1. Realisation

Friday 5th June 2048 AD

North of the Isle of Skye

Scotland

Felix Marsden climbed up the lightweight ladder on the port side of Angel 3, a thirty-foot sailing yacht. He swung his legs over the gunwale, and stood on the deck for a moment, as if he’d forgotten what he was doing. Felix removed the mini-breathing apparatus from his mouth, took off his mask, and placed both on a wooden bench. For a moment, he reached out to the boom, and gripped the furled mainsail of the craft as if steadying himself. He looked into the distance, and then ran the fingers of his right hand through his long, dark hair. His broad chest expanded slowly as he inhaled deep and exhaled slowly several times.

“Hey, Felix.” Jess Harper, the skipper of the yacht approached from the cabin, and squinted. “Are you okay?” He folded his tattooed arms across his chest stretching the sleeves of his white T-shirt, and his muscular thighs tensed when the boat rocked as his legs compensated in reflex.

Marsden continued to stare across the deck and out to sea. He spoke without turning to his companion. “Jess, tell me that there is another boat with divers, a short distance from here.”

Harper laughed, a brief outward breath. “I would, mate, but no-one has been near this area since we dropped anchor; maybe two hours ago. If there’s a vessel closer than five miles, it would have to be a mini-submersible of some type, but there’s nothing on the radar.” He stepped forward. “You look like shit—what the hell is wrong, mate?”

Marsden looked upward and absently watched gulls gliding on the breeze. “Can you remember what happened to Nathan Denning?”

“Denning, the guy that Mr Sullivan fired a few months back?” His laugh this time was loud and long. “Yeah, he left the west coast when diving jobs dried up for him. He moved inland … no, wait, I think he went farther up north, to Inverness.”

“I need to find him—urgently.”

“Felix, he’s the guy who did one too many dives. Remember—Nathan Denning is the bloody fella who surfaced one day and said he saw a mermaid.”

Marsden slowly turned to his friend. “Jess, the company owes Nathan a huge apology.”

“Hey, mate, Nathan might have been let go, but he was paid a full month’s salary. The company doesn’t owe Nathan anything.”

“Mr Sullivan paid Nathan in order to disassociate him from the company. Now, I’ve never discussed Nathan’s improbable mermaid sighting with anyone. How about you?”

“I most certainly haven’t. I wouldn’t want anyone thinking I even half-believed Nathan. I also doubt if you’d take his side, because it would tarnish your reputation in the profession.”

“In that case, it was the rich and powerful Kent Sullivan who spread the word. He’s the reason that Nathan Denning left the west coast. Sullivan caused him to be ridiculed by the diving community, and he couldn’t get more work.”

“Wait a minute—why have you got this sudden urge to defend our deranged ex-colleague?”

Felix held the skipper’s gaze. “Jess, trust me—we owe it to the man to repair the damage to his credibility.”

“Why—what’s happened?”

Felix took a deep breath. “I saw the same thing as Nathan.”

“Look mate, what he saw was a manatee—the mammal that people call a mermaid.”

“No—I saw a real, live, half-woman, half-fish.”

“Okay, Felix, if this is a wind-up, fair enough—you’ve caught me out, and I’ve found myself openly discussing it with you.” He forced a brief smile. “What is this really about?”

Felix Marsden maintained his deadpan expression. “Jess—I saw a mermaid.”

Harper’s lips parted, and creases formed at the corners of his eyes, but his features relaxed when he realised that the man who’d just been diving was deadly serious. “Holy shit—”

“Yes, mate—holy shit.” Felix turned, stepped to the chrome rail and gripped it with both hands as he looked down into the water. “I can’t go back down there today, mate.”

“What about our briefing to check the—”

Fuck the mineral deposits. Raise the anchor, and let’s get to hell away from here so I can think.”

*

Sunday 7th June

Forest Road

Inverness

Scotland

Felix slowed his Taserra electric car on the smooth tarmac road, before turning onto the gravel track which led to a remote cabin. The small stones crunched as the vehicle crept forward and then stopped behind a smaller model made by the same company.

When Felix got out of the car he inhaled the fragrance of the pine forest. Before he got as far as the front steps of the cabin, the owner stepped outside, and stood in the doorway. The stocky blond man sneered, and stood feet apart, arms folded across his chest. “I’ve got nothing to say to you, Marsden, so get back into your fancy big car and fuck off back to your rich boss.”

“Nathan, I know—”

“You don’t know shit—and cut it with the first names. I save that for friends.”

“Please, hear me out—for one minute.”

“Ten seconds have passed—so get talking.” Nathan’s strong jaw remained set—no smile.

Felix thrust his hands into his jeans pockets and leant back against the car. “Apart from the day you had the sighting of something peculiar off the coast of Skye, have you ever described in detail what you saw?”

“Why—have you driven all the way here to laugh at me?”

“Please, Nathan—all I heard were the rumours. You saw something that had always been thought a myth. Apparently, you talked of long hair and a part human-part aquatic creature, but you didn’t mention any colours, dimensions or details.”

“That was because no-one would listen, and it was three months ago. If you hadn’t noticed, when old man Sullivan paid me off, he poisoned my reputation as a diver.”

