The radio was a faint hiss in the background as Mina hunched over the dashboard of the car and tried in vain to keep her hands from freezing by holding them over the heat vent. It was a battle that she was loosing fast no matter how much she rubbed them together.
In the seat to her left, Sadie shook her head and took another long swig from the coffee she had insisted on picking up at the start of their shift. She swallowed and shook her head again.
‘Told you to get the tea,’ she stood the paper cup on the dashboard and glanced over at her partner. ‘Are you going to be able to stave off the hypothermia until morning, or what?’
‘I’m fine,’ Mina managed to keep the edge out of her voice, ‘fine, just fill up on caffeine and be done with it.’
Sadie shook her head for a third time and wondered, not for the first time, how the petite and vulnerable looking little woman sitting by her managed to be such a good police officer.
Mina looked for all the world like just another young girl from the affluent suburbs of England, the darkly pretty daughter of a respectable Asian family who’s mother wanted her to marry a nice boy and settle down in a semi. Instead she had left university and promptly joined the police, leaving her mother to endless worry and that poor hypothetical nice boy to find a less headstrong bride. For all the outward appearances, Mina was a determined and strong-willed character who was rarely beaten by anything.
When she had been partnered with Sadie, it hadn’t taken long for the rest of the officers in the station to start calling them the “Odd Couple”.
In contrast, Sadie was a tall girl with a build that made her imposing in uniform and quite striking out of it. Her dark brown hair was cut in a choppy style and she seldom took the time to wear make-up when off duty, instead she relied upon her natural, and somewhat taken for granted, good looks. After one viewing of the film “Miss Congeniality” in her days training for the force, she had been dubbed “Dirty Harriet”.
Both had admitted over drinks that in the world outside of the force they would probably never have met, let alone gotten on, but their time together had taught them a respect for each other that had grown into a strong friendship. In the long-term it was clear that while Mina was aiming for an influential position in plain clothes, Sadie wanted to stay on the streets for as long as she was able. But until they were separated by their differing aspirations, they devoted themselves to the job at hand and worked well together.
So far tonight had proven to be one of those nights where the job at hand seemed to be nothing more exciting than sitting around behind the wheel of their patrol car and waiting for something, anything, to happen.
Sadie swallowed the last of her coffee and Mina tried to warm her hands and think of a better excuse for not taking a warm drink herself. The truth was that she really didn’t relish the idea of having to leave the car and go out into the cold to relive herself behind one of the trees by the country road. While she was far from worried about who might be lurking in the shadows, it was the biting cold that really put her off. That and the fact that if she mentioned the fact she would find a rumour spreading around the station as soon as they were off duty.
Suddenly the radio crackled into life and Sadie’s hand was there in an instant as the hope of a reprieve from boredom blossomed. It might be nothing on the other end of the radio, but then again it might not. Both women were hoping that it was anything that would get them out of the lay-by and moving against the cold of the December night.
‘Car 831?’ the voice on the other end of the radio filled the car.
‘831 here,’ Sadie replied.
‘Confirm that you are currently in the vicinity of Blackwell Tor?’
‘Calls have been coming in from locals describing suspicious noises and movement on the side of the Tor, please proceed to the site and investigate?’
‘Ok,’ Sadie looked over to Mina, who turned the key in the ignition, ‘we’re on our way to the scene.’
‘Sounds like a strange one,’ Mina commented as soon as they were on the road.
‘Who cares?’ Sadie stared through the windscreen and out into the gloom of the night. ‘At least we’re moving rather than sitting on our arses back there.’
‘It’s still strange though,’ Mina insisted, ‘who on earth goes up the side of a bloody great big hill like that and starts making a racket on a night like this?’
‘Christ knows,’ Sadie laughed suddenly, ‘might be some kind of mad pagan ritual, you know, loads of hippies and crusties cavorting about in the nude with raging phalluses! Now that would be something to remember!’
‘You have to be kidding; they’d be dead of exposure before we got there. The only kind of stiffies would be six foot long and blue from the cold!’
