2. Friendship or Alliance

Sunday 7th June

Forest Road

Inverness

Scotland

Felix slowed his Tasera hybrid car on the smooth tarmac road, before turning onto the gravel track which led to a remote cabin. The small stones crunched, betraying the vehicle’s approach as it crept forward. It 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 and feasted his eyes on the beauty of his surroundings. Before he walked as far as the front steps of the cabin, the homeowner stepped outside, and stood in the doorway.

“I’ve got nothing to say to you, Marsden.” The stocky and muscular blond man sneered, and stood feet apart, arms folded across his chest. “Get back into your fancy 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.”

Nathan glared at him. “Five seconds have passed ….” His strong jaw remained set—no smile.

Felix thrust his hands into his jeans pockets and met Nathan’s gaze. “Apart from the day you had the sighting of something peculiar off the coast of Lewis, 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 were ridiculed before any mention of colours, dimensions or other details.”

“That was because after I’d confided in Sullivan, no-one would listen. It was three months ago, and if you hadn’t noticed, when old man Sullivan paid me off, he poisoned my reputation.”

“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.” The visitor’s voice held a sincerity that struck a chord.

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

Felix pulled notepaper 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 full details of your sighting.”

“Obviously, I told Steve Tanner some of it. He was my skipper that day. I tried to tell Kent Sullivan but he laughed at me.” The handsome young man 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. Why should I think 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.” His eyes narrowed.

“I’d prefer that we kept this between us, so may I come closer?”

“You can come to the bottom of the stairs.”

Felix walked forward and stopped. He swallowed hard, glanced up at the younger man, and read from his handwritten notes. “Overall length between seven and eight feet. Long, light brown hair with blonde strands, which reaches to the waistline. A beautiful human female face and toned upper body. Arms, like a human, but with a flexible, collapsible translucent dorsal fin, and slightly webbed fingers. Green scales covering an elongated, fusiform shape, like a fish.” He shook his head, folded the sheet, stuffed it into his pocket, and turned to open the car door.

“Wait,” Nathan said. “You could have got some of that from Sullivan or Tanner and made up the rest.”

“Is there anything you haven’t mentioned that I might know if I was telling the truth?”

“I didn’t fully describe the tail fin to either of them. An important detail, don’t you think?”

Felix faced him and smiled confidently. “She didn’t have a fin, and you know why. A shark, marlin, swordfish, sailfish and others have a vertical tail fin, but a creature of the delphinidae family, related to whales, dolphins and porpoises has a horizontal fin; a fluke.” He paused. “Nathan, I saw her, mate. She swam with her arms held close to her sides and propelled herself with a rapid up and down hip and tail movement. Her fluke was large and almost translucent.”

Nathan looked around, and turned to meet his visitor’s gaze for a few seconds. “Come up.”

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

“That wasn’t your fault.” Nathan looked from the other man’s unwavering, gaze, to the hand offered in peace, and he nodded before accepting the handshake. “Coffee okay?”

“Coffee would be great, thanks, mate.”

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, international celebrities, and politicians, all of whom photographed while preparing to dive with Nathan Denning.

Nathan returned to the living room. “I put those pictures up to remind me that I wasn’t always considered to be 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. It’s made by Hazel, a nice old lady who lives nearby, but it’s so tasty I eat too bloody much of it.”

Felix grinned, and turned, indicating a picture showing Nathan with an ex-Prime Minister. “She would be happy to pose with you again … especially 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. I lost faith in human nature when I was made into a laughing stock by ‘Mr Moneybags’ Sullivan.”

Felix sipped his coffee, and lifted a piece of the tempting shortbread. “Two days ago, I went out with Jess Harper to confirm mineral deposits on the northernmost aspect of Neptune’s Finger.”

“I always thought that island was out of bounds for mining exploration.”

“To most people it’s a prominent rock formation that looks like it’s stuck on an island. As we both know, the island is the tip of a submerged, and dormant volcano.” He paused. “Sullivan is trying to make a case for saving the SEWNI federation a fortune. He’s told the heads of each country that if he can mine, he’ll sell to all four at the same price.”

“How come he isn’t trying to keep the product for the Scottish market to increase value?”

“Don’t you remember the federation agreement about natural assets?”

“I don’t delve into politics or commerce, so you’ll have to remind me.”

“Eight years ago, in 2050, when the four countries that had been the United Kingdom got back together, their leaders all agreed that any natural assets found in one nation should benefit all, including anything in territorial waters.”

