A/N: This was originally printed in Psychic Investigations 3 in 1987. Slightly tweaked from the original version.
The Selchie of Malibu
Lizabeth S. Tucker
"This is really neat!" Mark McCormick exclaimed as he and Judge Milton C. Hardcastle walked through the various displays in the flea market. He had had his doubts when the Judge suggested going to the nearby drive-in to search for parts for the Judge's classic 'vette, badly in need of work.
McCormick could remember the flea markets of his youth: dirty men and women selling used clothing and broken dishes, but this was different. Some stalls had that sort of merchandise and a few of the people didn't look trustworthy at all. Others were nice looking men and women who were selling handicraft items, plants and tools, as well as collector items like records, books and jewelry.
The sun was warm on Mark's shoulders, the tank top barely covering his body, ragged as the tight cut-off jeans he was wearing. He hurried to catch up with Hardcastle who had spotted the small transport truck with the auto parts sign on it. The Judge was bartering with a young man over a carburetor and some parts thrown in a box. The man argued over the worth of the parts, while Hardcastle countered with a short, "they're only worth what some fool will pay."
McCormick listened for a while, then looked around while standing next to Hardcastle, only part of his mind listening to the give and take. He spotted an older woman in the back corner of the lot, selling out of a shack that was portable. There was a shimmering blue reflection that had caught McCormick's eye and he was drawn to the place to see what caused it.
He edged through the crowd of shoppers and lookers, trying to make his way back the three aisles to the spot he saw the woman. As he came closer, he saw, and smelled, the other man who was looking at the same statue that had attracted him. The woman was desperately trying to get rid of the man.
"Lady, I asked ya once, how much is the little fish-girl?" the man slurred, hefting the statue in his hand, then putting it back on the shelf next to the woman selling the sea-related art.
"Fifty bucks," the older woman replied, her face drawn with some unknown sorrow.
Mark found himself holding his breath, hoping against hope that the crude man wouldn't buy the statue. After some grumbling and attempts at negotiation, the potential customer got the point and moved on.
Mark peered closer at the statue, trying to discover what the material was that caused such unusual effects when hit by the sun. The shimmering figure was a mermaid with tail curled around her in a semi-circle, her hair long and full. The material was a strange shade of blue-green, almost clear. He reached out his hand and gently touched the statue.
"Do you like that one, sir?" the woman asked, leaning forward as she spoke.
"It's intriguing. What's it made out of?" Mark ran his hand over the foot high figure, enjoying the cool, smooth feel.
"I don't know. It might be mother of pearl, but I'm not sure. Would you like to have it? It's a nice addition for any room."
Mark looked at the woman, hearing the strain in her voice. "Too expensive for me, I'm afraid."
"Make me an offer. For a nice young man like you, I'm sure I can find a reasonable price."
"Well, I don't know…" McCormick mused.
"Please. Twenty bucks? It's made for you, matches your eyes."
"Twenty? Gee, I'm not sure." McCormick looked at that statue and knew that he wanted to have it.
"I…like you. In fact, you're the type of man I wish my daughter would meet." She turned away, her shoulders shaking.
McCormick wasn't sure what to do. In his mind he knew he should leave, he couldn't afford the statue, the woman was obvious upset about something, but he couldn't move away. His eyes were drawn to the mysterious lady of the sea, and he was determined to get it. "Uh, ma'am, I'm sorry. Anything I can do?"
The woman shook her head, gazing at McCormick with a strange look in her eyes. "Five. How about five bucks, you're a nice boy."
"Five? But you told that guy fifty?"
"Don't worry about him. I didn't want this to go with him. You and Susan…" The woman smiled, a sad smile of longing. "You'll have to meet her someday. Maybe sooner than you'd think. Take the statue. Please."
"Okay. I'm gonna be sorry, but I'll take it."
"Thank God." The woman murmured, her face hardening.
"Nothing. Let me wrap it up for you, so it won't get broken on your way home." The woman took hold of the mermaid and stuffed it into a mass of tissue, wrapping it viciously before putting it in a brown bag. Her face was a mask of cold anger as she looked at the statue. "Here it is. Enjoy it," she said sharply.
"Thanks a lot, lady." Mark took the bag from the woman, wondering at her curtness. "Are you okay?"
"Yes. If you'll excuse me, I'm closing up shop." With a barely polite nod, she pulled the cover over the booth, blocking McCormick's sight.
"Well. You have a nice day, too, sweetheart." Mark shrugged, walking back to where Hardcastle was still haggling with the auto parts' man.
Once home, Hardcastle started working on the Corvette, declining Mark's assistance. McCormick took his newly acquired statue inside the gatehouse and tried to find the perfect place for the lovely lady with the tail.
After moving it from place to place, McCormick finally put it on the table across from his bed, where the moon and sun could find the strangely compelling surface. With a pleased sigh, he went back outside to supervise and annoy Hardcastle.
"Hey, kiddo, you growing gills? You've been in that pool all day." Hardcastle was in a good mood, having spent less on the refinishing of the 'vette's engine than he had first feared, so he was willing to let McCormick take a day off from yard work and cases.
"I'm vacationing, Judge. Closest I'm ever gonna come to Hawaii or the Bahamas, considering the way we get knee deep in cases whenever I mention a quiet trip to a warm tropical island."
"Can't imagine why you'd want to go to those places. You have everything you could want here in California: beach, mountains, and desert. Why pay a fortune to find the same thing in another place?"
"You mean why spend any money getting away from town, huh?" Mark said with a grin.
"Hmm. Why don't you just finish your laps and we'll go get something for lunch in town?"
"Okay. You're on." Mark flipped about in the water, diving towards the bottom and swimming for the opposite end.
Hardcastle watched the younger man glide under the water with an affectionate smile. McCormick was swimming with his legs, his arms at his sides. The legs were tightly pressed together and undulated up and down to propel himself quickly to the far side of the crystal clear pool. Diving to the very bottom, Mark pulled himself upright and kicked off, splashing out of the water like a human torpedo.
He grabbed the edge of the patio and climbed out, Hardcastle giving him a hand. Shaking the sparkling curls like a puppy, Mark flashed a smile at the Judge. "Let me dry off and we can go."
"Don't take too long. I'm hungry."
Mark nodded and ran for the gatehouse, the heat of the concrete making him move faster than normal. The Judge followed after him at a slower pace, shaking his head when the ex-con stubbed his toe on the edge of the doorway. The boy was always tripping into something, and usually cursing the object out. "Musta been a soft hit, he didn't even kick at it this time."
Hardcastle sat on the couch to await McCormick's shower. The waterlogged man dug out a clean pair of shorts and a t-shirt, the heat wave in L.A. continuing for the fifth week in a row. He threw the clothes onto the chair, grabbed a towel and disappeared into the bathroom.
"For once I don't mind the cold water!" McCormick shouted as the water began to run.
"Thermostat's out again. The guys'll be by later this week," Hardcastle called back.
"Why'd you decide to wear jeans? I thought you were going in shorts," Hardcastle asked as McCormick stumbled into the truck cab.
"Aw, thought it wouldn't be too neat looking, my skin's a little puckered."
