The Truth is out, and luck? Well, luck is always a matter of perspective.
Much to his own surprise Tim had fallen asleep in his cabin. He jerked awake when Electra put her hand over his mouth.
That would not have been so bad if her other hand hadn’t pinched his nose shut.
‘You sleep like a little baby. I could have slit your throat and you’d have woken up dead.’
‘You’ve got some great chat up lines,’ Tim said. ‘I expect you have to beat them back with a shitty stick.’
Electra’s mouth twisted with contempt. ‘I serve my master. I await him as he awaits me.’
‘Isn’t Koponen the lucky one.’
Electra laughed coldly.
She brought him to Koponen in a spartan dining room with a linoleum floor. Tim took in the room. In the centre a long steel-framed table covered in white tablecloths stood with places set for a meal. Koponen and Troy Jarglebaum waited at the back of the room beside an array of bottles of wine, beer, and spirits. Set in the wall behind them was a speaker grill and controls, and a dumb-waiter hatch. The sack from the car lay at their feet.
‘Where is Foxy?’ Tim said. ‘What have you done with her?’
‘Absolutely nothing, I assure you,’ Koponen said smoothly. ‘I have been making sure all is in order with the cargo and conferring with my captain. We’re in for a bit of weather in an hour or two, low pressure in the Bay of Biscay. I hope you don’t get sea sick.’
Tim bunched his fists. ‘Where is she?’
Electra took a languid step forwards.
Koponen held up his hand. ‘As a lady surely Ms Bolivia is allowed a little more time to prepare. Would you like a drink, Mr Wassiter?’
Tim gave a hollow laugh. ‘All right, let’s pretend we are being civilised. Whisky, no ice.’
‘It’s no pretence. You and Ms Bolivia are my guests.’
As Koponen made Tim’s drink the door opened and Foxy entered accompanied by Imelda and Dolores.
‘Wow, this ship is cool,’ Foxy said. ‘There are so many rooms and levels, it’s like a building that floats.’ She saw Tim. ‘Hi Tim, how are you getting on with our new friends?’
‘Foxy, are you all right?’
She looked at him steadily. ‘Of course I am, Tim. These girls are so friendly and they’ve got some great clothes. Have you seen Dolores’ heels?’
‘I think you can see from Ms Bolivia’s reaction that she’s been well cared for,’ Koponen said.
‘Absolutely,’ Foxy said. ‘They’re such pussycats.’
Deep under the deck the throb of the engines took on a deeper resonance. The ship gathered speed and rolled a degree to starboard.
Koponen motioned for everyone to take their places at the table. Tim sat opposite Foxy, Electra close beside him.
Koponen raised his glass. ‘My plans near completion. We sail with a genetically engineered cargo towards a rendezvous with my deep-sea research vessel.’ He laughed lightly, ‘It’s around this time an evil super-genius would explain his plans to the captive hero before consigning him to the sharks via a fiendishly intricate device–’
Troy Jarglebaum shook his leg, tugged and prodded at his groin. Koponen watched with open-mouthed bemusement. Jarglebaum looked around a now silent room. ‘Don’t mind me.’
‘Where was I?’ Koponen sighed.
‘Shark food,’ Imelda said.
‘Ah, yes. So, rather than that, I thought we’d have a nice meal and a friendly chat. I’m rich but I’m not evil. Tonight the fish is on our menu, not we on theirs.’
Tim kept playing the game. He acknowledged Koponen’s wit with a polite smile and a nod.
Koponen served more drinks, all the while keeping up a line of small-talk about tonnage, displacement and knots. Finally, he spoke into the wall-grill: ‘Ten minutes, please.’
Foxy seemed at ease if a little brittle. She gave Tim a quick smile then returned her attention to Koponen.
Tim wet his lips with his own drink then put it down. After his breakfast session with Mrs Woosencraft he had lost the urge to play the hard-drinking detective. And in addition to the coercion, the pretend gun, and being locked in his cabin there was something else here, something that was not right. Koponen was used to getting what he wanted when he wanted it and no doubt was a ruthless businessman but Tim didn’t feel any ill-will from him. And while Jarglebaum was rough and ready, he’d never involve himself in anything outright illegal. Jarglebaum bent the rules but he played a straight game.
There was still that vibe. Something was going down.
Foxy had said “As far as I’m concerned they’re real pussycats.” She didn’t like cats. More to the point she didn’t trust them. Nervous fear thrilled through Tim. His instincts were right, Foxy had tried to warn him.