“Do you remember the colours of the creature that you saw that day in the water?”

Fuck this—I’ve heard enough.” Nathan shook his head, turned and gripped the door handle.

“I’ve seen her, Nathan.”

Denning paused with one foot in the doorway, and turned slowly. “You’ve seen who?”

Felix pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket and looked around to ensure there were no witnesses. “As far as I can tell, you are the only person who knows the details of your sighting.”

“I told Steve Tanner, my skipper that day, and I tried to tell old man Sullivan.” He slowly shook his head but glanced at the paper in his ex-colleague’s hand. “I know what I saw, and I’m not fucking mad, but why should I believe that anyone else will treat me seriously?”

“If I can give you a reasonable description, will you hear me out?”

Nathan turned to face him properly, and folded his arms again. “Go on.”

Felix swallowed, glanced up at the other man, and then read from his notes. “Overall length between six and seven feet. Long, light brown hair with blonde streaks—reaches all the way to the waistline. A beautiful human female face and toned upper body. Arms, like a human, but with a flexible, possibly collapsible dorsal fin. Green scales in an elongated, fusiform shape, like a fish.” He folded the sheet, stuffed it into his pocket, nodded slowly and turned to open the car door.

“Wait,” Nathan said. “You didn’t describe the tail fin—an important detail, don’t you think?”

Felix turned back. “She didn’t have a fin, and you know why. A shark, marlin, swordfish and others have a vertical tail fin, but a creature related to whales, dolphins and similar species has a horizontal fin—a fluke.” He paused and held the other man’s gaze. “Nathan, I saw her, mate. She swam with her arms by her sides and propelled herself with a rapid up and down hip and tail movement.”

Denning looked around, and turned back to stare at his visitor for a few seconds. “Come in.”

Felix sighed as he walked towards the steps and the doorway. He outstretched his right hand. “I’m sincerely sorry for how the company treated you.”

Nathan looked from the other man’s eyes to the hand offered in peace, and then squinted for a moment before accepting the handshake. “Coffee okay?”

“Coffee would be great, thanks.”

While his host was fixing the brew, Felix admired the framed photographs which adorned the main room of the cabin—a much larger building than it first appeared. He studied a few of the pictures closely, recognising film stars, celebrities, and politicians, all of whom being photographed preparing to dive with Nathan Denning.

Nathan returned to the living room. “I put those pictures up to remind me that I wasn’t going bloody crazy. I’d bet not one of those people would want to pose with me now.” He placed a tray on the low table. “Sit down and help me eat some of this shortbread—made by Hazel, a nice old lady who lives nearby.”

Felix turned and tapped the frame of a picture showing Nathan with an ex-Prime Minister. “She would be happy to pose with you again … if she knew what we both know.” He crossed the room and sat on the sofa.

Nathan sipped coffee. “Indulge me, and help me to believe you. I lost faith in human nature when I was made into a laughing stock by ‘Mr Moneybags’ Sullivan.”

Felix sipped his coffee, briefly eyed the tempting plate of shortbread, and half-turned. “Two days ago, I went out with Jess Harper to confirm mineral deposits a few miles north of the Isle of Skye.”

“Jess Harper—I worked with him a few times. He’s one of the guys who takes divers out on covert jobs?” He nodded. “The tattooed muscle-man who pretends to be teaching skills on a sailing yacht. It’s the company’s sneaky way of getting divers to locations to check for minerals.”

“If you remember Jess, you’ll recall his reputation as a no-nonsense guy.”

“A big man, a great sailor, and nobody’s fool. I can’t imagine him believing what you saw.”

“He didn’t at first, and he refused to come back to shore. He took me seriously when I insisted that he didn’t repeat what I’d seen. I said that I had to find you but I wanted it kept under wraps.”

“Okay, so was it only you and Jess on the boat?”

“Yes, and you can guess why—Sullivan likes to play his cards close to his chest. The fewer who know what he’s up to; the less chance of somebody getting in on the action or sharing profits.”

“I think that’s enough background for now, Felix. Tell me about your dives.”

“I was using the new mini-breathing apparatus, which is about the size of drinks can. The only other items I had with me, were my knife, and a small net for collecting samples. As you know, since the regions around the Outer Hebrides and the Scottish west coast have been protected, the waters have been a joy to explore.”

“The area will remain full of life, as long as people like Sullivan don’t get permission to mine.”

Felix nodded but didn’t offer an opinion. Sullivan paid well. “For about twenty minutes, I was at about one hundred feet and enjoying the dive. A small pod of dolphins came by and right there among them, was a beautiful, long-haired … mermaid.” He sipped coffee and after a glance at Nathan, he stared at his drink. “She met my gaze and then the whole group turned, kicked their tails, and they were gone in a flurry of bubbles and disturbed water.”

Nathan lifted the coffee pot trying to act casually, but as he topped up the drinks the spout rattled on the cups, betraying his excitement. Someone had seen what he’d seen. He wasn’t crazy, and now he was incredibly grateful to this man for confiding in him that they’d had the same experience.