They wound their way along the deserted country roads and towards the hills that surrounded the looming shape of Blackwell Tor. Soon the roads twisted madly and there was no way to drive on at anything more than a crawl. But despite the dark of the night it was not long before the lights that had alarmed the locals could be seen emanating from the far side of the Tor.
Both women knew that the roads gave out long before the climb up to the Tor began and so they found themselves leaving the car at the end of a narrow dirt track and making their way up into the woods that clung to the hillside.
The torches they had brought from the car proved unnecessary, as the lights were plain to see as they picked a path through the woods in silence. Neither of them pressed ahead or tried to hang back as they climbed the Tor, instead they made their way methodically towards the source of the disturbance.
As they came closer, the noises became more distinct as those of some kind of heavy machinery, the lights resembling industrial lighting through the trees. When they were perhaps no more than a few hundred metres from the source, the noise suddenly seemed to lessen and then be reduced to a low humming like a generator and the lights blinked out, leaving them once more in darkness.
‘Looks like we’ve been spotted,’ Sadie said whilst she waited for her eyes to adjust to the sudden loss of light.
‘God knows how,’ Mina was having the same troubles, ‘I don’t see how we could have been seen or heard through all that. Whatever’s over there is more than some drugged-up crusties.’
‘Should we call for backup?’
Mina thought for a moment and then shook her head, a gesture that Sadie could only now begin to make out in the gloom.
‘No,’ she walked a few steps forward in the direction of the humming, ‘we should see what the bloody hell we’re dealing with here before we do anything like that.’
‘Ok,’ Sadie fingered her torch, ‘let’s see what we can see.’
Sadie was the first to see the building that stood in the clearing ahead, she waved to her partner and strained to get an idea of just what they had stumbled upon. If they had been anywhere near civilisation she would have just described it as a warehouse and moved on.
But the question had to be asked: what was a warehouse doing halfway up the side of Blackwell Tor?
Apart from its location, the building was unremarkable, made of metal and concrete and seeming to be nothing more than a storage space. A large sliding door was open in the side of the building closest to them, emitting a dull glow and the low sound of humming still filled the air. Powerful lights could be seen on the edge of the flat roof, presumably the source of the lights that had vanished so suddenly.
How the building had got there was a mystery to them as there was no road to the clearing and nothing seemed to have disturbed the trees around the clearing for a long time. Yet the building was modern and looked new with no signs of the decay that eventually attacks manmade structures. No tracks could be seen around the warehouse and there was no sign of anyone around, no sound at all apart from the incessant humming.
‘Now I’m starting to get freaked,’ Mina whispered the words as though afraid to stir some reaction from the ominous silence.
‘Only starting?’ Sadie kept scanning left and right in the hope of seeing something that would help to make sense of the warehouse. ‘This is really starting to feel like an episode of the X-Files.’
Together they made their way cautiously out from the cover of the trees and into the clearing before the warehouse. As they covered the short distance to the sliding door, the eerie silence remained save for the humming sound from within. By the door they stopped for one final glance around the clearing before stepping inside.
With the slightest flicker, the lights suspended from the high ceiling above came to life almost as soon as they were inside the warehouse. Dazzled for a moment by the glare, Mina and Sadie covered their eyes and cursed as they were forced to stand exposed until they could see once more. At first they noticed nothing more than the concrete floor of the warehouse under their boots, but soon they were able to glance around and see the wooden crates that were stacked almost to the rafters all around them.
‘Lights must be automatic,’ Mina spoke as she craned her neck to see the towering crates and turned in a circle, ‘tripped them when we walked through the door.’
‘You don’t think that everything’s set up like that, do you?’
‘But where did everyone go?’ Sadie gazed down the avenues of crates that stretched away to their left and right, lining the outer walls of the warehouse and filling the cavernous centre. ‘Surely there needs to be someone around here for…whatever’s happening up here?’
‘That’s the real question; what’s really happening up here?’
‘There are no labels on the crates,’ Sadie pointed at the nearest stack, ‘did you notice that? And there’s nothing on the walls outside or in that we’ve seen, and that’s another weird thing. You’d think that there’d be at least a dirty calendar stuck to one of the walls or a newspaper left lying around, but there’s nothing. It’s weird. All the other drug factories that I’ve seen had stuff like that lying around, this is too clinical and clean.’
