yacht were closer, and when they got about 15 feet away from the mermaids they both fired their spear guns.  Lacy watched one of the divers aim at her tail, and she twisted and kicked as the harpoon shot towards her.  It flashed past underneath her tail.  Maria was not as lucky, and the harpoon from the second diver penetrated her tail just above her knees.  She looked down at the harpoon in her tail and saw that the harpoon had gone all the way through the tail, cutting a groove in the side of one thigh as it burrowed through the side of her tail.  Blood oozed out around the opening, and Maria was in a great deal of pain.  The barbs on the harpoon had opened up, making it impossible to pull it back out.  At the other end of the harpoon was a strong cord that extended back to the diver.  Maria expected him to start pulling on the cord, but instead she saw him push the tip of his spear gun into the ground and activate a second trigger.  Maria felt a burning pain as the cord was jerked sharply, exacerbating her wound, and then she understood what the diver had done.  He had driven a stake of some kind deep into the sea floor, and Maria was now tethered to it.  She looked at the cord where it connected to the harpoon, hoping there was a knot she could untie, but the rope attachment was an eyelet clamped onto the rope with a metal ferrule.  Heart sinking, Maria pulled on the cord, but it did not budge.

Both divers paused to unclip a second harpoon from their belts and load it into their spear guns.  The mermaids did not passively wait for them to reload, however.  Daphne and Anna reached the diver who had captured Maria just seconds after he pulled the second harpoon from his belt.  Daphne swam into him, grabbing him around the body and pushing him backward.  He flailed at her with the harpoon.  Anna swam over his head and approached him from the back.  While the diver was distracted by Daphne, Anna pulled his diving knife out of its sheath on his leg and used it to cut his regulator hose.  When the diver felt his air cut off, he stopped trying to pound on Daphne and twisted around to see Anna swimming away with his knife.  Daphne let go of him and grabbed his spear gun, jerking it out of his hands.  Unarmed and running out of air, the diver released his weight belt and swam for the surface.

The other diver swam backwards to give himself time to reload his spear gun, but he wasn’t nearly as fast as Lacy, who quickly caught up to him.  He turned and waved his spear gun in front of him to prevent her from approaching closely.  Audra also swam over to him, forcing the man to split his attention between the two mermaids.  Whenever one of them would rush closer, however, he would swing his spear gun around like a club and force her to back up.  The stalemate continued for what seemed like forever, but was more likely about 30 seconds, before Anna, having finished with the other diver, swam up behind this one to cut his air hose.  He felt the water move as she approached and twisted around just as she was ready to slice.  He dropped the spear gun and grabbed her wrist, preventing her from achieving her goal.  As they struggled, Lacy and Audra joined in the fight, struggling to grab his arms or pull his regulator out of his mouth.  The furious struggle ended suddenly when the diver’s hand slipped off of Anna’s wrist.  Anna had been pushing hard against the resistance so when his fingers slipped, the knife drove forward, driving deep into the man’s throat.  Although they had not intended their attacks to be deadly, the mermaids had no time to regret what had happened.  They pulled a second knife out of the dying diver’s leg sheath and turned to see about the divers approaching from behind.

As the mermaids had battled, Fernando had joined Maria.  He inspected the harpoon through her tail but could see no way to remove it with only his hands.  The wound was not bleeding too badly, so he assumed it was not severe.  He stayed near Maria in case any of the divers got through the other mermaids.  Allen picked up the spent harpoon that had missed Lacy, ready to use it as a weapon if needed.  The four other divers caught up just about when the other two had been dealt with.  All of the mermaids gathered together, with two of them holding knives.  The four divers held their distance, spreading out and moving around to the sides to surround the escapees.  They could hear the thrum of the yacht’s engines as it approached from behind.  Would they send more divers?

Suddenly, the divers backed up and there was a splashing sound from overhead.  The mermaids looked up to see the web of a large net drifting down upon them.  They tried to swim out from under it, but it was too large and was weighted with heavy weights.  The netting settled down over the group of mermaids, pulling them down and trapping them against the sea floor.  Then the four divers moved back in.  Audra was the farthest from the group, so two of the divers approached her first.  One of them knelt on her body and held her arms down to keep her from struggling.  The other used his spear gun and fired its harpoon through the center of her tail fluke just below her toes.  Surprisingly, Audra felt a sharp pain and blood seeped from the hole in her tail fluke.  The man then went a few feet away and fired a stake in the ground.  Even if she escaped the net, Audra would now be caught, held in place for future collection by Carlos and his goons.  The divers moved towards the writhing mass of mermaids in the center of the net, but halted when a crunching noise assaulted their ears.  Looking up, they could see that the cigarette boat had rammed into the side of the yacht.  Several human forms were splashing in the water, and the two boats were now inextricably entwined and taking on water.  The divers signaled to each other for a moment, and then left their captives trapped on the bottom to go see what they could do for their employer and their fellow employees.

While the other mermaids had been battling the divers, Renna and Carla had escaped to one side and then circled around to come up under the cigarette boat.  Carla pulled herself up the ladder on the side and flopped into the back of the boat.  The driver turned around to see a shivering mermaid, holding her hands up as if begging for mercy.

“One of you decided to give up, eh?”  Said the driver.

Carla nodded her head and let tears flow from her eyes.  The driver opened a cabinet to retrieve a coil of rope and crouched down in front of Carla to tie her hands together.  As he wrapped the rope around her wrists, Renna climbed quietly up the ladder behind him and quickly wrapped her arm around his neck.  When he let go of Carla to try and pull Renna’s arm away, Carla pulled back her fist and punched him in the solar plexus with all her might.  He went limp for a moment as his body reacted to the shock of the punch, and before he could recover the two mermaids lifted him over the edge of the boat and dumped him in the water.  Then Renna went to the pilot’s position and pressed the throttle forward, steering the boat in a course directly for the yacht.  Carla grabbed the rope and a spear gun from the bottom of the boat, and Renna grabbed a case that looked like a first aid or emergency kit.  They waited a few moments, making sure the yacht did not manage to steer away from the upcoming collision, before they dove over the side and swam down to find their friends.

By the time Renna and Carla had joined the others, Anna and Lacy had managed to cut a hole in the net big enough for them to slip out.  The four of them helped the others get out of the net’s embrace, and then they looked to see what could be done for Maria and Audra.  The harpoon that hit Maria had only gone through the outer edge of her tail, so it was easily removed by slicing through the side of the tail.  For Audra, they had to cut the cord behind the harpoon and slide the harpoon forward all the way through the tail and out.  Maria and Audra were in considerable pain from the salt water in their wounds, but the water had washed them clean and the bleeding had stopped in both wounds.  The mermaids now had a couple of spear guns as well as some rope, several harpoons, and whatever was in the kit that Renna had taken.  They didn’t want to stick around to see what happened with the boats, so they all started swimming again, moving as fast as they could to get away from Carlos and his agents.

They stayed deep, only sending a single scout to the surface occasionally to maintain their distance and bearings.  At first, they swam hard, fear driving them to push their bodies to the limit.  But an hour or so of that left them exhausted and sore.  After resting for a time, they continued swimming at a more sedate pace that they could keep up for longer.  From the direction of the sun, it appeared that the shore actually trended northwest, so that is the direction they swam, trying to keep the shore just barely in sight.  On one of her jaunts to the surface, Carla saw speedboats cruising up and down the shoreline, but there were no other signs of pursuit.  After two or three hours the shore started curving away from them, and their heading changed almost straight west as they followed it.

As they swam, they started to notice a few shadows following them on the seaward side.  The shadows grew closer after a few minutes and resolved into a pod of dolphins.  The dolphins seemed quite curious about these strangely shaped swimmers and soon they were all around them, swimming up close and staring at them as they swam.  After a time, the dolphins backed off, but a small group of them continued to keep pace with the mermaids as they traveled.

After a couple more hours of swimming, Renna noticed what looked like a river entering the sea.  They decided to swim closer to shore and see if they could use the river as a source of fresh water.  They were all starting to get thirsty after the intense efforts of the day.  As they approached the mouth of the river, they could see a few houses tucked into the trees on the south bank of the river, and one or two small docks along the shore.  The mouth of the river was about half a mile wide, and there did not appear to be any houses along the northern shore.  The mermaids stayed in the center of the river, trying to stay out of sight of anyone along the shore.

Not long after they started their swim into the river waters, Daphne poked her head up to check their location.  She came quickly back down and her fingers flew as she told what she had seen.

“A BOAT!  THERE IS A BOAT HEADING THIS WAY!”

They all dove deeper and quickly headed back out to sea.  After a minute or two they could hear the sound of the motor getting closer, approaching faster than they could swim.  They kicked harder, trying to keep ahead of it.  They could hear the high pinging sound of the boat’s sonar.  Suddenly they were joined by a group of dolphins who seemed to think it was a game.  They raced alongside the mermaids, staying even with them as they swam.  Several of them would swim to the surface and leap out of the water, then dive back down to join the mermaids again.  In a few minutes the boat reached their location and slowed down to circle above them.  The dolphins increased their movement, with most of them swimming in a large group around the mermaids, weaving their way in between the swimmers, diving over and under them and generally surrounding them in a constantly moving ball of dolphins.  Individual dolphins would swim up to the surface and leap out of the water before returning to the scrum around the mermaids.  The dolphins continued this behavior for some time while the mermaids continued swimming farther from the shore.  After perhaps fifteen minutes, the dolphin mob suddenly dissipated, swimming away in all directions, though a few seemed to hang around at the periphery of the mermaid’s vision.

“WHAT WAS THAT ALL ABOUT?”  Signed Audra.

“I THINK THEY WERE PROTECTING US.”  Said Daphne.

“PROTECTING US?”

“LISTEN.  THERE’S NO ENGINE NOISE ANY MORE.  THE BOAT IS GONE.  I THINK THE DOLPHINS WERE HIDING US FROM THE PEOPLE IN THE BOAT.  WITH ALL THE DOLPHINS SWIMMING AROUND THEIR SONAR COULDN’T TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN US AND THEM.”

“SHOULD SOMEBODY SURFACE AND CHECK?”

“I DON’T THINKS SO.  LET’S PUT SOME DISTANCE BETWEEN US AND THE BOAT BEFORE ANYBODY STICKS THEIR HEAD UP.”

The coastline had shifted again and was now oriented almost straight north-south.  They swam north for half an hour before Maria poked her head out of the water to see where they were.  The coastline seemed to be covered in trees, with no sign of human habitation and no boats in sight.  There were also no streams or sources of fresh water in evidence.  They kept swimming, sending someone to the surface every half hour or so to check for any indications of a fresh water source.  The sun was getting low in the sky when they finally saw another river.  They swam cautiously towards it, glad to see the shadows of a few dolphins still keeping tabs on their group.  This was a much smaller river than the one they had passed before, and there were no signs of boats or houses along the shoreline.  Thick tropical forest lined the banks as far as they could see.  They followed the river inland around a bend until they found a large sandbank.

The river was brown and full of sediment.  But they were all very thirsty.  Audra sat on the sandbank and was about to scoop some water into her mouth when Allen stopped her.

“WAIT A MINUTE.”  He signed.  “LET ME SHOW YOU A TRICK I READ ABOUT.”

Allen scooted up onto the sandbank and dug a hole down into the sand.  When he got about a foot deep, clear water started to seep into the hole.  Allen scooted away and soon there were several holes dug all along the sandbank and the mermaids were scooping the water out and drinking thirstily.  They also broke out the ration bars and they each ate one.  Under Allen’s supervision, they set up the solar panels to catch the rays of the setting sun.  With the set of cords in the box, Allen was able to make up two charging cords and hook them to the batteries.  Audra and Daphne plugged in their collars for a recharge and they all spent the time before dark signing to each other and making plans for the next day.  They opened the box Renna had liberated and found it to be a well-stocked first aid kit, so they used the supplies in the kit to soothe Maria’s and Audra’s injuries.  As the sun set, they changed out the discs in their collars and lay down on the sand to sleep.  Renna stayed awake to keep watch, trading with one of the others after an hour or two.  They also took turns charging their collars from the batteries, switching when they changed who was on watch.

Chapter 39 – Dinner with a Detective

June 29

 

Janice woke up late in the hotel room that had become all too familiar in the past month.  She had been visiting Dave Johnson almost every day, trying to do anything she could to help in the search for her daughter.  She had reported Katherine’s disappearance to the news station, which was happy to cover the story of the mysterious disappearance of the beautiful mermaid for a day or two, before other events caught their attention.  Since then it had been a long slow process of searching without success.  She knew she should probably give up and go back to Indiana, but she couldn’t bring herself to believe that Katherine was gone.  So she had a bowl of cereal with milk she kept in the hotel room mini-fridge, then got dressed and headed over to Dave Johnson’s office.  Much of the time, Detective Johnson was out doing his police work and Janice would be forced to just wait in the lobby, but she figured she could wait there as well as anywhere else, and this way she made sure Katherine wasn’t forgotten.  She drove downtown to the HPD headquarters building and then made her way up to the offices of the gang task force.

“Good morning Mrs. Larsen.  How are you today?”  Said Marta as Janice entered the office.  Marta was the administrative assistant to the gang task force, and she and Janice had come to know each other pretty well over the past month.

“I’m fine, Marta.  How are you?”

“Good.  Detective Johnson wanted to talk to you as soon as you got here this morning.  He’s waiting in his office.”

“Oh!  Is there news?”

“He didn’t say, but I don’t think he’s found her yet—he’s just got a lead he wants to talk with you about.”

“OK thanks.”

Her heart still beating rapidly from that one small instant of hope, Janice walked through the office to Dave’s door and knocked lightly.

“Come in.”

“Marta said you wanted to see me?”

“Yes I did.  How would you feel about going with me to the Gulf Aquarium this morning?”

“Fine.  Is there someone there with information we need?”

“I just want to show you something.  Can you be a little patient with me?”

“I’ve been patient for a month.  I suppose I can wait a few more hours.”

“Let’s go then.”

The detective stood up and escorted Janice out of the building.  He even held out his arm for her to take as if he were taking her to a party.  Janice caught herself wondering about the possibility of actually doing something like that.  Dave was a good-looking man, and he had always been very polite and considerate.  He wasn’t wearing a ring. . . But Janice didn’t have time for those kinds of thoughts.  Right now she had to concentrate on getting Katherine back.  As they drove through the city towards the aquarium, she couldn’t help but ask the question.

“So, Detective Johnson.  Are you married?  Do you have children of your own?”

“No.  I’ve never found anyone I wanted to settle down with.  But I’m married to my job, in a way.  It doesn’t leave much time for socializing.  And please call me Dave, especially when we’re in the aquarium.”

Janice tamped down her interest.  She would put it in a box for now, along with her own job and life back in Indiana.  Katherine took precedence.  The detective made small talk as they continued the drive.  He was not in uniform, and when they got to the aquarium he took her to the front entrance and paid for two tickets to the aquarium and the dolphin show.  Janice was surprised to see that the ticket price was almost double what it had been before Katherine went missing.  Dave didn’t give her any hints about the purpose of their visit.

