On a day as long and taxing as the one she had just made it through, there was one thing that could bring a modicum of relief to Megan Jones when she finally had the chance to stop and take stock in the late hours of the evening. It was not a drink or a crafty cigarette snuck out when she was sure that there was no one looking, indeed she could not readily recall the last time she had been able to enjoy either. Instead it was the simple chance to close the door on the demands of the day and just take off her shoes at long last.
There were unspoken standards expected of a woman in her line of work, and one of them was the requirement to always be seen in shoes that were smart, business-like and never failed to leave her feet feeling as though they had been encased in concrete for hour on end. She would have given a great deal to be able to wear the trainers in which she was more comfortable when pottering about the house or the walking boots that had seen her over so many rocky hillsides during her free time.
But the shoes went along with the business suit and the reserved way in which she wore her hair as a part of the uniform. No matter how far the world had come in accepting the fact that women were perfectly able to be trusted with the same positions of responsibility as their male counterparts, people still expected a certain code of dress from an individual who had once been in a role of significant political power and influence.
Megan at least was more than happy to have left those days of demanding decisions and endless haranguing interviews behind her when she left office. There was a real sense of gratification in the sense that she was making more on the circuit as a public speaker than she ever had in high office as a governor, but the real rewards was the freedom from having to make a call almost every day that was fraught with compromise and would doubtlessly send one end of the media into a frenzy of foaming rage at the supposed corruption and cronyism it represented in their own eyes.
She closed the door of her hotel room and breathed a sigh of relief that she was finally in her own private space, kicking her shoes off as she did so. She walked across the luxurious carpet, feeling the wonderful sensation of the pile against her stocking clad feet as she went. There was a cold drink in the minibar that she could practically hear calling her name and would go very well with a call to room service so that she could at least feed herself before she collapsed into bed. Tomorrow would begin with a long journey to the next city where she was scheduled to speak and there would be no chance of sleeping on the way.
It was only as she crossed the main space of the room in which the ample bed was located that Megan caught a glimpse of something that was simply not right. The sight of an incongruous colour and shape in one of the decorative mirrors mounted on the wall caused her to pause on her route to the small kitchen that occupied one corner. It was only a matter of a second and a stray thought that caused her to stop at all, but as she turned she was presented with a surprise that made her almost jump out of her skin in shock.
As a woman who had occupied a position of power and authority, Megan had always been under far closer scrutiny than her male counterparts. Her every move was poured over and analysed by commentators and comedians alike, keen to make sport out of any misstep that she made and characterise her as a bumbling fool who was hopelessly out of her depth and only in office because of her looks.
The truth was that Megan was possessed of an exceptionally sharp mind, but had become quickly aware of the fact she had overestimated the honesty and trustworthiness of those who surrounded her in political circles. She had done the best she thought she was able and to little avail, finding herself forced to take actions that she would come to regret and siding with figures that repelled her as a matter of necessity. There would be no sympathy or understanding for the actions she had taken and the reasons she justified them to herself and in truth she did not expect there to be. It was in light of that fact that she had withdrawn from politics once her term had been served, well aware of the irreparable damage that had been done to her credibility in the eyes of many people whose opinions counted.
It did not help matters that Megan was also a very beautiful woman by the standards of most who had seen her picture or met her in person. There was nothing of the model about her, but she had retained a simple and enduring air of attraction even now that she was into her fourth decade that showed no signs of fading. Her fair skin and dark brown hair had often caused her to be compared to a pretty soccer mom or the kind of school teacher to whom most boys became lost in a first crush at one time or another before they reached adolescence. The less complementary descriptions of Megan delighted in casting her as an ageing cougar who played on her looks to make capital, but then that was the way with women in politics; the attractive were called stupid and shallow while the plain were labelled as harridans, most often by journalists of their own gender in a mockery of the notion of sisterhood.
But seasoned as she was, there was little that could have prepared Megan for the strange sight of what seemed to be a giant clamshell sitting on the end of the bed.
She had come to a halt at the foot of the bed and was thus staring directly at the thing when she turned, the look on her face a picture of confusion and unease. At the same time her mind was racing as to any possible explanation of what she was seeing or why anyone would think to sneak such a thing into her hotel room while she was going about her day.
As it was her speculation on the matter was abruptly cut short as there was a low creaking from the shell and the lid began to slowly rise. Megan could see no visible mechanism to account for the movement, assuming that it must be internal and so hidden from view. She stood and watched in silence as they lid rose further, convinced that there was little chance of such an elaborate prop being in any way dangerous. Most likely she thought it was a part of some prank or publicity stunt with the worst outcome being a dousing with paint. In any event it was too late to make a run for the door and she was somewhat loathe to be shown lacking when it came to the courage to confront anyone who set out to humiliate her for their own gain.
Megan tensed as the lid of the shell reached the point where someone or something was most likely to come leaping out. But there was no unpleasant surprise waiting for her at that moment and the instead the lid simply continued to rise as she relaxed once more.
When the shell was finally fully open and the lid rested vertically like the back of some elaborate chair, she saw that the interior of the thing had been curiously packed with cushions, pillows and padding that threatened to spill over onto the bed. Judging by the size and shape of the shell, Megan was sure a fully grown woman or a man of slightly below average height could have cured up inside with little trouble.
