In the long history of espionage and through thousands of years of technological advancement, human intelligence – the gathering of information through traditional manpower – remained the most reliable method if one wished to find something out. HUMINT remained the number one weapon of intelligence agencies all over the world, from the American CIA to the British SIS. It was hardly a secret that every government maintained a large force of agents across the globe for those times when nothing could beat a thinking human being with good old-fashioned eyes and ears. HUMINT could win wars almost as surely as guns and tanks, and it certainly was better at preventing them. Whatever one might say about it, its success rate could hardly be denied.
Or at least that's what Claire had said. Whether or not it was all true, it was why the three girls were braving the early afternoon sun among the stalls on the boardwalk near Hailey's house. Each of the trio had a large beverage cup in hand and a wide-brimmed hat on her head, all the better to try to stay relatively cool.
"I know you're the defactobrains of the operation," Hailey told Claire, "but I'm gonna need you to remind me why you think Ryan will be walking around here, let alone with Jade."
"I'm pretty sure sitting on a rock all day is not the most romantic date," was Claire's vague reply.
"Maybe, but if they're trying to keep their relationship on the down low, they are notgoing to be walking around a crowded area. Come on, I must have seen three people from school here already."
"Crowds are a great place to hide," Claire explained as she stopped at a stall to purchase a sausage sizzle. She blew on the sandwich to cool it down, then continued, "You'd be amazed at how hard it is to spot someone unless you're really on the lookout for them. It's how loads of criminals get around in broad daylight; unless they do something really stupid to draw attention, they're pretty much invisible."
"When did you become Miss CIA?" Hailey asked with a laugh as she too bought a sandwich.
"Long flights and nine dollar Tom Clancy paperbacks," Claire replied before taking a bite out of her food. "Pretty good combination, actually."
"And why would he rather be here than at home?"
It was Aqua who answered this time: "Not he. She."
Hailey immediately caught on; "I guess staying at home watching soap opera reruns isn't everyone's idea of an ideal date."
The conversation turned to more mundane topics as the trio continued to explore the boardwalk. Other things began to occupy their attention; Hailey got her hands on a cup of shrimp cocktail, for which she was again called fat by Aqua. Hailey retaliated by calling the mermaid "fish-breath", which Aqua said wasn't true and wouldn't even be an insult in mer-society. This somehow eventually led to Hailey apologizing to Claire for eating the giant Toblerone bar in her luggage, which confused Claire since none of the three hadn't been out of each other's sight for more than a couple of minutes since she'd arrived.
It wasn't the most effective way to search for a face in the crowd, but it hardly mattered after a while; fifteen minutes after they arrived on-scene, they'd already forgotten why they were there. Friends – close friends – could have that effect on you; one minute you're just there to buy a Coke and the next thing you know, it's seven the next morning and you're finishing the last slice from the sixth box of pizza while someone puts on another horror flick.
It was this effect that found the three sitting outside a café not far from the boardwalk a couple of hours later, the search for Ryan abandoned.
"And I know starfish do notshut up with the compliments, but these guys were seriously going over the top," Aqua was saying. "I mean, seriously, who says nice things about the roots of your hair?"
"Starfish, apparently," Claire replied as she took a sip of juice.
"Y'know," Hailey chimed in, "the thing about them is, they do notstop talking! I wore a pair of them to school once, and I was getting stuff from my locker when this guy came up to me. The thing is, the starfish – "
"Waitwaitwait," Claire interrupted. "A guy? As in, not someone whose name you knew?"
"Well," Hailey said, "he was in one of my classes, so I sort of knew him."
"But you didn't know his name."
"So some guy came up to you in the hall, started to ask you out, and younevertoldme?"
"I didn't know he was going to ask me out!" Hailey sputtered, surprised at Claire's tone.
"But why didn't you tellme?"
"Do I have to tell you everything that goes on in my life?"
"Everything important," Claire huffed, crossing her arms.
"Come on, Claire, I didn't know it was important," Hailey said apologetically.
"You could have mentionedit," Claire grumbled. "I mean, I thought we were best frie–"
"Hold that thought," Hailey interrupted, suddenly focused on a spot behind Claire. "Mermaid at my eleven o'clock."
Aqua immediately began to turn her head, but Claire's hand shot out and grabbed the mermaid's hair, holding her in place. "Is she looking at us?" Claire asked Hailey, now all cold business. Aqua wisely refrained from trying to shake Claire off, instead focusing her attention on Hailey.
"No. She just came out of a shop. Hasn't looked this way yet."
Claire released her handful of blonde hair, allowing Aqua to turn. Claire took a deep breath before twisting in her seat to get her first glance of the famous – or infamous – Jade.
Though Claire had never seen her before, she did have Hailey's description to go by – and there was only one person on that side of the street anyway. The girl wore a sleeveless mint green dress that fell to her knees, displaying toned arms and legs. Her lush black hair was in a ponytail that was slung over one shoulder. This same shoulder also carried the weight of a messenger bag slung diagonally across the girl's body.
Curiously, she seemed to be alone.
"Where's Ryan?" Aqua whispered. Claire just shook her head, and the three continued to watch as Jade mounted a bicycle that had been leaning against the brick wall of the building she'd just come out of. She pedaled off at an easy pace, giving no indication that she'd noticed her observers.
"Shouldn't we follow her or something?" Hailey murmured.
"Not while she's on that bike. We'd be too obvious," Claire vetoed. "Unless you've become a parkour expert all of a sudden."
"Well, I havebeen playing a lot of Assassin'sCreed in the last year…"
The trio could only watch until Jade rounded a corner and was lost from sight.
As Claire let out a breath she didn't realize she'd been holding, Hailey mused, "Somehow, I don't think she's on her way to Ryan's place."