“Just keep your eyes open and think about what you see.  I’ll explain later.”

So Janice looked around as they walked through the galleries.  Much of it looked the same as the times she had visited before, but there were fewer visitors, and it seemed like a certain shabbiness and disorder was creeping into the facility.  Was that just her imagination?  Or was it just because this was her third visit and the newness had worn off?  The employees looked less cheerful and it seemed like they were just going through the motions.  Many of them were younger as well, perhaps high school students with summer jobs.  By the time they had worked their way through the galleries, it was almost time for the dolphin show.  They went outside and followed the sidewalk to the arena.  Janice was looking forward to the show.  Katherine had told her all about it but she hadn’t had a chance to see it yet.  They found a seat a few rows up from the bottom.

A young woman in a red gulf aquarium wetsuit introduced herself and the three dolphins in the show.  She proceeded to lead the dolphins through a series of tricks, feeding them fish each time they performed.  The leaps and splashes were quite entertaining, but Katherine had told her these were wild dolphins.  The presenter didn’t mention that at all.  When they were done, the young woman moved to the front of the pool and offered to let people get a picture with a dolphin for a small extra fee.  Dave and Janice headed out of the arena with the rest of the crowd, but Dave took Janice by the elbow and guided her to one side of the crowd.  Rather than following the sidewalk back to the aquarium building, Dave led her into the grass and they walked alongside the channel that connected the aquarium to the bay.  The walked about thirty yards or so and then Janice noticed that a gate had been constructed across the channel.  The top of the gate was flush with the ground so it was not very noticeable unless you approached closely.  And it appeared relatively new because the grass growing around the concrete footings on the side of the channel had been newly planted.  Apparently the dolphins weren’t wild anymore.

“Interesting, isn’t it?”  Said Dave.

“Something doesn’t feel right.”  Said Janice.

“Let’s talk about it over lunch.”  Said Dave.  “I know a little Mexican place in Galveston.  Are you hungry?”

“Sounds good.  Let’s do that.”

So was this just a convenience for Dave, or did he just invite me on a date?  Thought Janice.  Once again, she corralled her thoughts and followed Dave out of the aquarium building to his car.  They went to the restaurant and ordered their food, and finally Dave told her what the trip had been all about.

“So what did you think about the aquarium visit today?”  He asked.

“I was a little disappointed.  It seems like they are not taking care of it like they used to.  And I was shocked to see the gate on the channel for the dolphins.  That goes against their whole philosophy.”

“That’s what I thought as well.  With Audra Burns gone, her assistant Jonas Fulton is in charge, and he has made some changes that I don’t think Audra would be happy with.  I’ve been doing some digging, and I found out that the security company hired by the aquarium is owned by Crown Holdings.  We have long suspected that Crown Holdings is a front company used by the Kings gang, and you are well aware that the kings have a grudge against your daughter and her friends.”

“But I thought you put them in jail.”

“We put eight of them in jail, but they were all relatively low-level members of the gang.  The leader of the kings is a man named Carlos Ruiz, and we’ve been trying to catch him for years.  But he’s a smart cookie and he doesn’t usually do his own dirty work.  He works through intermediaries, and we’ve never been able to convince one of them to talk.”

“So you think the Kings gang has something to do with Katherine’s disappearance.”

“Definitely.  Did you know Anna Salazar?”

“She was with the group that got kidnapped, wasn’t she?”

“Yes, but she wasn’t a mermaid.  She and her husband went missing at the same time as all the mermaids.”

“So what do you think they did with them?”

“Well, you’ll be happy to know that I don’t think they’re dead.  The kings are into drug dealing and the sex trade, but they are unusual among gangs in avoiding murder.  There’s no guarantee, of course.  They may have made an exception in this case.  But I think not.”

“So they kidnapped them again.”

“Yes.  And remember the last time, we caught them on the way to the border.  I’m pretty sure they were taken out of the country.”

“Does that mean you can’t track them?  Do you have contacts with the Mexican authorities?”

“We do.  But I don’t think they’re in Mexico, even though the kings have an extensive presence in that country.”

“Where then?”

“Guatemala.  Carlos Ruiz has an estate in Guatemala, and I found some strange paperwork yesterday.”

“Strange?”

“Yes.  It seems that the aquarium shipped a tank of waste saltwater to a Crown holdings subsidiary in Guatemala on May 17th.”

“That is strange.  Katherine told me they took water directly from the bay and it circulated back there from the aquarium.  What kind of waste water would they have?”

“Perhaps the kind with mermaids in it.”

“Can you contact the Guatemalan police and get their help?”

“Unfortunately, Carlos Ruiz has many friends in high places in Guatemala.  Many of the local officials there are on his payroll.  Contacting the Guatemalan authorities would only tip him off.  I’ve been trying to work with some of my sources to get more information, but we don’t have many people in place down there.”

“Isn’t there anything you can do?  What if I were to go down there?”

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.  Carlos is very dangerous and if he caught you poking around it would be bad.  I have been working to learn as much as I can about what is going on down there, and I’ve gotten another interesting piece of information.”

“What?”

“It seems a North Korean general and his staff visited Mr. Ruiz recently.  They stayed two days, and a few days after they left, the general had a large crate shipped via air to North Korea.  He claimed the crate had fragile pottery inside, and was most insistent that it be handled with care.  He paid several baggage handlers to make sure the crate was loaded directly onto the airplane without opening it or x-raying it.  Normally, we would assume there were drugs in the crate, but a drug-sniffing dog walked right by it without detecting anything.  I think it may have had a mermaid inside.”

Janice reached across the table and grabbed Dave’s hand.  “Do you think it might be Katherine?”

“There’s no way of knowing.  It could be any of them.”

“But that’s horrible!  If we find them in Guatemala it will doubtless be hard to get them out.  But North Korea must be ten times worse!”

“Normally that would be the case, but this time we might have a way to find out what was in that crate and if it was a mermaid, rescue her.”

“How?”

“I can’t say anything more.  But I’ll be leaving tonight to make arrangements.  I’ll be gone for about a week, and I need you to keep doing what you have been in the meantime.  Come to the station and hang out, as if I was in my office and you were waiting for me.  Will you do that?”

“Of course I will.”

“Good.  Don’t you like your lunch?  Are you going to finish it?”

Janice realized she was still clutching Dave’s hand.  She let go and picked up her fork.

“The food is really good.”  She said.  “But I don’t think I have much of an appetite.”

“Maybe we can have dinner when I get back, then?”

“I’d like that.”

 

Chapter 40 – Katherine Alone

June 27

 

When Katherine woke up she immediately knew that something was wrong.  Her arms were pinned to her sides and she was wrapped up tightly in something that felt like plastic.  She tried to wriggle around, but her movements were stopped by whatever was surrounding her.  The material felt relatively soft, but it was apparently encased in a hard box of some kind, because it would only give an inch or so before meeting solid resistance.  She struggled for a time but it became obvious that her struggles were futile, so she lay still and pondered her fate.  Was Carlos moving them again?  Where would they end up this time?  Or was she on her own now?  She remembered the look on the Asian man’s face, and how he specifically asked for her and Daphne to show themselves to him.  Would Carlos give her to that man?  If he did, would it be just her, or would Daphne be with her?  Her mind went round in circles for a long time.  After some hours, Katherine felt movement.  A bump, followed by a deceleration.  The container she was in shifted slightly.  She must be in an airplane!

Katherine waited, expecting to be unloaded and released from her prison, but apparently she was at an intermediate stop because she felt movement again as the plane took off.  Many hours passed, though Katherine had no way of knowing exactly how many.  She dozed from time to time, and finally she awoke to feel another landing.  This time it was not long before she felt her container lifted and carried a short distance, then set down onto another surface.  She heard muffled voices speaking another language, and then she felt noise and movement again.  Apparently she was now on a truck.  The next two or three hours were definitely more bumpy than the time on the airplane, but the packing material around Katherine protected her from the jolts and jerks as the truck she was on negotiated the roads.  Finally Katherine felt herself being carried again, and then there was the creaking sound of her crate being opened.  Light speared down from above and there were voices speaking a foreign language.  Katherine’s view was distorted by several layers of plastic bubbles, but she could see a face leaning over the crate she was in.  Apparently the plastic material surrounding her was bubble wrap.  She had been shipped like a toy from Amazon.com.

Two men with Asian features lifted Katherine out of the box and carried her through a doorway into a large bathroom.  A female voice spoke to them in a commanding fashion, and Katherine was deposited face down in a large bathtub.  Someone cut away the bubble wrap behind her head, and Katherine felt them change the discs in her breathing collar, then plug in a charging cord.  Katherine squirmed around a little, hoping they would release her from the wrappings that bound her.  With her face down, she could not see who was speaking, but a woman’s voice began talking in very good English.

“Welcome to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  I am Captain Nari, and General Pak has assigned me to welcome you and get you settled into your new home.  Please hold still for a time and my helper will get you cleaned up.”

So she did get sent to General Pak.  And she was in North Korea!  That didn’t sound good at all.  How would she ever get out of this?  She could turn her head a little in the bubble wrap, but all she could see was the side of the tub and the shadow of a person leaning over her.  The person started cutting away the bubble wrap from her waist down.  As she did so, the person spoke in Korean to Captain Nari, who responded.  Once the wrapping was removed, the woman started spraying Katherine’s bottom with a shower hose.  She scrubbed off the caked-on poop caught between the scales on her bottom with a soapy washcloth.  When that was done, the woman rolled Katherine over and cut away the rest of the bubble wrap from Katherine’s tail, still leaving her arms bound.  Katherine could now see the woman working on her.  Her black hair was tied back in a ponytail, and she was wearing a plain gray dress with a collar.  She had rubber gloves on her hands.  A few feet away stood another Korean woman wearing a military uniform.  Despite the uniform’s drab green color, it had obviously been tailored in a feminine style.  It had a knee-length skirt and the woman wore pantyhose and high-heeled pumps on her feet.  Her face seemed familiar—Katherine thought she must have been the woman who was with General Pak back at Carlos’s house.

The serving woman cleaned off Katherine’s front and around the anal fin and the hole for urination as well.  Given the extremely long time she had spent packed in a crate, there had been no way for Katherine to prevent soiling herself.  It felt good to be clean, even if she was being treated like a baby.

“You have been recruited to General Pak’s pleasure squad.”  Said the military woman.  “I am the commander of the squad, so you will obey me without question.  Once Yuki finishes cleaning you up you can put some clothes on and have some dinner.  I believe it is a long time since you ate.”

Katherine’s stomach growled at the thought of food.  Yuki the serving woman took a box cutter and sliced away the bubble wrap restraining Katherine’s arms.  Then she proceeded to wash Katherine’s torso and hair.  Katherine’s skin was dry and cracked from its time out of the water, and the water in the tub felt good, soothing the dryness somewhat.  Katherine tried to take the soap and wash herself, but the woman just slapped her hand lightly and continued.  After washing Katherine’s hair, she combed it out.  Not used to being pampered, Katherine just sat there in the tub and looked around at the room she was in.  In addition to the large bathtub, the room included a king-sized bed made up very neatly with pink sheets.  The floor was tile with a large drain in the center.  There was also an old-fashioned looking sink set very low on the wall, and an alcove with a toilet in it.  One wall of the room was all glass, and Katherine could see a good-sized swimming pool on the other side of the wall.

“Get out of the tub.”  Captain Nari commanded.

Katherine obeyed, lifting herself up until she could sit on the edge of the tub, and then rotating her tail over the wall of the tub.  She slid down to the floor and knelt in front of the tub.  Yuki dried her off with a towel, and then went over to the bed.  She retrieved a bra from the bed and brought it back to Katherine to put on.  At least this part she was allowed her to do herself.  Next Yuki brought her a top.  It was a beautiful cheongsam style blue silk top with embroidered flowers.  It was almost long enough to be a tunic as it came halfway down her hips.  Once Katherine was dressed, Yuki bowed to the Captain and left.

“Your dinner will be here shortly.”  Said Captain Nari.  “While we wait I will explain a few rules.  General Pak is with our dear leader right now, and I want you to be ready when he comes back.  These rooms have been set aside for your use, and you will stay in them at all times unless General Pak wishes you to travel with him.  In the DPRK we are civilized, unlike you barbaric Americans, so you will be treated well as long as you behave.  But we have heard about your kind so we have taken precautions to make sure you cannot escape and cause problems.  Thanks to your former owner, we have a simple radio control device installed in the center of the rooms.  Your collar has been programmed to cut off your air if you go out of range of the radio signal, which has been set to just barely cover your rooms. Nod your head if you understand.”

Katherine nodded her head.  Captain Nari had not mentioned them, but she could also see the round black domes of several security cameras on the ceiling of her rooms.  Despite the expensive clothes and the luxurious rooms, she was as much a prisoner here as she was when Carlos and Gretchen held her to a wall with steel clamps.  Soon a young man in gray clothes brought in a tray of food.  The tray had folding legs and was set low to the ground, just at the right height for her to eat while sitting on the floor.  She was famished, so she immediately started to eat.  It was some kind of fish with a brown peanut sauce, a pile of rice, and a cabbage dish that was very spicy and hot.  There was also a large glass of water, which Katherine was very grateful to have after tasting the cabbage.  The young man and Nari stood nearby while she ate, conversing quietly in Korean.  When she had cleaned up the last kernel of rice, the young man took her tray and left the room.  Katherine’s mouth still felt like it was on fire, so she crawled over to the sink and cupped her hands under the cold water to drink until her tongue cooled off.  Nari didn’t object.  When she was done, the captain spoke again.

“I will be leaving now for the evening.  You are free to explore your quarters or get some sleep, as it pleases you.”

After the captain left, Katherine spent some time exploring.  There was a low dresser beside the bed, with an assortment of swimsuit tops in one drawer and several more bras in another drawer.  The last drawer held a few silk nightgowns.  There was no closet, and no other clothes in the room, so the only daywear she had was the top she had on.  Of course, any clothes at all was much better than what she had before.  There was a TV mounted on the wall, situated for viewing from the bed, with a remote control on top of the dresser.  Katherine crawled out into the room with the pool.  Compared to the pools in the aquarium or even the one at Carlos’s estate, it was not large, but compared to any other private pool she had seen it was sizeable.  It appeared to be about 10 feet deep and perhaps 15 feet wide and 30 or 40 feet long.  The long side opposite her bedroom was clear, and she could see a gallery beyond with some seats.  Everything looked and smelled new, as if this space had very recently been constructed just for her.  There was one exit, down a short hallway off of the other side of the pool room.  Katherine crawled around the pool, regretting for the moment the beautiful top she was wearing.  It would be much easier to simply swim across to the other side.  But not wanting to get her clothes and hair wet, she crawled around to investigate the exit hallway.  She got about three feet down the hallway when the air turned off.  So Captain Nari had not been bluffing- her air did get cut off if she left a certain perimeter.  She quickly crawled back into the pool room and was relieved when the air started again.