On the one hand she was relieved to have seen the shell open and not have anything horrific happen to her, but on the other she was still no closer to knowing just what was going on. She glanced away from the shell and towards the telephone standing on the bedside table, wondering who she should call first and what on earth she was going to tell them when she did.
Megan sensed rather than heard something flying towards her as she had her head turned, like the parting of air as an object both thin and fast whipped outwards. Before she could even bring her head back to face the shell, there was a sudden pressure around her neck as it was constricted by an unseen force.
She struggled to pull away, more from base instinct than any conscious attempt to fight back, hands shooting to her throat to claw at whatever had taken hold of her. As she turned towards the shell, Megan saw that a wide ribbon of some silky material extended from somewhere beneath the cushions to disappear from sight in the vicinity of her own neck. Seemingly animated by some means, the ribbon was fast around her throat and showed no signs of loosening its grip as it began to pull her towards the shell inch by inch no matter how hard she tried to resist.
Hands clasped on the ribbon, Megan would have screamed for help, but the constriction of her windpipe had rendered her unable to make a sound as she struggled. Moments later she wanted to curse anew as two more identical ribbons shot out from amongst the cushions and wrapped themselves around her wrists. With the same irresistible strength as the first, they pulled her hands from her neck and then added their own efforts to dragging her closer to the shell.
Megan fought with all the force she could muster, determined for no other reason than the most basic of instincts that she would not be pulled into the shell. She had no idea of what fate lay in wait for her if she lost the struggle, but the fear of being taken like an animal in a trap was enough to keep her from giving in.
The instinct to scream was overtaken by that to simply cry out in frustration as yet another pair of ribbons darted forth and attached themselves to her ankles. Megan had been able to gain some purchase by bracing her legs against the side of the bed, but these new ribbons soon put paid to that advantage, threatening to literally pull her feet out from under her.
Choking from lack of air, bound at the wrists and ankles and exhausted from her efforts to resist, Megan sensed and sudden surge in the force being applied through the ribbons. It was as if the thing was somehow able to gauge her remaining strength and realised it was on the verge of victory. So it was that when the renewed effort to pull her forwards came, she was totally unable to resist and the effect was to yank her from her standing position and directly into the waiting maw of the shell.
Before she could even think of trying to climb out, the lid slammed down with far greater speed than it had opened, trapping her inside and leaving the room in total silence.
Sealed inside the giant clamshell, the only reminder of Megan Jones’s presence that remained in the room were her shoes cast upon the floor without a thought only minutes before.
The clamshell had only sat alone in the hotel room for a couple of minutes when there was the sound of the bathroom door opening and a head appeared around the edge. Most of its distinguishing features were hidden beneath a paramilitary balaclava, but the evidence of nervous energy was clearly visible in the pair of worried grey eyes that stared out at the contents of the room.
“It’s clear,” the voice was that of a man when the head finally called back to whoever was behind him. He kept his words brief and quiet, the nervousness he felt at the prospect of entering the room beyond clear as he spoke.
When he emerged into the room he unfolded himself from the hunched position in which he had sneaked a glance into the room, revealing himself to be both tall and relatively well built even beneath the nondescript colours that he wore in an effort to blend into the urban background. He made his way towards the clamshell, stopping short and keeping one eye on the thing as if he did not trust to turn his back in its presence.
He was joined in short order by two more figures dressed in a similar manner and hiding their own faces behind the same kind of balaclava.
The first was a good two heads shorter than her companion who had lead the way and her gender was given away by the outline of her chest. Any attempt to conceal her identity was somewhat spoiled by the fact that she had cut open the top of her own balaclava in order to allow her mass of thick dreadlocks to spill out behind her and the rings that pierced her nose and lower lip.
Although the second man was also shorter than the first, his body language could not have been more different as he virtually strode into the room and surveyed the surroundings. He wasted no time in making his way to where the shell stood and making a close examination of it, as though he was aware of its functioning in a way they were not. His close attention seemed to only make his colleague’s disposition towards the shell even worse.
“We should go,” she looked back over his shoulder nervously.
“Shut up,” the other man’s tone was disinterested and slightly irritable.
“He has a point,” the woman’s voice was fairly even, as if used to playing the reasonable diplomat between the two. “We should get moving as soon as we can.”
“Ruby,” the second man looked up and shook his head in disbelief. “Don’t start to sound like him! We were in the bathroom the whole time, she didn’t call a soul and there wasn’t enough sound even for us to know it had snagged her. We’ve got enough time to check things are working before we leave, trust me.”
Ruby looked back at the first man and shook her head in resignation at the sound nature of his argument before moving closer to look over his shoulder.
“Well, Will,” the first man urged the second. “Is it working or what?”
“As far as I can tell,” Will did not look up. “Don’t worry, Guy…we’ll be gone in good time.”
“What do you mean as far as you can tell?” Guy looked over his shoulder at the door to the corridor. “You mean you can’t be sure?”
“Guy,” Will kept his voice level and calm as he spoke, “you know as well as I do about where this thing came from and the claims that came with it. How in the hell were we ever going to be able to test it out before today? Either it works or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t then we go with plan B, just like we discussed.”
Guy did not like plan B, it involved kidnapping and threats as well as the promise of more infamy than he was comfortable with contemplating. But then he was not a particular fan of plan A by any means and had agreed to go along with it only because it was significantly less risky than the alternative.