The three finished their drinks and got up to begin the trip back to Hailey's house. They walked in silence until Hailey finally said, "Claire, I'm sorry I didn't tell you about James, but I really didn't – "
"I thought you didn't know his name," Claire cut her off. Aqua quietly fell behind the two, taking a sudden interest in the clouds.
"I didn't, until he told me it was James Donnelly. But that aside, I'm sorry I didn't tell you. It's just, I didn't know you'd react like this."
For a moment it looked as though Claire was about to snap back, but then she took a deep breath and shook her head. "No, Hailey, I'm the one who should be sorry. I have no right to make you tell me everything."
Hailey threw an arm around Claire's waist and pulled her close. "Sure you do. We're BFF's."
Claire smiled and returned the hug. "Sorry. I guess I'm just a bit…I dunno, lonely."
"Haven't you made any new friends since I left?"
"A few, but…you know. Not really – "
"Not really best buds for life," Hailey finished. "I know what you mean."
After a minute or so, Aqua finally joined in, changing the topic with, "So this James. Was he cute, or a shrimp type?"
"You only want him for his body."
Claire and Hailey roared with laughter as they neared the house.
"Mer-tradition dictates that children marry whoever their parents choose, correct?"
Aqua waited for Claire to finish dealing the cards before answering her with a, "Correct." Part of what Hailey called Aqua's 'Continued Human Education' was learning how to play card games; right now, it was Texas Hold 'Em Poker. The pot – three red poker chips – already sat in the middle of the table, and each player now had her two hole cards.
"I'm no expert on mermaid psychology," Claire said as she took a peek at her cards, "but I'm guessing the rationale behind that is that parents supposedly know so much more than their offspring that their decisions are considered unquestionable. Hailey, betting starts with you."
"Yeah yeah, I know how to play," Hailey muttered as she too glanced at her hand. She tossed a single red chip into the pot before saying, "This might just be a wacky guess, but I think you think Ryan thinks what he's doing – whatever it is – is the smart thing."
Aqua and Claire both matched Hailey's bet before Claire responded, "Not quite. I'm guessing it's more of a 'stupid but right thing' situation." She finally dealt the flop – the first three community cards of the game – and there was another lull in the conversation as the three girls checked their hole cards again. "I haven't actually met him, but I have a feeling that he's more likely to defend something 'right' instead of something 'smart'. Namely, it's the right thing to defend what his girlfriend thinks is smart."
"Then why's he playing it so close to his chest? Jade didn't even know about us and Aqua until he told her." Hailey increased the pot by two red chips, then continued, "D'you think it's some kind of self-appointed hero deal?"
Aqua called her bet, then mused, "It might explain why she felt the need to go off on her own. Besides, what exactly about Jade is he trying to protect? I know mermaids, and there's nothing about us that needs to be kept a secret like this."
"I'm not so sure," Claire replied as she too called the bet. "If that's true, why do you guys feel the need to be so, ahem, discreet?" She flipped out another card, making it four community cards on the table.
"As a people? Dunno. Personally, I'm actually about as good at it as shark trying to backflip," Aqua laughed as Hailey nibbled her lower lip, clearly wondering whether to fold or keep going. The cards on the table were hardly promising; it was difficult to make a winning hand out of a jack, an ace, a two, and a five, all of different suits. A single pair – two at the most – was the most likely hand that could be formed, but that was fairly easy to trump with a little luck.
Hailey finally exhaled and upped the ante even more, throwing in a white chip – five points. They weren't playing for actual money; the amount won was how many slaps to the face the winner could give either or both of the losers in total. It was kind of a stupid bet, but still preferable to losing real cash. "I sometimes wonder about that, actually," she commented. "You guys live way out to sea, right? What were you doing so close to the beach that a wave knocked you into the Capri's pool?"
Aqua shrugged as she casually matched the bet. "I've always been pretty curious about humans."
"And there's nothing wrong with that? As far as merpeople culture is concerned, I mean." Claire looked at her cards again before sighing and placing them face down on the table, signifying her withdrawal from the game. "Fold."
"It's not exactly something they encourage, but it isn't illegal," Aqua answered. Despite backing out, Claire was still performing the role of the dealer, and so she dealt the final card, which turned out to be another two. "My dad only got cheesed off when I started going against the whole 'love doesn't exist' thing; he was okay with my, shall we say, expeditions into human territory. By the way, why is the phrase 'cheesed off' anyway? What does cheese have to do with being annoyed?"
Both Claire and Hailey snickered before Claire answered, "It's just a weird piece of slang. It happens." There was a brief pause before Claire added, "I think Ryan's afraid of something."
"What makes you say that?" Hailey asked as she tossed another white chip into the pot. Aqua matched the bet with surprising speed.
"Mostly just a hunch. But normal people don't keep blackmail up their sleeves just for fun."
"I think it's important to note that he hasn't actually threatened us with anything," Aqua said. "He told Jade he can and will use it if necessary, but he hasn't told us. I'm no expert at this, but I think you have to at least let people thinkyou have a trump card."
"One trump card doesn't make a winning hand," Claire reminded her. "Maybe he thinks we know something we actually don't."
"Or maybe he realizes that somehow, we do, in fact, hold all the cards," Hailey said before triumphantly laying down her hand face-up. A two and a five, which made three of the former and two of the latter – a full house, which was one of the highest hands in poker. She reached out to take the pot when, much to the surprise of both Hailey and Claire, Aquamarine grabbed her hand.
"Or," the mermaid said, "he's waiting for us to make our move before hemakes his." Her other hand was also outstretched to display the cards in her possession: a pair of twos. That made four of a kind – which, in fact, beat a full house.
"I think we need to be careful."