Katherine went back to the bedroom and climbed up onto the bed.  She turned on the TV but there only seemed to be five channels.  Two of the channels were airing a news broadcast, one seemed to be some kind of educational channel, one had a movie, and one showed sports.  All of the channels were in Korean, so Katherine had a hard time understanding what was going on.  After a few minutes she turned the TV back off.  There was a little clock in the bottom corner of the TV, which said it was about 9 PM.  Given the lack of other things to do, Katherine decided to go to bed.  She took off her top, but there was no place to put dirty clothes in her room.  Not wanting to just dump such a nice piece of clothing on the floor, she folded it up and put it on top of the dresser.  She did the same with her bra, then she crawled over to the pool and dove in.  She sat on the bottom for an hour or so to let her skin rehydrate and then she got out and dried off.  She picked a pale yellow nightgown out of the drawer and put it on.  Then she looked around the room for a light switch, but couldn’t find one.  The wall near the door was bare, and the room only had overhead lights, so there was no bedside lamp to turn off.  Katherine did find a raised square of metal on the bed post, but touching it produced no effect, so it must have been a decorative element rather than a switch.  Out of other options, Katherine just closed her eyes and tried to go to sleep.  After a few minutes the lights turned off by themselves.

She was awakened in the morning when Captain Nari entered and the light turned on.  Yuki was standing beside her, holding some folded clothing in her hands.

“Good morning, mermaid.”  Nari said.  “It is time to wake up and get dressed.”

Katherine sat up and pulled off her nightgown.  She put it on top of the dresser with her other clothes, then got a bra out of the drawer and put it on.  Yuki came over next to the bed and handed her the clothing in her hands, which turned out to be another top like the one Katherine had worn the day before, though this one was red.  While Katherine was putting it on, Yuki picked up the dirty clothes from the dresser and slipped back out the door.  Soon another young woman came in, carrying a tray with breakfast.  Katherine slipped out of the bed and sat on the floor to eat from the tray.  She was surprised to see that the meal seemed more like a dinner than a breakfast, with rice, some kind of soup, more of the spicy cabbage stuff, and some cooked vegetables.  Katherine ate it all, grateful for anything other than emergency ration bars.  Captain Nari watched her eat with a bored expression on her face, and the serving woman made Katherine’s bed.  When Katherine was done eating and the serving woman had left, Nari spoke.

“Now I will explain your daily tasks.  General Pak likes to be entertained in the evening, so you will need to spend time each day practicing a water dance routine.  When the lights in the pool room flash, it means you have five minutes to take your clothes off and start your dance.  We have provided swimsuits for you to wear while practicing, but the general will expect you to take them off for your performances.  Dinner will be served at 5 in the evening, and you are free to do what you wish between now and then, as long as it includes at least two hours of practice.  After dinner we will be back to show you how you will prepare to spend an evening with the general.”

The Captain left and Katherine was on her own again.  She spent a few minutes washing up, then thought about what she would do for the day.  She had no paper to write a plan on, so she planned a series of moves in her head.  Then she changed into one of the swimsuit tops and spent several hours practicing her routine—there wasn’t anything else to do, and it felt freeing to be in the water where she could move without difficulty.  When she tired of swimming, Katherine changed into her dry clothes and watched some TV.  There was some nature programming on the educational channel that was interesting enough.  One of the shows was even in English, with Korean subtitles.  When dinner time rolled around Yuki silently brought a tray of food and took it out again when Katherine was done.  The spicy cabbage seemed to be a component of all the meals, along with rice.  This meal also included some noodles covered with a sauce that had vegetables and meat in it.  After Yuki had left, Captain Nari came in, followed by two other young women.  Instead of her uniform, the captain was wearing a long silk dress with embroidery, and her hair and makeup had been done in an attractive style.

Captain Nari instructed Katherine to get in the bathtub, and one of the two other women helped her wash herself again.  Apparently privacy was not a high priority here.  The woman also helped her dry her hair with a blow dryer.  Then they provided Katherine with a very sexy lacy bra, followed by a longer silk dress that came down to her knees.  The dress had a mandarin style collar and long sleeves, making it look modest from the back.  In the front however, it had cutouts above and below her breasts that showed a lot of cleavage.  A few months previously, Katherine would have been embarrassed to wear such a dress, but it was actually an improvement on her recent forced nudity, and the soft silk fabric felt fabulous on her skin.  Once she was dressed, the two women worked on applying makeup and styling Katherine’s hair.  They finished up with a manicure and pink nail polish.  When they were done, Katherine crawled over and looked at herself in the bathroom mirror.  She looked stunning.  If only Allen could be here to see her.

“Now we will practice a tea ceremony so that you can present yourself properly to the general.”  Said Captain Nari.”

Katherine nodded her head and listened intently as the captain explained the nuances of the tea ceremony.  She kept saying that the Korean ceremony was much less formal than what was done in other places.

“If this is simple, I’d hate to see the complicated one.”  Thought Katherine.

After a couple of hours of practice, Katherine was only slightly better at holding the tea kettle just right and pouring it from high above the cup to make attractive bubbles.  Nari was either satisfied with her performance or tired of correcting her mistakes, because she declared the practice over for the night.  She made Katherine take the fancy dress and bra off and took them with her when she left.  Katherine washed off the makeup and took another swim, then went to bed.

 

Chapter 41 – Calling for Help

June 28

Allen woke to find Maria shaking his shoulder.  He opened his eyes to see that the sun was just peeking above the horizon.  Maria looked upset, and she pointed to Allen’s left.  He looked in the direction indicated and immediately understood why she was concerned.  A crocodile was climbing slowly up out of the river onto the sandbank, and it seemed to be very interested in the mermaids.  Allen was the closest to that end of the bank, so he started scooting away towards the water.  Maria worked quickly to wake the rest of the group, and they gathered up their supplies and slipped into the river.  Allen reached the river just ahead of the crocodile and started swimming as hard as he could after the rest of the group.  Just when he thought he had escaped the crocodile, he felt a rush of water near his side and felt the jaws of the crocodile bite down on his tail fluke.  He kicked out as hard as he could, trying to dislodge the reptile from its hold on him.  Renna noticed his distress and swam back to try and help, but he shook his head violently.  He didn’t want her to get hurt as well.  She ignored his protests and grabbed the crocodile by its tail, trying to pull it away from him.  The crocodile clamped down harder and tried to roll, but when it did, its teeth tore through the material of the tail fluke and pulled off a chunk of silicone.  Allen kicked it hard in the nose and the startled animal swam quickly away.  Allen was bleeding from his tail but Renna took his hand and helped him swim after the others.

The mermaids regrouped and found another small sandbank nearer to the mouth of the river and dug more holes for fresh water.  They all drank until their bellies were sloshing, trying to stock up since they didn’t know when they would find the next fresh water river or stream.  Renna looked carefully at Allen to see how badly he was injured, but the crocodile had bitten mostly into the silicone material of his tail.  Strangely though, at the deepest point of the chunk bitten out of the tail, Allen was bleeding, even though that point was an inch or more beyond his toes.  Renna used some disinfectant from the first aid kit to cleanse the wound.  Once they felt ready, they all headed back out into the sea, swimming out about a mile from the shore and then following it northward.  They swam for about an hour and then noticed a few houses along the shore.

“WHAT DO YOU THINK?”  Allen signed.  “SHOULD WE CHECK OUT THIS VILLAGE?”

“IT’S TOO SMALL.”  Maria replied.  “IF CARLOS HAS ANY AGENTS THERE, THE WHOLE VILLAGE WILL KNOW ABOUT US AND THERE WILL BE NO WAY TO KEEP IT A SECRET.  WE NEED TO FIND SOMEPLACE BIGGER.”

After a short discussion, the other mermaids agreed and they continued swimming north.  They didn’t see any other settlements for some time.  About mid-day, they saw another river, so they swam in to shore and found another place to get fresh water.  They saw a few more crocodiles in the river, but this time none of them thought the mermaids looked appetizing.  After drinking their fill, they continued their swim along the shore.  Wherever they were, it was apparently not very heavily settled.  Not long after leaving the river, they began to notice that the water seemed shallower, and a profusion of coral reef sea life burst into view around them.  They slowed their swimming to enjoy the view, but kept moving.  After another two hours or so, they could see a larger settlement on the shore.  This one had a long pier and there were several boats plying the waters nearby.

“DO YOU THINK THIS TOWN IS BIG ENOUGH?”  Allen asked.

“IT LOOKS PROMISING.  WHAT SHOULD WE DO?”

“I THINK WE SHOULD WAIT UNTIL DARK, AND THEN TRY TO APPROACH AN ISOLATED HOUSE.”  Said Lacy.

“THAT SOUNDS LIKE A GOOD IDEA.”  Answered Maria.  “LET’S KEEP SWIMMING AND FIND SOMETHING ON THE FAR END OF TOWN.”

They swam another couple of miles, surfacing frequently to keep the shore in sight.  The town looked small, but spread out along the coast somewhat, with a road following the shoreline.  They passed the majority of the buildings and saw a small river outlet, but then the number of buildings increased again as they passed another smaller town or neighborhood.  Finally they could see the road turn away from the beach and a single house behind some trees at the corner.  Beyond that house the jungle stretched away to the north.  It was early afternoon, so they decided to wait until it got dark and then have two mermaids approach the house.  Maria was the obvious selection for one of the two, as she spoke fluent Spanish.  After some discussion, they settled on Daphne for the second person to send as she was perhaps the strongest and most athletic of the mermaids.  Once the decision had been made, they found a clear spot on the bottom and sat down to wait for sunset.

“SO IF WE FIND SOMEONE, WHAT DO WE DO?”  Asked Daphne.

“WE’LL HAVE TO FIGURE OUT A WAY TO COMMUNICATE – WRITING PROBABLY.  THEN FIND OUT WHERE WE ARE AND TRY TO GET ACCESS TO A PHONE.”

“BUT WE CAN’T TALK.  HOW CAN WE CALL SOMEONE?”

“WE’LL HAVE TO SEND A TEXT OR AN E-MAIL.”

“WHO SHOULD WE CALL?”

“DAVE JOHNSON.”  Said Allen.  “HE’S WITH THE POLICE AND HE KNOWS US.  HE SHOULD BE ABLE TO ARRANGE FOR SOME HELP.”

Allen still remembered Dave Johnson’s phone number from their previous interactions, so he gave that number to Maria and Daphne to memorize.  They each had a relative they could try as well, in case the first option didn’t work out.  As the sun set behind the trees, they all swam near the shore.  Maria and Daphne crawled out of the water and slowly made their way up through the trees to the house they had spotted earlier.  They could see some lights on in the windows, so they hoped that someone would be home.  Once they made it through the line of trees, they could see that there was a house and a large barn or garage with a gravel driveway behind them.  They crawled across a well-kept lawn to the back door of the house, and Daphne knocked.

A few moments later, the door opened and a woman looked out.  She seemed a bit startled to see two women with mermaid tails at her door.

“Hello?  Who are you?”  She asked.

Maria and Daphne were surprised to hear her speak in English.  They made motions to indicate that they couldn’t talk, and then Maria pantomimed writing something.

“You can’t talk?”  The woman asked.  “And you want something to write with?”

They both nodded their heads.

“Well, you might as well come in.”

The woman held the door for them and they crawled into the house.  The back door led into a kitchen, and the woman waved at some chairs around a table, then went to a cabinet and started rummaging around in it.  Maria and Daphne pulled out some chairs and climbed into them.  It seemed like a difficult task at first, but with arms strengthened by countless hours of swimming they found that they could grab the seat of the chair and lever themselves up into position without much trouble.  A moment later, the woman came back and put a piece of paper and a pencil in front of them.  Maria pulled the paper over and began to write, with the woman watching over her shoulder.

We need help.  Maria wrote.  We were being held captive somewhere south of here and managed to escape.  Where are we?  Do you have a phone we could use?

“You were being held captive?”  Asked the woman.  “By who?”

Carlos Ruiz.  He was using us for entertainment.  Wrote Maria.

“Oh, my.  If Carlos was your captor, you are in great danger.  His people have been snooping around town lately, looking for something.  I suppose that would be you?”

Both mermaids nodded their heads.

“As to where you are, you are in Punta Gorda.  And I do have a phone.  But how will you talk?”

What country are we in?  Maria wrote.  She had never heard of Punta Gorda before.

“Oh, I’m sorry.  Welcome to Belize.  Where are you from?”

Texas, in the United States.

“You are really a long way from home, then.  But you didn’t answer me.  I can get you a phone, but you can’t talk, so what good will it do you?”

We were hoping that you had a cell-phone so we could send a text or an e-mail.

“Of course.  Yes, my phone is a cell-phone.  You can send a text.”  The woman pulled out a cell-phone and handed it to Maria, who immediately started tapping out a text to Dave Johnson.  While she was working, Daphne pulled the paper and pencil over in front of her and began to write.

My name is Daphne.  And that’s Maria on the phone.  Can we have some water?

“I’m Susan.  Of course you can have some water.  I’ll be just a moment.”

Susan went to the sink and filled two glasses with water.  She brought them back and put one in front of each mermaid.  Daphne lifted her glass in silent thanks, then drank it down.

I was surprised that you speak English.  Daphne wrote when she was done.

“Belize was a British colony, so English is our official language.  But most of us speak Creole or another language in addition to English.”

Thank you for helping us out.

“I’m happy to do what I can.”

Where can we stay while we wait for someone from the US to come get us?

“I wish I could let you stay here, but if Carlos Ruiz is after you, no place in town is safe.  Maybe if you take off your mermaid costumes we could figure out some sort of disguise.”

Unfortunately, our tails are glued on, and it takes a special solvent to remove them.  We can’t take them off until we get back to Texas.

“Where were you being held?  In Carlos’s estate?”

I think so.  It took us two days to swim here from there.

“You must be some very fast swimmers to come that far in two days.  Did you swim straight across the bay?”

No.  We followed the shore.

“That’s probably 30 or 35 miles.  I’m impressed.”

Maria started jumping up and down in her seat.  She waved the phone and then held it so that Daphne could see.  She and Susan read the text message chain as she and Dave communicated.

Dave, this is Maria Cruz.  You helped us when we were kidnapped before.  I am with the other mermaids and we have escaped from Carlos Ruiz.  Can you send help?

Maria!  We have been looking for you all.  Where are you?

Punta Gorda, Belize.

Did all of you escape?

No.  They took Katherine away the night before we escaped.

I think I might know where she is.  I’m working on rescuing her.  I’m not at home right now, but I will work on sending some help your way.  Where should we come to?  Are you safe?

No, we are not safe.  Carlos is looking for us.

I will try to move fast then.  Where should I send the rescue team?

Both mermaids looked at Susan.

Is there a place we can hide while we wait for help to come?  Daphne wrote.

“How about an island?”  Asked Susan.  “There are some coral reef islands about 10 miles north of here.  Maybe you can hide there.”

Is there any fresh water on the islands?

“No.  But I have something that will help with that.  Do you have food?”

Enough for a few days.

“Bien.  Wait here a minute and I’ll get a map and show you something.”

While they waited, Maria went back to texting.

We are at the house of a friend, but we can’t stay here.  She is getting a map to some islands where we can hide.