“Come on,” Will got to his feet, “grab one end and help me carry this thing to the fire escape if you’re so eager to get out of here, we’ve got a long drive ahead of us before morning.”
Guy needed no further motivation as he hefted his end of the shell off the bed. It was heavier than he had expected and warm to the touch as they manhandled it from one room to the next. He tried to focus his attention on the task at hand and ignore the muffled sounds that were coming from inside as well as the thoughts of what might happen next on account of which plan was put into motion once they opened the shell.
Absorbed in removing their prize from the hotel room, the trio kept their thoughts to themselves and their voices silent until well after they were on their way.
Megan came around suddenly, as if awoken from a deep and dreamless sleep with no warning and thrust into the consciousness in a manner that left her dazed and unable to collect her thoughts. The light was almost too much for her eyes after the time she had spent in total darkness, forcing her to squint and turn away from the source that seemed to grow with every moment that passed. She was becoming slowly more aware of her surroundings with every second that passed, but any hope of making sense of where she was or what had happened to her was still a long way off at that exact moment in time.
It seemed as though she was to be denied the time she needed to gather her wits about her as there was a sudden movement beneath her that send Megan sprawling from the soft surface on which she had been laid and pitched her forwards onto a bed of sharp and bruising objects. The force and unexpected shock of her motion caused her to cry out in pain as the air was knocked out of her lungs and she tried to shield herself from the cruelly sharp edges of whatever she had landed on.
The sound of water lapping on a shore gave Megan the clue she needed to conclude that the unforgiving terrain onto which she had been thrown was as shore of some kind if the shifting of the jagged pebbles beneath her cut and bruised hands had not been enough in of itself. No scent of salt reached her nose, but instead she could discern the smell of disturbed earth and what might have been petrol fumes, so from that she could deduce that she was in fact on the shore of one of the larger lakes that lay to the north of the territory the state covered.
As her eyes resolved the scene before her from a hopeless blur into a somewhat more coherent picture, she realised that the sound she had taken for the senseless croaking of some carrion bird was actually another human being trying to make himself understood as he looked down at her from above.
“…a good look around at this natural wonder,” Will was in full stride by the time she was able to even absorb the smallest amount of meaning from his words. “All this could be lost in a few meagre years and then it’s gone forever. Do you have any idea what kind of damage your friends in the logging industry have done to this wilderness? Do you?”
Devoid of his balaclava, Will had a face that might have been handsome were it not for the sneer that seemed to be forever the next expression waiting to take over his face. His blonde hair was cropped into a cut that tried to be nonchalant, but closer examination revealed the time and expense that must have gone into achieving that effect.
“I’m sorry,” Megan put a hand to her head, feeling a strange sensation as she did so. “But would you shut the fuck up for a second while I try to figure out what the hell happened to me last night!”
“You’re sorry,” Will seemed to have taken her attempt to make him be quiet as a form of apology or admission of guilt on her part. “Sorry’s not going to be good enough anymore,” he shook his head. “You needed to learn a lesson, and we’re the ones who’ll make sure that you do!”
Megan’s attention was distracted from the ranting young man as a woman came into view who made a point of ignoring him and fixing her with a serious and yet somehow less intense look. In her experience it often paid to listen to the person in any given situation who seemed the sanest, and so she turned her attention to the woman instead, following her example of ignoring the man.
Ruby had shed her balaclava as well, revealing a round and pretty face that was currently spoiled by her intent on being taken seriously. Her dreadlocks fell around her pale features, putting Megan in mind of a kind of modern fairy or sprite that was fed up of being called cute and wanted to let the world know she meant business.
“You should understand why we’re doing this,” Ruby knelt down so that Megan could look her in the eye. “When you were in office you made a lot of decisions that hurt the environment in this part of the world. The damage that was done on your watch will take decades, maybe even hundreds of years to put right and that’s just if we stop what’s happening now and begin a massive effort to clean up. The truth is that what’s been done will probably never be undone and as the law of the land and the courts don’t seem to think there’s been any wrong done, someone has to set an example and someone has to be made an example of.”
Megan made a point of listening to Ruby’s explanation, gleaning from it all the information she could about her situation. These were environmental activists, that much was clear from their rhetoric. In addition they seemed to associate her, or more likely her administration with damage to the local ecosystem and want to redress what they saw as the balance in some way. It was clear that they had exhausted or ignored the conventional channels and now were resorting to more extreme measures to get their message across. But just what they were planning to do with her she could not tell, and the fear of not knowing was the worst thing of all.
There was clearly no point in reasoning with them that she could see and no merit in explaining the times that she had been forced to make pacts and accept watered down measures in such matters as to them she was the embodiment of the problem. They saw her as a figurehead and thought that by punishing her they would be striking a blow at a person the common man would recognise and perhaps cheer them for bringing down.
“I don’t know you people,” Megan tried to appeal to their better nature, “and I won’t insult you by trying to argue politics. But please, think about what you’re doing here and what others will think when they find out. Killing me is not going to change anything and you’ll never get the stain of blood off your hands.”
Will barked out a laugh and shook his head.
“Kill you?” Ruby looked concerned at the mere mention of the possibility. “The plan was never to kill you…I guess we assumed that this thing would somehow make you aware of what was supposed to be happening while you were inside of it. Don’t you feel as though something is different right now?”
