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Fish Out of Water, Page 2

MaryJanice Davidson

  “No, I meant, are you a mermaid?”

  “The term is Undersea Folk.”

  “Yes, are you?” The Realtor was actually leaning toward Fred with the urgency of her question. Fred found she was backed up against the dishwasher, close enough to count the threads in the buttons on the Realtor’s blouse. “Because I know I’ve seen you on TV. On the news. I’m sure of it. So are you?”

  “Why, are you afraid you won’t be able to track down all my references?” Fred sidled away from her and walked through the dining area.

  This entire side of the house had enormous windows, all of which boasted ocean views of the Gulf side. It was 2:30 p.m. on Sanibel Island, Florida, February 11, and she was walking around inside a house that would sell painlessly for five million dollars, even with the housing market deep in the shitter as it was. The Realtor was asking five thousand a week to rent it out.

  “Also, you swam in from the ocean side. Most people drive to the house.”

  “Is this your not-too-subtle way of bitching about me tracking salt water all over the floors? Besides, I had to work off the brownie sundae I had for breakfast. What about the washer and dryer?”

  “Right through here.” The Realtor, whose name Fred had forgotten, opened a door off the kitchen and gestured. Fred peeked around the corner and observed a full-sized washer/dryer combo in a spotlessly clean laundry room.


  The entire first floor (except for the bathroom) was one gigantic room, the front hall leading to the dining area leading to the kitchen leading to the living room leading to a large porch that ran nearly the length of the house. The walls were the color of Coffee-Mate; the furniture and décor were done in Modern Millionaire. All the windows were thrown wide and a fresh breeze made the curtains billow.

  Upstairs were several bedrooms and three more bathrooms, one with a Jacuzzi big enough for a soccer team. Two of the bedrooms boasted ocean views as well. The cream-colored walls made the large house appear even more spacious.

  Fred stared thoughtfully out over the lawn, eyeing the outdoor Jacuzzi and swimming pool. Her boyfriend/ suitor/someday-sovereign, Prince Artur, had encouraged this move. And she had to admit, it wasn’t the worst idea she’d ever heard.

  Ever since Undersea Folk had started coming out of the water closet (heh), she’d been fielding interviews and handling the press and in general acting as go-between for the royal family, the Undersea Folk, and surface dwellers. As a result, the world was assuming the Undersea Folk’s primary residence was here, just off the coast of Sanibel Island.

  They were wrong.

  Which suited the king just fine.

  But Fred craved her own space to retreat to, and never mind Artur’s argument that she could use the ocean as an escape hatch. The ocean—yech! Seaweed and barracudas and mouthy fish (mouthy telepathic fish, anyway) and silt and frankly, she vastly preferred a pool to the large, messy ocean.

  Yes, she needed her own space and perhaps this zillion-dollar mansion was it. Although her stepfather was wealthy, he hadn’t flaunted it when she was a kid, and although she had a healthy trust fund, she’d always been content with her little one-bedroom apartment in Boston.

  This place, though . . . Artur had pointed out that, as the girlfriend of the prince, she needed more than a teeny Boston apartment. How had he put it? Someplace worthy of our future queen. Amazing she even remembered what he’d said, she’d been laughing so hard.

  “I dunno,” she said. “It’s really big. And—”

  The front door boomed open and there stood Prince Artur, well over six feet, with shoulder-length hair the color of smashed rubies, and eyes almost the same shade. He hadn’t shaved for a couple of weeks and his beard was also a deep red. His shoulders were so broad, and he was so tall, he barely fit in the doorway. He was shirtless, and barefoot, and clad only in a pair of denim shorts.

  “Ho, Little Rika! Is the cottage to your liking?” He frowned, glancing around. “It looked more fitting from the outside.”

  Fred smirked at the gaping Realtor. “Now, him? He’s a mermaid. So to speak.”


  “I was told this would be a suitable residence for my little Rika,” Prince Artur said with a frown.

  “It’s plenty suitable; don’t be such a royal snob.”