‘Something is wrong,’ Tim said.
Jarglebaum went still for a moment then vigorously scratched his ear.
‘No, it isn’t,’ Koponen said breezily. ‘I’ve been working towards this for years. My plans are detailed and comprehensive. You haven’t heard the half of them.’
‘It doesn’t matter what you believe–’
Koponen wasn’t in a listening mood. ‘I’m not proud about the way you’ve been treated today. Events took on a momentum of their own. Hear what I have to say–’
‘What if we don’t like it?’
‘Then you will have been my guests on a short voyage and will be compensated for your inconvenience.’
‘We’ve no passports.’
‘You won’t need them. That, in part, is what Mr Jarglebaum is for. A man who knows the system and how to play it to best advantage. Bend but not break, isn’t that how you put it?’
‘Man of many talents, me,’ Jarglebaum said. ‘Nice to be appreciated.’
Koponen stooped and pulled a potato sized lump from of the sack Jarglebaum had taken from the Imperial’s boot. ‘I’ve been carrying these around to show to the investors. White-flowered Canola will earn in the long run, but I need cash now. Deep-sea mining is the plan but I’m having trouble.’
‘Manganese nodules.’ Tim looked down the table to Jarglebaum who winked. ‘You’re dredging them up from the fumaroles along the mid-Atlantic ridge.’
Foxy snapped her fingers. ‘That’s where I’ve–’
‘Seen them before, Ms Bolivia?’ Koponen said. ‘Relatively low value on today’s market, but there are other more valuable deposits. Something down there is interfering with my operations. I’ve lost expensive equipment.’ He looked along the table to Dolores. ‘I’ve nearly lost people too. People I greatly care about.’
‘He means all of us,’ Dolores said. ‘He does.’
‘What do you mean, interfering?’ Foxy said.
‘Just that. Damaging machinery, jamming electronics, frying circuitry. I sent down robotic maintenance vehicles, they never came back. I tried remote-pilot drones, they developed faults. My girls volunteered to take the submarine. They’re trained marine scientists–’ Koponen’s voice grew tight. ‘They almost died.’
‘Let me clarify. I did not volunteer,’ Electra said.
‘I did, Markus. I’d do it again.’ Dolores exclaimed.
‘I won’t risk it. There’s some sort of field effect down there, probably geomagnetic.’
Despite the circumstances the thought of huge dredging machines labouring in the endless dark and fantastic pressure caught Tim’s imagination. ‘Industrial espionage?’
‘My first thought. Nobody else has the technology. Not the Russians or Americans, not even the South Africans or Japanese. It’s something else, something natural.’
Foxy listened intently. ‘What kind of field?’
‘One that left my girls weak, terribly weak. They took days to recover.’ Koponen turned to Foxy. ‘We’ve discovered one thing. The field has no effect on marine life.’
‘I see where this is going,’ Foxy said.
Tim looked at Koponen in disbelief. ‘We’re here because you think she’s a mermaid too.’
Jarglebaum let out a great guffaw. ‘Tim, that’s dafter than a box of frogs.’
‘Actually, I do,’ Koponen said. ‘Am I right, Ms Bolivia, or am I right?’
Foxy looked at him with dry respect. ‘It was you all along. The cats, that old lady, everything.’
‘Come on, she wears shoes,’ Tim cried. ‘On her feet. You know, those things at the end of her legs. Foxy, tell them.’
‘What is it you want me to do?’ Foxy said to Koponen.
Tim and Jarglebaum exchanged a look of pure bewilderment.
‘Take a look. Simply that, nothing else. I’m deadly serious on this. Don’t get involved, don’t try and do anything. Just take a look and come back and tell me what you saw.’
Foxy leaned back in her chair. ‘There is that. How do you know I will come back?’
‘Because you came ashore, Ms Bolivia. You’re running away from something and I don’t think you want to return to the sea. Also, I shall pay you very well.’
Koponen named a sum large enough for anyone to start over.
‘Christ on a bike,’ Jarglebaum exclaimed. ‘Not bad for one day’s work.’
‘Value for money, Ms Bolivia has unique gifts.’
‘It’s just about money for you, isn’t it, Koponen?’ Tim said bitterly.
‘It’s more about what you can do with it.’
‘And everyone has their price.’
Tim couldn’t deny it. ‘I did what you paid me to do.’
‘Value for money.’
As they bickered Foxy contemplated Koponen’s offer. Out on the ocean groups of mermen roved out of their ruined cities, tasted the water and searched for mates. Children were the future. Almost everyone had accepted the necessity. If mer society was going to survive in any form– She didn’t want to think about it. Strip away civilised behaviour and what was left?
