"This is either a brilliant idea, or an extremely stupid one."
"That's how most geniuses do it."
"That's how idiots do it, too."
"At the risk of interrupting what seems to be a stunningly pointless yet oddly enlightening philosophical discussion," Aqua cut in, "the biscuit is buttered, repeat, the biscuit is buttered."
With little left to do but continue following Claire's ideas, the three were now staking out the row of houses Hailey had identified as being Ryan's neighborhood. Since all of the buildings had both front and rear entrances, the trio had spread out to cover all the possible avenues of approach. Aqua and Hailey were in the coppice between the homes and the beach – Aqua comfortably perched in the branches of a tree, Hailey once more lying prone underneath a pile of fallen leaves and branches. At Claire's suggestion, Hailey had brought along an olive-colored blanket and rubber mat from her mom's equipment stash; the latter was spread on the ground beneath her, while the former was draped over her to further hide her form. It was uncomfortably hot even with a battery-powered miniature fan, and Hailey's incessant complaining had provided most of the chatter over the short-range radios each of the girls carried. Even Aqua's pointed reminder that climbing trees in dresses wasn't exactly a cakewalk couldn't shut her up.
Claire's position was perhaps the riskiest: she sat on a bench in a small park across the street from the houses, pretending to read a book while casting occasional side glances at the row of buildings. She'd explained that she was probably the one Ryan would be least familiar with, which meant she had a better chance of observing him without being recognized. She was probably also the least likely to recognize him in turn, which was admittedly a problem, but she was still fairly confident that she could correctly guess if he came along.
Claire glanced around before reaching up to press the earpiece further in and commanding, "Say again, Bluebird?"
"I said, that's how idiots do it, too."
"Hailey, you're not Bluebird, you're Earthworm."
"Oh right. Sorry."
Claire sighed in mock exasperation and repeated, "Say again, Bluebird."
Aqua laughed before replying, "Tabby Cat, I say again, the biscuit is buttered."
"You fell out of the tree?" Hailey asked, confused.
"No, it means I've found the right house."
"I thought that was, 'The peaches have been creamed'."
There was a brief, awkward silence before Aqua said, "I don't think that's actually one of the codes we agreed on."
"Really? Why does it sound like one?"
"I think you're thinking of, 'The cream has spoiled.'"
"What does that one mean?"
"It means a snake got into your –"
"Bluebird, confirm that the biscuit is buttered," Claire interrupted. "I say again, confirm that biscuit is buttered, and identify the brand."
"Okay, what in the name of Niffenegger – "
"She's asking which house," Aqua explained before telling Claire, "Tabby Cat, it's the second house from my left. Green walls, gray roof. Windows and back door are white, might be different in front."
Claire scanned the houses before her gaze settled on the house Aqua was indicating. The windows were white in front as well, as was the front door. There was nothing in the way of a clue as to who owned it, though – there wasn't even a number or a mailbox. She hit the button on the radio and asked, "How do you know this is the one?"
"Aren't you supposed to say 'Paint the popcorn', or someth – "
"Tabby Cat, there's a very familiar pair of boots hanging in the hall."
"Copy that, Bluebird. I'll take your word for it." She didn't have much of a choice; it occurred to Claire that she had never actually seen Ryan in person, although both Hailey and Aqua had given her a description that included Ryan's penchant for beach-inappropriate footwear. More amazing was that even in the age of the all-knowing Internet, none of the girls had been able to find a picture of him online. Typing his name into Google returned over forty million results, and none of the links they'd examined led to the right person. Claire was someone who liked having a fair idea of the situation before taking any significant action, so the lack of hard information about Ryan was frustrating. It was why she'd finally decided to start being aggressive about their intelligence-gathering.
Claire clicked the radio and commanded, "Earthworm, acquire a visual on Bluebird's biscuit."
There was a brief pause before Hailey asked, "That means look at what Aqua's looking at, right?"