‘You think it’s a drug factory?’
‘Looks like a perfect place to run one from to me,’ Sadie pointed to the catwalks that could be seen spanning the length of the warehouse above the crates. ‘I think we should get up there and have a look at how big this place is.’ She found a ladder up to the nearest catwalk and the two of them climbed quickly onto the narrow walkway.
From that vantage point they could see that the crates ran around the entire outer wall of the warehouse, stacked almost as high as the catwalk itself. In the centre of the warehouse they had been stacked to the same height, but the rows were only one crate deep, leaving a large space in the middle of the building empty of crates.
In the space was what looked like small metal construction, a smaller building standing inside the larger one? It stood perhaps fifteen feet tall and forty feet long on a side and was made of a dark metal, bristling with tubes, cables and a multitude of other baffling components. There could be no doubt that this was the source of the low humming as the sound was far more clear above the level of the crates. The catwalk crossed directly over the top of the space that the building occupied, but where the crates stood beneath it a ladder lead down to the warehouse floor no more than a few short metres from its metal side.
Neither of the two spoke as they walked across the catwalk and made their way down the ladder towards the new mystery in the warehouse. There was no way on earth for them to tell what this was, but the fact that someone had gone to the trouble of hiding it made up their minds. If there was any place where they could find a clue as to just what was going on, it would be down there.
‘This looks like a door,’ Sadie rapped her torch on a panel in the closest side of the metal building which resembled a smooth bulkhead of some kind. ‘Now the question is, how do we open it?’ She placed a hand on the cold metal where a handle might have been located on a normal door and jumped back in surprise as there was a slight sound like the releasing of air and the panel slid aside to reveal a small chamber inside.
The chamber was no more than five feet square, well lit with walls a clinical white and a floor composed of a metal grid. The walls to the left and right were bare, but straight ahead there was another door, similar in shape to the first, but white and with a window that resembled a porthole at eye-level.
Before Mina could say a word, Sadie was inside and straining to see what was on the other side of the porthole.
‘Careful,’ she reluctantly followed her partner into the little chamber, ‘I have no idea what the hell this thing is and neither do you!’
‘Whatever they’re cooking up in this place,’ Sadie didn’t turn around as she gazed through the window, ‘this has to be where they’re making it. Secure and clean, away from the floor of the warehouse. And why else hide it away in the middle of all these crates?’
‘God alone knows,’ Mina looked warily back over her shoulder as she took another step into the chamber, ‘what on earth is through there anyway?’
‘Looks like a corridor across the length of the building. There are, I think, five more doors on the other side of this one. Must be the labs where they’re making their drugs.’
There was another sound of air being released and Mina span around just in time to see the door slide quickly closed behind them. She pressed her hand to the cold metal in an attempt to stimulate the same response that Sadie had from the other side, but to no effect. She ran her fingers around the edges of the door and pressed her weight against it before turning back to her partner with a look of exasperation on her face.
‘Don’t worry,’ Sadie cocked her head towards her radio, ‘this would be the perfect time to call for back-up.’
She clicked her radio and spoke into the mouthpiece. ‘Control?’
There was no response.
She tried again.
There was no response.
‘Looks like we have to find a way out on our own,’ she shrugged her shoulders and placed her palm on the door before her just as she had with the last.
Neither of them was surprised when there was a third release of air and the door slid open to allow them into the corridor.
‘The air smells…somehow, cleaner in here,’ Sadie shook her head.
‘Must be sealed to keep whatever they’re making pure,’ Mina peered into the nearest porthole that was set in the door in line with the one they had just come through. ‘There’s a door at the other side of the room through here, but it hasn’t got a window and there’s nothing in there at all.’
‘Nothing in these either,’ Sadie made a quick trip from on end of the corridor to the other. ‘Odd. I would have thought that this was where they were making the drugs. I was expecting all the usual paraphernalia. There’s just the same door in the far wall. So which one do we try?’
‘Perhaps we should split up,’ Mina suggested, ‘there’s no one here but us; otherwise they’d have noticed us wandering about. The quicker we get them searched, the quicker we can get out of here.’