Megan felt a sense of dread gathering weight in the pit of her stomach at the other woman’s words. After the initial shock of being kidnapped in such a bizarre manner, seeming to fall into a state of unconsciousness and then awakening to find herself scrambling around on the shores of a remote lake in the company of what she could only describe as apparent eco-terrorist had blurred some of the finer details of her current circumstances. Only now did she take the time to actually examine the state in which she found herself and as she did so there were some revelations that struck her hard and fast.
The first was that she was naked, which accounted for the way in which the rocky ground had cut and bruised her as she tumbled out of the shell that she now saw was standing on the bank behind her. But in addition to the disturbing lack of clothes, she was somehow not feeling the cold that had inspired her kidnappers to dress for warmth themselves. Suddenly aware of her exposed breasts, Megan crossed her arms over them in an effort to preserve a modicum of dignity.
But there was more, now that she was becoming more aware of the sensations that her body was experiencing, something did feel different after all. When she moved herself on the ground in order to alleviate some of the pain she was feeling, she found that her body did not respond in the way that she was used to. The feeling could only be described as that which she imagined must accompany being tied at the ankles so that movement was restricted. In addition there was the odd sensation that something dragged across the ground at the end of her legs, a weight which had not been there before and for which she could think of no logical explanation.
Megan pulled her legs up and glanced down to see what was stopping her moving her lower half, but when she laid eyes upon herself, she cried out in shock and alarm.
What she was seeing was simply not possible, it could only have existed in the realms of either the most fantastical dream or in her circumstances the worst of nightmares. Her legs were not bound or hobbled or maimed in any way, but neither were they there at all. In their place was a broad, scaled tail that composed the entirety of her body below the waist, curving away for what seemed like an impossible length until it ended in a broad and heavy fin that twitched and flicked as if it possessed a life of its own.
Megan reached out to touch the point where her skin gave way to the scales, which seemed to shift from silver to blue as the light caught that. But she pulled her hand back and instead stared at the thick and almost transparent membrane that extended to the knuckle and linked together her fingers and thumbs. It moved with her individual digits, changing colour in the same manner as did the scales and feeling like a natural part of her hands as it did so.
There was no room for the people who had kidnapped Megan in her mind as she tried to make some kind of sense of what she was seeing. They simply faded into the background as she struggled with the revelation that she was aware of every inch of the tail in the same way that she had been her vanished legs. She could feel the texture of the ground beneath the scales and even more so when it came to the sensations from the fin at the end. This appeared to be made of a similar stuff to the membrane between her fingers, only thicker and ribbed with some kind of cartilage which extended out in thin strips from the base of the tail before fanning out to reach the very tip of the fin.
Megan could feel every inch of the tail that seemed to constitute the lower half of her body, from where sparse scales began at her navel, becoming a complete covering from the waist down and right to the end of the fin. She moved the muscles that lay beneath the scales, finding that the new addition followed her clumsy efforts to explore its limits. With every twitch and movement she was able to make, she became ever more convinced that the thing was indeed a part of her body whether she could deal with the fact or not.
There was no way this could have been done with makeup or prosthetics, she was sure of that based on the way in which the tail moved and the reality that her legs simply could not have been concealed within its shape. She was also sure that nothing had been amputated below her waist, the idea was just too convoluted and sick for the kind of people her kidnappers claimed to be.
Then there was the way in which she could feel the ground beneath the scales as well as with her naked skin, something that would have been impossible had they been made of any rubber thick enough to achieve the level of detail she could clearly see with her own eyes.
It was a futile gesture as far as she was concerned, but Megan pinched at the scales near her waist simply to prove her thoughts correct. When there was nothing to show for her efforts apart from a sharp pain as she pulled at the skin of the tail, which was all the proof she needed.
Somehow, beyond all the realms of what she had thought possible, she had been turned into a mermaid. She was miles from home, kidnapped and naked in the middle of a natural wilderness with no means of escape or rescue. But all of that paled into nothing when weighed against the fact that she was no longer strictly speaking a human being, instead she was a creature that was supposed to exist only in fiction rather than the real world.
Megan found that she could not think straight once the reality had truly set in, let alone manage to string together the simplest words to express her reaction to the altered state in which she lay on the bank of the lake. All she was able to do was cover her face with her hands and though she prided herself on being of strong resolve, begin to cry helpless tears into her palms. There truly was nothing that she could muster and no inner strength with which to deal with the fundamental way in which her existence had been changed.
“You never cried for any of the things that were sent extinct by your asshole policies,” Will surged forwards to stand over Megan as she collapsed in on herself. “So now you’re going to get to see what it feels like to be an endangered species, struggling to survive in this ecosystem. But you’ll also have to deal with the bad luck of being a species of one.”
“Back off,” Guy had kept himself out of Megan’s sight until that moment, but now he chose to step forwards and boldly shove his companion away from the huddled form of the mermaid.
“What the fuck?” Will seemed more shocked at the firm tone in Guy’s voice than the physical manner in which he had made his presence felt. “When did you grow a spine? And when did you start to care about the feelings of a piece of work like her?”