  1. You can take a picture of the map when she gets it.

Susan came back with a map showing the nearby coastline.  It showed a shallow bay to the north, with two lines of coral atolls paralleling the shore.  The most distant set was about five miles from shore, and Susan showed them an island with a central lagoon.

“I think you could hide here.”  She said.  “These islands are mostly mangroves with a little bit of sand, so no-one uses them except for fishing.”

They put the map on the table and Maria pointed to the island in question while Susan took a picture and sent it to Dave.

Got it.  Dave texted.  I’ll send a rescue team to that island.  They will look around for you on or near the island.

Wait!  How will we tell they aren’t Carlos’s goons?

I’ll have my team put up a yellow flag on their boat.

Good we’ll look for a yellow flag.

It may be a few days.  It won’t be easy to organize this.

We’ll survive.

Good luck.  I’m looking forward to hearing about your escape.

Maria handed the phone back to Susan.

Thank you so much for helping us.  Maria wrote.

“I’m glad you came to my door.  Anywhere else in town and you might have been caught by now.  I need to get my desalinator and then you had better go.  My husband is due back soon, and he may feel he has to tell Carlos about you in order to protect me and our house.  How many of you are there?”

There are 9 of us.

“Nine?  Well, I think this says it will provide water for up to six.  Hopefully that will be enough, especially if you can catch some rain.  Wait here while I get it.”

Susan came back in a few minutes with a portable desalinator.  It had a hand pump to push the salt water through a reverse osmosis filter, and it was relatively compact.  Since it was designed for boats, it even had a lanyard with a clip for attaching it to the boat.  Susan also had a mesh bag with five or six bottles of water in it.  She handed the bag to Daphne and the desalinator to Maria, then ushered them back to the door.

“You’d better leave quickly now.  My husband will be back any minute.  Good luck.”

They had left their paper and pencil on the table, so Maria and Daphne had to say thank you with a hug.  Grasping their new supplies, they crawled back down to the water and swam out to the other mermaids.  Susan took the paper with their messages on it and tore it up into little pieces over a trash can.

 

Chapter 42 – Katherine and General Pak

July 3

 

Katherine woke up when the lights turned on, ready for another day of swimming and tea party practice.  Captain Nari seemed to be excited about something, however.  As Katherine ate her breakfast, the woman explained.

“Today is the day!  We have received a message that General Pak will be arriving later this morning.  You will need to practice extra hard today.  I want your performance at dinner to be flawless, and then if the general is in the mood, you will need to be ready for a tea ceremony afterwards.”

Katherine was not worried about the swimming or the tea ceremony.  Nothing had been said, but she expected that the tea ceremony would be followed by a rape, though they would not likely call it that.  From what she remembered, sexual favors were a definite part of the duties of the “pleasure squads.”  She supposed the other women had been brainwashed into believing it was a privilege to participate – and perhaps it was.  At least they got regular meals.  Katherine didn’t know what she would do.  Should she resist?  Or was that a futile gesture?  She put those thoughts out of her mind for the moment.  After she ate her breakfast, Captain Nari stayed in the room.

“Today I watch.  I will go to the viewing room and activate the bell.  When you hear it, take off your clothes and show me your performance.  I must be sure it will satisfy the general.”

Katherine did as she was told.  The Captain left the room and a few minutes later, a bell sounded.  Katherine took off her clothes and got into the pool.  She performed her routine as she had been practicing.  It hadn’t been too hard to come up with something, as she just re-used movements from the routine they had performed for Carlos.  Of course, since she was alone the whole performance depended upon her abilities, and so she had tried to add some more athletic and extreme movements to make up for the lack of a group.  When she was done, she swam to the side of the pool, and Nari left the viewing room and came to talk to her.

“That was satisfactory.  You will practice more today and perform flawlessly for our dear Pak this evening.  Once you are done, Yuki and Sakra will come to give you your bath and prepare you for the tea ceremony.”

It seemed to Katherine that despite Nari’s expressed happiness at the return of General Pak, she was holding back some anger or unhappiness.  Was she jealous of Katherine?  Maybe she feared that the beautiful mermaid would replace her in the general’s affections.  Katherine would have been happy if Nari got the general all to herself, but she didn’t know how to communicate that to her rival.  Though she didn’t feel obligated to please her kidnappers, Katherine spent the morning practicing her routine anyway.  There was nothing else to do, and she could still feel a personal satisfaction from honing her skills and engaging in a creative activity.  The endorphins generated by the exercise helped her take her mind off of what might be happening in the evening.  She took a break in the early afternoon so that she wouldn’t be tired when the time came for the performance.

At the appointed time, the bell rang and Katherine disrobed and slipped into the pool to make her performance.  Through the clear wall of the pool, she could see General Pak sitting at a table watching her.  Nari sat beside him, dressed in one of her long embroidered dresses.  Two other young women served them a meal while Katherine swam.  As she performed, Katherine caught glimpses of the general watching her intently while Nari picked at her food and pouted.  When her routine was done, Katherine climbed out of the pool and was met by Yuki and Sakra to help bathe and dress her.  They spent extra time on her makeup, and the dress they gave her was even more luxurious and revealing than the ones she had worn the last few evenings.  It had a deep, plunging “v” in the front that revealed a lot of cleavage, along with several strategically placed sheer sections that revealed sections of her torso and her lacy black bra.

Once Katherine was ready, Yuki brought in the low table with the items for the tea ceremony.  She lit a candle and the lights in the room were turned down.  As they had practiced, Katherine knelt in front of the table and waited for General Pak.  Then Yuki left the room and the general came in, with Nari holding onto his arm.  The general’s eyes roved over Katherine and he smiled at her.  He said something in Korean to Nari, who answered with a short agreement and a small bow of her head.  Then the general gently lifted Nari’s hand from his arm and made a shooing motion towards the door.  Katherine was surprised when Nari apparently objected.  There was a short argument in Korean, after which Nari smiled and bowed, then left the room.  At last the general addressed Katherine directly.

“Apparently you are a very dangerous American and it is not safe for me to be alone in the room with you.”  Pak said with a smile.  “But we have arrived at a compromise.”

As he finished speaking, Nari re-entered the room, with a coil of rope in her hand.

“Put your hands behind your back.”  She ordered.

Katherine did as she was told, and the captain pulled her wrists up behind her back until they were parallel, with her hands almost touching the opposite elbows.  She quickly bound Katherine’s forearms together, wrapping several loops around them.  Then she brought a loop up around Katherine’s neck, which prevented her from lowering her arms.  Nari finished off the tie by looping a few coils around Katherine’s upper arms, drawing them together into an uncomfortable but not quite painful position.  When she was done, the leader of the pleasure squad bowed once more to the general and then left.

“I regret the necessity of the ropes.”  General Pak said.  “But I have found it more conducive to a pleasant atmosphere in my home if I indulge my girls a little.  Now we have a problem, though.  It will be difficult for you to perform the tea ceremony with your arms tied together.  Nari volunteered to stay and protect me while you served my tea, but I like to have some time alone with my new girls.  I guess it will be up to me to do the serving.”

The general proceeded to follow through, pouring a cup of tea for each of them.  He took a few sips of his own tea, and then held Katherine’s cup to her lips and gently tilted it so that she could drink.  There were a few small biscuits and cookies on a tray, and Pak fed some to Katherine, taking bites of his own as well.

“I must say that I was quite taken with you from the first time I saw you swimming in Mr. Ruiz’s pool.”  Said the general as he held the cup to Katherine’s lips.  “I am so glad that I was able to arrange for your transfer to my house.  Have you been treated well?  Are you comfortable?”

Not wanting to anger her captor, Katherine nodded her head.

“Did you know we have a legend about mermaids even in Korea?  Her name is Sinjiki, and she lives near an island in the south.  She warns the sailors there when a storm is coming.  I was very interested when I saw you and your fellow mermaids swimming.  Your tails are very realistic looking, and the technology that allows you to breathe underwater is very fascinating.”

The general reached out to touch Katherine’s collar.

“In addition to arranging for your transfer to my house, I was able to negotiate for the plans and a sample of the breathing collars you use.  The technology will be most useful to the DPRK, and our dear leader is very pleased with me for obtaining it.  He may even come here to visit my home.”

The tea ceremony continued until all of the cookies had been eaten and both cups of tea had been drained.

“Thank you for sharing tea with me.”  Pak said when they were done.  “Shall we move to the bed?”

Katherine started to shake her head, but she didn’t know what would happen if she refused.  So she simply knelt in place and looked down.

“I see there is some fear in your eyes.  Don’t worry, I am not one of the cruel ones who likes to hurt his pleasure women.  But I guess you will need some help to the bed.”

Pak stood up and moved the tea table out of the way.  Then he picked Katherine up and carried her to the bed.  He laid her face down and began untying the ropes imprisoning her arms.

“Please relax.”  Pak said.  “I promise not to hurt you.”

Once the ropes were completely removed, Pak gently lifted Katherine’s shoulder and rolled her over onto her back.

“Now I must secure you in place.  I’m afraid Nari and my security squad insist.”

Pak reached up to the headboard of the bed and did something Katherine couldn’t see.  There was a click and the metal rectangles on the bed posts came loose.  Pak pulled on the rectangle and a thin chain spooled out from inside the post.  There was a padded manacle attached to the end of the chain, and Pak fastened it around Katherine’s wrist.  He repeated the action with her other wrist.  He pulled a third chain out from a compartment at the foot of the bed.  It connected to a leather binder that locked around the base of Katherine’s tail over her ankles.  Though she tried to control herself, Katherine’s body started to shiver, and a tear trickled out from one eye.  Pak kicked off his shoes and lay down on the bed beside Katherine.  He tenderly brushed a strand of hair out of her face, then lowered his hand to her abdomen and caressed her belly and hips.

“I am so sorry that you are afraid of me.”  Pak said.  “Please calm yourself.  You are performing a great service to the nation.  My pleasure squad helps to keep me relaxed and fulfilled so that I can give my optimum performance to my country.  Although we must keep you restrained for now, I believe you will eventually come to willingly serve our noble and enlightened republic.  I do not take pleasure in your fear, so I will give you some time to adjust to your new role.”

Although Pak’s words were not likely to convince Katherine to willingly participate, his actions seemed to indicate that the inevitable rape might not happen immediately.  As he continued to caress her body, so far avoiding her breasts and other sensitive areas, Katherine was able to calm herself and cease her quivering.  Pak’s hand moved to Katherine’s tail, and he spent some time feeling the scales on her legs and thighs.

“These scales have an interesting feel to them.  Although they are hard, they are mounted to a soft and yielding substrate.  Quite exciting.”

Pak’s hand moved up under Katherine’s dress to her waist and felt along the transition zone between scales and skin.  Katherine’s stomach started to knot up in anticipation of what would come next.  But Pak did not do what she expected.  Instead, he pulled his hand out from under her dress and sat up on the bed.

“I think I had better stop there for tonight.  I will leave you to sleep.  Please think kindly of me.  I’m sorry that I cannot release you from your bonds, but only Nari has the key.”

Pak’s hand drifted down and cupped one of Katherine’s breasts for just a moment, and then he stood up and left the room.

 

Chapter 43 – Island Hideaway

June 29

 

Allen and the mermaids swam north during the night.  They found a small island after a few hours of swimming, and stopped there to sleep and recharge.  There was little flat space to lay down among the tangle of mangrove roots, so they didn’t rest for long.  When the sun rose, they stayed for a while longer to let the solar panels charge their batteries.  They each drank some of the water from the water bottles provided by Susan, then took turns pumping the filter to re-fill some of the bottles.  They found that it took about 20 minutes of pumping to fill one bottle.  When they felt that the batteries were charged enough, they started swimming north again.  Under the water they passed through a wonderland of brightly colored fish and strangely shaped corals.  They encountered more small islands, places where the reef had grown to the surface of the water and mangroves had taken root at low tide.  Most of the islands were little more than one or two mangrove trees, but some were larger.  Eventually they came to the island Susan had pointed out on the map.  It was a narrow horseshoe-shaped spit of land with a lagoon and some small islets in the center.  Enough sand had accumulated in some locations so that there was room for the mermaids to get out of the water.  They all agreed that it looked like a good place to wait for their rescuers.  Allen organized them into shifts so that there were always two mermaids on watch.  Based on the bits of trash and a few burned spots in the sand, people did visit the island from time to time, and they didn’t want to be surprised by a fisherman or one of Carlos’s searchers.  They spread out their solar panels, took turns pumping the water filter, and settled in to wait for help.

 

Chapter 44 – Found Them!

June 29

 

Janice was sitting in the lobby at the police station again, trying to hide her fear and nervousness.  Dave had been gone for a couple of days, and she hoped he was making progress on a rescue.  But she couldn’t help wondering what was happening to Katherine.  Was she in Guatemala, held captive by a drug dealer?  Or was she in North Korea, the notoriously closed society where westerners were often imprisoned for years on the slightest pretext?  The phone rang, and after a few minutes Marta called Janice over to her desk.

“It’s Detective Johnson.  He would like to speak with you.”  She said, handing the receiver over.

“Hello?”

“Hello Janice.  This is Dave.  I have some good news for you.”

“Did you find her?”

“We found all of them.  Katherine is in North Korea, being held in the house of a top official.  The others managed to escape, and they are currently in Belize.  I’m making arrangements for some people to go pick them up.”

“Belize?  Didn’t you suspect they were being held in Guatemala?”

“They were.  But Belize borders on Guatemala, and they managed to swim there when they escaped.”

“Is Katherine OK?  Do you know why they wanted her?”

“I don’t have much information yet.  We’re still trying to get agents in place.  But it sounds like she has been recruited as a pleasure squad member.”

“Pleasure squad.  Is that what it sounds like?”

“Unfortunately yes.  Kim Jong Un and the top leaders in his government and military are given young attractive women to provide them with sexual services.  Usually these women are recruited at about age 17, and they mostly serve voluntarily.  But North Korea has been kidnapping people for years.  We estimate there are more than 1000 abductees living in North Korea now.  Apparently Katherine caught this general’s eye in Guatemala, and he arranged with Carlos Ruiz to have her sent to him.”

“Can you rescue her?”

“Yes, I believe I can, but it will be very dangerous.  If we are caught it will likely cause an international incident.  So as much as I know you want me to, I cannot hurry this.  It may take me several days to put everything in place.”

“I understand.  Please hurry as fast as you can.  I can only imagine what horrible things are happening to my daughter.”

“She’s a tough young woman.  She’ll get through this.”

“Thank you.”

 

Chapter 45 – Katherine is Rescued

July 4

 

When the lights turned on, Katherine tried to sit up but was stopped by the manacles on her wrists.  That brought back the memory of what had happened the night before.  She felt a little confused.  Pak had actually been very kind to her.  Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.  Nari entered and unlocked the manacles, then pressed a hidden button on the back of the headboard.  The chains retracted back into the bed posts and the metal covers clicked back into place, returning to their decorative appearance.  Nari seemed to be happier this morning.

“Today you will give another performance in the evening.”  She said.  “As he talked to me in bed this morning, my dear Pak said he was very pleased with your actions yesterday.  You must practice hard and give another excellent performance.”