  “I do not think it is fitting for one who will one day be queen,” Artur persisted with maddening stubbornness.

  That did it. “I’ll take it,” Fred told the astonished Realtor, who was staring at the prince as if she were in some sort of sex trance. “And I’ll pay asking and all the fees and sign whatever I need to sign, but I need to move in by the end of the week. Open-ended lease, six-month minimum, whatever security deposit you need. Okay?”

  “Neh,” the Realtor said.

  “Great. And quit that ‘one day will be queen’ talk, Artur, I’ve told you before. Just because I’m with you doesn’t mean I’m—you know. With you.” Which, technically, makes me a tease. Hmm. Not sure I care for—

  “Ah, Little Rika.” Artur snatched at her but she managed to dodge out of the way, nearly braining herself on the cupboard she’d left open. “One day you will see the wisdom of our love match.”

  “And don’t call me that. It’s Fred. Or Fredrika. Or Dr. Bimm. Or Bitchcakes. Or—”

  “I’ve seen you on TV, too!” the Realtor exclaimed. “You’re the prince of all the mermaids!”

  “Undersea Folk,” Artur and Fred said in unison.

  “You look just like your dad!”

  Artur inclined his head, the closest thing to a bow he bothered with. “That is my honor, good lady, and you are kind to point it out.”

  “Vomit, vomit, vomit,” Fred mumbled.

  “Let’s see, you were on CNN . . . and People did that big cover story on you guys . . .” The Realtor snapped her fingers and pointed at Fred. “I knew you looked familiar. The hair threw me—it was longer in the pictures.”

  “Congrats, Nancy Drew. Why don’t you scamper on back to the clubhouse and draw up my damned contract?”

  “Forgive the lady,” Artur said, gallantly offering the dazzled Realtor his elbow and walking her to the door. “She has been seeking a temporary home on land for many days and it has left her in ill humor.”

  “Being saddled with a stupid nickname has left me in a worse humor!” Fred bawled after him.

  “More so than usual, though the thought makes me tremble,” he added in a mutter. “How kind you were to show her this small and charming cottage; we are sure you will be as efficient in the rest of our business dealings.”

  “Yeah, thanks a heap,” Fred called. “Bye.”

  “Oh. Oh! Yes, of course. Good-bye! Oh. But I can’t leave you here, since technically this isn’t—”

  “The lady and I will be leaving as well.”

  “Oh. You’re going to jump back in the ocean, aren’t you?”

  “It’s quicker than calling a cab,” Fred said, taking a last look around her new home before following Artur out the back door.


  Fred stripped out of her shorts, T-shirt, and panties and left them on the lawn. What the hell . . . in a few days this was going to be her home, anyway. She wondered who had left the clothes for her on the lawn in the first place—it’s not like she could swim with a tail in a pair of shorts. One of Artur’s crew, probably.

  She shouldn’t have been surprised that he’d be underwhelmed by the house—he was used to enormous underwater palaces. When the Undersea Folk built something, they thought big. And why not? Wasn’t most of the planet covered with water? They were used to having three-quarters of the planet to spread out in.

  There was no beach leading to the Gulf; instead there was a sharp drop-off and a long dock. She trotted to the end of the dock, cast an amused glance at the shit-caked plastic owls perched on the pier, and dove off, shifting immediately to her tail form. Artur was several feet ahead of her, effortlessly moving through the water with powerful thrusts of his tail.

  As a hybrid, her tail wasn’t as long as his, nor as wide, nor as beautifully colored. Artur’s reminded her of a peacock’s, all greens and blues, while hers seemed less magnificent, almost dull. Be grateful you have a tail at all, she reminded herself. She might have taken after her human mother, after all, and not have been able to shift. Bad enough she couldn’t swim in her legs . . . imagine not being able to breathe underwater.

  She caught up with him after a few more strokes, glaring at a barracuda that was swimming annoyingly close. The fish sneered at her and darted away, the predator’s thoughts

  (big thing can’t bite the big thing hungry not big thing)

  setting up an echo in her mind.