"I'm not surprised. Twelve hours in chlorine water can do that to you," Hardcastle said, grinning at the frowning man. "Now that the car's finished, are you still sure you won't enter the Coyote in the car show, like I'm doing with the Corvette?"
"Nah, wouldn't want all those sports fanatics to eat their hearts out wishing for something they can't have. 'Sides, it took us two weeks to fix the 'vette for competition showing, after you crossed those wires and almost blew the thing up," Mark commented nastily. "I'd have to clean the engine up and rework some of the rough edges, don't think I'd have enough time. I'd beat your car, too, and I certainly don't want to see long, sad faces around the house."
"That'll be the day your hunk of street monster could beat a finely tuned vehicle like mine."
"Yeah, sure. Well, I think I'll play it safe and stay out." McCormick laughed.
They drove into the parking lot of the Steak and Ale, Hardcastle earning a surprised look from McCormick. "What's this? Don't tell me I get some decent food for a change? Boy, you're in fine spirits. What are you planning? You're never this nice unless you're getting ready to spring something on me that I won't like."
Hardcastle turned blustery and indignant. "No such thing. Try to do a person a favor and he turns on you."
"Okay, I'm not about to look a gift donkey in the mouth. I'll take the steak and worry about the bill later."
They walked into the restaurant, sniping with friendly abandon at each other. As Mark stepped up to the second stair step, his leg gave out and he almost fell. Only Hardcastle's quick grab prevented him from sprawling on the tiled hallway.
"You okay?" Hardcastle asked in concern.
"Yeah, think so. I don't know what happened, my foot didn't seem to know the step was there. Musta fell asleep in the truck." Mark shook his right leg vigorously, waiting for the tell-tale prickles of returning feeling. He gave a puzzled look at the Judge, then shrugged. "Well, let's get some food, I'm hungry."
"I'm sorry. I don't know what happened." Mark apologized the whole drive back to Gull's Way, despite Hardcastle's reassurance that he wasn't mad, only worried. "I'm really sorry. Maybe I was in the sun too long, like you said."
"Kid, you couldn't help throwing up. Don't go on about it. You're probably right, it's just a case of too much sun and water. How do you feel now?" Hardcastle looked sharply at McCormick.
His companion knew he was uncommonly pale, considering the sunburn he had received earlier in the day, but Mark put that down to his upset stomach. He had ordered a rare filet mignon, his favorite cut of meat. When the plate was delivered, Mark had felt his stomach lurch, but ignored it. As he cut into the pinkish red meat and the odor of it hit his nostrils, McCormick had jumped to his feet, running to the, thankfully, nearby bathroom where he was sick to his stomach. The Judge, startled by McCormick's sudden disappearance, had had the plates taken away, suspecting a slight case of heat stroke. When Mark had returned with halting steps to the table, he was slightly green about the face.
Hardcastle helped him to his seat, handing McCormick a glass of water. "Better?" he asked after Mark took a few sips and sat back.
"Whew, yeah. I don't understand it. I was feeling great until I saw that steak."
"I think we'd better skip dinner and take you home."
"Hey, I can eat a salad or just sit here and give you the benefit of my company. You don't hafta go home. I'll be okay."
"We're going home," Hardcastle said sternly, not missing the relieved look on the younger man's face. "And I'm driving you to the doctor's if you aren't better tonight."
"Aw, come on. I get a little sick to my stomach and you want to call out the health department. Give me a break, Judge. I'll be fine once I get home."
Hardcastle was dubious, but didn't press the point. The two men walked out to the pick-up, McCormick moving slowly, rubbing at his forehead as if he were sweating, but there was no moisture anywhere.
"This heat is really getting to me. I'll be glad when it cools off."
"You could always go back to Jersey."
"Nah, it'd be the same. Like they say, it ain't the heat, it's the humidity."
With a grimace, Hardcastle climbed in behind the steering wheel. They drove back to Gull's Way, skirting along the ocean to catch what little breeze there was. As they neared the turn-off to the house, a car cut in front of the GMC, forcing Hardcastle to slam on the brakes. Mark made a grab for the dashboard, having decided not to wear his seatbelt for the short trip home. His head cracked on the visor. The truck slowed to a stop on the gravel, the other car racing off.
Hardcastle turned to McCormick and saw him rubbing his head. "What'dya hit it on?"
"The stupid visor. No big deal." Mark flipped the visor back into place, frowning as he settled back into the seat. "That idiot could've killed us."
Hardcastle peered closely at McCormick's hand. "What is that?"
"That!" Hardcastle reached for McCormick's hand, the racer pulling away. With a quick grab, the Judge managed to catch the ex-con's wrist. He looked at the skin between Mark's fingers, then reached for his left hand, finding the same thing. "I know you've been spending a lot of time in the water, but I didn't think you'd be growing webs. When did this happen?"
Mark shrugged. "I…I don't know. I think I first noticed it about a week ago. Since you've seen this, you might as well see the rest."
"When we get home, okay?" Mark said with a sigh.
Hardcastle pulled into the estate driveway, parking the pickup in the circular drive around the fountain. Mark got out and headed for the gatehouse, his hands stuffed in his pockets. He was still moving slowly, as if he was chapped. Hardcastle wondered what the boy was planning on showing him.
Inside the gatehouse, Hardcastle saw McCormick dropping his pants after kicking his shoes off. Moving closer, Hardcastle saw strange flaking on Mark's legs, a silvery shine to the dead skin.
"What is that, dry skin?"
"Not this. It feels hard, the edge are sharp. And there's more," Mark replied, leaning down to pick his foot up. He crooked it over his opposite knee and spread the toes.
Hardcastle saw there was more webbing between the toes, webbing with the same silvery tinge to it as the peculiar growth on Mark's legs. "That's it, you're going to a doctor."
"They'll be able…what did you say?"
"I said I've already been to a doctor. He didn't know what this was. His guesses ran from shingles to an unknown virus. But other than giving me some ointment which doesn't help, he couldn't come up with a solution. Ya gotta know the cause 'fore you can stop it."
Hardcastle sat down heavily on the couch. "Are you…does it hurt?"
Mark's face was puzzled as he replied. "No, actually it doesn't. Itches a bit. The pants are a bit uncomfortable, but when I'm in the pool, I feel great."
"I didn't notice it when you were swimming."
"Seems to disappear when I'm in the water. All these scales…" Mark froze as he said it, his eyes widening in shock.
"Scales, yeah. That's what they look like." Hardcastle lightly touched McCormick's knee, brushing the rounded flakes with the tip of his finger. If he rubbed down, they were smooth and pleasant feeling. Pushing up, Hardcastle yanked his finger back, a thin bubble of blood appearing on the pad.
"Told you they were sharp." Mark's eyes were tinged with sadness. "What's happening to me?" he cried out.
"I don't know, kiddo, but I'm gonna find out. Go get me this doctor's phone number. I want to talk to him," Hardcastle ordered, dismayed at the mysterious changes in his friend.
"'kay." Mark trudged up the stairs to his bedroom area, digging through the nightstand drawer for the doctor's card. "Found it."