“Right, so basically, Sullivan is using their agreement to feed his greed for more riches?”

“Pretty much, yes.”

“Okay, I suppose that’s the political and commercial aspect. Who did you say your skipper was out there?”

“Jess Harper. You’ll remember him. He’s the freelancer based in Portree on the Isle of Skye.”

“I worked with him a few times. He’s one of the guys who takes divers out on regular short contracts but he also does covert jobs?” He nodded. “He’s the tattooed muscle-man who pretends to be teaching skills on a sailing yacht, the sneaky way to get divers to certain locations.”

“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, but he took me seriously when I insisted that I wouldn’t go back in the water, and he wasn’t to repeat what I told him. 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?”

Felix licked crumbs from his lips after enjoying a piece of shortbread. “Yes, and you can guess why. Sullivan likes to play his cards close to his chest. The fewer who knew about us checking out Neptune’s Finger the less chance of somebody getting in on the action or sharing profits of his ventures.”

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

“I was using the latest version of breathing apparatus. I’m sure you used them in trials, a miniature version affectionately called an M.B.A., which is smaller than a 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 waters around the Outer Hebrides and the Scottish west coast have been protected they are clear, and a joy to explore.”

“The area will remain full of life and prosper, 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 she was right there among them; a beautiful 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 disappeared in a flurry of bubbles and disturbed water.”

Nathan tried to act casually, lifting the coffee pot, 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.

Felix said, “I was so mesmerised by her stunning features and the beauty of her top half, that I was baffled more than anything when I focused on her lower half. Her body was perfectly formed for underwater movement, which explained the incredible propulsion when she darted away.”

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

“The water there is crystal clear, so aquatic life is seen in all its glory. As I said, her hair was light brown, but with blonde streaks, and it reached her waist or if you like, her scales. Her face, arms and upper body were perfect, human female. At her waistline, there was a subtle blending of colours where her lightly-tanned flesh met her scales. Her lower half was fusiform, and tapered to an end before the massive translucent fluke.”

Nathan was satisfied to hear the same details. “How did the fluke compare to those of the dolphins with her?”

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

“Her fluke was unusual? Felix, remember, we’re taking about a mermaid.”

Felix laughed, and shook his head. “I am so sorry for what you’ve been put through, mate.”

“It doesn’t feel comfortable, does it … 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 often think 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,” Nathan said. “I was diving from a sailing yacht to check for minerals. The company’s cabin cruisers are too big and attract attention.” He paused. “Why do you ask, is there something on your mind?”

“Most of my diving experience is industrial and engineering, but I know that 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. “Even the cruisers working with solar power occasionally use a prop. They’d be massively disturbing to the sensitive aquatic species, and definitely noticed by the delphinidae family of mammals; the whales and dolphins.” He looked away for a moment in consideration. “A vessel on the surface driven by wind power would only disturb the water with whatever was underneath, like the keel 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 work from home, writing diving stories and articles but using a pseudonym.”

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

“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.”

“How many others were on your boat?”

“I thought I said earlier … there were only Tanner, and me.”

“Did you know that he was dead?”

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

“About a week 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 stranded boat.”

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

“Apparently, before Carla dived, Steve produced his speargun and said he’d be watching out for something special in the area; maybe a mermaid. Of course, she thought he was joking and being macho. She laughed at him. Carla conducted three dives, and found him in the water when she surfaced from the third.”

“Even if Steve had fallen overboard, I recall, 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 in swimming trunks, but had no fins fitted to his feet, and he was still wearing his T-shirt—”

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

“Felix shook his head. “His speargun had been fired, and it was dangling below him, connected to his wrist by the safety bracelet. Steve Tanner 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 that I’d reported seeing a Great White Shark cruising around, and I didn’t think she ought to dive in that area until we were sure it 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 will keep things quiet to save his reputation, and there are you, and me?”

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

“Go on.” Nathan’s brow furrowed as he tried 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.”

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

“Would you like to join us in a highly-lucrative venture.”

Nathan slowly shook his head, suspicious. “What kind of lucrative venture?”

“Your mermaid sighting was real, and so was mine. Jess and I both think it would be worth the effort to go out as a three man crew on an extraordinary fishing expedition.” He paused. “Instead of saying that we went into protected waters just north of Neptune’s Finger, we could make our catch and say it was from out in the North Atlantic.”

“What catch?” Suspicion had changed to confusion.

“Imagine how much we’d be worth when we proved that mermaids are not a myth.”

***

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