Felix said, “I was so mesmerised at first, by her stunning features and the beauty of her top half, that I was disturbed more than anything when I focused on her lower half. Her body was perfectly formed and her fluke was huge—which explained the incredible propulsion when she swam away.”

“Tell me about her colouring.” As Nathan tried to relax, he succumbed and reached out for a piece of the calorific, but delicious homemade shortbread.

“The water in that area is crystal clear, so the aquatic life is seen in all its glory. As I said, her hair was light brown, but with blonde streaks, and it reached along to her waistline. Her face, arms and upper body looked perfect, and naturally human. At her waist, there was a subtle blending of colours where her green scales started. Her lower half tapered to an end with a massive transparent fluke.”

“How did the fluke compare to those of the dolphins?”

“Hers was larger, and at first, looked unusual because it was big.”

“Her fluke was unusual, Felix—remember, we’re taking about a mermaid. How many have you seen to compare?”

Felix laughed briefly, and shook his head. “Nathan, I am so sorry for what the company put you through, mate.”

He nodded. “It doesn’t feel comfortable, does it, mate—thinking that you might be crazy?”

“No, it does not.” Felix stared at his drink before sipping more. “When you first had to leave the job and came here to be alone, did you think often about what you’d seen?”

“I still do, and don’t fool yourself—if we saw the same creature, you are going to dream about her every night. I do, but now it will be special, because you’ve confirmed that she’s real.”

“What task were you performing when you saw her?”

“The same as you—diving from a sailing yacht to check for minerals. The company’s cabin cruisers attract too much attention.” He paused. “Why do you ask—something on your mind?”

“Most of my diving experience is industrial and engineering, but I know you’ve been more closely associated with natural history and scientific expeditions.” He paused and maintained eye contact. “Do you think it’s a coincidence that both of our sightings occurred when we were diving from a sail boat—a craft that had arrived on site without engine power?”

Nathan stopped chewing his piece of shortbread, swallowed, and nodded slowly. “Engine and prop activity through water would be massively disturbing to the more sensitive aquatic species. It would definitely be noticed by the delphinidae family of mammals—that is, most whales and dolphins.” He looked away for a moment in consideration. “You might have something there. A vessel on the surface driven by wind power would only disturb the water with whatever was underneath, like the keel fin and the rudder.”

“I thought so.” Felix nodded. “By the way, how are you earning a living now?”

“I can’t get a job diving so I’m doing the next best thing. I live in this cabin away from most of civilisation, and I work from home, writing diving articles but using a pseudonym.”

“Okay,” Felix said. “Apart from us discussing our sightings right now, who else have you told about what you saw?”

“Well, obviously Sullivan, who fucking fired me. The only other person I spoke to was Steve Tanner, my skipper that day, but I didn’t give him a detailed description the way you’ve done.”

“How many others were on your boat?”

“Only Tanner, and me.”

“Did you know that he was dead?”

“Steve Tanner? No, what … how … when?”

“About two weeks after you left, a diver came back to the surface, and found Steve floating beside the boat—dead. An autopsy revealed that he had several broken ribs and had drowned, having been incapacitated because of his injuries.”

“Could the diver’s evidence be trusted?”

“The person diving that day was Carla—my wife. She was in shock, and had to wait alone onboard until a crew from Sullivan’s fleet found her and the boat.”

“Was she able to tell you anything? I’ll understand if you don’t want to say?”

“All she knows is that before she went into the water, Steve produced his speargun and said he’d be watching out for something special in the area. Of course, she thought he was just joking and being macho. She laughed it off, and got on with her job. Carla conducted three dives, and found him in the water when she surfaced from the third.”

“He wouldn’t have fallen overboard, but even if he did, he was a first-class swimmer.”

“He didn’t fall overboard, Nathan, but he was eager to get into the water.”

“How could that be figured if nobody saw him go in?”

“He was still wearing his T-shirt—”

“Right, so he might have injured himself and as a result, fallen overboard?”

“Felix shook his head. “His speargun had been fired, and it was dangling below him from his wrist, thanks to the safety bracelet. He went into the water to kill or injure something.”

“Bloody hell. Have you told Carla about what you saw a couple of days ago?”

“No. I told her I saw a Great White Shark and I didn’t think she ought to dive in that area until we were sure that the big boy had moved on.”

“Okay,” Nathan said. “That means, that apart from Sullivan, who obviously thinks I’ve lost the plot, there are only three people who know about our special aquatic friend. One is Jess Harper, who was your skipper, and then there is you, and me?”

Felix nodded. “Jess is a private contractor so he can earn cash in different ways, so he doesn’t feel dependent on Sullivan. He does recognise that he’ll be well-paid to take divers out, but in the past couple of days, he’s been offered a very good reason for keeping his mouth shut about my recent sighting.”

“Go on.” Nathan squinted, trying to figure out where this was leading.

“Jess and I had a long discussion on the way back to shore on Friday. He’s seriously interested in a three-way partnership that I’ve suggested.”

“Why would that be of any concern to me?”

“Nathan, I’d like you to join Jess and me, in a highly-lucrative venture. Your mermaid sighting was real, and both Jess and I will be alongside you when we prove that such a creature is not a myth.”

***

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