He started back down, the small white business card in his hand. He was only two steps down when his legs gave out completely, tumbling down the stairs and hitting the wall with a loud thump. McCormick sprawled on the landing, his legs tangled under him.
The Judge rushed over, bending next to an conscious McCormick. A quick check of limbs showed no breaks.
"I don't hurt anywhere, but I can't feel my legs," Mark said, banging his fists on the dead thighs.
"I'll call the paramedics!" Hardcastle started for the phone, but Mark stopped him with a frantic cry.
"No! I'm not hurt. Call that doctor, the one on the card. Maybe he'll come out here."
With a doubtful look, Hardcastle dialed the number he read off McCormick's card, after straightening the man's legs into a more comfortable position. "Is this Doctor Dann's office? I'm calling about a patient of his, a Mark McCormick. Yes, it's important. Yes, I'll hold."
"Well, I'd like to run some more tests, but frankly, I don't know of any that could give us a clue to what's wrong." Dr. Dann flung his clipboard onto McCormick's hospital bed in disgust. "I just can't explain it."
Hardcastle was sitting on the edge of the bed, watching his young friend's face. McCormick hadn't said much since the ambulance had come and taken him to Los Angeles General Hospital. Dr. Dann had run brain scans, checked his spinal cord for damage, run tests on his blood and urine looking for signs of poisons or chemical imbalance of any kind, and numerous other tests that neither Hardcastle nor McCormick understood. The results were negative. There was nothing physically wrong with the ex-con except for the fact that his legs wouldn't move and were covered with more sliver and black scales than when he had arrived in the hospital, and the webbing between his fingers had progressed to just below the nails.
"So what happens now?" the Judge asked when it seemed McCormick wasn't going to break his self-imposed silence.
"A psychiatrist would normally be the next step for an explanation into the paralysis, but I don't know what he's gonna make of the growth that's appeared belong Mark's waist."
"I can go home?" Mark's voice, when he finally spoke, was strained, hoarse, and higher than normal, each word said slowly and carefully.
"Well, I wouldn't advise it," the doctor said hesitantly.
"Can you help?"
Dann shook his head. "Not really."
"I'm going home," Mark said curtly, then looking up at the Judge from the bed, he said, "Take me home."
"I'm going to loan you a wheelchair so you'll be able to get around." Dr. Dann picked up his papers and clipboard, shoving them under his arm. "I'll sign you out."
Once they were alone, Hardcastle laid his hand on McCormick's shoulder. "Are you sure you don't want to stay here? Maybe if they test again, they could find something they missed."
Mark shook his head, closing his eyes and hiding the startling bright blue orbs. Hardcastle hadn't noticed the change before, but when Mark had first opened his eyes after the fall, the blue was almost blinding in intensity. McCormick was changing faster and faster and no one seemed to know a way to stop it, or even what Mark was changing into. A nurse pushed the door open with the wheelchair, maneuvering it close to the bed.
"The doctor sent this chair for you to use until your condition goes away." The woman locked the wheels and helped Mccomrick slide off the bed into the canvas seat. "Be sure and use the brakes whenever getting in or out, otherwise you might be back here with a broken leg."
Mark nodded, his air of silence returned. Hardcastle walked alongside the wheelchair as the nurse turned McCormick over to an orderly and the three of them headed outside. As they neared the pick-up, Hardcastle took over.
"We'll put the chair in the bed of the GMC." The Judge picked Mark up with no more effort than if he'd been a child. He had shrugged off the attendant's help, well aware of McCormick's dislike of being treated as an invalid. He couldn't avoid the moving from chair to truck, but other than that, Hardcastle was determined to not overprotect the younger man.
It was night and Hardcastle was preparing for bed. Mark was in the gatehouse, a cot on the ground level for him to sleep in and most of the furniture pushed back to leave a path through the living area. The Judge had resisted the urge to set Mark up inside the main house, letting the ex-racer have his freedom. He would need to work his way through the recent events, to adjust to his new status. Hardcastle wondered how long that would take and, more importantly, how long his present condition would last.
"Will it disappear as fast as it came?" he wondered out loud.
He changed into pajamas, brought a book up from the den, and settled down for a restless night of worry. Before getting into the bed, the Judge glanced out the window at the gatehouse. McCormick's light was still on, though it was already after midnight. It was understandable. Hardcastle didn't think either of them would be getting much sleep for quite a while.
Two hours later, the Judge was snoring. The nightstand light was still on, his book having fallen to the floor. His sleep was troubled, vague dreams filled with images of McCormick swimming in the ocean, going farther and farther away from Gulls Way. When the scream came, the Judge wasn't sure at first if it was part of his dream or not.
But it came again and Hardcastle knew it was from the gatehouse. It was a shrill, bone-chilling scream that was not made by anything human. It was a shrill, bone-chilling scream that was not made by anything human. Mixed with it was someone yelling "No!" Hardcastle knew who that someone was. He jumped up and ran down the stairs, making a quick grab at his robe as he passed the end of the bed.
Bursting into the gatehouse, Hardcastle saw McCormick still sitting in his wheelchair, hidden behind the cot. The ex-con was breathing heavily, his eyes wild.
"Are you okay? What happened? What was that…that scream?"
McCormick looked up, the blue eyes boring a hole into the Judge. "Ju…ge," he croaked, the shrillness in his voice that of the screamer.
Hardcastle walked around the cot and saw what had caused the cry of pain. Where Mark's legs had been was a solid mass of scales, as if his skin had fused into a fish's tail. His feet were gone. In their place was a fan-shaped, ultra thin fluke, so thin you could see through it. Despite the horror of the sight, the retired jurist could appreciate the beauty of the silver tail streaked with black. If only it had been a costume for one of McCormick's parties instead of the real thing.
"You're turning into a fish," Hardcastle exclaimed, the words out before he could stop him.
"No," came the painful reply. "Mer…man. 'tatyou." Panting with the effort of speaking the human tongue, Mark pointed at the bedroom loft.
Puzzled, Hardcastle quickly went up the stairs, looking around. "'tatyou," he said to himself, trying to understand what Mark was trying to tell him. Then his eyes fell on a dull mermaid statue that resembled the one Mark had so proudly brought home with him from the flea market. "'tatyou? Statue? Is that what you're trying to say?"
Mark shook his head up and down vigorously. "'tatyou, yea', 'tatyou cau'd thi'. Can' 'peak, can' cquai, pain." He struggled to talk, certain letters having become impossible to say. "Need wadder. Pain!"
Hardcastle picked the statue up, carrying it back down the stairs. "I'll get a glass…"
"No!" Mark protested. "Wadder for thi'." He slapped the tail repeatedly. "Pain from dry."
"Oh. Okay, we'll get you to the pool." Hardcastle laid the mermaid statue down on the table pushed against the far wall, going to the wheelchair and pushing Mark to the swimming pool by way of the patio.
Mark was still hitting his newly acquired tail, his webbed hands twisting into fists as he began to beat it harder and harder. As the Judge reached the dimly lit pool, he grabbed McCormick's wrists.
"Don't! We'll find a way out, I promise. Mark, I swear, I'll think of something." Hardcastle knelt by the chair, his tight grip on McCormick's wrists turning into a gentle kneading of his forearms. "I swear, I won't give up until you're back to normal."