The nervousness that had characterised Joe back in the hotel room was gone as he stood between Will and Megan, replaced with an angry resolve that had already registered in the other man’s body language. Without his own balaclava, his face was a combination of quiet thoughtfulness on account of his deep-set eyes and dependability read from the weathering that was already creasing its lines. Dishevelled brown hair and a goatee completed the picture of a man who was probably more comfortable without the threat of confrontation, but was now determined to see it through rather than back down.
“Since when did we start acting like cruel bastards?” Guy threw the questioning rather than dignify Will’s comments with an answer. “We did what we wanted to do, didn’t we? Kidnapped her, stuffed her in that thing and turned her into a bloody freak, just to make our point. Isn’t it enough? Haven’t you won yet?”
“Time out,” Ruby interjected herself. “I’m not standing around here while you two fight some kind of testosterone duel over shit that doesn’t matter. Will, stop with the insults because we did what we said we would. Guy, no more playing the Samaritan just for the sake of looking like less of a dick than him.” She glanced between the two men, happy to see that her point seemed to have sunk in. “Can we please get this over with and get out of here?”
“Okay,” Will began to walk up the bank, turning to address Joe as he went. “You can do the honours, seeing as how touched you’ve gotten with the plight of our little mermaid there.”
Guy waited until he was alone with the mermaid before he bent down and slipped one arm under her tail and the other around her back. She was heavier than she might have seemed, but offered no resistance as he stood and walked slowly into the lake.
He waded out until the level of the water reached his waist before he stopped, the tips of her fin breaking the surface as he went. The sensation of contact with water stirred Megan from her state of helplessness, somehow alerting her to just how close she had come to a mermaid’s natural element.
She looked up from behind her hands, seeing Guy’s face for the first time.
He happened to look down and notice her attention at that very moment and she sensed something in his eyes that was not the hatred in those of Will or the resigned indifference in the glances she had received from Ruby either. The look in these eyes was hard to define in simple terms, but there was anger, regret and more than a little confliction evident as he held her gaze.
“I’m sorry,” Guy spoke softly, shaking his head.
With that he released his grip on Megan, causing her to tip out of his arms and into the water of the lake with a loud crashing of water.
By the time she had come spluttering back to the surface, she saw that he had reached the bank and hurried away into the trees as if in a hurry to leave her to whatever fate had in store.
Trying to keep as still as she was able, Megan gripped the length of wood in her right hand and used the left to support herself as she leant over the edge of the rock on which she lay, gazing into the water. She had no idea how long she was able to hold her breath for, it was one of those pieces of information that had never previously been relevant to her daily life and so she had spared it no real thought. But now it seemed that she was being forced to take a long hard look at her priorities and how long she could go without letting her breath escape her lungs was just one of them.
In the course of the trials she had been forced to endure over the past week, thought had crossed her mind that being a mermaid might have made such things far easier. But when weighed against the number of things she had found it made perilously difficult, being able to squeeze a few more seconds in before she gasped for breath seemed somewhat petty in comparison.
Actually being underwater was had proven to be no challenge thanks to the gills that had opened, seemingly on instinct, when she first found herself submerged. The sensation was bizarre in the extreme after having spent more than forty years breathing by more conventional means, but she had found it became like second nature in no time at all. The only real challenge had come when she almost suffocated after spending too long sitting on the lake bottom contemplating her fate. But then where was the passage in the instruction book that confided the knowledge that mermaids needed to keep moving every once in a while to have their gills keep working?
None of that helped her to hold her breath on land though, and she was fast becoming desperate due to the limitations that she had out of the water. So far Megan had been unable to catch so much as a morsel of food in the lake that she had been unceremoniously dumped into. She was ravenous with hunger and starting to feel the effects of such a prolonged period of starvation.
Now she found herself in the ridiculous situation of needing to keep from making a sound as she tried to make use of the crude spear she had made to catch a fish of some description. If she was honest, the spear was actually little more than a stick that she had been able to hack into a rough point with the rubbish and debris that could be found lining the banks of the lake. It was far from the best way to fish, but then she had no real choice in the matter anymore.
There was a dart of silver in the corner of her eye a moment later and Megan jabbed the spear into the water as her desperation got the better of her patience. Her arm was jolted painfully as the spear connected with something that felt a great deal less yielding than the flesh of a fish. She dropped the entire thing into the water and watched it sink as the muscles of her arm protested.
Megan felt a terrible sense of frustration as she massaged the strains in her arm. While she was perfectly able to lower herself into the water, retrieve the spear and try again, she had begun to wonder if there was any point. No matter how she tried, she never seemed to get any better at the task and perhaps that time would be better spent trying to come up with a new plan.
She glanced over her shoulder at the small clearing that lay upon the shore, no more than a few hundred feet from her rock. It was not the first time she had done so that morning and she could not help but think that if what was sitting in the middle of the rocky ground had not been there, the resolve to keep trying would have been far easier to muster.
The metal tray that she kept stealing a look at had some kind of fish laid out upon it; there was no question of that. Megan’s nose was somehow more sensitive now than it had been when she was human and there was no mistaking the smell of what she was sure were fillets of smoked fish. And this was only one of almost a dozen that she had come across in similar locations from one end of the lake to the other.
It had to be a trap of some kind, of that at least she was certain. No one hunted by leaving such things out in the open around those parts and no matter if the contents of the trays were taken or simply disturbed by an animal in the course of the day, they were renewed by the start of the next.