She had always felt like an outsider. Brighton had been an escape from inevitability but life on dry land had been harder than she expected. People there were so different. No merman had manipulated events with such foresight and authority as Markus Koponen, none had made her feel the way she did about Tim. What mattered was to preserve the reasons she had come ashore – to be free, to live her own life as she wanted, not according to someone else’s desperate doomed rules.
And so she’d sought refuge among the people who had destroyed her own. Unknown and unregarded, the ancient mer were nothing more than a by-blow casualty of the land’s exploitation of the seas.
She reached her decision. ‘Afterwards, you’ll leave me alone.’
‘How do I know that?’
‘That’s the thing.’ Koponen spread his hands. ‘You either trust me or you don’t.’
‘That’s a current that flows both ways.’
‘What do you suggest?’
‘Pay me first.’
Koponen appeared to be enjoying himself. ‘A third now, the rest when you return.’
‘Half and half.’
‘Agreed.’ Koponen held out his hand.
‘No,’ Tim said. ‘I don’t care what you think Foxy is, you can’t send her down there. Not in her condition.’
Foxy looked indignant, hurt. It wasn’t the reaction he had been expecting. Across the room Dolores trilled with laughter.
Koponen regarded Tim with some sympathy. ‘There are many things you don’t understand.’
‘Neither do you!’
Electra seized Tim’s wrist without seeming to cross the space between. ‘Calm down, little Tim-Tim Timmy or I’ll hurt you so much.’ Bone and cartilage moved inside his wrist with the unpleasant promise of imminent agony.
A dessert spoon flew down the table and walloped off Electra’s forehead. Jarglebaum pointed at Electra with a steak knife. ‘You let him go. Right now.’
‘For God’s sake, Jarglebaum!’ Koponen exclaimed.
Jarglebaum didn’t take his eyes off Electra. He flipped the steak knife and caught it by the tip. ‘She’s hurting him.’
Electra removed her hand with exaggerated care. ‘A steadying hand.’
Jarglebaum snorted disbelief. ‘You all right, pal?’
‘I’m fine, Troy.’ Tim massaged his aching wrist. ‘Thank you.’
Jarglebaum gave a curt nod, flipped the knife a final time and dropped it on the table.
Koponen massaged his temples. ‘I suggest we all–’
The door opened and a man in a white jacket entered to take their food orders. He took in the mood of the room. ‘Mr Koponen?’
Koponen’s composure cracked, he flung his glass splintering into the corner. ‘Enough. I’ve lost my appetite.’
The waiter withdrew in the frosty silence.
‘Let’s go.’ Electra gestured to the door.
‘Foxy, I–’ Tim said.
She wouldn’t meet his gaze. He didn’t know what to say, what to think. He’d hoped he’d at least be able to protect her even if he couldn’t help her escape. Now she’d cut a deal with the man who’d tracked her down. His shoulders drooped. Electra led them out of the room.
Koponen rounded on Jarglebaum as soon as they were alone. ‘It’s been a demanding day but that is no excuse for such grotesque behaviour.’
‘She was going to mangle his wrist. Now she’s got a little bruise on her head and you don’t have a lawsuit. It’s a good deal. Thanks. You’re welcome.’
‘Act like that again and you will cease to be of any use to me. Is that clear?’
Jarglebaum took the point. ‘Yes, boss. Look, I’m sorry but I had to do something. Legally you’re right on the edge with all this. The wrong side of the edge.’
Koponen breathed in, then out. ‘My warning still stands. For now we will put this behind us and move on.’ He strode from the room and Jarglebaum was alone.
Well, that was a class-A fuckup, Jarglebaum thought despairingly. No matter what those women did Koponen just would not see them as a liability. That was what happened when you shared a mattress. He gave a snort of cynical laughter. All that bullshit about mermaids, was that the genuine angle here? What the actual fuck had he got himself involved in this time?
He poured himself another whisky and tried to guess which malt it was without looking at the label. Anything to keep his mind from worrying about whether he would still have a job at the end of the voyage.
It was just the right side of smoky, with a wonderful aroma Jarglebaum could only describe as being like old varnish and wardrobes. The superb scotch was older and therefore more expensive than any he could afford.
Even if Koponen was away with the fairies he didn’t stint on the little luxuries for his staff. Jarglebaum poured another shot, determined to enjoy this one while he still could.
To be continued…