"With I cqui. No wadder in eye. Can' give in, huh?" Mark tried to smile, but his chin quivered like a small boy's. "'cared, Jud'."
"I know you're scared, kid, so am I. But we'll beat this. We've been through worse and we'll beat this, too." That earned Hardcastle a ghost of the old gamin grin as Mark slid off the wheelchair into the pool. As his flukes hit the water, he began to scream again, the sound tearing the Judge's eardrums. Thinking quickly, Hardcastle reached down and grabbed Mark under his arms where he hovered against the tiled walls, yanking him up and onto the concrete.
"What happened? I thought you needed the water?"
Mark was panting again, his heart racing with such speed that Hardcastle could see it thumping the younger man's chest. The Judge rubbed his friend's neck, murmuring inanities until Mark calmed down. "Better?"
He nodded. "Burn. Othean." McCormick pointed to the Pacific, his hand trembling.
"The ocean? I don't know, is it safe?"
With a bitter laugh, somewhat distorted by the changes in his vocal cords, Mark shrugged. "Try. Godda. Pain bad."
"Okay, but it'll be slow going. It's too far to carry you and this chair won't move easily in the sand. Think you can hang on a bit longer?"
"Godda," he replied, letting his lids droop, but not before Hardcastle saw a thin film cover McCormick's eyes first.
How would they stop the changes? If McCormick was right and the cause of the metamorphosis was the statue, Hardcastle knew he would have to start with the woman who had sold his friend the mermaid to begin with. That would have to wait until Mark was given his swim in the ocean. The Judge made a mental note to have the swimming pool changed to a salt water pool immediately, no matter how much more money he would have to cough up to get the job down fast. He couldn't risk McCormick more than once in the ocean. Thee were too many chances of being attacked, by sea creatures as well as man. If someone saw the fishtailed McCormick, they would try and capture him, or possibly kill him for 'science', a curiosity that couldn't be human, couldn't have intelligence and feelings.
He struggled with the wheelchair, determined to get to the beach as quickly as possible. After trying to push it down the sand-covered path, Hardcastle gave up and pulled the chair, making slightly better progress. He could hear muffled gasps of pain from McCormick, the slightest movement of his tail bothering him. "Hang…on…kid… we're…almost…there." Hardcastle puffed, the weight getting to him.
It seemed like ages till they arrived at the smooth packed wet sand, the wheelchair moving easier. Pulling the chair as close to the edge of the water as possible, he picked McCormick up, the younger man putting his arms around the Judge's neck. Hardcastle was struck with the memory of another's arms around his neck as he was carried to the ocean for his first swim. The Judge's son had been only three years old but eager to visit the big pool, as he called it. Hardcastle shook himself as he walked out to knee deep water, turning slightly to keep the waves from knocking him and his armful of…of what? If he could stop the changes, would things go back to the way they were or would McCormick be a half-wild creature of the sea, barely able to speak, dependent on Hardcastle for everything? And what of his mind? If his body was changing so radically, was his mind changing also? How would the gregarious man survive if he had to live without being able to communicate?
Mark struggled in Hardcastle's arms, eager to reach the sea and its cooling, soothing wetness. Hardcastle carefully laid Mark in the water, watching as the ex-con, present merman flared his flukes and moved slowly off, getting used to his new appendage. Hardcastle moved farther out into the water, warily looking for dangers to McCormick.
"Don't wander too far. You're not used to them…it…whatever," Hardcastle called as Mark's confidence grew and he swam in bigger and bigger circles.
"No pobem…goo'…fee' goo…waw me…" Mark began to swim faster and faster, back and forth in front of the Judge, his tail moving so fast, it was a shiny blur. With a deep gasp, Mark disappeared from sight under the ocean.
Hardcastle waited for him to come back up, but the waves just continued on without a sign of the other man. The Judge began to panic, waving his arms under the water, trying to feel some sign of McCormick. "McCormick! This isn't funny. Come on, kid, where are you? Mark!" He could hear the fear in his voice as he turned about in a circle, the terror causing tears to prickle at his eyes. "Mark, for god's sake, please!" he pleaded, ready to dive under the water himself.
As he began to lower himself to the water, rubbing at his eyes to clear them enough to see under the murky brine, Hardcastle felt a gentle nudge on the back of his legs and an arm snake around his feet, pulling him into the water. Coming back up with a sputter, Hardcastle found himself face to face with a grinning, shiny-eyed McCormick.
"You scared the hell out of me!" Hardcastle yelled, relieved to see that Mark had been playing. "Feeling better?"
McCormick nodded with a smile. "Bedder. No pain. 'cared?"
"Scared? Damn right I was scared. Disappearing under the water like that. You're not a damn fish, ya know."
"Know. Na' ye'…'oon, I thing." Mark's smile faded. "No' so bah."
"Oh, it isn't it, is it? You planning on doing your crime fighting from the ocean in the future?"
Mark giggled, shaking his head so hard that water flew about. "Funny. Ge' me ou'a 'rouble."
"Don't bet on it. Think of all the drug smugglers you could track. Hey, maybe we should move to Miami."
With a grimace and a flip of his tail, Mark resumed his swimming, keeping above the water this time as Hardcastle stood waist deep in the ocean waiting for him to finish. The heat of the early morning was oppressive, but tolerable.
When Mark had finally had enough exercise, Hardcastle helped him back into his wheelchair. They sat together on the beach, drying and waiting for the sunrise, unwilling to go back to their separate bedrooms and the isolation that entailed.
The orange ball came up shimmering in the far off horizon, a low pollution cover making it a vague outline. The Judge leaned against the side of the chair, understanding how early man had believed the sun to be a god who rose out of the sea to ride across the skies in a fiery chariot. "This is pretty nice, kiddo, but I think we'd better get inside, catch a few winks. You ready?"
There was no answer and Hardcastle looked up to see Mccormick slumped in the wheelchair, his head cocked over on one side, sound asleep. His face was relaxed for the first time in days, the worry lines softened, a face of boyish innocence.
Hardcastle got to his feet, his knees creaking from being in one position so long. He began to pull the wheelchair back up the path, moving slowly so McCormick wouldn't waken.
Hardcastle questioned the early rising regulars at the flea market about the woman who had been selling the sea art in the rear corner, but most didn't seem to have seen her.
He walked up to an elderly man who was setting out stereos and boxes of record albums, most recordings of big bands. Introducing himself, Hardcastle began to ask the man the same questions he had been asking all over the lot.
"She was right back there, in the corner. She had pictures and statues of sea creatures. Ya know, porpoises, sharks, mermaids."
The man squinted up at the sun, ignoring Hardcastle's questions. "Gonna be hot."
"Listen, this is important. Ya gotta help me, you musta seen her."
"Seems it's important to ya, all right. Why?" the old man asked. "You look worried. You don't want to mess with her, she's a strange one, that lady."
"Please. I need to talk to her. When we she be setting up?"
"She won't," the man replied, returning to his small tractor-trailer, pulling a large speaker from the back. Apparently seeing the stricken look in the Judge's eyes, the old dealer stopped his unloading and, wiping his hands on his work pants, said, "Look, I don't know where she came from, but Harley would."