Claire stifled a laugh as she replied, "Affirmative Earthworm. Confirm that you have a visual."
"Bluebird, this is Earthworm, confirming visual."
"Earthworm, reheat the biscuit."
"I don't remember what that means."
"It means, do you think it's the right house?"
Hailey fell silent, presumably examining the building in question. Claire wasn't sure how Hailey could actually confirm or contradict Aqua's identification, but she would just have to trust her. Among the three girls, Hailey was the one who knew Ryan the best – though that still wasn't saying much – and so hers would be the final word on whether they could go to the next part of the plan.
"Bluebird, this is Earthworm. The biscuit's hot, and I'm getting hungry."
"Copy that, Earthworm," Claire said over Aqua's laughter. "And now I'm regretting my choice of code words. Moving on; Phase One of Operation: Minestrone is complete. Break out the notebooks and pens; we're proceeding to Phase Two." The first part of their little mission had been simply to identify Ryan's house – or at least which one was most likely to be his. Now they would be taking notes on everything about the house and what they could see through the windows, however seemingly insignificant. It would all make for an interesting analysis session later on.
Claire pulled a pencil from her messenger bag and turned slightly so she was facing the house at an oblique angle. The book she'd been pretending to read was actually a particularly thick diary that she now began to fill with details. She noted the house's position, color scheme – anything and everything about it, including the lack of a house number. There was a brass mail slot about a quarter of the way up the door, but it wasn't really anything special either.
What happened to the days when people had their names on the mailboxes? she wondered as she continued writing.
"Tabby Cat, this is Bluebird, we've got a salmon in the river." Claire's hand froze.
"Okay, that doesn't even sound remotely familiar. What – "
"Hailey, shut up," Claire interrupted. "Bluebird, confirm."
"She's coming up the path from the beach," Aqua replied.
"Oh right, it means Jade is coming," Hailey rejoined. "I see her too."
"Is she alone?"
"Oddly enough, yes. Wearing the same clothes, too."
"That's weird. Where the heck is Ryan?"
"About two feet to your right."
Claire almost managed to turn all the way around before a hand was clapped over her mouth to silence her scream.
"Tabby Cat, the salmon's up the fall, what do we do?"
Jade was almost at the door of what was definitely Ryan's house. She didn't seem to have noticed them, but that didn't mean she didn't know they were there.
As the mermaid fumbled in her messenger bag, probably for the key to the door, Hailey's mind raced as she tried to think of what to do. Her first instinct was to break cover and tackle Jade so she could demand answers. That was definitely not a good idea, and it was quickly squashed as Hailey tried to think of something else.
Meanwhile, Aqua continued to pester Claire over the radio. "Tabby Cat, come in Tabby Cat."
"She's thinking. Give her a minute."
"She doesn't need that much time – she isn't you."
"Oh shut up." Jade seemed to have found the key and was in the process of unlocking the back door. Hailey knew that if they were going to do anything, they had minutes – maybe seconds – to act. She decided that Claire was taking too long and joined Aqua's pestering; "Tabby Cat, this is Bug – Earthworm, I mean. What's the game plan? She's about to go inside." The door was open; it was now or never. "Tabby Cat, I can still jump her."
"She's not answering, Hailey."
"Screw it," Hailey muttered as she pushed herself into a sprinter's starting stance. "I'm going fo—"
"Earthworm, this is Tabby Cat; cancel that right now. Repeat, Earthworm, do not move."
Hailey froze in place, halfway through the motion of breaking cover and tackling Jade. It meant the mermaid had time to disappear into Ryan's house, shutting the door behind her.
Aqua came back on the radio: "Tabby Cat, what's going on?"
After another uncharacteristically long silence – though it was still markedly shorter – Claire answered, "Earthworm, Bluebird, abandon positions and rendezvous at Mother Tree in thirty minutes. Confirm."
Hailey finally rejoined the conversation; "Fifteen minutes? My house is barely a five-minute walk from here, Claire."