  Hey, Artur.

  Yes, my dear one?

  I gotta say, it was pretty smart of your dad to let the world think your HQ is here.


  Headquarters. The seat of the government, or power, or the capital—everyone thinks it’s here instead of the Black Sea.

  He flipped over and floated on his back, a good thirty feet beneath the waves. She swam beneath him and then over him, waiting for his response.

  It will take some time before we can completely trust your mother’s people, Little Rika. I hope this gives you no offense.

  Offense? Who warned you about them in the first place? Hmm, lemme think—oh yeah! It was me. You know how many people have been fucked over in the name of scientific advancement? It’s pretty damned smart, actually, letting the world think we all hang out here. But one thing your dad’s got to spare is brain-power.

  Artur laughed in her head. So true, my Rika!

  They passed two more Undersea Folk—a man and a woman, the man with hair the color of daffodils; the woman with hair so pure a black it seemed to swallow up the light.

  Greetings, my prince.

  Ho, Prince Artur! Fredrika.

  Fred nodded to them both. It didn’t escape her notice that only one had acknowledged her and called her by name, though she knew damn well she was notorious enough that all the Undersea Folk knew her on sight.



  She was somewhat mystified that it bugged her—she’d never been one to sweat what strangers thought. But dammit, the Undersea Folk who didn’t like her didn’t know her. They didn’t like her because Dear Old Dad had been a traitor. Big believers in the whole “the guppy doesn’t fall far from the frog” school of thought.

  And dammit, it wasn’t fair. It was fine if someone didn’t like her based on her own merits—and the list was long and distinguished, both of her odious faults and the people who didn’t like her—but they ought to at least get to know her before they decided she was a shit.

  I know your thoughts, my Rika. Shall I thrash the one who dared ignore you?

  Don’t make it worse. It’s no big deal.

  Ah, Little Rika. Your lady mother did not teach you to lie. How unusual for a surface dweller, even one as noble as your mother.

  Fred had no answer to that.


  She spilled her tea when the front door was thrown open. More mermaids? Her stepfather? Another guy who wanted to shoot her for profit? Time? Newsweek? People?

  “Dum dum dah dum!” Jonas cried, arms spread, suitcases at his feet. “Dum dum dah dum!”

  “Something nutball this way comes,” Fred muttered, dabbing the tea off her shorts and slowly getting up from the couch.

  It was moving day and she had been in the house less than three hours. She cursed the impulse she’d followed last week to (a) give her best friend her new address and (b) send him a spare key. Stupid force of habit. He’d had spare keys to her homes for years.

  Did this mean on a subconscious level she actually wanted him to show up in her life?

  Stupid subconscious.

  “Ooooh, nice digs,” Jonas said, lugging his suitcases inside, listing radically to the left under the weight of the two in his hand. “Are you finally going to live in the manner to which your stepfather and hot mom are accustomed?”

  “Shut up,” she said automatically, but, as she’d known, he wasn’t deterred.

  He was an exhaustingly cheerful blond, taller than she—about six-three—with the mind of an engineer (he designed shampoo for the Aveda corporation) and a black belt in aikido. He was also the most metrosexual guy on the planet—continually being mistaken for gay (mostly because he insisted on drinking appletinis)—and a loyal friend.

  They had been best friends since the second grade.

  “So, check it,” he said, kicking one of his suitcases out of the way and crossing the room to plop down on the chair opposite Fred. “Barb has given me carte blanche to plan our wedding.”

  “Barf,” she muttered.

  “Because, as you know, she’s been through this before.”

  Fred knew. Dr. Barb, her boss at the New England Aquarium, had been married to a real shitheel several years ago.

  “And I’ve decided, since you’re stuck down here playing go-between for Artur’s folks and us lowly humans—”

  “To burst in on me and make me spill my tea?”

  “—to have the wedding here. On Sanibel Island.”

  Fred tried not to, but she couldn’t help it: she groaned.