"Harley? Who's he?"
"Owner of this dump. He's gotta keep records for the government, we pay fees for this luxury."
"Where'll I find him?" Hardcastle asked, feeling that time was fast running out for him and McCormick.
"Up in the snack shack. There's an office in the upstairs projection room. Harley'sll be there counting his millions."
Hardcastle shook the man's hand vigorously. "Thank you. Thank you very much."
Hurrying to the building in the center of the lot, Hardcastle asked a young man serving colas to some customers where he could find Harley and was directed to a door behind the counter. Hardcastle went into the dingy hallway, climbing the ramp to another door. "Harley? Sir?"
"Yeah, come on in." The man was a jovial looking, uncommonly tall person. "What can I do you out of, my friend?"
"I need some information on one of the people who was selling here, about a month ago."
"No, I just need to get in touch with her," Hardcastle replied.
"Well, I suppose I can do that. What's her name, Mister..?" The man waited for Hardcastle to fill in his name, carefully looking his visitor over.
"Hardcastle, Judge Milton Hardcastle. I don't know what the woman's name was. I can tell you where she was located, if that's any help."
"some, if she's a regular. I know most of those people out there. But if she was a one-timer, well, it'll be more difficult. Do you know the exact date?"
Hardcastle sighed. "No. Frankly, I didn't think I'd need to see her again." Aware of the curious looks Harley was giving him, Hardcastle quickly explained. "A friend of mine bought a statue from her, one he really loved. He's ill now and I want to get him another. So you see how important it is."
Harley nodded sympathetically. "Yep, know the feeling well. Cheer up your friend. Statues, huh? That might help us, I've an eye for artwork so I make an effort to know the craftspeople who set up here. What sort of statues?"
"Sea life, the real and the mythological. You know her?"
Harley's face changed. "That one's trouble. You don't want to find her."
"I do!" Hardcastle cried out, then steeled his emotions again. He had had to leave McCormick in the gatehouse alone and was afraid of what he might find when he returned. The Judge left him with a bathtub filled with salt water and a warning to stay inside until the pool people finished renovating the swimming pool to sea water. It was going to cost three times as much, but Hardcastle had okayed the deal, saying it was to be done by late afternoon. He calmed himself outwardly, continuing with his efforts to find the woman who had brought McCormick so much horror and pain. "It's very important that I find her. My buddy's life depends on it."
"Well…I've gotta feeling this involves more than just buying a statue for your sick friend, but where that woman is concerned I wouldn't be surprised at anything."
"Oh, I think you would," Hardcastle thought.
"Let me see what I have on file." Harley dug in his desk, pulling out a greasy edged Roladex. Thumbing through the cards, Harley finally pulled out a fairly white piece of paper. "Her name is Mrs. James Baer. Her address is on here. Might as well take it. She won't be coming back. I think she accomplished what she had in mind. Good luck, Mr. Hardcastle."
Hardcastle nodded his thanks and rushed out of the room, eager to be on his way. On the way out he thought about stopping and calling McCormick on the phone, but realized that the ex-con wouldn't be able to speak with him even if he did answer the phone. And the inability to talk to the Judge would be too much for McCormick. Despite his lecture to himself, the Judge still needed to make contact with his friend. He glanced at the address on the card, trying to decide if he had time to swing by the estate. The Judge saw that the Baer residence was north of Malibu and Gulls Way, up the PCH.
"Perfect. I can swing by the estate and see how the kid's getting on."
Mark peered through the curtains, watching the workmen finish with the pool. As soon as they were gone, he planned on entering the saltwater. The tub didn't give him much room to be comfortable. He had carefully checked himself over upon waking in the drying sheets, wet down by Judge Hardcastle as an aid to sleeping, and found that there were few changes to be seen. He could still speak, if he went slowly and didn't try for hard letters like esses.
He heard a vehicle pull into the parking lot and rolled his wheelchair to the front door of the gatehouse. He cracked the door open a tiny bit to see the GMC stop near the workmen's trucks. McCormick listened to the Judge speaking to the pool men.
"You guys about done?"
"Yes, sir, finishing up now. I've got some special instructions on taking care of the pool, salt water has a tendency to green up a bit faster than fresh," the foreman said, taking a carefully folded piece of paper from his pocket and handing it to the Judge.
"Thank you. Don't bother cleaning up, I'll take care of it. If the pool's ready to go, that is."
"It's a little dirty, Judge, but you can swim in the pool right this second if that's what you've got in mind. Are you sure we can't stay and clean this mess up? Won't take us long."
"No, that won't be necessary. I do appreciate the speed in which you got this done, though." Hardcastle thanked the foreman, taking the instruction sheet and shoving it in his pocket, trying to hurry the men away from the estate. He stood watching as the poolmen, slightly puzzled at a customer refusing their clean-up, got in their trucks and left.
"Kiddo, it's safe to come out now," Hardcastle called, turning to the gatehouse just as Mark wheeled out.
"Hi." Mark waved his silver covered hand at the Judge.
Hardcastle shook his head. "Your skin…"
"No'ing elth, though." McCormick commented, well aware of the Judge's concern. "'low 'own may'e?"
"Maybe." Hardcastle shook himself and went with McCormick to the pool. "Okay, take it easy getting in, don't want you to find they screwed something up and left chlorine in there."
Mark locked the wheels on his transportation and started to slip off into the pool. The Judge grabbed him under the arms, helping him to enter the water slowly. Once the tail had submerged, Mark smiled.
"It fine, le' 'o, I wan' 'wim." Mark had difficulty with complete sentences and had gotten into the habit of saying only key words. He craved the freedom of the ocean, but couldn't bring himself to leave the Judge. "Wha' fin'?"
"I've got the name of the woman who sold you the statue. I wanted to see how you were doing before going to confront her." Hardcastle watched as McCormick floated in the water, his silver and black tail curled around him. His skin shone in the afternoon sun, covered with a silver sheen that did more to frighten the Judge than a radical change would have. "You'll be better in here and I'll lock the gates so you won't have any unwanted visitors, okay?"
Mark nodded, splashing Hardcastle with a quick flip of his tail. "'oon?"
"Soon? You mean will I be back soon?"
McCormick nodded again.
"As soon as I can get this…woman to help us. Be careful in there, I'll move the chair to the steps in case you decide to come out of the water later."
"No, 'on' leave. 'long here. Home 'ow," Mark replied.
"It's not your home!" Hardcastle exclaimed, upset at McCormick's seeming acceptance of the situation. "I told you I'd find a solution and I will. Damn it, Mark, don't give in to it!"
McCormick swam close to the side of the pool where Hardcastle was standing and pulled himself up to sit on the edge, his tail trailing in the water. "No' 'cared if 'tay li' thi'."
"Well, I am!" Hardcastle reached for McCormick's outstretched hand, gripping it tightly as he tried to control himself. "Please, fight what it's doing to your mind. Don't let it change you."
McCormick sighed, a trilling sound that carried across the estate easily. "'ry, 'romith."