For Megan the question was not if the fish was the bait for a trap, but rather why someone was trying to lure her onto the shore in the first place. Her kidnappers seemed unlikely candidates as they had brought her here to begin with, so why would they now be trying to capture her for a second time? But with them dismissed from her mind as a possible explanation, Megan was left with the even less appealing prospect of it being an unknown quantity, out there in the forest and watching her for a reason that she could did not even want to speculate upon.
She supposed there were things that a person might want with a mermaid, trying to limit her imagination to the relatively tame fate of ending up as part of a freakshow, a specimen in a museum or the prize spectacle in a waterpark. But at that particular moment in time, even she had to admit that she hardly resembled the more romantic image of a mermaid that most people would have had in mind.
Sleeping rough and spending every daylight hour hunting in vain for sustenance had not been kind to Megan and when she looked at her reflection in the surface of the lake she was reminded of the fact that she was practically filthy in every way possible.
Her skin was scratched in some places and had developed rashes in others, but most of that was concealed beneath a layer of grime and dirt that she was amazed had survived her numerous dives beneath the surface of the water. Her hair was a rat’s nest of tangles, knots and small pieces of detritus that she had picked up and either not noticed or else found too painful and bothersome to remove. And she was still naked save for a ragged polythene sack that she had somehow managed to force into the role of a makeshift top so that at least she was spared the humiliation of living with her breasts on permanent display.
But there were some nuggets of consolation, no matter how small they may have been when measured against the bleak nature of her situation. One was the fact that she no longer seemed to feel the cold as she had before, not flinching from the deceptive chill of the lake water or even sensing the drop in temperature that the night brought with it. Though she was sure the most valuable was also the most subtle, that being the way in which she found herself unable to panic or truly be disturbed any longer by the fact that she had become a mermaid.
While it was not as if she had woken up on one of the mornings since her transformation and started to spontaneously sing for the joy of it all, she was simply not shocked or even disturbed by the sight of her body any longer. The memories of her past and all the things that she was sure she had lost remained like shards of glass sunk into her stomach, but try as she might she could not summon any longing to have back the legs that she had possessed before she was trapped inside the unfathomable clamshell that had turned her into the creature she now was. For better or worse it seemed that she had somehow, on an instinctual level at least learned to deal with the reality of her situation.
In addition she had more pressing concerns, a fact that she was reminded of in a less than subtle manner as her stomach growled and then the muscles in her abdomen contracted painfully as if ins response.
Megan tore her gaze away from the tray of fish and pushed herself off the rock, disappearing beneath the surface of the water in search of her lost excuse for a fishing spear. At least when she was submerged her newly sensitive nose could not betray her in the same way as it did on land.
She found the spear with little trouble, her eyes able to penetrate the gloom of the lake so long as there was a faint light coming down from above. With the poorly made tool in one hand, she propelled herself through the water, determined to persevere with her attempt to land a fish and headed for a part of the lake where she was sure no bait had been laid out for her attention.
Every woman had her limit, Megan told herself as she crawled up the bank, even mermaids it seemed. As she tried to avoid the larger stones that jutted from the dirt and ignore those that she could not, it occurred to her that she had held out for almost two whole weeks before the temptation had simply become too much for her to bear. Would most people have been able to make that claim before they finally snapped and threw caution to the wind?
Now that the tray was only a mere few metres away, she reminded herself of the fact that she was not just doing this for the sake of her belly. There was the intense need to satisfy her curiosity as to who was goading her with food when they could plainly see from the state she was in that she had not eaten in days.
Megan was sure that she had put enough thought into what she was about to do, enough at least to be certain that she was not simply walking into the trap that had been set for her. From what she had been able to make out, the most likely form the trap would take was a net beneath the tray, rigged to scoop up whatever tripped it while going for the bait. She planned to approach from the side, keep clear of the tray until she could see the net itself and then try to set the whole thing off from a safe spot. If she could spring that same trap and then watch from a safe distance whoever came to investigate then she would be one step closer to an answer on that point at least.
It was only when she was less than a metre from the tray that Megan became suddenly aware of the fact that she had not only made a mistake, but that she had also underestimated the intelligence of the person who had set the trap in the first place. The ground this close to the tray was covered with the carpet of needles, leaves and bracken that began away from the bank of the lake, but she noticed too late that there was an even shape just visible beneath the patch on which she was currently crawling. Had she been able to stand on two feet it would have been far easier to miss entirely and it was only thanks to her close proximity to the ground that she had any warning of what happened next at all.
A whipping and straining sound filled the air as her vision was lost in a chaotic blur of motion. Megan’s stomach lurched as she was plucked from the ground and she felt the sensation of rough fibres chafe against her skin. It was all she could do to keep from either screaming out in terror or bringing up what little was in her stomach.
When the world had stopped spinning and her dizziness receded into the background, Megan found that she was hopelessly entangled in what looked to be the sturdiest net she had ever seen. As if to add insult to injury she was also stuck upside down, looking out on an inverted view of the lake as the net rotated slowly with the last of the momentum with her make shift top partly yanked off to reveal one exposed breast. But perhaps worse than the nausea and the loss of dignity was the way in which the tray of smoked fist remained sitting tantalisingly close below her, untouched and pristine as though mocking her as she stared out from the net.