Her friend acted as though she hadn't heard; "Repeat, abandon posts and rendezvous at Mother Tree in half an hour. Confirm, Bluebird and Earthworm."
"Copy that, Tabby Cat," was Aqua's unemotional response. Left with few other options, Hailey sighed and echoed Aqua's confirmation..
Once she and Aqua had met up on the beach, Hailey asked the mermaid, "Are we seriously just going to head back to the house and ignore that distinctly un-Claire-like order?"
"No," Aqua replied. "We're going to go over to her and get some answers."
"Calm down and listen up, Claire."
Claire was too terrified to even wonder why he knew her name. If his arm hadn't been pinning her against the bench, she would have already made a break for it. He's a lot stronger than he looks. That, or I'm a lot weaker than I thought. Funny thoughts for the moment, but they stuck in her head.
"I'm not going to hurt you," Ryan – it had to be Ryan – continued. He was a lot better-looking than Hailey had implied, which was weird – Hailey had a tendency to exaggerate that sort of thing. Funny thoughts again. "I just want to talk. So here's what's going to happen: I'm going to release you. When I do, you're going to tell Hailey and Aquamarine to get out of whatever holes you stuck them in, go back to Hailey's place, and wait for you there. Got it?"
Though she was still on the verge of hyperventilating, Claire nodded as best she could. A half-smile tugged at Ryan's mouth as he took his hand off her mouth and let her go. Without taking her eyes off him, Claire pressed the 'Talk' button on her radio and ordered Hailey to stop whatever stupid idea she was about to carry out. Instead of responding to her friend's protests, Claire simply repeated what Ryan had told her. When she finished giving the two Ryan's instructions, Ryan reached over and plucked the bead from her ear.
"They're going to come looking for me," she told him, trying not to seem as scared as she was. He wasn't even supposed to know what she looked like, and yet here he was busting their entire operation with the ease of a practiced spy. What else did he know?
"Probably," he answered calmly, "which is why we're going to go for a walk. There's a cheap little eatery about five minutes from here. Great shrimp. I figure you're not allergic to seafood, given that you live on the Tampa waterfront," he added as he stood up.
"I'm not going anywhere until you tell me what we –"
"This is the plan. We're going to buy food, eat it, and have a chat. It's not a terribly complicated process. You want your answers, you play along. You decide they're not important, stay right here and pass up on some really good scampi."
Claire took a deep breath before gathering her things and getting up. He obviously wasn't going to start explaining before he wanted to – or before he got some food in his stomach. She was willing – if not entirely able – to put aside her paranoia for the time being. She had a truckload of questions, and Ryan was probably the only one who could answer them.
By the time Hailey and Aqua got to where Claire was supposed to have been, there was no trace of her, or what had happened to make her change the plan.
"She's not here."
"I never would've figured that out."
"Shut up, tuna-hugger."
"That's not even an insult. It's like calling someone a puppy-petter."
Hailey ignored the comeback and started examining the benches. She didn't know which one Claire had sat on, and she could only hope there was some kind of clue as to where she'd gone.
Meanwhile, Aqua got down on one knee and checked the dirt around the benches. The park's walkways were paved concrete, but there had to be something…
"Get your blubbery butt over here."
"You could just say, 'Hey Hailey, come here.'"
"Where's the fun in that?"
Nonetheless, Hailey appeared at Aqua's side in a second. "What've you got?" she asked, taking a knee. In response, Aqua simply pointed at the depressions in the dirt – depressions with roughly the same dimensions as a medium-sized boot.
Aqua already had a good idea whose boot it was, but it was Hailey who voiced it aloud: "Ryan."
"He wouldn't have killed her, would he?"
"No," Hailey answered, now searching the pavement for traces of dirt to track, "but that doesn't mean we don't need to worry about where he might have taken her."