Sniffling a bit, Hardcastle let go of his friend's hand, getting back to his feet. "You do that. 'cause I'm gonna force an answer outa that woman, I swear it. Take care, I'll be back later."
Hardcastle walked slowly across the driveway to the pick-up, looking back after getting behind the steering wheel to see Mark back in the water, flipping back and forth in the salty liquid as if he'd been born to it. Listening closely, Hardcastle could hear a soft, melodic sound that was having a strange effect on him. The music was coming from McCormick and it made the Judge want to join him in that water. He started the engine to drown out the siren call and drove off, ready to strangle the Baer woman to get the truth, afraid of what his young friend was becoming and worried that he wouldn't be able to reverse it.
"Mrs. Baer, I know you're the same woman, don't try and deny it. The man at the flea market had your name and number, as well as your social security number for the tax people. I need to know where that statue came from, and why you closed your booth down as soon as you sold it to my friend."
Mrs. Baer slowly walked across the room and picked up a framed photograph that was sitting on her piano. She brought it back to where the Judge was standing and handed it to him. "This is my daughter, Susan. She got the same statue about six months ago. Has your friend changed any?"
"Yes, you know he did. That's what you wanted, isn't it?"
"No, but I had no choice. You see, Susan became a…mermaid in just a month and a half after buying that statue. I looked for the person who had given it to her and he said that, while she could never return to what she once was, her being, her essence could be released if the statue was sold to someone else."
"She could never go back?" Hardcastle said, his face going ashen at the thought. "Oh, God, no."
Mrs. Baer gripped the Judge's arms tightly. "Never, once the gills have appeared. Once they are complete, you must release your friend to the ocean, the metamorphosis will be complete and irreversible. I've learned quite a bit since my Susan started to change."
"I did some reading, I thought mermaids were mammals, air breathers," Hardcastle said, looking at the photo of the beautiful blonde girl, imagining how she would have looked with a fish's tail and webbed fingers.
"There are two kinds, the natural ones that are written of in the legends and the cursed kind. The cursing turns them into human fish, no more, no less. They become more fishlike than human, only vaguely remembering their former life on land. Susan became totally unable to speak, didn't like to have anyone touch her, spent all her time in the large bathtub we had filled with fresh water. When the gills were completely finished growing, she began to die as it was impossible to put her head under the water to breathe and she needed the kind of sea food that we couldn't provide. My husband and I were forced to release her to the ocean. We've not seen her since."
"So I still have time to save McCormick?"
"Is that your friend? Yes, if he hasn't developed the gills, he could possibly be saved. I don't really know if the effects of the cursed statue reverse or if he will be kept at the same level of change he's already reached. I wish I could be more help. I'm sorry it was your friend, but I had my daughter to think of."
"And to save him, I must inflict this horrible thing on someone else?"
"Yes. The statue cannot be destroyed." Mrs. Baer took her daughter's photo back, gazing at it sorrowfully. "Lord knows, my husband and I tried."
"Thank you, Mrs. Baer. Though I'm sorry about your daugther, I wish you could have found another victim."
"So do I, Judge. Your young friend seemed to be a nice boy, the kind I wish Susan would've married someday. Maybe that's what I was thinking of, that they might find each other out in the ocean." Mrs. Baer escorted Hardcastle to the door, neither one comfortable.
On the drive back to the estate, Hardcastle tried to find another solution beside inflicting the horror of the mermaid statue on another human. Who could he give it to, and more importantly, would he be able to? He was determined not to give McCormick, a whole and human McCormick, up without a fight, but could he stoop to inflicting it on someone else?
Keying the code into the gate's security system, the Judge let the GMC almost coast to the main house. As he turned the engine off, he could hear the gentle sounds of water splashing. McCormick was still in the pool.
Mark floated back and forth in the pool, thinking about what the Judge had said about fighting the changes. He could feel himself drawn to the freedom of the ocean, forgetting what it had been like to walk on two feet, only enjoying the feeling of floating in the water, able to swim easier and faster than anyone else in the world. What was more, he heard something, someone calling him from the point near Seagull Beach and he was hard pressed to ignore the beckoning.
He thought back on the difficult moments of his life with Hardcastle. If he stayed as he was, the dangers would be over. He stopped moving, pulling the tail down underneath him. No, it would only be over for him. After a period of mourning, the Judge would throw himself into his work with a vengeance and that could get the man killed. McCormick looked down on the beautiful tail that grew out of his waist, and screamed in anger. The high voice that came out of him shattered the patio windows and Mark gasped.
"Wow." Some power that grating noise had. He couldn't wait to see the Judge's reaction when he got back. Hardcastle would gust a gut when the bill for replacing those windows came in.
Mark floated onto his back, needing someone to talk to, but unable to say much more than a few words. Shame Hardcastle could read sign language, he thought. Or maybe the old coot could.
"Hey, how'ya doing, kiddo?" Hardcastle asked as he rounded the corner.
"'ine," Mark said, then signed it. He laughed at the look on Hardcastle's face. "'ou know?"
"I'm not too bad on reading it, but a little slow on doing. When did you learn? It's not exactly something you'd need on the track."
A friend of Flip's was a deaf-mute and taught me. She was very good. Mark replied, his webbed fingers slowing his sign language enough to allow Hardcastle an easier time of reading the combination of symbols and letters. It hurts so to speak, and I'm not always sure I'm understood. Hell, I don't really understand myself. How did it go with the woman?
"She said that her daughter was a victim of the statue. And that it can't be destroyed." Hardcastle proceeded to tell Mark the whole story as he had heard it from Mrs. Baer. The sun began to lower in the sky, making it cooler as he laid out what had happened and would happen in the future if the mermaid statue wasn't dumped on some other victim.
At the end, Mark sighed with a sweet, soft trilling. He pulled himself up onto the steps of the pool, edging up into the wheelchair with a boost from the wide flukes. So, to free me, we have to make someone else become this. And even when we do, it doesn't guarantee I'll be back to a full human shape. Not much of a choice, Judge.
"No, it isn't, but we can't take a chance of passing this up, can we?" Hardcastle tucked a blanket around the tail, pushing Mark inside the main house with a sharp house with a sharp glance at the broken window. "What happened here? Did someone get in here, attack you?" he asked worriedly.
Afraid it was my fault. Didn't know this voice could be so dangerous. Wanna hear? Mark asked impishly, relieved at the ability to communicate and the end being in sight, one way or another.
"No thanks, I'll pass. Your voice is annoying enough when it's normal and whining, I don't think I could take one with the ability to break glass."
So who are we going to send this little jewel to? Someone from your files, I'd think.
"You're in a good mood, kiddo. Any changes since I left this afternoon?" Hardcastle asked, fixing up a kelp and shrimp salad for McCormick and a side of catfish fingers for himself. Mark was setting the table, pushing himself upright on his tail and leaning on the counter to reach the plates.
Not really, just some itchiness behind my ears. Probably too much salt water in these curls. Don't they look a little green to you?
"A little what? I don't understand that sign," Hardcastle said.
McCormick looked about and pointed to the kelp in the bowl. "'olor. 'een."
