Chapter One of Secrets of the Mermaid by Catherine Stine
Indigo, in human form and wearing a purple sea star-tinted gown with a matching jacket, walked toward Bay Finley’s front door. She saw two piers and the ocean beckoning behind the impressive pale blue clapboard expanse. A yacht was docked at one pier, a sailboat at another. Did Bay live alone or with other Finley elites? Indigo pictured the Finley bunch switching into merfolk form and slipping into the ocean off their private piers. Must be nice to have money and power. She was born of common merfolk stock, and her father had worked long hours to collect minerals, to farm and gather kelp.
She rang and was let in by a server in a tailcoat who offered champagne and roasted seaweed puffs at the door. Too nervous to eat, she took only a flute of champagne.
Bay Finley’s exclusive party was in full swing. It was an honor to be invited. He was one of a handful of merfolk Keeper Royals on Pyreshore and she looked forward to meeting this future co-worker on the paleontology and cryptology project.
She glanced down the hall to the crowd around the brightly decorated food table, and then her eyes were drawn back to a line of luminous oil portraits in jewel-encrusted frames that lined the foyer. No doubt, the Finley family dynasty. They were an impressive dark-haired, dark-eyed bunch, unlike most green-eyed merfolk. She related to the brown eyes and brunette coloring as she had always stuck out this way. The patriarch, in the first painting, loomed over her with his piercing eyes and heavy brows. Next came his regal wife with her hair swept up, abalone earrings sparkling, and her delicate hands folded on her lap. Along her forearms was a pastel skin pattern that stood for the scales in her mermaid form. Then came images of younger merfolk—all dressed to the nines. Merfolk could live on land as human, but they needed to refresh themselves in the water. Clearly, the Finleys had chosen life on land.
Indigo tried to determine which portrait was Bay’s. Was it the last one, a striking young man with flowing hair and the mischievous look of a human pirate?
She startled and spun around as a bass voice boomed, “Ah! You found me!” Face to face with the very man in the lively oil image, she gasped. His was masculine beauty perfected: tall, wide-shouldered, a square jaw and wide mouth, as full-lipped as a man could get away with, and half turned up in a sexy grin. He looked to be in his late twenties like her, and in the hard-bodied shape of a marathon swimmer who trained relentlessly. Or was it noble genes? No doubt both. He wore a green velvet dinner jacket, tight black pants and boots of fine leather. His energy was palpable—male, self-assured, old-blood noble.
“Bay?” she croaked out.
“That I am.” He held out a hand and she shook it. When he clasped her hand and raised it, she thought he might kiss it like some gallant knight from human myths. But this was a figment of her overactive imagination. He released her hand and gestured to the wall of portraits. “Yes, the Finleys come from a long line of Royals going back, oh… to the Ice Age. There aren’t many left. The commoners had too many spawn.” He chuckled. “May I?” He reached in his jacket pocket, pulled out a medallion and held it out between thumb and index finger. A merfolk figure with its tailfin looped around the words, Keeper of the Merfolk was imprinted on it. “May I?” Bay repeated as he pointed at the collar of her dress.
“Pin it? Um, why not?” She held her breath as wisps of his breath tickled her collarbone.
Then she took a step back, if only to be less overwhelmed by his charismatic force.
“You are now an official Keeper, welcome to the tribe.” Bay gave Indigo a broad smile; this benediction clearly brought him great satisfaction, even though she’d already been sworn in yesterday by Reece Ectelon and others of the High Council. Reece was the senior-most merman, who had traveled from Corfu to Pyreshore just for her swearing in. Oddly, Bay Finley had been absent from yesterday’s event.
“So, thanks for the pin and the well-wishes.” Indigo paused to collect herself. “I was surprised you didn’t attend yesterday’s ceremony.”
“Oh, that. Formal ceremonies bore me, and Reece tends to be so long-winded.” Bay shrugged. “I thought it would be much more interesting to invite you here, to my own gathering. Besides, I was out on a research venture of my own.”
Her skin prickled. Why was he criticizing Reece? Bay’s competitive streak flashed sharply in his eyes, or was this hunch as off-kilter as it had been when she sensed Bay was about to kiss her hand? “Do tell,” she said dryly. “And what were you studying?”
“I found a tablet of my own. Similar coded pictographs.” His gleeful eyes dared her to ask more.
“Oh? Okay.” She tried to sound unfazed. “Where did you find it?”
He winked. “Not far from the spot you found yours. Near Coralline Crest.” Her blood, normally cool, heated up. This guy was definitely into going fin-to-fin. It wasn’t like one person had dibs on research, on important discoveries. It wasn’t as if she owned the tablet she’d unearthed from that blast site. But she was pretty sure she’d found the first tablets from this area, from this epoch. Reece was shocked when she’d sent word of her finding, and that was a month ago. Bay had discovered his tablet only yesterday.