The mermaid had gone on to examine the bench in front of where she'd seen the footprints. There was a small collection of dirt on one side – had he sat down? If so, it was probably because Claire had been there first. Ryan could have said something to her – it explained why she'd been off the radio for so long.
A question formed in Aqua's mind, and she decided to voice it out; "Hailey, would Ryan have any way of knowing what Claire looks like?"
"I'm almost a hundred percent sure he's never seen the two of us together, but it's not impossible that he's seen a picture of her online or something," Hailey replied after a moment's consideration. "We just didn't think he was the kind of person who would have bothered looking up anyone with any connection to me until – "
"Until you learned about his fishy femme."
"Right." Hailey straightened up, catching Aqua's attention. "They went this way," she said, nodding in a direction before breaking into a light jog.
Aqua caught up to her before asking, "What about our stuff?"
Hailey froze mid-stride before slapping one hand to her forehead. "Oh, how I wish I had a clean-up crew," she groaned.
"Tell you what," Aqua suggested, "you go back and get the stuff while I track them down."
"Aqua, you're tall, pretty, and you've got blue in your hair. You are way too conspicuous," Hailey told her. "You go get the stuff, and I will do the tracking."
"He knows your face too well," Aqua countered. "You go get – "
Hailey suddenly threw her hand over Aqua's mouth, cutting off her reply. "I've got an idea, but I'm gonna need your clothes."
The restaurant had a nice home-style feel to it, and the food was surprisingly cheap. Aside from ordering, Ryan didn't speak until the first dish – a sizeable bowl of grilled shrimp – arrived. He took one by the tail and bit into it with relish, then nodded towards the bowl, indicating Claire should follow his lead. She did so with no small amount of caution – she was still pretty nervous about the whole situation – but the shrimp was as good as advertised.
Ryan polished off nearly a dozen of the crustaceans before finally getting to the matter at hand. "First off," he began, "good call on the surveillance thing. Didn't see Aqua, not sure I saw Hailey, and I wouldn't have recognized you if Hailey had been smarter than to use her Tumblr screen name as her Facebook password. By the way, you might want to tell her to tone down the Christian Bale stuff – it's right on the border between fangirl-ism and sheer disturbing obsession, although I do admit that sometimes I have no idea what the difference is."
When Claire didn't respond, Ryan shrugged and continued, "Now, since the novelty of this cloak-and-dagger stuff has pretty much worn off, I think it's time you and I straightened some things out. It seems to me that the simplest way for us to reach some kind of understanding is for me to answer whatever questions you may have, at least where this is concerned." He paused to take a drink of water, then went on, "I do reserve the right to refuse to answer when I think the information you want is irrelevant, so keep that in mind." He leaned back in his seat, crossing his arms across his chest. "Shoot."
A thousand things ran through Claire's mind, and she fought to identify the question that would start her down the right track. She was actually tempted to ask Ryan where he expected her to begin, but she had a feeling he wouldn't answer. Finally, she decided to start things off slowly; "When did you find out about Aqua?"
"A year ago. Right around this time, actually." He refrained from volunteering anything that didn't technically answer her question – which meant she'd have to work to draw some more out of him.
"How'd you know she was a mermaid?"
"Well, if the highlights and starfish earrings hadn't given it away, the fact that she sprouts a tail when her feet get wet probably would've done the trick." Claire was about to challenge his vagueness when she realized he was joking; instead, she raised one eyebrow to show she wasn't amused. Ryan apparently was, though: he chuckled and downed some more water before explaining, "It was in a restaurant about fifteen minutes from Hailey's place – the Sea Shack. I was in there having lunch when I saw Hailey Rogers walk in with a tall, leggy, very good-looking girl I knew I'd never seen before."
"Aqua does tend to draw attention," Claire remarked.
"She does," Ryan nodded. "'Course, the fact that I didn't recognize her didn't really mean anything on its own. I would have brushed her off as just an old friend of Hailey's from the States and ignored her if not – "
"Wait," Claire interrupted. "Hailey walks in with some super-hot chick and your decision is to ignore them? You weren't even the least bit interested?"