That explained Nari’s cheerfulness.  Katherine found herself feeling a tiny bit of resentment that Pak had gone to Nari’s bed.  But that was silly.  She didn’t want his attentions, no matter how kind and gentle he had been last night.  She had her breakfast and then spent the day practicing.  Once again she did her routine while Pak watched her through the transparent pool wall.  Nari sat beside him, but she seemed less jealous and more interested in watching Katherine than she had previously.  Katherine finished and then let herself be bathed and dressed for the tea ceremony.  This time, the dress they gave her was much more modest, with a high mandarin collar and long sleeves, though it did fit her very tightly.  They must have had a seamstress working to Katherine’s exact measurements to make it fit so well.  Once she was dressed, Nari entered the room first, and tied Katherine’s arms behind her back like before.  General Pak entered just as Nari finished, and she stopped to give Pak a kiss and to whisper in his ear before leaving.

“You look truly lovely.”  Pak said as he knelt down across the tea table.  “And your performance this evening was flawless.  I find it very exciting to watch your graceful movements in the water.”

They proceeded with the tea ceremony as they had done the night before, with Pak tenderly feeding Katherine and holding the tea cup to her lips so she could drink.  When they were done, he carried her over to the bed and laid her face down to untie the ropes.

“Perhaps tonight I could be permitted the opportunity to see more of your beauty.”  He said as he untied her arms.

Once her arms were freed, Pak unzipped the zipper on Katherine’s dress and pulled it off over her head before once again shackling her wrists and tail.  Although he left her bra in place, Katherine felt more exposed than she had when swimming without any top on at all.  She could feel her body shivering again, but she was not totally sure if it was fear or anticipation that drove the reaction.  Pak simply sat on the bed for a long time, looking at her, his eyes roving up and down her form.  At last he laid a hand on her stomach and leaned over to kiss her on the lips.  Katherine felt her body react, though her mind told her it was wrong.  When Pak finished the kiss and left the room, frustration built within her.  Why hadn’t he gone further?  As the hormones slowly drained away and Katherine drifted off to sleep, her mind understood what was happening.  The long slow seduction was designed to waken her instincts and passions and weaken her objections.  Despite this realization, Katherine feared that when the time came she would likely give herself willingly to her captor.

After several hours of confused and troubling dreams, Katherine found herself waking to an unfamiliar sound.  The noise repeated several times, a muffled “Crack!” that came from different locations somewhere outside her rooms.  Finally, the door to her rooms opened and several people came in, the beams of flashlights bobbing and weaving as they slipped into her rooms and spread out in a search pattern.  One beam slid across the bed, lighting up Katherine’s form for a moment, and soon several other beams concentrated on her and three of the people rushed to her side.  They were dressed all in black, with balaclavas covering their faces.  One of the people seemed taller than the others, and he uncovered his face and spoke to her.

“Katherine, this is Dave Johnson.  We’ve come to get you out of here.  Are you OK?”

Katherine nodded her head.  Relief and happiness flooded through her body.  She was going to be rescued!  One of the other people with Dave held up a hand with a large key ring in it.

“Do you know what key fits the manacles?”  Dave asked.

Hesitantly, Katherine nodded her head.

“Why aren’t you saying anything?  Can’t you talk?”

Katherine shook her head and opened her mouth, pushing some air out without any recognizable speech.

“Just nod your head if you see the right key, then.”

Dave spoke a few words in another language to the other rescuer, who started going through the key ring, holding up each key in turn, but Katherine kept shaking her head.  Finally, Dave asked “Are any of the keys on this ring the right one?”  Katherine shook her head again.  Dave spoke to his companion again, and he pulled a few individual keys out of a pocket.  The third key out of those looked like it might be the one Nari had used, so Katherine nodded and they tried that one.  It worked, and they were able to release Katherine from her bonds.  One of the other commandoes picked up the dress from the floor and handed it to Katherine, who gratefully put it on.  Then Dave started to pick Katherine up.

“I’m sorry we don’t have a wheelchair, so we’ll have to carry you out.”  Said Dave.  “We don’t have much time.”

Katherine started shaking her head violently, and pointed to her neck.

“Is something wrong?”

Katherine nodded, and made choking motions.  Dave watched for a moment, then reached into a pocket and pulled out a small notebook and a pen.

“I can tell it’s something about your collar, but I’m not sure exactly what.  Can you write down what you need to tell me?”

Katherine wrote quickly.

My collar is set to cut off my air if I leave these two rooms.  There is a transmitter and I can’t get out of range of it.

Dave motioned to one of the people who had been guarding the door.  When she came closer, Katherine could see that she was a woman.  Dave spoke to her in that other language again.  It didn’t quite sound like the Korean Katherine had been hearing, but it had a similar Asian feeling to it.  The woman spoke back and Dave translated.

“This is our medic.  She might be able to help.  But she needs to know how the collar works.  How does it cut off your air?”

There is a tracheostomy through my neck that feeds me air from the collar.  A valve above it prevents water from going into my lungs, but also blocks air when it is closed.  They have hacked the collar so the valve stays closed all the time, and the collar will stop providing air if I leave the transmitter signal area.

Dave translated Katherine’s writing, and he and the woman spoke rapidly for a few moments.

“She says she might be able to bypass the valve by putting a tube down your throat.  She’ll have to numb your throat to calm your gag reflex first.  If that doesn’t work, we might have to cut the collar away so you can breathe directly through the tracheostomy.”

Even while Dave was explaining, the medic was digging around in a bag she had with her and preparing a syringe with anesthetic.  Katherine nodded her head to show her understanding, and the medic injected Katherine in the throat above and below her collar on both sides.  Then she touched Katherine’s mouth and opened her own mouth wide.  Katherine followed her example.  The medic adjusted Katherine’s chin to make her airway accessible, then had Dave shine a flashlight down Katherine’s throat while she inserted the tube.  Katherine could feel the tube push past her epiglottis and down to the valve below, but the numbing effect of the anesthetic prevented her from gagging on the tube.  The woman moved the tube back and forth and finally pushed down surprisingly hard.  The valve clicked open and Katherine tried breathing in through the tube.  She felt the air flow in and she nodded her head.  Dave immediately picked her up and they all moved very quickly to leave the room.  When they passed through the door out of the pool room, Katherine felt the air from her collar stop, but she was still able to breathe almost normally.  The tube hanging out of her mouth was annoying, but with the tube blocking the valve open, air was free to flow through and around the tube, allowing Katherine to breathe almost normally.

As they passed through the darkened house, Katherine saw a few still forms on the floor, and she could smell the coppery tang of blood and the stench of bowel from a few of them.  They went down a few hallways and through a courtyard, then out a gate.  Katherine tried to talk to Dave as he carried her.

“Id ooo ill aa o emm?”  She said around the tube.

“Did we kill them all?”  Dave asked.  Katherine nodded.  “No.  We shot most of them with tranquilizer darts, but a few were armed and had to be killed before they shot us first.”

They ran through a grassy area, and then through a line of trees before coming to a river.  They climbed into a small boat and paddled quietly away through the night.  After about fifteen minutes of paddling they approached the other side of the river.  Several other people waited for them there, and they helped tie up the boat.  Dave lifted Katherine out of the boat and handed her to one of the men who was waiting.  He carried her up a small hill to a large van parked at the side of a road that paralleled the river.  Another man opened the side door of the van, and the one carrying Katherine set her down on one of the seats.  She was joined by Dave after just a few moments.

“We just crossed the Yalu River and we are now in China.”  Dave told her.  “We’re near a town called Changhe and we’re headed to Dandong, where there is an airport.  Now that we’re out of immediate danger, Ling wants to have another look at that tube in your throat.”

Dave stood up and moved to another seat so the medic could sit next to Katherine.  She had her open her mouth again, and she used a flashlight to inspect the positioning of the tube and make sure it wasn’t damaging Katherine’s throat.

“Thank you.”  Katherine said, able to speak a little better once the tube had been adjusted.

Her voice was still a bit muddled and her throat felt sore, but it was good to be able to talk again.  Ling spoke to Dave and he translated back to Katherine.

“She says not to eat or drink until they can do something more permanent, so that no foreign matter gets into your lungs.”

“I don’t think I could eat much with this thing in my throat anyway.  What language are you speaking?”

“Mandarin.  This is a special group of Chinese commandoes.  I’ve worked with them before and they are good people.”
“You’ve worked with them before?  A detective from Texas?”

“I haven’t always been a police detective, but I’m afraid I can’t tell you much more, and I’ll have to ask you not to tell anyone else.  There are things neither the Chinese nor the US government wants anyone to know about.”

“OK, I understand, I think.”

“Are you OK?  Did they mistreat you?”

“No, they actually treated me pretty nice.  Other than being confined to two rooms.”

“The way they had you chained to that bed didn’t look very nice.”

“That is true.  General Pak was getting ready to rape me, but he hadn’t got around to actually doing so yet.  I think if I had been there one more night it would have happened.”

“Are you sure?  We can stop at the hospital in Dandong.”

“No, I just want to go home.  What about Allen and the others?  Are they being rescued as well?”

“They managed to escape.  They are hiding out waiting for our rescuers to arrive.”

A wave of relief washed over Katherine and the tears started to flow.  All of the stress and fear of the last few weeks welled up from inside and came out as sobs and tears.  She felt a sadness at the loss of Nari, Pak, Yuki and the others.  Although they were her captors, they had treated her decently.  And their actions were the result of a lifetime of brainwashing.  Katherine had felt the effects of that in just a few days, so she could understand how her captors had been molded by the evil system they were a part of.  Dave put his arm around Katherine and sat quietly while she let her emotions run wild.  After a couple hours of driving, they arrived at the airport and were escorted directly to the runway and a waiting Gulfstream jet.  Dave carried Katherine up the stairs and helped her into a comfortable seat for the long ride home.

 

Chapter 46 – Escaping a Trap

July 1

 

Maria swam down to the bottom of the lagoon where Allen was sitting, watching the colorful fish swim through the coral.

“THERE’S A BOAT COMING, AND IT HAS A YELLOW FLAG!”  She signed.

“IS EVERYONE STICKING TO THE PLAN?”

“YES, BUT WE DID SEE A YELLOW FLAG.”

“I HEARD YOU.  IT COULD STILL BE A COINCIDENCE OR A TRAP.  WE’LL LET THE BOAT COME CLOSE AND OBSERVE IT BEFORE WE REVEAL OURSELVES.”

Following the plan they had all agreed on, Allen and Maria swam over to the cave underneath the mangrove roots.  The other mermaids quickly joined them there, bringing the solar panels, batteries, water filter, and any other signs that they had been living here.  Renna hung close to the surface, watching out through the mangrove roots as the boat entered the lagoon.  She could clearly see the yellow flag flying from a large antenna on the top of the boat.  Two men stood in the boat with binoculars, scanning the water.  Neither of the men looked familiar, but they were both Caucasian, a sign that they likely weren’t locals.

“IT LOOKS LIKE THIS MIGHT BE OUR RESCUERS.”  Renna signed.  “THEY ARE FLYING A YELLOW FLAG AND OBVIOUSLY SEARCHING FOR SOMETHING.”

“OK, LETS HAVE CARLA SWIM OUT AND POKE HER HEAD UP, LIKE WE PLANNED.”

Carla swam out of the cave, and Renna watched her head toward the boat.  She stayed close to the bottom until she was near, then swam upward to reveal herself.  Suddenly, two dolphins swam swiftly towards her.  She could hear their loud echolocating clicks as they approached.  The dolphins dove on her from above and pushed her back down towards the bottom.  Carla was very confused by this unnatural behavior.  These seemed to be from the same pod of dolphins that they had seen swimming around their island for the past several days.  They had seemed playful and shy before, but now these two were being very aggressive.  She tried to push them out of the way and swim to the surface, but the two sea mammals seemed determined to keep her down at the bottom of the lagoon.

Renna watched from the cave as a pair of dolphins swam around Carla.  She couldn’t really tell what the dolphins were doing, but the men on the boat seemed to have noticed the movement under the water.  As Renna watched, several more men appeared out of the boat’s cabin.  Two of them carried a large tube that they rested on the gunwale of the ship.  They pointed it down towards Carla and the dolphins and fired a large weighted net, which spun to make a circle and then sank down towards the bottom.

“THOSE AREN’T RESCUERS!”  Renna signed to the others.  “CARLOS MUST HAVE LEARNED ABOUT THE YELLOW FLAG!”

The dolphins pushed Carla away from the falling net, and she managed to swim out from under the edge of the trap just before it hit the bottom.  One of the dolphins was not so lucky and ended up caught in the net.  Carla swam towards one of the gaps in the ring of islands around the lagoon, carefully not going towards the cave where the rest of the mermaids were hiding.  Behind her, several divers splashed into the water.  Carla ducked behind a mound of coral and then swam into a twisting maze of mangrove roots surrounding one of the small islands in the center of the lagoon.  She turned to look behind her and saw several dolphins shooting past.  A group of divers was spreading out from the ship, searching for the mermaids, but they were set upon by the dolphins, which drove into the divers, ramming them with their beaks.  One of the divers fired his spear gun, grazing a dolphin with the spear and releasing a cloud of blood into the water.  This made the rest of the dolphins even more aggressive, and they pounded the divers unmercifully, cracking ribs with their powerful blows.  The divers fired their spear guns at the dolphins, trying to drive them away, but the swift creatures easily evaded the projectiles.  One diver even managed to shoot one of his compatriots as the dolphin he aimed for dove in front of the other man and twisted away just as the spear gun fired.

While the divers were occupied with the dolphins, the mermaids slipped out of their cave and swam through the mangrove roots to a passageway between the islets that made up their refuge.

“WHAT ABOUT CARLA?”  Asked Daphne once they had all gathered on the other side.

“SHE’S RIGHT THERE.”  Answered Fernando.

They looked in the direction indicated and saw a dolphin swimming toward them.  Carla was swimming behind the dolphin, having to work hard to keep up.  Once Carla had joined them, two more dolphins approached.  They circled around the mermaids a few times, then swam a short distance away.  One of the dolphins came back and swam among them, then went to join the other two.

“I THINK THEY WANT US TO FOLLOW THEM.”  Carla signed.

They all started following the dolphins, who swam rapidly away, but kept coming back to make sure that they followed.  The dolphins led them on a wandering course from one small island to another, always staying close to the reefs and rocks underneath the water.  As they continued, more and more dolphins joined them, with one or two sporting small injuries from spear guns and diver’s knives.  They spent the rest of the day swimming, with the dolphins keeping up a punishingly fast pace for the mermaids, especially for Allen and Fernando.  They seemed to be getting farther away from the shore, which was lost from view somewhere to their East.  They finally stopped near the end of the day when the dolphins led them to a small island perhaps 500 feet long and half as wide.  There the dolphins left them, scattering in several directions at once.

“I GUESS WE STAY HERE.”  Allen signed.

“WHY DID THEY RESCUE US?”  Anna asked.  “AND HOW DID THEY EVEN KNOW WE NEEDED RESCUING?”