Megan cursed herself for not seeing the train of thought her now successful captor must have followed when setting the trap. There was no way she would have fallen for such a simple lure outright, therefore a twist was required to outfox her own thinking. Putting the net under the tray was never going to work, but anticipating the way in which she might have approached the trap was another thing entirely. The owner of the trap would have deduced that she would not approach directly from the bank, making straight for the tray, which was almost as obvious as falling for the net under the tray itself. She could not approach from the right as the tree itself blocked that option, so all that remained was the left or the rear. Now here was a point at which Megan decided the person setting the trap had been forced to make a decision based on their intended prey. Approaching from the rear would have offered the most time in which to study the ground and offer a chance of spotting the net, but on the other hand she was hungry and perhaps the chance of getting to the food that little bit sooner would influence her choice. Thinking that she had already taken enough care, she might make for the left side rather than remain sensibly cautious and thus make a mistake after all.
And that was just what she had done.
Megan had to admit that as scared as she was, whoever set the trap was no fool.
She was forced to accept that she was now at their mercy, possessing no means of either cutting or chewing through the rope of the net. Instead she tried to keep her imagination from running away while she waited for the inevitable moment when her captor came to check the trap.
It had been later in the afternoon when Megan made her attempt at the bait and soon the light began to fade as time crept on. She had become used to guessing at the hour of the day based on the position of the sun and the length of the shadows cast by the trees. But this was the first occasion since her transformation that she found herself able to actually notice the torturous passage of time as she was forced to wait whilst trapped inside the net.
Darkness had fallen and she realised that she must have succumbed to sleep in the hours that she had been hanging there in acute discomfort when the glare of an artificial light suddenly flooded her vision and shook her awake. Megan tried to shield her eyes, but could not make out anything beyond the source of the light, robbed as she was of any hope that her eyes could adjust to the gloom. Moments later the light dimmed as some kind of cover was slid over the beam, seemingly after the person holding it had satisfied themselves with the sight of the squinting mermaid in their net.
Though she could hear the approach of the figure over the short distance between them, Megan was unable to gauge anything about them from the sound. Cushioned as they were by the soft nature of the ground underfoot, what she was able to make out might have been the steps of a child or a giant for all she could tell.
Her first clue came when she was able to just make out the shape of a human being as her eyes recovered a little from the initial shock of the light. She had estimated that she must have been over five feet off the ground inside the net and so the sight of the head and shoulders on a level with her own could only mean her captor was taller than average. Broad shoulders seemed to hint that it was a man rather than a woman and her sensitive nose caught the scent of wood smoke and the lingering hint of fish that would have escaped the notice of most having been strong on him a number of hours ago and fading since.
The man raised what she could now tell was a lantern and opened a hatch on the front to allow a small portion of the light to escape once more.
Megan blinked and finally managed to resolve her vision enough to see the face of the man who had managed to trap her.
She was not sure what her reaction should have been to the fact it was the same man who had dumped her into the lake two weeks earlier.
With his jaw set firmly and an expression that she could only think meant he was trying very hard to keep his true emotions from showing, Guy shone the lantern into the net in silence. He seemed to be intent on checking as much of the mermaid’s body as he could see from her awkward position, avoiding her face as he did so.
A part of Megan was relieved that it had not turned out to be the seemingly somewhat unhinged Will and for a reason she could not fathom she was also glad not to have been captured by the diminutive Ruby either. Of the three people she knew had kidnapped her, the man the others had called Guy was the least openly threatening from what little knowledge and experience she had to go on. But she was also aware of how much room that left for him to surprise her in a bad way. It was perfectly possible that rather than the quiet sensitive member of the group, this man could actually be the quiet psychopath instead.
She watched in shared silence as Guy finished his inspection of both her and the trap and then turned to look her in the face for the first time.
“I’m going to let the net down,” his voice sounded every bit as tightly controlled as his expression. “I won’t loosen the net or turn my back on you while I do it, so it would be best for us both if you kept still and quiet.” It was a statement, not a request and Megan could see no other option but to cooperate for the moment and she nodded once in agreement.
Guy knelt to place the lantern on the ground and produced a knife with which he set about cutting the cords that held the net in place. Megan buried her initial sense of horror at the speed at which the knife appeared in his hand, reminding herself of how far out into the wild they were and the many practical uses of such a tool in their surroundings. She tried to remember the difference that existed between carrying a wicked looking knife in a shopping mall and doing so in the depths of a forest, but still it would have been easier if the owner of the blade in question was not very much in control of the course of her immediate future.
Taking the weight of the net as he held the severed rope, Guy lowered the captive mermaid to the ground with what she supposed amounted to as much delicacy as possible given the circumstances. She kept quiet and still as he had demanded, moving only to adjust her improvised clothing and return her errant breast to its confines. If he took her doing so as a breach of his conditions, Guy made no effort to say so.
He knelt by her side, gathering the rope that remained into a coil around his arm, less threatening now that the knife had returned to wherever its sheath was concealed about his person.
“I have a boat tied up a few hundred yards down the shore,” again he was making a statement and not seeking to begin a debate. “I can carry you there in the net unconscious as easily as conscious.” There really was no need to elaborate on the last point, but for some reason Megan was not wholly convinced of the way in which the man was acting. It was almost as if he was following a script of some kind, trying to create a demeanour that was by no means skin deep.