"Number one, I was already taken. Number two, if I'd gone up to them and introduced myself, Hailey would've thought I was some kind of girl-chasing hornball – which in itself wouldn't have been the worst thing, except that she also would have assumed I thought she was a fugly, given that I'd never paid her much attention before."
"So you don't think Hailey's unattractive?"
"Do you want to hear my story, or do you want to gossip?"
Claire snorted; she hadn't even realized she'd asked the question. She took her drink in one hand and gestured for Ryan to continue with the other.
Ryan shook his head in amusement. "Girls. Anyway, the earrings, hair, and fingernails were already kind of weird, but not a big deal. I was ready to pass her off as some random hot chick until she dumped about half a shaker of salt in her water."
Three things jumped out at Claire from Ryan's story. First, he had already been capable of identifying mermaids a year ago: the hair, the fingernails, and the salt were dead giveaways, but only to someone who knew enough to put all of them together. Anyone else would just think the girl was some kind of weirdo.
This meant that, secondly, he had – perhaps inadvertently, though somehow she doubted it – given a time reference for his relationship with Jade; the odds that he'd been referring to anyone else were just too low. Claire didn't know how long Ryan had lived in Australia, and Hailey had never tried very hard to find out. It was something Claire intended to bring up the next time she saw her friend.
Third, if Ryan had known Aqua was a mermaid for a year, why had he only bothered telling Jade a few days ago? Why had he kept that information from her, and why was he only starting with the espionage game now?
Ryan seemed to have finished talking for the moment, so Claire decided to put the question to him.
"I figured you'd ask that," he said approvingly – was this some kind of test? "A year ago," he continued, either not noticing or choosing to ignore the frown that flashed across Claire's face, "Hailey was either too lazy or too homesick to try to get to know anyone, let alone me." Knowing Hailey, it was probably both, Claire mused silently, letting nothing else show on her face as Ryan went on. "She wasn't looking in to me, so I didn't care what she did as long as she didn't go around telling people her friend was half-fish."
"Waitwaitwait," Claire burst out, having had a sudden epiphany. She paused as the lone waiter – who seemed to disappear when he wasn't attending to a customer – set a plate of assorted grilled fish and vegetables before each diner. When he'd vanished back into the kitchens, Claire fixed Ryan with an incredulous look. "Is all of this cloak and dagger stuff because you don't trust Hailey with a secret she had before she even knew you existed?!"
At first it seemed as if Ryan hadn't heard her; he calmly cut himself a piece of grilled tuna and swabbed it around in the pepper-specked oil underneath the fish before popping it in his mouth and chewing serenely. An annoyed Claire was about to repeat her query when – in a maddeningly calm voice – he simply said, "Yes."
It took almost all of Hailey's self-control to keep from picking at her borrowed dress. She knew she wasn't exactly svelte, but it was still fairly ridiculous that a summer dress could feel so suffocating.
The disguise was probably working, though. Ryan didn't seem to have noticed her – and interestingly, neither had Claire. It was possible that they were both just too distracted to bother with someone sitting across the street, but it could also be that the dress and ribbon-adorned sun hat – which Aqua had somehow produced when Hailey explained her plan – were simply so far out of Hailey's normal wardrobe that she simply didn't register as someone either of the objects of her attention would recognize, let alone know personally.
Unfortunately, from this distance Hailey had no idea what they were talking about, and she couldn't risk going any closer even if there'd been anywhere she could use as a listening post. All she could do was be ready to call the police – or at least Aqua, who was waiting back at the Rogers house – if it looked like Ryan was about to try something less than desirable. It was yet another one of her little plans that had been stonewalled by a lack of foresight, though admittedly the original version – braining Ryan with a rock and dragging Claire away – would probably have failed spectacularly on its own merits, or lack thereof.