“I DON’T KNOW.  MAYBE CARLOS’S PEOPLE HAVE BEEN HUNTING DOLPHINS, AND THEY RECOGNIZE THE BOAT.  THE QUESTION WE SHOULD ASK IS WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO NOW?”

“WE OBVIOUSLY CAN’T GO BACK TO THAT ISLAND.  CARLOS’S GOONS WILL PROBABLY BE WAITING NEARBY AND SEARCHING FOR US.”  Renna chimed in.

“WE ARE RUNNING OUT OF FOOD, THOUGH.  WE’VE GOT TO GET SOME HELP SOON.”

“WE CAN GO SEVERAL DAYS WITHOUT FOOD.  I SAY WE KEEP SWIMMING FOR A LONG WAY, TO GET AS FAR FROM CARLOS AND HIS PEOPLE AS WE CAN.  THEN WE’LL HAVE TO GO BACK TO LAND AND TRY TO FIND SOMEONE TO HELP AGAIN.”

“LET’S GET SOME REST AND RECHARGE OUR COLLARS.  WE CAN MAKE SOME PLANS IN THE MORNING.”

After resting the night, they set up their solar panels to recharge the batteries in the morning.  Then they took turns pumping the filter to refill their supply of fresh water while they discussed their plans.  They all agreed that the best alternative was to keep swimming north for several days to try and get out of the area Carlos was searching, then try to find another person with a cell-phone.  After a few hours, they saw the pod of dolphins again.  They circled the island and even approached the shore in groups of one or two.

“I THINK THEY WANT US TO FOLLOW THEM AGAIN.”  Signed Daphne.

“WHERE DO YOU THINK THEY WANT TO TAKE US?”

“I DON’T KNOW, BUT THEY ARE MUCH MORE FAMILIAR WITH THE AREA THAN WE ARE.  I THINK WE SHOULD FOLLOW.”

They all agreed, so they gathered their supplies and slipped into the sea.  The dolphins led them in the same general direction as they had traveled the day before.  After a few minutes, the coral reefs started to thin out and the bottom dropped deeper below them.  Before long, the bottom was lost to sight as they headed out into the open sea.  Inwardly, Allen worried.  Did the dolphins understand that they couldn’t spend the night in open water?  They had to find a place to rest and get fresh water before the day was through.  A couple hours of swimming brought them to shallower water again, and Allen’s worries lessened.  The dolphins continued on, leading them through another section of reefs and back into deeper water again.  After a long day of hard swimming, they finally arrived at another set of small islands.  These were more exposed, basically just the top of the reef poking out through the water.  The dolphins stopped there and swam away again, leaving the mermaids to themselves.  They spread out their gear and settled into their normal charging and water filtering routine.

 

Chapter 47 – “You’re a Perfectly Healthy Mermaid”

 

Katherine woke up from a long, restful sleep when the Gulfstream landed back in the US.

“How are you feeling?”  Dave asked her.

“Better.  Where are we?”

“We just landed in Houston.  There’s somebody waiting here to see you.”

“Allen?”

“No.  I’m sure he’ll be picked up soon, though.  It’s your mom.”

“Great!  I’m sure she must have been very worried.”

“She definitely was.  Shall we go see her?”

“Yes!”

Dave picked her up and carried her down the stairs.  There were several people on the tarmac, including a nurse with a wheelchair.  Before Dave could set Katherine down in the chair, however, Janice rushed up and enveloped them both in a hug.

“Katherine!  I’m so glad you’re back.  I’ve been so worried.”

“You’re going to make me drop her.”  Dave said.  “Let me put her in the wheelchair.”

“Oh, of course.  Thank you so much, Dave.  I can’t believe you were able to rescue her from North Korea!”

Dave put Katherine in the wheelchair, then answered.  “I’m going to have to ask both of you not to mention where Katherine was being held.  We don’t want to upset any of the delicate diplomatic relations between our nation and various Asian countries that might or might not have helped with the rescue operation.”

“Honey, what’s that tube hanging out of your mouth?”  Janice asked her daughter.

“It’s a breathing tube.  My collar is set to cut off my air, and the medic had to insert the tube so I could breathe.”

“And the next stop is the hospital, where we can give you a good check-up and take that tube out.”  Dave said.

Following that pronouncement, they all started walking toward an ambulance parked not far away.  When they got there, Dave lifted Katherine out of the wheelchair again and laid her on the cot in the ambulance.  The nurse secured Katherine to the cot with a few straps.

“This is just so you won’t roll out of the bed when we go around corners.”  She said.  “Do you mind if I take your vital signs while we travel?”

“No, I don’t mind.”

Janice climbed into the back of the ambulance with the nurse, who made her sit on a seat and put on a seat belt.  The vehicle began to move, and the nurse took Katherine’s pulse and blood pressure, and looked into her eyes with a light.  She recorded her results on a clipboard.  The trip didn’t take long, and when they arrived at the hospital, and orderly helped the nurse roll the cot out of the ambulance and down the hall to an examining room.

“Just relax for a few minutes.”  She told them.  “The doctor will be in to see you soon.”

Janice asked her daughter about her experiences, and Katherine started to summarize what had happened.  She was only part way through her story when Dave entered the room, accompanied by Doctor Klaus, who had performed the tracheostomy and installed the collar.  Another man entered the room with them.

“This is Eric Kensington.”  Dave said.  “He’s an engineer with the company that manufactured the collars.  He and most of the other employees were not aware that the collar design had been manipulated.  We are investigating the company to find out who has ties to Carlos Ruiz and whether we can prosecute them or not.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“It’s nice to meet you as well.”

“Eric believes he can fix your collar so that it will automatically switch like it was designed to do.”  Said Dave.

“That would be a relief.”

“We will need to take the tube out first, so there may be a few moments when you can’t breathe.”

“I’m used to holding my breath.  As long as it doesn’t take more than about four minutes I’ll be fine.”

Dave nodded to Eric, who opened up the briefcase he was carrying.  Inside was a jumble of wires and electrical components, all hooked up to a cell phone.  Eric flipped a switch and then tapped at the phone for a few moments.

“I’m ready now.”  He told Dave.

Doctor Klaus had Katherine open her mouth and tilt her head back, then he slowly pulled the tube out of her throat.  She felt a gagging sensation as it passed through her epiglottis, but once the tube was gone that feeling passed.  There was also a soft click as the valve closed again, cutting off Katherine’s airway.  Eric made a few adjustments on his cell phone and the valve opened back up.

“It appears to have worked.”  Katherine said.  “Is this permanent?”

“No.”  Eric answered.  “The radio control circuit is still in your collar, so if someone sends the right signal it could switch off again.  Once Detective Johnson explained how this extra circuitry had been designed into the collar, I studied the plans.  I believe I could make some adjustments that would remove the radio control section, but it would involve cutting into the collar.”

“I’m not sure I want the collar or the tail anymore.  I think I’m ready to go back to being a land person for a while.”

“I thought you might feel that way.”  Dave said.  “But I’ll have to ask you to be patient a little longer.  Several of the people at the aquarium had to be involved with your kidnapping, and we need time to figure out who it was.”
“Well, Carlos bragged that the security company was on his payroll, so I would start with them.”

“Based on his actions, I’m pretty sure Jonas Fulton is involved as well.  Can you wait a few days while we work on this case?”

“Of course.  I want to talk things over with Allen and Audra as well. So I might as well wait until they have been rescued.”

Doctor Klaus interrupted their discussion.  “I would like to examine Katherine now.  Could I ask the two of you to wait in the hall?”

“Of course.”  Dave said.

He and Eric left the room, and the doctor had Katherine open her mouth again so that he could inspect her throat and make sure there was no damage.  The examination did not take long and he determined that her throat was OK.

“Doctor Hansen will be coming by later on to check out the rest of your body.”  Doctor Klaus said.  “Have you had any other health issues during your captivity?”

“No, I feel pretty healthy.”

“That’s good.  Call me if you experience any problems with your throat, or if you decide to get the tracheostomy removed.”

“Thank you Doctor.”

Janice came back into the room and they spent the next few hours talking to each other.  Katherine felt strange doing so much talking after such a long enforced silence.  Once or twice she even lifted her hands and signed a word to emphasize a point.  They were interrupted by nurses from time to time as they came to check on Katherine and record her vital signs.  A meal was brought into the room for them to eat, and when they were done, Dr. Hansen came to make her examination.

“I’m sorry it took me a while to come see you.  I was in the middle of a delicate operation.  Would you mind undressing so I can look you over?  I want to make sure all that time spent in the water didn’t cause any issues.”

Katherine slipped out of her clothes and set them aside.

“Mom, save those for me.”  She asked.  “They may be reminders of my captivity, but you have to admit that’s a really nice top and bra.”

“They look expensive.  I’ll make sure to keep track of them.”

Dr. Hansen carefully looked over all of Katherine’s exposed skin.

“It looks like your skin is in very good shape.”  She said.  “Of course, I can’t see what’s going on under your tail, so I will want to have a look when you get it off.”

“Of course.”

The doctor rubbed the skin on Katherine’s torso where the first row of scales attached.

“Did you notice that your skin has grown around the top edges of the scales?”  She asked.

“No.  I never thought much about it.”

Dr. Hansen lifted up several scales to look at their connection to the skin underneath.  She also felt around Katherine’s legs, squeezing the tail to feel the legs underneath.  She poked at the tail where it covered the gap between her legs.

“This area seems much firmer than I expected.  Is there something inside your tail between your legs?”

“Well, we all noticed when we woke up at Carlos’s place that it felt like the gap between our legs had been filled up with something.  I guess we didn’t think about it much after that.  We had other things to worry about.”

“That’s certainly understandable.  Would you mind if I made an incision underneath one of your scales?  I would like to take a sample of whatever they put in there to see what it is.”

“Go right ahead.”

The doctor signaled to one of her nurses to bring a scalpel, and she lifted one of the scales on Katherine’s tail and cut through the silicone underneath.

“Ow!”  Exclaimed Katherine.  A drop of blood oozed through the cut in the silicone.

“I’m sorry.”  Doctor Hansen said.  “I didn’t expect to find any skin in that location.”

“Oh, no!”  Said Katherine.  “I think I know what they did now.  They must have filled up the gap between our legs with healgel.  We had a variety designed for prosthetics that encourages skin growth around foreign material like the silicone in my tail.”

“I see.  I’d like to do an MRI.  Then we can see more of what is going on under the surface.”

“Okay.”

“It may take a little while to get everything organized, so I hope you don’t mind sticking around for a while longer.”

“That’s fine.  I’m not sure where I would go anyway.”

The doctor left and a nurse gave Katherine a hospital gown to put on.  She spent some more time talking to her mom until a nurse finally came in to take her to the MRI room.  The nurse brought a wheelchair and pushed Katherine down several halls, up an elevator and over to the room with the MRI machine in it.  The nurse and the MRI technician had her lay down on the MRI table, then they moved the table through the machine.  She had to lay absolutely still for a long time while they did the scans.  By the time they were done she was feeling rather tired and hungry.  The nurse took her back to her room and she had some dinner and then went to sleep.  Janice went back to her hotel room for the night.  The next day, Dr. Hansen came back with the MRI results on a laptop.  She put it on a cart and showed Katherine and her mom the results.

“It looks like you are right.  They must have used some kind of healgel variant, because your skin and even muscles and tendons have grown to fill the area between your legs.  There is even some tissue extending down into your tail fluke.  Your ankles have also changed.  Since you spent so much time swimming instead of standing and walking, your hamstrings have shortened and your tibialis anterior has lengthened.  We see this kind of thing in women who wear high heels too much, but in your case it is because you have been keeping your feet extended in your tail fluke.  This makes your muscles well adjusted for swimming, but if we were to remove your tail you might find it painful to stand and walk.”

“So I’m in the same boat with Allen now.”

“Pretty much.  You’ve actually grown more tissue between the legs than he had, but assuming all of you received the same treatment I imagine he’s grown in a similar way.”

“So what do I do now?”

“Well, I guess I would say that you are a perfectly healthy mermaid.  There’s no reason for you to stay in the hospital any longer.  There is still the possibility of a separation operation, though in your current state that is even more difficult than what we were contemplating with Allen.  I would suggest you check out and concentrate on finding your husband and friends.  Once you are all safe, we can decide what to do next.”

A bit stunned by the doctor’s revelation, Katherine and Janice went through the checkout procedures and left the hospital.  Katherine wasn’t sure where to go next.  She couldn’t stay at the aquarium until Dave had rooted out all of the Kings gang associates who might be there, and she wasn’t sure if the apartment would still be available after sitting empty for so long.  They decided to go there and see.

“Why yes, your apartment is still available.”  Said Rosa, the apartment manager.  “The rent has been paid even though no-one was in there.  And Detective Johnson asked me to hold it for you.  Are your friends back too?”

“Not yet, but we expect them soon.  Who paid the rent?”

“I don’t know.  It was a money transfer from a bank.  I assumed you or your friends had set up an automatic payment.”

“Maybe one of the others did.  Can I get a duplicate key?  Mine was stolen.”

“Of course you can, but I’m afraid I will have to charge you the $10 key replacement fee.”

Janice paid for the key and then they let themselves into the apartment.  Everything was untouched, just as Katherine remembered it looking when she last left.

“Do you want to stay here with me, Mom?  It will save you money on your hotel bill.”

“Thank you.  That would be very helpful.  The last couple of months have really drained my savings.”

“What about your job?”

“So far, it is still waiting for me.  But I’m not sure how much longer they will hold it.”

“Well, maybe now that I am back you can go back to work.”

“Not until I hear that Allen and the others are safe as well.  I can find a new job if I have to.”

 

Chapter 48 – Following the Dolphins

 

When the mermaids woke the next morning, the dolphins showed up again, circling the little reef outcropping where they had slept.  They ate the last of their ration bars, drank some water, and then gathered up their supplies and followed the dolphins again.  They followed a line of reefs in a northeasterly direction for the entire day, ending on another small patch of reef after a long hard swim.  By this time, the mermaids had no idea where they were.  They had been out of sight of land for some time.  The reefs that they swam through were often very close to the surface, with an occasional portion that poked above the water.  It was hard to follow the hard-swimming dolphins with so many colorful reef fish and corals to investigate along the way.  The long hard swim had made them hungry, but they were out of food.

“HOW LONG CAN WE KEEP THIS PACE ON AN EMPTY STOMACH?”  Asked Daphne.

“AS LONG AS WE HAVE FRESH WATER, WE CAN GO A LONG TIME WITHOUT FOOD.”  Allen answered.  “BUT WE DON’T HAVE TO.  WE HAVE SPEAR GUNS AND WE ARE SURROUNDED BY FISH.  WHY DON’T WE GO FISHING?”

“I’VE ALWAYS WANTED TO TRY SPEAR FISHING.”  Fernando said.  “WHO WANTS TO GO WITH ME?”

Anna volunteered to go with him, and the two of them each took a spear gun and swam off, looking for large fish to catch.  While they were gone, the rest of them set up the desalinator and the solar panels.  Night was descending before the two fishermen came back.  Anna was pulling a large silver fish behind her.