‘Sure, why not.’
‘I’ll take this one here,’ Mina gestured to the door in front of her.
‘Suppose I’ll have a look through this one then,’ Sadie pointed to the one to Mina’s left and placed her hand against the metal as her partner did the same. The doors slid open and the two of them stepped into the small white chambers beyond.
A second later the doors slid shut again with the same jet of air.
Mina turned to look at the door as it quickly slid shut and swore under her breath in frustration. She thought about hammering on the door and shouting to Sadie, but the chances were that she was on the other side of the door to the next room and could not hear a sound she made. Instead she walked over to the other side of the room, eager to get the door open and move on. But when she pressed her hand to the metal of the far door she was surprised to discover that nothing happened.
There was a click from the corners of the room as a small vent in each opened and a clear liquid that flowed too slowly to be simple water started to gush out across the floor.
Mina cried out in alarm and backed up to the door as the liquid reached the centre of the room and started to rise rapidly. In a matter of moments it had reached to ankle-level and soon after it was lapping around the tops of her boots.
Now she cast aside her earlier reluctance and started to hammer on the door and then the walls of the room as the liquid reached her knees and then to her waist. As she waded through the liquid she was aware of the fact that it was warm and offered more resistance than water would have. Soon it had reached the point where she was forced to start treading water in order to keep her head above the water. And in no time at all she was mere inches from the white ceiling of the room and gasping for breath.
Finally Mina was forced under the surface, as the room was totally flooded. She battled against the panic that threatened to seize her until she lost her grip and was forced to cry out, releasing the air from her lungs. The liquid flooded in and Mina panicked, as her short life seemed to flash before her eyes and her limbs thrashed futilely.
She floated in what she supposed must be the brief few moments before she died, but then noticed that they had stretched on into more than moments and yet there was no end. Her eyes were open and she was floating in the liquid filled chamber, but she seemed to have somehow stopped drowning.
Mina tried to move, to swim through the water, but there was a sudden flash of light in the room, like the glare of a camera’s flash and she was stunned into immobility. She floated, sedated in both body and mind, only vaguely aware of her situation.
As she floated, another light swept through the room, this time a green light that moved over her body again and again until it had covered her from every conceivable angle.
A pair of delicate mechanical arms emerged from concealed tracks in the walls of the room. They moved along the tracks towards Mina, angling themselves on either side of her body and sent thin beams of light shooting towards her.
On their first pass they cut through the material of her jacket, her hat and then the leather of her boots, slicing them all into sections that sank to the bottom of the chamber where a hole opened and sucked them away. The second pass sliced away her trousers and then her shirt, which fell away to the same fate. A third pass removed her socks, bra and knickers’ and one more sliced away rings, her watch and the clips holding her hair up.
Mina floated naked as her thick black hair came free and surrounded her head like a dark halo.
The arms came back for a third sweep around her body, this time coming closer than ever, as close as a razor and serving the same purpose as they not only removed every hair they found below her neck, but also destroyed the root with minute precision so that the hair would never grow again. They removed the hair around her most intimate parts and then cleansed her face of any follicles that did not belong to her eyebrows or eyelashes. The latter they shaped with elegance and left in place above Mina’s eyes.
When the arms returned, or perhaps when new arms emerged, they were holding smooth discs, the colour of unfired clay, which they carried towards her breasts and abdomen. The first and the largest they slipped between her legs where it was attached to her body, laying over the top of her intimate parts and covering them as it bonded with her skin tighter than any adhesive. The second were carried higher to be attached to her breasts, cupping them and covering her nipples, bonding in the same way as the first had when it had made contact with her skin. Mina’s nipples were flattened against her breasts, but even in her semi-conscious state she could feel the stimulation as their sensitivity spread across the small discs now bound to her chest.
Next came a length of the same material with a band at either end, one larger and more complex than the other. The simpler band was wrapped around Mina’s knees, pulling them together tightly so that she could no longer move them apart. The length of the material was laid between her calves and quickly bonded them together while the complex end was slipped over her feet. It stiffened as soon as it was in place and pushed her feet together and downwards as though Mina was stood on the very tips of her toes.