Plus I have the mysterious mossy globe hidden away. I can take my time figuring out what it is. No need to rush and cheapen the effort in a blood sport competition.
She was being too sensitive. This guy’s over-confidence was getting to her. She shook it off. Just as she was about to tell him she was going to mingle, a stunning woman floated over as if on a tropical wave. She had a pink anemone blossom in her long, turquoise hair, and her luminous skin had pink scale prints down each cheek and sleeveless arm. She linked one around Bay’s. “Hello. Are you going to introduce us, Mr. Finley?”
Was Bay blushing? This was rich. “Um, Indigo Rain,” he said. “This is Abigail Torrent.”
“His fiancé,” Abigail explained with a playful poke in Bay’s side. “I hear you are the mermaid who found the amazing coral tablet.”
Was that a frown settling over Bay’s face like a red tide? Indigo laughed inside though she was curiously deflated at the fact Bay was spoken for. She also felt grimy at her primal response to his flirtations. “Yes! That’s right,” she said to Abigail. “It’s an honor to be recognized as a Keeper for my efforts. I hope to uncover the true origin of the tablet, and what better place to study them than here in Pyreshore?”
Abigail nodded. “We certainly have advanced labs here.”
Bay came back to life. He held up his champagne. “Here’s to the researcher who deciphers the code first.”
Indigo raised hers but didn’t clink glasses or drink. “I wasn’t aware it was a contest.” “Nice to meet you Bay, Abigail. I’m going to mingle.” She nodded to Bay just before turning away. “See you in the labs.”
Over at the refreshment table she met two other Finleys, Bay’s teenaged cousins, both handsome dark haired boys whose names she immediately forgot. There was a witch, who was a neighbor of Bay’s dressed in black lace and nibbling on black seaweed. She explained that she had a place on Star Island near Pyreshore and took the ferry over. That she was a personal secretary to some of the Pyreshore witches, and a descendant of one of the original survivors of Salem’s trials. Indigo figured this was the witchy equivalent of the human Daughters of the Revolution title.
She caught an older man studying her over the clam dip and chowder crackers. When he realized she was staring back at him, he broke into a grin, which warmed his starkly pale skin and cool blue hair. He made his way around the table, and she met him at the end. “Is this Ms. Rain, the infamous new merfolk Keeper?” he asked her.
“Indigo Rain, yes. And you?”
“I’m Dr. Torrent.” They shook hands. “I saw you over there talking to my daughter and future son-in-law.” He nodded toward the foyer. “Call me Mark.”
So, Abigail’s father. Everyone here looked chiseled from gorgeous gemstone, regal as hell. She brushed off irritation. She could play a puffed-up game—if and when she wanted to. “Lovely to meet you… Mark. So, what kind of medicine do you practice?”
“I’m an internist. A specialist in merfolk digestive and nervous systems, though I’m perfectly capable of attending to any paranormal being. Pyreshore Keepers and Royals need medical attention like any human or…” He trailed off.
“So true. How long have you lived here in Pyreshore?”
“Most of my life. The Torrents come from a long line of Royals, like the Finleys. The Torrents are southern royalty from Bimini; the Finley’s are northern royalty, from Newfoundland. You could say we found each other in this new land.” He chuckled at his lame joke, delivering this news with a confidence clearly derived from the sort of easy upper crust living Indigo had never known. Flipping conch shells, these elites were a smug bunch! In fact, this party swarmed with them. She wondered why they’d bothered to invite her at all, other than to rub her nose in her humble roots.
“So, Indigo Rain, tell me what have you deciphered in that burial plaque, hmm? Everyone in Pyreshore is dying to know!” He laughed. “Burial, dying to know; get it?”
She forced out a laugh before turning serious. “Well, I’ve just begun to study the glyphs. But I would say that it is from a species even older than the Ice Age. Perhaps from the Mesozoic Age of dinosaurs.” Mark Torrent’s brows rose, but he didn’t counter this so Indigo went on. “There have been no merfolk bones or undersea items detected earlier than the Ice Age. So, this species whose burial chamber I unearthed is sadly, now extinct.”
“Extinct!” Mark Torrent pronounced the word with an unexpected zest. “Well, we wouldn’t want those puny, narrow-finned things mating with our hardy modern merfolk, would we?” When she didn’t smile he added, “Bad joke. Don’t mind me. I can’t help myself.” He brightened. “Have you heard that Bay has found a tablet with a similar cuneiform style script?”