Her stomach began to grumble as the pair were served what looked like the main course. She wasn't sure whether she was actually hungry or just envious of what looked like a good lunch. Either way, it was a distraction she definitely didn't need.
Why'd you have to grab Claire off the air? she wondered. And what are you two talking about?
"It's nothing personal," Ryan explained nonchalantly as Claire tried to control her outrage. "There're loads of people I don't trust; this just happens to be a lot bigger than most things."
"Hailey and I can keep a secret," Claire stated firmly before adding, "Probably a little better than you." She hadn't meant to sound so snippy, but she was genuinely upset that Ryan had made such a judgment call on two people he barely knew.
"Debatable," Ryan said with a wave of his hand. "Very debatable. You're smart, but either you haven't read enough spy novels or you've been reading the wrong ones. What's important is that you and Hailey realize exactly how big a secret this is, and why it needs to stay that way."
Claire raised an eyebrow. "I think we know how big this is, Ryan."
She had her mouth open to give a sassy comeback when a thought hit her: did she, really?
Ryan waited a while longer. When he was sure she didn't have an answer, he continued: "Humans aren't the most trustworthy species, but they're probably one of the most insensitive and definitely one of the most violent. If word somehow got around that a bunch of kids in Australia were hanging around with a new species, Aqua and Jade would find themselves in a science lab with a bunch of nutjobs poking around their insides."
Claire shook her head. "No, people wouldn't – "
"Why doesn't Hailey's mom know about Aqua, then?"
The question caught Claire off-guard, throwing her completely off-track. She managed a couple of half-formed words before finally managing to say, "What makes you think she doesn't?"
"Actually, that was a hunch. You just confirmed it."
Oh come on.
"Now, if Hailey's mom doesn't know, I'm guessing your grandparents don't know either."
Claire didn't even remark on his knowledge of whom her legal guardians were. Instead, she asked, "And why does it matter whether they know?"
"It would make your lives a lot easier, which you probably know," Ryan told her. "Now, your grandparents probably aren't an issue, but Hailey's mom is a scientist – which means you haven't told her because you don't want to deal with her questions. Heck, maybe deep down you're just as scared as I am that she'll want Aqua shipped off to the nearest marine laboratory."
Claire was stunned into silence. She wanted to refute Ryan's words, but she couldn't figure out how to do it without being defensive. Worse, she couldn't completely deny his statements herself. Why didn't they trust Mrs. Rogers with the truth? Why did they just keep playing this ridiculously annoying game of pretend?
As much as she wanted to deny it, Ryan was probably right.
"Humans aren't ready to know about mermaids," Ryan declared. "They weren't ready last time, and if anything they're even less ready now, with the whole 'superior species' thing they – "
"Wait," Claire interrupted, having just caught onto something in his sentence. "What do you mean by 'last time'?"
"Ask Aqua. She can tell you better than I can." Ryan had somehow finished his food while talking, and now he stood, apparently ready to leave. "The spy game's over, Claire. If we keep this up, someone's going to start paying us attention that we don't want. Not for Jade, not for Aquamarine." He pulled out his wallet and counted out some bills. "There's too much at stake for either of us." Ryan dropped the money on the table and started off down the street, leaving Claire lost in thought.
Hailey was tempted to try following Ryan, but she decided against it. Instead, she folded up the newspaper she'd been reading and jogged over to her friend. Claire didn't seem to have noticed her, so she grabbed her by the shoulder. "Claire!"
Her friend almost jumped out of her seat. "Hailey?! Where'd you come from?" Her eyes fell on the dress. "Why are you wearing Aqua's dress?"
Hailey pulled Ryan's vacated chair over and sat down as she said, "Never mind that. What'd he say? What'd you two talk about? Are you going to finish that fish?"
Claire rolled her eyes, but she still seemed somehow distant.
"Claire? What's up?"
After a few minutes, Claire fixed Hailey with a surprisingly dark look. "We need to talk to Aqua."