“WOW!  WHAT A CATCH!”  Allen signed.  “THAT FISH MUST WEIGH 80 POUNDS!”

“IT’S A TARPON.”  Renna said.  “THEY ARE SAID TO BE VERY BONY AND NOT VERY GOOD TO EAT.”

“WE FOUND OUT THAT SPEAR-FISHING IS VERY HARD.”  Fernando said.  “WE WERE JUST ABOUT TO GIVE UP WHEN ANNA MANAGED TO SNEAK UP ON THIS FELLOW.  HE WAS MAKING A STRANGE ROLLING MOTION AT THE SURFACE.”

“TARPON ARE AIR-BREATHERS.  YOU MUST HAVE CAUGHT HIM WHEN HE WENT TO THE SURFACE FOR AIR.”  Renna explained.

“WHO HERE KNOWS HOW TO CLEAN A FISH?”  Allen asked.

Maria volunteered to do the cleaning, as her father had been a big fisherman and had taught her how to clean and prepare his catch.  She used one of the diver’s knives, and soon had the fish cleaned and scaled.  She cut several large slices off of the fish and passed them around to all the mermaids.  They found out that there were indeed a lot of bones, but an 80-pound fish still provided a lot of meat.  At first, several of them were hesitant to eat the raw flesh, but Lacy was a big fan of sushi, so she took the first few bites.  Despite the bones, they found that the meat had an acceptable flavor.  Even Daphne, who was normally a vegetarian, ate some of the fish.  When they were done, there was still plenty left, so they saved the leftovers for the morning.

Their next day was similar to the one before, with the dolphins continuing to lead them to some unknown destination.  The day after, they left the long line of reefs they had been following and traveled in a more northwesterly direction, swimming from one small outcropping to another.  They caught another fish to eat, and as they settled down for the night, they saw a sail in the distance.  They saw another distant boat in the morning.  It looked like they might be nearing a more settled area.  When the dolphins returned, they circled the group of mermaids several times and then dove deep, approaching the bottom with their dives.  They seemed to be trying to get some kind of message across, but none of the mermaids were able to decipher it.  They gathered their supplies and started following the dolphins again.  Soon they could guess what the dolphins were telling them, as the bottom dropped away and the corals disappeared.  The dolphins led them deeper underwater to swim, and they sensed why when they noticed the deeper water seemed calmer and easier to swim in.  The time when they usually stopped for the night came and went, and they were still swimming.  Allen and the others strained their eyes, looking for shallower water and an island or reef where they could rest, but the bottom continued to be lost from sight below them.

“Are the dolphins taking us out to sea?”  Allen wondered.  “Don’t they realize that we have to surface to recharge and rest?”

Thus far, the dolphins had seemed uncannily aware of the needs of the mermaids, so Allen hoped they knew what they were doing.  The mermaids had little choice but to continue following their cetacean friends, though their muscles were burning from the extended effort of their long swim.  Eventually, they noticed that the dolphins seemed to be getting excited, and they could see the bottom again.  Corals and reef fish became plentiful, and the dolphins led them to a small spit of land.  As they got out and looked around, they could see that the island they were on was a part of a much larger reef that extended out of sight to the northeast.  A mile or two away, they could see another long thin stretch of island with larger trees on it.  They caught another fish and ate it for dinner, then made their evening preparations.  As they did, they noticed one or two boats in the distance, both heading towards the larger island to the East.

“WHAT DO YOU THINK?”  Allen signed.  “SHOULD WE GO WHERE THOSE BOATS ARE HEADING?  WE HAVE COME A LONG WAYS FROM OUR ENCOUNTER WITH CARLOS’S DIVERS.”

“IT LOOKS PROMISING.”  Carla answered.  “BUT LET’S WAIT AND SEE WHERE THE DOLPHINS TAKE US.  THEY SEEM TO HAVE A SPECIFIC DESTINATION IN MIND.”

 

Chapter 49 – Trouble at the Aquarium

 

Janice woke up in an unfamiliar bed, and it took her a few minutes to remember that she was in Katherine’s shared apartment.  She went to check on her daughter and found her just wheeling herself out of the bedroom.

“How are you doing?”  Janice asked.

“I’m still trying to process it all.  I’m used to having a mermaid tail, but it was always a temporary thing.  We took our tails off every few weeks and came here to do normal human things for a while.  But now it sounds like I’ll never be a normal human again.”

“Well, I never wanted my daughter to be normal.  I think you are exceptional, and having a mermaid tail doesn’t change who you are.”

“Thanks Mom.  I appreciate the support.  But on land, the tail can be a pain.  Can you help me get into the bathtub?  It’s hard to climb into it from my wheelchair.”

“Of course I’ll help you.”

Janice followed Katherine into the bathroom and helped lift her out of her chair until she was sitting on the side of the tub.  From there, Katherine was able to rotate around and slip into the tub by herself.  Luckily the apartment was equipped with a large Jacuzzi tub and there was room for Katherine’s tail.

“Did you have to help Allen get into the tub?”  Janice asked.

“Yes.  He could do it himself but it’s easier with someone to help.”

“The two of you seemed to manage pretty well even after his legs got fused together.”

“Yes, we figured out how to do most everything.  Of course, the tail fluke adds some difficulty.  Allen managed pretty well with his crutches, but you can’t use crutches with the tail fluke in the way.”

“Well, I can help for today anyway.”

Katherine bathed and then Janice helped her back into her wheelchair.  They got dressed and went out for breakfast since there was not much food left in the apartment.  Then they went to the grocery store to resupply the fridge and pantry.  The shopping trip took much longer than usual because of all the people who wanted to ask Katherine about her tail.  As they were leaving the store, Janice got a phone call.

“Hello?”

“Hi Janice.  This is Dave.”

“Hi Dave.  Any news on Allen or the others?”

“Not yet.  I expect to hear something later today.  But I wanted you to know we raided the aquarium today.  We’ve arrested Jonas Fulton and several of the security staff, but it looks like only a select few knew about the kidnapping.”

“That’s good to hear.  What’s happening to the aquarium now?”

“It’s closed for the moment.  I imagine it will take the remaining staff a few days to reorganize.”

“Are they going to let the dolphins out?”

“I hope so.  But that will be up to the new leadership once they get organized.”

“I think Katherine will want to have a vote on that.  She may want to go over there and see what she can do.”

“I think that’s a great idea.  I wanted to ask you something.”

“What?”

“Would you like to go out to dinner with me tonight?”

“I’d like that.”

“Good.  I’ll be by to pick you up at 7:00.”

“I look forward to it.  See you then.”

“Bye.”

Janice helped Katherine into the car and then loaded her wheelchair into the trunk.

“What was the phone call about?”  Katherine asked.  “And why is there a big grin on your face?”

“Dave said they raided the aquarium and arrested Jonas and some of the security staff.  It sounds like they aren’t sure who is in charge now.”

“Any news about Allen?”

“He expects to hear later on today.”

“And. . ?”

“Dave asked me to dinner tonight.”

“Oh?  Is there something going on between you two?”

“Not yet.  But there may be.”

“That would be so nice.  I like Dave, and he is a handsome man.”

“It doesn’t bother you that he is black?”

“No.  It may mean you both have a few more obstacles to overcome, but I don’t see it as an issue.”

“Good.  I haven’t even thought of dating in many years, but maybe I’m ready now.  Do you want to go over to the aquarium?”

“I thought you said it was closed.”

“It is, but they have a leadership problem right now.  Maybe they could use your help.”

“I don’t know what I would do.  There are lots of Audra’s employees who are more senior than me.”

“But none of them are mermaids.  And from what I saw, they have not been doing a good job with the aquarium.  I think in this moment of transition, you might be an influence for good.”

“I suppose I could go and see whether I can help.  They might not even let me in the door.”

“I think it’s worth a try.”

“Okay.  It’s not like I have anything else to do, other than sit and worry about Allen.  And it would be nice to move back into the mermaid quarters if I could.”

They went back to the apartment, had lunch, and then Janice drove Katherine to the Aquarium.  They went to the employee entrance but found the door locked.  Katherine pushed the button on a buzzer by the door.

After a few minutes, the door opened and Ray McKenzie, the human resources manager looked out.

“Hello Katherine.  Can I help you?”

“Actually, I was wondering if I could help you.  I understand Mr. Fulton got arrested today.”

“He did.  But why would you want to help?  I thought you quit.  And why are you still wearing your mermaid tail?”

“It’s a long story.  But I didn’t quit.  I was kidnapped.  Didn’t Detective Johnson tell you?”

“You were kidnapped!  No, I didn’t hear.  A bunch of police officers came and interviewed many of us, and they arrested Jonas and some of the security guards.  But I never heard the charges.”

“Can you tell me what you plan to do about the aquarium?”

“We haven’t decided yet.  Since Audra left, Jonas had kind of taken over the aquarium side of the business.  Profits were soaring, so we kind of let him run things.  But that means we don’t have anyone with a good insight into what has been going on there.  I guess you could come in.  Maybe you could fill us in on what happened.”

“I would like that.  I’m sure Audra would want the aquarium to succeed.  You know how important it is to her.”

“I wish she were here.  Jonas told us she was on a long trip, but we haven’t been able to find any contact information or anything telling us where she is.”

“That’s because she was kidnapped as well.  I would guess that Jonas planned to eventually take over Burns Pharmaceuticals as well as the aquarium.”

“So why isn’t she here?  How did you get away?”

“We were separated and I was rescued.  The police are still working on finding Audra and the others.”

“Others?  Who else was kidnapped?”

“Why don’t I come in and tell the whole story?”

“Very well.  And who is this with you?”

“Oh, I’m sorry.  This is my mother, Janice Larsen.  Mom, this is Ray McKenzie, the HR manager.”

“Nice to meet you Mrs. Larsen.”

“Nice to meet you as well.”

“Does your mom want to come in as well?”

“No, she was just driving me over here.  She has some other plans for the evening.  Mom, call me if you hear anything about Allen and the others, OK?”

“Of course.  I’ll let you know the instant I hear anything.”

Ray led Katherine up to the second floor meeting room, where there was already a group of managers meeting around a conference table.  Katherine already knew two of them – Amanda Robbins, the manager of the pharmaceutical plant, and Cliff Jordan, the director of finance.  There were also two new faces – Jacob Bryson, the Aquarium manager, and Carmen Menendez, the corporate marketing director.  After the introductions, Ray asked Katherine to explain what had happened.  She was not entirely sure how much Dave wanted her to keep secret, so Katherine tried to keep her explanation a little bit general.

“A few months ago, Audra was with me and some friends when we managed to thwart a gang attack.  It was in the news at the time, so I won’t go into all the details.  But that gang apparently held a grudge, and they arranged for our security company to be replaced by one that they controlled.  It appears that they also got to Jonas Fulton somehow.  I don’t know if he was cooperating willingly or if the gang blackmailed him or what, but he ended up helping them.  Then a couple of months ago, Audra, all of the mermaids, Fernando, and his wife were kidnapped.  We were drugged and carried away to a distant location.  I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say where yet.  But we were held there for a long time.  I was separated from the group and the police managed to rescue me.  They have a lead on the others, but haven’t managed to get to them yet.  That’s the gist of what has happened.  I understand Jonas has been making some changes?”

“Yes, but mostly on the aquarium side of the operation.”  Said Cliff Jordan.  “He felt it was not earning a big enough profit, so he lowered the salaries of the aquarium workers and cut back on maintenance.”

“I understand he built a gate to trap the dolphins as well.”

“Yes.  He felt the wild dolphin show was too unpredictable.”

“You know that goes against everything Audra believes in.  When she gets back she’s going to be very unhappy.”

“How will we have our dolphin show if we open the gate?”  Asked Jacob Bryson.

“We had some very good shows before I was kidnapped.  The dolphins came in willingly, or we ran the alternate show if they didn’t come.  When we let them go, I don’t know how long it will take to convince any of them to come back, though.”

“Let them go?”

“Yes.  We need to open the gates and let them go.”

“But I can’t do that!”

“You had better, or if I know Audra you’ll be looking for a job.  What happened to the security guards?”

“After seeing all the arrests of security company personnel, we suspended their contract.”  Said Ray.

“That’s good.  The police might not have gotten all of the bad ones.  I suggest you rehire our original security company.  They seemed to do a good job before Jonas convinced Audra to change.”

“We’ll take that under consideration.”

“Have you decided how you will manage things now that you have lost Jonas?”

“We were a little unsure.  The police didn’t give us many reasons for his arrest, and we didn’t know if there would be ramifications for the aquarium.  We thought we would keep the aquarium closed for a few days until everything settled back down.”

“Jacob, would it be OK if I had a look at the aquarium and offered some suggestions?  My mother visited not long ago and she was not impressed.”

“That would be due to the budget restraints imposed by Jonas.”  Jacob answered.  “I would be happy to show you around and listen to your suggestions, but what we do about them depends upon the budget.  I requested more maintenance funds and more money to pay my staff, but Jonas kept denying it.”

“Cliff, if Jacob and I submit some requests for some maintenance funds, will you approve them?  Perhaps we can use the time the aquarium is closed to do a little maintenance and updating.”

“That would actually be a good marketing move.”  Carmen said.  “We can advertise that we are closing for renovations and upgrades, and then have a grand re-opening later.  It could help mitigate the damage caused by Jonas’s arrest.”

“Make your recommendations for improvements and give me an estimate of the costs.”  Cliff said.  “I will use those numbers to make some projections of profitability and we can bring the results to this executive committee for a decision.”

The meeting went on for a few more minutes.  With Katherine telling them that she thought Audra would return soon, they decided to make decisions as an executive committee until she came back.  There was a palpable sense of relief in the room now that they realized the police raid was due to the criminal actions of a few people.  The committee members began looking at each other as a team again, where before there had been distrust and suspicion.

After the meeting ended, Jacob led Katherine out of the meeting room and through the back entrance into the aquarium galleries.

“Would you mind if I looked closely at your tail?”  He asked.  “I had heard about the tails made of individual scales before, but Jonas didn’t want to use them.  He was even reluctant to buy new silicone tails for our mermaids.  We had to hire people mostly based on whether they could fit into one of the old tails we already had.”

“I don’t mind.  Have a look if you like.”

Jacob knelt down in front of the wheelchair and looked closely at Katherine’s tail.  With her permission, he felt one of the scales and even lifted it up to see the substrate underneath.

“I thought the silicone tails looked good, but this is much more realistic and lifelike.”  He said.

“Even more lifelike than I want it to be.”  Answered Katherine.

They walked through the aquarium galleries.  The fish seemed to be doing well, but the carpets were getting dirty and worn, and some of the signage had been defaced or vandalized.

“Jonas wouldn’t give you money to have these signs replaced?”  Katherine asked.

“No, he said you could still read them, and they would just get damaged again.”

“Did I offend you when I said the aquarium had some issues?”

“No.  I am well aware of the problems, but my hands were tied.  I’m grateful you came and pointed it out to the others.”

“Can I see the mermaid quarters?”

“Of course.  But you might be a bit disappointed.  Jonas closed down the cafeteria pool and the recreation pool.  We’ll have to stop by the electrical panel so I can turn the lights back on.”