“He told me. I have yet to see it.” She paused. “Most likely not cuneiform, though, as these glyphs don’t appear to have vowels. Perhaps not even sentences.”
“Oh. I defer to the Keeper expert.” He bit into a chowder cracker and observed her as he chewed it. “I hear you and Bay will be working together on the project. Starting Monday?”
Indigo nodded. “Yes, the more minds on this, the faster we’ll sort things out.”
“Well, I’m fascinated. Keep me in the loop, will you? New discoveries sure beat examining diseased colons and misfiring nerves all day.” He snorted. “Oh, and if you have a tummy ache or need a doctor… ” He handed her a card with his contact numbers.
She thanked him, pocketed the thing and walked off. Revving up the courage to try her social skills again, she decided to approach a thin, raven-haired woman standing off to the side by the balcony doors. The woman gave Indigo a welcoming smile. Pyreshore, though brimming with paranormal beings, also seemed like it could be lonely with each species enmeshed in their own clubby tribe.
“I’m Akila Levesque, a medical scientist, and a sphynx,” the woman explained.
“A sphynx! I know nothing about them, but I’m curious. Great needlework pattern on your vest, by the way; did you stitch it yourself?”
Akila laughed. “I can hardly hem my dresses much less do complicated cross-stitching, but thanks. My mom picked it up for me in Egypt about five years ago. And hey, I’m learning more about the range of sphynx talents myself.”
A brawny, handsome guy in a black jacket, light gray button up shirt and black slacks walked toward Akila and hovered protectively, eyeing Indigo as he did. “Is everything okay?” he asked her.
“Sure, sure.” Indigo heard a hint of impatience in her voice, but Akila quickly pivoted to a warm introduction. “Indigo, this is Chaz Nowiki. He’s one of Pyreshore’s longtime firefighters and EMT guys. So if you need to call someone in an emergency…” Her eyes seemed to flash with some shared, but private saga as she glanced up at him.
“Nice to meet you, Chaz,” Indigo said, shaking his hand. “I’m a newcomer here. Just trying to figure out the lay of the land, you could say.”
“So, Chaz,” Akila started, “I was in the middle of a conversation. Um, can I have a moment with Indigo?”
“Yeah, sure.” Glancing back over his broad shoulder he frowned as he walked away. He seemed worried about or overly possessive of Akila. But Indigo was not about to ask.
Akila breathed out a sigh and smiled at Indigo. “So, getting back to our conversation, what brings you to Pyreshore? What’s your, um, species?”
“Merfolk. I’m not used to spending so much time on land.” Indigo sighed. “I’m a scientist of sorts too. I study ancient merfolk bones, migrations and such.”
“Fascinating!” Akila’s face lit up with an appealing curiosity and verve.
Indigo leaned toward Akila and spoke in a hushed voice. “I discovered a burial plaque from an as-yet undocumented merfolk species, and well, the plaque has a sort of hieroglyphic imagery on it. Being a sphynx, are you connected to the knowledge base from ancient Egypt?”
“My mentor is, so I guess I am too? I’m just learning hieroglyphics myself. It’s like a Latino family whose parents are fluent in Spanish, but their kids are just learning it.” She blushed.
“There’s no shame,” Indigo replied. “You must have a flair, though.”
“I like to think I do. I’m a fast learner.”
“I’d love to show you what I have, and get your impression. Chat about symbolic imagery. Brainstorm.”
“Sure, I’d love to.” Akila looked as relieved to have found a potential friend as Indigo was.
“Great! This party isn’t quite the spot for taking about our projects—too public, too many busybodies.” Indigo noted that Chaz was still staring their way.
“Yes, I noticed Bay and his fiancé grilling you,” Akila said.
“More like bragging about his Royal status and accomplishments.”
Akila rolled her eyes. “He does seem rather entitled.” The women shared a laugh. “Where shall we meet? Do you hike?”
“Ooh, I can’t say I’m a hiker,” Indigo said, “I’ve spent most of my time swimming. But hey, I’ve got to get my sea legs on land sooner or later. I live by the coastal walkway, up on Oceanview Way. You?”
“Not too far from there. Great place to hike, though. How about we meet at your place tomorrow—Sunday. You show me the plaque and we follow it up with a morning hike?”
“Perfect! I’ll make sure to brew some strong coffee. See you tomorrow morning.” She gave Akila her address, and the women said their goodbyes.
Indigo was bone-tired from travel, arranging furniture in her new house and putting on a party face. She was eager to get back, and check on the mysterious globe buried deep below her studio floor. And perhaps, she would have enough energy left to take a quick, healing dip in the chilly Atlantic sea. She said only as many goodbyes as necessary and slipped quietly out.