She was surprised when he knelt and gripped the net so as to carry it upon his back, but even more so when he rose to his feet with a groan of effort and then adjusted his burden with little more than the smallest regard for the weight he was now carrying. But as he began to make his way along the shore in the direction which she presumed his boat lay, she was reminded of what small effort it had been for him to carry her into the lake after she was released from the clamshell for the first time.
The boat turned out to be a small affair little bigger than a rowing boat, with an outboard motor and signs of a long and hard life betrayed in worn paintwork and smoothed wood where the material of its construction was exposed to the elements. Megan found herself placed gently atop a chaotic pile of rope and what she thought were fishing nets that filled the prow of the boat. She watched as Guy made short work of casting off and pulling the started cord so that he could guide them out onto the waters of the lake accompanied by the sputtering protests of the engine.
Their journey was short in terms of length, but made to seem far longer on account of the forced silence that hung over the boat. Whilst he kept his mouth shut and his eyes on the way ahead, Megan was inclined to follow her captor’s example for fear of what consequences might result from speaking when she was not spoken to first. Instead she tried to find a position in which she was at least a little comfortable and able to rub some life back into the parts of her body that had gone numb while she had been hung upside down in the net.
Convinced that his attention was elsewhere and that he own efforts to massage life back into her limbs would serve as sufficient cover, Megan began to steal glances at the man who had gone to some considerable effort to snare her. Now that the initial panic and confusion was past, she could better hope to weigh up the signs and signals that were there to be read even in his silence. With his companions she suspected that the task might have been a great deal simpler thanks to their habit of wearing their emotions so obviously and without the guile to hide their true intentions. Guy on the other hand was proving with every moment she spent in his company to be far harder, the cues she could see in his expression and bearing being at once both very clear and yet somehow leading her to think that they were no deeper than the surface, concealing something that was well hidden beneath.
It was this inability to penetrate the layers that the man presented as well as the fact that she was trapped in a net and at a serious disadvantage on dry land that kept her from making any effort to escape even as the boat seemed to be nearing its destination. She watched as Joe cut the engine and guided them towards a small jetty using momentum alone, evidently a task he had completed many times before. There was a series of bumps and the side of the boat made contact with the planks of the jetty and even before they had come to a complete stop, he was out and onto the planks in order to tie up.
“We’re almost there,” Guy spoke as he lifted Megan, net and all out of the boat and once more slung her over his back. “When we get inside…” he stopped, as if unsure of what to say next and in that moment she saw the mask slip just a little, enough to show that there was an element of fear somewhere in his mind. “We’ll see what happens then,” he quickened his pace as he regained his composure and walked into the trees by the jetty.
Ahead Megan could make out subtle signs of habitation where trees had been felled and the encroaching undergrowth cut back. The ground was not paved, but the earth underfoot had been packed down by repeated passage and formed a defined path from the jetty to what appeared to be a cabin of some kind. Over guy’s shoulder she could see a roof tiled with what appeared to be wooden tiles and beneath walls that were constructed from seasoned timbers. A number of lamps giving off a glow more like that of a luminous insect than a piercing beam from a torch gave away the size of the structure, which was by no means tiny and yet seemed to sit at ease with its natural surroundings.
As they approached the wide porch that fronted the cabin, she saw that far from being the dilapidated dwelling of some backwoods primitive, the building was more akin to the kind of home often touted as an eco-friendly dwelling. While it was by no means new, the cabin had been put together with evident care and skill. Megan’s father had pursued carpentry as a hobby throughout his life and from him she had learnt the signs of skilled work, which was more than evident here. There was even a moment when she found herself thinking that under almost any other circumstances it would have been quite pleasant to contemplate spending time in such a place.
Guy passed the front door and instead made his way around the back of the cabin where he entered what looked like a plain wooden box from the outside. But once they were on the inside, Megan was surprised to see that it was in fact a modestly appointed bathroom attached to the rear of the main structure.
Low energy lighting flickered into life and Joe lowered her to the floor with a care that would have been more appropriate for someone carrying an invalid than a captured mermaid with nothing more than a collection of cuts, bumps and bruises.
“Time to clean yourself up,” Guy knelt down beside her as he again produced his knife and began to cut through the net in which she was tangled. “There’s hot water in the tank and I’d suggest using the tub,” he pointed to the amenities as he cut the last of the cords and allowed the net to slip into a heap on the floor beneath her. “Towels and clothes you can find in the locker over there. I’ll leave and come back in an hour to see how you’re doing. The door will be locked the whole time, but I promise that I’ll knock and wait when I come back,” he paused as he weighed his next words carefully. “That is I’ll go, if you don’t need any help.”
Megan looked him in the eye, puzzled once more by the way in which his words seemed to contradict his actions.
“No,” she shook her head and turned away, “please leave.”
“Okay,” Guy rose to his feet and turned to leave.
“Why…” Megan caused him to stop at the door with her unexpected words. “Why are you trying to play nice with someone you’re holding prisoner?”
“You’re not a prisoner,” Guy refused to return her gaze as he opened the door, “It’s just that I can’t allow you to go anywhere right now and I can’t explain why.”
With an explanation that explained nothing still hanging in the air, he stepped through the door and was gone.
Megan heard the sound of a key turning in the lock and then nothing apart from her own breathing.
She shook her head in acknowledgement of the fact that she was none the wiser as to just what was happening to her and tried to think of what she would do next.