Mina’s bound legs swayed as she floated, and still the arms moved through the liquid.
Now the arms returned with what looked like strangely shaped metallic moulds, four of them, which closed around different parts of Mina’s body so tightly as to leave no gap whatsoever. One enclosed the length of her bound legs from toe to waist; another wrapped around her chest and covered her breasts while the final two covered her hands like over-sized mittens. There was a rush as the liquid was expelled from within them and then a feeling of intense warmth and pressure that drifted in and out of Mina’s clouded mind.
The moulds could have been in place for hours or mere minutes, such was the state of the woman held within them. But eventually she was released from their grip and again left to float freely in the water.
Changed as she was.
Mina’s legs still swayed as she floated, but now they were concealed beneath an elegant silver tail, which covered her from waist to toe and ended in a long tailfin of aqua blue. Webbing of the same colour linked her fingers, making her hands move up and down in the liquid. A pair of shells, too small and perfectly fitted to be real, covered her breasts and completed the image of the mermaid that slowly turned in the liquid.
All the time she was left to float alone in the liquid, wrapped in a tail that was bonded to her skin wearing only her meagre shells (which were as sensitive as her buried nipples had ever been), a subliminal contact was made with Mina’s mind. It slipped into the wide open parts of her mind that the process had laid bare and filled them with images of the sea and dreams of sitting on a lonely rock, singing for the love and fulfilment that she sought from the sailors who passed her in the night. It pushed aside memories of her past and replaced them with the concerns that she must feel as a mermaid even as she was gently drawn down an opening in the floor of the chamber and away.
Mina stretched and spread her arms out as she woke form an unusually deep sleep then flexed the tips of her tailfin to chase away the last of her weariness. She sat up on the cushions that filled the inside of her giant clamshell, tucked her tail beneath her, perched her ornate hand-mirror on the edge and started to smooth her hair with the matching brush.
She was determined to make her hair do exactly what she required of it this time. When she lifted the lid of the shell and was seen by the one who would save her from a mermaid’s lonely life in the sea, everything had to be perfect. If it was, then he would be hers forever, trapped by her enchanted gaze and the well-timed flicker of her tail.
Mina was too wrapped up in herself to notice the fact that her clamshell was one of hundreds of others that filled one corner of the silent warehouse. They varied in shape, size and colour, but all looked large enough to contain a human form curled into a foetal position. All of them when examined closely showed that man rather than nature made them.
A noise in the nearest corner of the warehouse was enough to make Mina forget the combing of her hair and crane to see what was disturbing her pursuit of mermaid perfection.
This corner was filled with large wooden boxes, all exquisitely made and painted in bright colours. As with the clamshells, all were large enough to hide a human being. All of the boxes sported crank handles on one side. All of them were firmly shut.
Apart from one.
From one box there had burst Sadie, her legs bound into one limb and hidden beneath a stocking that was lined on the inside with a wire, which wrapped around her to give the impression of a spring rather than legs. She wore a red ballerina’s tutu above the stocking and her skin was as pale as porcelain, the fingers of her hands moulded together, all to give her the look of a doll. Her face had been painted to resemble one, with red lips and cheeks and her hair replaced with red wool and gathered into bunches.
She swayed forwards and backwards like the Jack-in-the-box she was sure she was, trying to regain her balance. Eventually her eyes fell on Mina and she smiled in the slightly dizzy way that the subliminal words had told her was just like a silly little thing on the end of a spring. She waved a pale hand at her friend; unable to separate the fingers as she did so, but sure that she had always been limited in that way.
Mina giggled to herself as she watched her friend sway on her spring and thought of the surprise she would give her new owner when she popped up out of that box in front of him for the first time. Sadie was a perfect Jack-in-the-box. No wait, Jill-in-the-box, that was better, prettier and it suited her far more. She was almost as good at being a Jill-in-the-box as Mina was at being a mermaid.
But then why should they not be, she thought, that was all they had ever been and all they had ever wanted to be.
They were both so looking forward to the day when they would be off into the world.
They had been cleaned, dressed and repackaged and now they were ready to be on their way.