"Oh. Yeah, I guess they are turning a little. Let me look, maybe you have a rash." Hardcastle wiped his hands on a dishtowel and pushed Mark's hair to one side. He froze when he saw the red welt that was on either side of the man's head. "The gills. We don't have any more time."
How far along are they? I mean, I'm not having any problems breathing air."
"They're just marks right now, but if they progress at the same rate as your legs/tail did, we have to find someone by early tomorrow." Hardcastle stood staring out into the night toward the ocean. "Damn."
Mark scooted over to Hardcastle, tugging on his shirt. Don't worry so much, you'll get ulcers. Let's eat and after dinner, you can lock yourself in the basement and make your decision. But for now, I'm hungry, even if it is rabbit food.
"Yeah." Hardcastle attempted to put on a smiling face, unaware that he looked more like the vicious tiger about to attack the innocent gazelle.
There was little conversation during the meal, Mark being unable to sign and stuff food in his mouth at the same time. He found it difficult to hold eating utensils so was forced to use his hands, somehow making it seem natural.
Hardcastle worried and fretted, making it impossible to eat much, but for McCormick's sake he made an effort. It seemed the ex-con was as worried about him as he was about Mark. He looked fondly at the man sitting across from him and swore he would find someone to give the statue to, and would live with the consequences of his actions, as long as he could continue to live with his aggravating friend.
Mark wheeled about the gatehouse, uneager to go back into the pool until it was necessary. He picked up the stark white mermaid statue, it's once lovely blue-green color gone. Looking toward the house, he saw the lights on in the narrow window to the basement. He threw the statue against the far wall, his anger just below the surface. The mermaid hit with a resounding thump and Mark felt a sharp pain in his head. Damn thing still has its own life, Mark thought. He moved to the far side of the room where the statue lay on the carpeted floor, thinking. A slow smile spread over his features as he knew what to do. Grabbing the mermaid off the floor, Mark took it to his table and dug in the drawers for paper and pen. Then he pulled himself up the stairs to the bedroom loft, the going slow and painful, but at least it was something to do. He found a box holding photos in the closet and dumped them out on the floor, throwing the box over the railing to the cot below. Then he had to scoot down the stairs again. The things I do for you, Judge, he thought. This little adventure had better earn me a long vacation after things are back to normal. Though I might pass up on the beach this time, he laughed.
Making it down the steps in one piece, Mark throw himself into the wheelchair. Picking up the statue, the paper, pen and box, Mark got to work. He wrapped the statue up in the box, stuffing it full of newspaper to keep it from rattling, then covered the box with the brown paper, binding it securely with tape he had found under the sink. Grabbing the pen in his fist, he carefully printed out the letters of the man's name who he had decided deserved the evil statue, a mass murderer who had killed and raped children. Mark's candidate for the statue wasn't in the Judge's files, but was in the papers. Now, with the statue carefully packaged, it was time to mail it. Mark slapped enough stamps on the paper to make it a special next day delivery, scribbling that on the paper with a shaky hand.
Checking outside for the Judge, Mark went outside, pushing the wheelchair down the driveway to the entry gates. As he went toward the street, Mark wondered if he could make it to the night drop for special delivery packages that was only a mile away. It was outside a convenience store. With a grin, Mark swung the wheelchair out onto the street, pryaing he wouldn't be spotted by the cops. This type of mailing would insure the package being delivered quickly to the man who was awaiting sentencing in jail. It was a nice night for a ride, Mark thought, no traffic in sight for once.
"McCormick!" Hardcastle strode across the patio, looking for his friend. He had checked the pool without success and now was on his way to the gatehouse. "Kid, I think I've got someone, bring the statue out here."
Going into the darkened gatehouse, Hardcastle noticed the wheelchair was missing. "Hey, were are you?" The Judge flipped the lights on, the early morning sun not high enough to shine in the secluded building yet. "Kid?"
Looking in the bathroom, back out at the pool, and even by the neglected Coyote, the boy's car, but there was no sign of McCormick. Hardcastle ran to the beach path, expecting to see an abandoned chair, but there was nothing. He walked slowly back to the pool, dropping in the patio chair where he used to watch a whole, human McCormick swim or clean the pool while complaining. Hardcastle dropped his head in his hands. "Where did you go?"
The sound of a car on the gravel and concrete driveway caught Hardcastle's attention, mired though he was in misery and worry. He looked up to see a battered taxi cab pull up in front of the house. The driver got out and walked around to unlock the trunk. In the back seat was a smiling, seemingly intoxicated Mark McCormick, a blanket loosely wrapped around his shoulders.
Hardcastle jumped up in shock. "How could you…"
Mark quickly signed him to silence. Shut up, I've got this guy convinced that I'm a drunk coming home from a wild costume party. Don't blow it or we'll have a mess of explaining to do.
"Your son really tied one on, but you know, he shouldn't be out on the road by himself when he can't get around. A man in a wheelchair and that costume is fair game for a crook. 'course, he ain't got no money on him, so they wouldn't get much 'cept a fancy tail. Which reminds me, you owe me twelve-fifty for brining the water boy home safely." The cabbie rambled on as he pulled the chair next to the passenger door where an eerie looking McCormick sat waiting, his hair tinged with green and white, the silver sheen covering his skin completely. Hardcastle helped McCormick into the chair, muttering to himself.
Then, digging deep in his pocket, the Judge came up with a five and a ten. "Thanks for bringing him home. He musta took off before anyone could offer him a ride home."
"Yeah, well, no problem. 'cept he don't talk so good, ya know. Lucky I had a piece of paper for him to write the address on," the cabbie said, getting back into his car. "Gotta admit, that's one hell of a costume, from the tail to them bits of fake skin between the finger, it's a winner. Hope he got the grand prize."
"I'm sure he did. Thanks again," Hardcastle replied, pushing the wheelchair with a giggling McCormick in it to the house. In a soft voice, Hardcastle told his friend to stop it. "It sounds otherworldly, he might catch on."
Once the cab left, Mark sobered, dropping his inebriated routine. That was hard. Take me to the pool, I've gotten too dry, it's beginning to hurt again.
With a grimace, Hardcastle did so, waiting until McCormick was comfortable to spring questions on him. As the younger man lowered himself into the cooling salt water, Hardcastle leaned down to check behind the man's ears. The welts were beginning to break open.
"Where's the statue? We don't have much time."
Mark pulled away from Hardcastle, dog-paddling out to the center of the pool. It's not here anymore.
"I know that. What did you do with it?" Hardcastle asked, walking around the edge of the pool until he was facing the almost completely changed merman.
I kinda got rid of it, Mark replied, diving to the bottom of the pool with a flip of his tail.
"You what! McCormick, get back up here, I know you can hear me."
With a sheepish grin, Mark rose back to the surface, careful to keep distance between him and Hardcastle. I saw what it was doing to you, so I decided to…throw it back in the sea where the thing came from.
"But what will happen to you?" Hardcastle sat down on the edge of the patio, his legs falling unnoticed into the pool.
Mark swam closer, his tail doing most of the work. He reached out and laid his hand on the Judge's knee. It'll be okay, I'm sure I'll be fine.