“So none of your current mermaids stay in the mermaid quarters?”

“No.  We hired a bunch of young college students.  They work four-hour shifts and use the greenhouse pool or the practice pool when they go on breaks.”

“How are they working out?”

“We have had to fire one or two, but the ones we currently have are hard workers and seem to have a real desire to help educate the public and care for the fish.”

“What kind of arrangements have you made for while the aquarium is closed?”

“I sent them home and told them to stay in touch.  I was planning to make up a reduced schedule to make sure the fish were cared for, but of course, we won’t need people for the events.”

“Would you like me to help you?  I can work on any training they need and help make up the schedule.”

“That would be great.  We’ll have to run it by Ray, of course.  I’m not sure what your official employment status is right now.”

“Neither am I.  I hope Ray will be willing to reinstate me as an employee since my leaving wasn’t voluntary.”

“I for one will tell him I’m in favor of it.”

“Thank you.”

Jacob took Katherine through some back corridors into the dry area of the mermaid quarters building.  He opened an electrical panel and flipped several breakers, then led her back out and up the elevator to the locker room and practice pool.  Katherine went into the locker room and saw that there were stickers on the lockers with the names of the new mermaids.  She opened several lockers until she found the one with her old tail in it.  She theorized that she must be about the same size as the girl who was wearing her old tail, and maybe there would be a swimsuit top that would fit her.  She was right.  There were several tops in the locker, most of them very skimpy and not Katherine’s style.  But she found one dark blue top that had some coverage, so she put that one on.  She went back out to the side of the pool, where Jacob was waiting.

“Sorry for the wait.  I should have thought to bring my own swimsuit.”

“That’s not a problem.  Are you ready to get in?”

“Would you like to come with me?”

“It would be interesting.  I’ve never actually been inside the mermaid areas of the building.  But I don’t have a swimsuit either.”

“You could check the men’s locker room.  One of Allen’s or Fernando’s old suits might fit you.”

“Who will lift us back out of the pool?  If I get in, there won’t be anyone to operate the crane.”

“You can get out at the mermaid swim pool and then walk through and run the crane for me.”

“That should work.  Why not?  I’ll be back in a minute.”

Jacob disappeared into the men’s locker room and came out a few minutes later wearing one of Fernando’s swimsuits.

“It doesn’t fit perfectly, but it was stretchy enough for me to get into it.”  Jacob said.

“Are you a good swimmer?”  Katherine asked.

“Reasonably good.  My family likes to go to the beach.”

“Let’s go then.”

Jacob helped Katherine from her wheelchair into the sling on the crane and lowered her into the water.  Then he simply dove in himself.  Katherine swam slowly on the surface so he could keep up as she led him into the greenhouse pool.  The plants in the pool had gone a little wild in the months that Katherine had been gone, though the new mermaids had obviously done some pruning.

“Wow.”  Jacob said.  “It’s quite a beautiful underwater garden.”

“You’re only seeing it from the surface.  Try taking a dive and looking at it from below.”

Jacob took a deep breath and dove, swimming around and looking at the plantings from beneath.  Since he was not practiced at holding his breath, he had to surface after less than a minute.  Katherine followed him up.

“Very impressive.  I had heard about it, of course, and the mermaids told me it was a beautiful place.  I’m glad you invited me to come along.”

“Let’s go to the cafeteria pool next.”

“You’re the guide here.  I’ll follow where you lead.”

Katherine swam underwater this time, though she still went slowly so that Jacob could keep up.  She swam through the connecting tube and up into the pool, then crossed and sat at one of the tables.  A little bit of mold had grown on the tables in the months of darkness and damp.  The room felt empty and lonely without her fellow mermaids in it.  Once they had seen the cafeteria, Katherine swam into the recreation pool.  Everything was still in place there, though some mold had managed to grow on some of the chairs.  The computer screens were dark and silent.

“I guess I’ll have to do some cleaning if I’m going to stay here again.”  Katherine said.

“Stay here?”

“Yes.  If I could I would like to move back in to the mermaid quarters.  When you have a mermaid tail it is much easier to live here than in an apartment on land.”

“Why don’t you take you tail off?  You never did explain why you were still wearing it.”

“It’s a long story, but the gist of it is that my tail is permanently attached.  It will take surgery to remove it.”

“I thought we had a solvent that would dissolve the adhesive.  Didn’t you take the tail off every few weeks?”

“We did before, but when we were kidnapped our abductors added some of the healgel for permanent prosthetics and my skin has grown into the tail material.”

“Oh, no.  I’m so sorry.  Of course I will see if you can move back in here.”

“Thanks.  Now I want to check our old bedroom pool to see if our stuff is still in there.  Would you mind waiting out here?”

“No problem.”

Katherine went into her bedroom pool.  As far as she could tell, everything in the room had been untouched.  So she found one of her own tankini tops and put it on instead of the borrowed one.  She turned out the lights and went back out to the recreation pool.

“You changed tops.”  Jacob said.

“I feel more comfortable with my own clothes.  Let’s go out to the arena pool now.”

“Lead the way.”

She took him back through the greenhouse pool and down the slide into the mermaid swim area.  Jacob whooped as he slid down the slide, obviously enjoying it.  Katherine opened the gate to the arena, though she was a little surprised that the code hadn’t been changed.  When she swam out into the arena pool, three dolphins immediately charged over to her and began gently bumping up against her side and pinging her with their echolocation sounds.  Jacob was a bit apprehensive, and he hung back in the tunnel while Katherine reacquainted herself with her dolphin friends.  After swimming around with them for a few minutes, Katherine headed for the channel to the gulf.  The dolphins seemed excited as they followed her.  Jacob trailed behind, still keeping his distance from the dolphins.  After a short distance they came to the gate.

“How do we open this?”  Katherine asked.

“There is a coded lock behind a hidden panel up top.”

“Can you climb up there and open it?”

“Now?”

“Yes, now.  These dolphins have been held captive here long enough.”

“I think so.  I should be able to climb up the gate to get to the top.”

Jacob struggled a bit, but he was able to get his fingers and toes into the grating on the gate and climb up out of the channel.  Katherine listened to him working at the panel for a minute, and then the gate opened to the side.  The three dolphins immediately swam through as soon as the opening was large enough for their bodies.  They turned back once they were past the gate, looking at Katherine as if asking her if she wanted to come with them.

“I’ll be fine.  Go on back to your pod.”  Said Katherine, making shooing motions with her hands.  The dolphins hesitated for just a moment or two longer, and then turned and disappeared down the channel and out into the gulf.

“I sure hope we can convince them to come back.”  Said Katherine.

Jacob called down from up above.

“Since I’m already out, should I walk around and get the crane ready?”

“That sounds good.  I’ll be waiting for you.”

Katherine quickly swam back through the mermaid swim area, went through the lock into the greenhouse pool, and then back into the practice pool.  She sat on the bottom where she could see the crane and waited for Jacob to return.  He followed after a few minutes and she swam up to the crane so he could lift her out of the pool.  Once they had both changed back into dry clothes, Katherine asked Jacob a question.

“Would you be willing to come back sometime this evening and let me into the pool?  I might want to stay the night in the mermaid quarters tonight.”

“I could come back and meet you around 9:30 after I put my kids to bed.”

“That would work.  Thank you.”

Katherine wheeled herself over to Ray McKenzie’s office and asked if he was willing to re-instate her as an employee.

“I’m not asking for back pay or anything.  Just to start working again at the same salary as before.”  She told him.  “Jacob seems amenable to letting me help work with the new mermaids and to letting me stay in the mermaid quarters.”

“You have already been a great help today by informing us of what was going on, and reminding us that we need to think about more than just profits where the aquarium is concerned.  I’ll go pull your old records and set you up as an employee again.  We may have to take a new picture for a new badge.”

“Thank you.  I’ll be back this evening to move in, and I’ll be ready to start work in the morning.”

Katherine called Janice and then went down to the lobby to wait for her.

“Have you heard from Dave yet?”  She asked once they were back in the car.

“No.  I guess it’s taking longer than he thought to find them.  I hope nothing’s gone wrong.”

“So do I.  Carlos seems to be very determined and powerful, so I’m going to be very worried until I’m sure Allen is safe.”

“How did your time at the aquarium go?”

“Very well.  Once I explained what had happened they were very receptive to my advice.  And I made sure to let the dolphins free.”

“I’m glad to hear that.  I hope they can recover from the closure and the general lack of care that I saw on my last visit.”

“I’m trying to push for that.  And Jacob Bryson, their new aquarium manager, seems to be willing to improve things.  He was just stymied by Jonas before.  He also agreed to let me start working again and to move back into the mermaid quarters.”

“Do you have to?  You’ve only been back a short time.  I was hoping to spend more time with you.”

“We can still spend time together.  I can come visit in the evenings, or you can put on a swimsuit and come visit me.  But I don’t want to spend all my time in a wheelchair and needing help to get into the bathtub.”

“I understand.”

 

Chapter 50 – Going on a Date

 

Once they got back to the apartment, Katherine packed a few things.  She didn’t need much because most of what she needed was already stored in her room in the mermaid quarters.  But she did pack a few bags of food and some cleaning supplies.  At about 5:00, Dave called Janice again.

“I have some bad news.”  He told her.

“What?  Is Allen hurt?”

“Not that I know of.  But when our agents got to the pickup area, there were no mermaids to be seen, and they found a net and a broken spear gun on the bottom of the lagoon.”

“Oh, no!  Do you think Carlos got to them first?”

“We don’t know for sure.  The net looked too large for a typical fishing net, and it was weighted down with heavy weights.  They think it was designed to trap the mermaids.  But since it was found on the bottom, they think maybe the mermaids managed to escape.  I’ve made arrangements to fly to Belize tomorrow.  We’re going to keep searching the area to see if we can find any clues as to where they might be.”

“I hope you find them.  What will you do if you find out they’ve been recaptured?”

“It will be difficult because the government of Guatemala isn’t cooperative.  But we will probably put together some kind of raid on Carlos’s compound.”

“OK, I’ll tell Katherine.”

“It may sound insensitive, but are we still on for the date tonight?”

“Why not?  It will be better than sitting here worrying.  Can we take Katherine over to the aquarium at 9:30?”

“Sure, that should be fine.”

“OK then, we can still go.”

Janice told Katherine the news, and they spent an hour or so in fruitless speculation and discussion.  Had Allen and the others been caught?  Or had they gotten away?  If they escaped, where were they, and why hadn’t they tried to contact Dave again?  Or, had Carlos gotten tired of chasing them and simply killed them?  Luckily, the presence of the net made the last possibility sound unlikely.  At last, they decided they had no choice but to wait and hope.  They dried their tears and Janice started to look for something to wear on her date.  She hadn’t brought much clothing with her, so she didn’t have a lot of choices, and many of the ones she had were casual.  She wanted something nicer to impress Dave.

“What do you think?”  She asked Katherine.  “I only brought one dress with me, to wear to church on Sundays.  Should I wear that tonight?”

“You could, it’s relatively nice, or you could borrow some clothes.”

“Dear, are you forgetting that I’m bigger than you?  I doubt you have anything to fit me.”

“I’m not talking about my clothes, Mom.  This is a shared apartment, remember?  I’m sure the other girls wouldn’t mind if you borrowed something for one night.  I think Lacy and Daphne are pretty close to your size.”

“Are you sure they won’t mind?”

“When they get back, if they complain you can buy them something new.  But several of us have shared clothes before, so I’m sure they won’t mind.”

Convinced, Janice allowed Katherine to show her the other half of the closet, where Lacy kept her clothes.  They found a short green dress that Janice liked, even though it showed a bit more leg than she was comfortable with.  She tried it on and found that the fit wasn’t bad.  But she wanted to look for something a little different, so Katherine led her to the rack of clothes in the other bedroom and she looked through Daphne’s dresses.  She had several nice options, but Janice finally settled on an ivory-colored gown with long lace sleeves and a high-low type skirt.  She found that it fit even better than the green dress had.  Both she and Katherine agreed that it was a good choice.  So she put on a pair of her own pantyhose and shoes, and she spent some time on her makeup and hair.

“You look lovely, Mom.”  Katherine told her when they were done.

“Thank you.  It has been a long time since I got all dressed up for a man.”

Dave picked her up a few minutes later.  He looked very handsome in an open-collared shirt and a sport jacket.  A few hints of gray were sprinkled through his short hair, but the muscular body beneath the shirt told the story of a man who took good care of himself.  The weather was nice, and Dave took her to a small restaurant where we could sit outside at a quiet table.  Janice asked him about his past, and was not surprised to hear he had been in the military and spent time as an Army Ranger before retiring at 20 years and starting a career in police work.  He asked her about herself, so she told him about marrying right out of high school, having Katherine soon after, and then losing her husband to a rare cancer.  She had worked as a secretary while attending night school, then took a job as an accountant after graduating.  Not a very exciting story, but Dave seemed interested enough.  Before they knew it, their drinks were warm and the waitress was pointedly looking at the check where it had been sitting on the table for 45 minutes.  Dave paid the tab and then took her hand as they left the restaurant.  They had just enough time to pick up Katherine and take her to the aquarium by 9:30.

“Did you two enjoy yourselves?”  Katherine asked as Janice and Dave helped carry bags of food out to the car.

“I had a wonderful time.”  Janice answered.

“And so did I.”  Dave said.  “Your mother is a ravishingly beautiful woman, and I find myself very attracted to her.”

Katherine was pleased to see her mom positively glowing at the compliment.  Janice had been alone for far too long, working so hard to give her daughter a happy life that she hadn’t had time to think about her own happiness.  Dave helped her get into the back seat of his car and then the three of them drove to the aquarium.  They unloaded the bags Katherine had packed, hanging them from the handles of the wheelchair and putting one in her lap, then Dave pushed her up to the door.  Jacob was there waiting for her.  Katherine was already wearing one of her swimsuit tops, so Jacob took her up to the training pool and lowered her into the water.  All of the items she had packed were in sealed plastic bags, so she just had Jacob toss them into the water beside her.  With a few quick trips she would be able to shuttle it all to her sleeping pool.

“Carmen will be coming in the morning to help you feed the fish, and Josephine has the afternoon shift.  I will send you an e-mail in the morning with some information about all of our new mermaids and the times they are available to work.  Then you can make up a schedule.  I think the aquarium will be closed for at least a week, so we can just do a minimal crew for now.”

“That sounds good.  I’ll work on it tomorrow.  Have a good evening, and thank you for being willing to come in the evening and help me.”

After dropping Katherine off, Dave took Janice back to the apartment.

“I enjoyed our dinner.”  He told her.  “I hope we can do it again sometime.”

“So do I.  Let’s plan something as soon as you get back with Allen and the other mermaids.”

“That’s a deal.”

Janice wasn’t quite sure what to do next, but she waited, looking up at Dave.  He leaned over and gave her a gentle kiss.

“Have a good night.”  He told her, then turned and left.

Janice watched him drive away, then went into the apartment and sat down.  She thought that it would be a good night, but she didn’t think she would be getting much sleep.

Link to Chapters 51-75

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