  “Aw.” Jonas beamed. “I knew you’d be pleased.” He propped his sandaled feet up on the coffee table, admiring his no-polish pedicure for a moment. “So as my best man, so to speak—”

  Fred groaned again. “Don’t you think I’ve got enough on my plate right now?”

  “Oh, who cares. Also, I bring a message from my blushing bride-to-be, who wanted me to remind you that she’s still refusing your resignation.”

  “For God’s sake,” Fred said crossly. “I haven’t set foot in the aquarium for ages.”

  “Hey, don’t shoot the messenger, doll.”

  “I’d like to throttle the messenger.”

  “Barb says you’re the best marine biologist she’s ever hired. Also, since you outed yourself to her as a mermaid, there’s no way in hell she’s letting you quit.” He yawned. “So which room should I take?”

  “And so it begins,” she muttered. “I told her. I told that Realtor. Drop-ins. I hate drop-ins.”

  “Anyway,” Jonas said, well used to ignoring her bitching, “I’d like the wedding to take place on a private beach, so I’ll need your help with that, and also with other wedding minutiae. Can you clear your calendar this week to help me with cake tasting? Also, you’ll need to buy a ridiculously classy and expensive bridesmaid dress—unless you want to get a tux instead.”

  “Can’t you just whip out a gun and shoot me in the face?”

  “Maybe tomorrow,” he said comfortingly.


  Fred was trying hard not to glare at the reporter from Time and having her usual degree of success. For the hundredth time, she questioned the king’s wisdom in making her the go-between between surface dwellers and Undersea Folk. The king’s argument—that she was the only half-and-half on the planet—had seemed so logical at the time . . . Clearly he had paid no attention to her poor interpersonal skills.

  “Several countries are offering citizenship to the mermaids—”

  “Undersea Folk.”

  “—how do you feel about that?”

  “I feel they don’t need land citizenship. They’ve got the run of the oceans. I also think it’s typical of humans to assume Undersea Folk would jump at the chance for U.S. citizenship. Because that’s where you’re going, right? It’s not altruistic in any way. America wants dibs on the finned.”

  The reporter, a slender, balding man with warm brown eyes, smiled. “Interesting point.”

  “Insulting point, actually. But have it your way.”

  “So tell me about yourself—your mother’s human, and your father—”

  “Next question.”

  The reporter blinked. “I understand that some of the Undersea Folk don’t care for you because your father—”

; “Next question.”

  “Is it true that if you help a mermaid, you get a wish?”

  She stared at him. He chuckled nervously under her gaze and added, “Or have I been watching too many movies?”

  “It’s not true. If you help a mermaid, I get to punch you in the teeth. That’s the rule.”

  “You’re an, ah, unusual diplomat.”

  “Take that back!”

  “All right, all right, you’re a lousy diplomat.”

  “Thanks,” she said, mollified, thinking: How did I end up here? Now? Doing this job? With these people?

  “So would you say the Undersea Folk are less—ah—warlike than humans?”

  “Less warlike?” she asked blankly.

  “There’s been some talk about the comparisons, and several Undersea Folk have made no secret of the fact that they don’t trust—what do they call us? Surface dwellers?”

  “Can you blame them?”

  “So you’re not denying it?”

  She stifled a sigh. More Homo sapiens arrogance. They’re not like us, but we’ll find a peg to jam them into anyway. Ugh.

  “Undersea Folk are like anyone else. There are saints, there are assholes, but most of them are somewhere in between. Like anyone else on the planet, you need to get to know one before you decide what kind of person they are. And like anyone else on the planet, you can’t say every member of the species acts or talks or thinks the same.” Duh. For a moment she’d thought she’d said it out loud. What she had said out loud was probably bad enough.

  “Oh, this is dynamite,” the reporter enthused. “Do you mind if I change ‘assholes’ to ‘jerks’?”

  “Censorship,” she observed. “Alive and well in the home of the free.”

  Thick-skinned, like most journalists, he ignored that. “And we’ll be sending a photographer over to take your picture—say, two o’clock?”