"How can you be? The statue must be given to somebody else or you'll never be free. Mark, for God's sake, how could you?" Hardcastle cried, fingering the young man's hair. "The gills, they're growing!"
I know, I feel them. Don't you think I want to be normal again? But what would happen to you, to us, if you had to live with the fact that you had subjected another person to what I'm going through? Better I should be a merman, forgetting all this than put you through such pain. Mark trilled softly to himself, slowly floating his tail back and forth just under the surface. Will I forget? I don't think I could take it, being out there and still remembering it all. Sometimes my life as a human seems so far away that it's like a dream. Only this being able to talk with you keeps me sane. I don't know what I'll do out there. McCormick laid his head down on the edge of the pool next to where Hardcastle sat, his shoulders slumped and shivering.
"Oh, kid, how are we going to get through this one?" Hardcastle laid his hand on Mark's tousled hair, taking comfort from the touch.
They sat this way for over an hour, neither man wanting to move, afraid to break the moment. They might have continued except for McCormick's stomach announcing itself with a loud, ferocious growl. The two men looked at each other, Hardcastle beginning to laugh at the dismayed look on his friend's face. "Merman or human, you never change. You're always hungry. Come on, I'll fix you breakfast."
Hardcastle went for the chair as McCormick climbed out of the water. They headed for the main house, to attempt normalcy until the agony was over.
Hardcastle sat on the couch, watching McCormick sleep. The gatehouse was bathed in the light of a full moon, the rays shining on the sleeping man's face. After checking the gill marks for the fourth time, McCormick had finally forbidden him to look, signing with compassion, it isn't gonna help to keep looking, Judge. Let's just wait till my breathing becomes labored in this air, then we'll know the change is complete. You'll have to let me go then. It's fading, you know, my memories of what it's like to eat meat, to walk on legs, to make love to a woman. I have to concentrate to remember. I guess it didn't work, what I did.
McCormick fidgeted a bit on the couch and the Judge went into the bathroom for a glass of fresh water to pour over the sheet. The ex-con seemed to rest easier when the sheets were wet. Hardcastle knew he would have to throw the sheet and cot out when this adventure was over. That thought chilled the Judge. If the changes continued, which they appeared to be doing, then his McCormick would be a speechless creature who was no longer human, an animal to be released to keep it from dying. Putting the glass back in the bathroom, the ex-jurist returned to his couch to watch and wait some more.
The trilling returned, but this time from outside, down on the beach. Hardcastle walked over to the patio, listening. Some other was out in the ocean calling for McCormick to come. Hardcastle wondered if it was Susan Baer.
A similar trilling from the sleeping McCormick drew the Judge's attention back to the room. He watched as McCormick fought off sleep, sweat beginning to pour from his face.
"Sweat? Dear God, he couldn't sweat before!" Hardcastle felt a thrill course through him. "McCormick, wake up. Kid?"
Mark opened his eyes, groggy and disorientated. "Judge?"
"You can talk. Thank heavens, you can talk." Steeling himself, the Judge pulled the sheet back, wanting to see two white legs underneath, but there was still a fish tail. "That's okay. It'll go away, it'll change back."
"What are you talking about? Hey, my voice!" Mark sat upright, looking down at his legs. "Well, the tail's still with me and I can hear that girl calling, so we're not out of the woods yet."
"It's a start. You called back to her in your sleep."
"Oh. Looks like it worked." Mark wondered how the child killer was enjoying his strange feelings.
"I never would have thought of throwing it back into the sea. What made you think of it?"
"Guess it was a lucky shot. Maybe being one of them gave me insights you couldn't have." At that precise moment, McCormick knew he would never tell what he had done. It might make the papers, but if it did, he'd never affirm it. Hardcastle might not believe him, but he wouldn't be able to prove the statue had gone anywhere but in the ocean where it belonged. In fact, Mark thought, he might just suggest that solution to the killer when the first month and a half was up.
"Is that drawing you?" Hardcastle asked, nodding toward the ocean.
"Yeah, terribly. But I'm not leaving now. With my luck, when I was half way out there, this would turn into legs. I'm not that strong a swimmer."
"Ready to go back to sleep?" Hardcastle asked, retucking the sheet under Mark's tail.
"I'll try. Stay with me a little longer?"
"Sure, kiddo. Close your eyes, you'll drift off after she gets frustrated and leaves."
"Yes, boss." Mark closed his eyes per orders, a gentle smile on his face. With a soft sigh that didn't have much of a trill to it, Mark signed one last time. Thanks, my friend.
"Anytime, kiddo," Hardcastle replied too low for Mark to hear.
"Well, I've gotta admit, I'm gonna miss the tail a little." Mark said, standing in front of the Judge's mirror in his dressing room. His legs were white and the skin dry but they had feeling back and the flakes were just that, no longer scales. "Gorgeous, aren't they?"
Hardcastle finished dressing, fixing his best dark blue tie into place. "Don't get too enamored with yourself, kiddo. Put your pants back on. They require pants even in McDonald's."
"Yeah, that reminds me. Where are we going to dinner that requires a tie and jacket? I thought we were going back to Steak and Ale. I can wear jeans there."
"Life is not lived in jeans, McCormick."
"Maybe not, but it sure is enjoyed in them." Mark grinned, leaning around the corner of the bathroom, watching Hardcastle shrug into his jacket. "Nice."
"Thanks. Where's yours? And put those pants on, willya?" Hardcastle growled.
"Not until I know where we're going. I don't like surprises. I've had quite enough of them for once." McCormick's smile slipped, his back-to-normal blue eyes haunted.
"Yeah, I know. Come on, trust me, put your pants on and let's go. I'm starving."
"So am I. Haven't had a decent meal in months. You know, yesterday was the first day for real red-blooded meat that didn't come back up as fast as it went down?"
"A lean piece of beef isn't my idea of a real meal, McCormick." Hardcastle sat as Mark fastened his pants, then looked for his sports jacket, thrown over the door to the bedroom. "Now this place I think you'll like."
All the way to the restaurant, McCormick tried to get the Judge to tell him where they were going, with no luck. Becoming more and more annoyed, Mark's voice was becoming snappish by the time they pulled into a large parking lot. Mark looked at the restaurant's sign and choked.
"The Salad Bar is the best health food restaurant in the city, all those fresh vegetables, lettuce and other greenery. Considering the taste you've developed for salds and the like, I thought you'd enjoy it." Hardcastle's grin was almost as wide and devilish as McCormick's best.
"I'm gonna kill you, slowly and enjoying every minute of it, count on it." Mark clenched his hands as if he had Hardcastle's neck in them, his eyes sparkling.
"Don't tell me you don't like this place?" Hardcastle asked, pretending to be shocked.
"I am hereby commandeering this car."
"Hijacking, you mean."
"Whatever," Mark replied, waving his hand in dismissal. "You will drive this vehicle to a place that serves steak or I will personally rip your heart out by the throat."
"Hey, no need to get so worked up."
"Worked up? You haven't seen anything yet. Drive." Mark ordered, his lips trembling with suppressed laughter. "Now."
"Yes, sir. Right away, sir. Would the same Steak and Ale do, sir?"
"Yep, that will be sufficient."