“JUST MY DAMN LUCK!” I pointed into the blue-green waves of the Gulf of Mexico, held on tight to the side of the Fish & Get-’Em, and peered into the crystal clear water for my prey. A deep-sea fishing rod whirred right next to me, and yards of translucent fishing line screamed out behind the charter boat, arching the rod tip over until it disappeared into the ocean. “I think we foul-hooked the mermaid!”
Hunting mermaids is not for the faint of heart. I flung off my Aviator Ray Bans, and peered over the side of the sixty-foot charter boat, searching the churning turquoise waves for my catch. She darted off behind the boat. Looked like I was gonna have to go in after her. I wasn’t about to let her get away.
This was a different way to spend a day in always-sunny Key West. Hey, at least I wasn’t dodging drunken crowds of tourists down on Duvall Street. Five miles off the coast of the Southernmost Point in the middle of the ocean was definitely more my speed.
One glance back at the captain’s face revealed a grim expression, his weathered old face pinched tight, his eyes wide. He wasn’t the first old salt on Charter Boat Row out of Garrison Bight Marina who’d lost a boat to the mad mermaid in the past three months. We’d barely convinced him to help us go out this far and fish for the creature—and that had taken a lot of cash.
My bare feet slipped and slid across the white fiberglass floorboard when the stern of the mighty Fish & Get ’Em groaned, and dipped dangerously close to the water’s edge.
“That little bitch. Watch out, Max! She’s got the anchor line, and she’s coming around for the kill.”
Rumor had it this particular muse from the deep, whose name was Moriah, had it in for the sailors of Key West, but no one knew why. I didn’t really care. I’d volunteered for the assignment when the Hunters’ Watch Brigade posted it on the mission board.
Legend has it my boss, Shade Vermillion, organized the Hunters’ Watch Brigade after some asshole turned him from a human into a vampire against his will about two hundred years ago. We’re a tight-knit group of paranormal peacekeepers who protect humans from things that go bump in the night.
My official badge reads Samantha Silverton, Water Elements Specialist, Lieutenant Hunter. I’ve worked on the team of supernaturals who police activities of other supernaturals for ten years now.
Okay, so I’m a monster-hunter.
Our mission statement is simple. When creatures like vampires, werewolves, or even innocent-looking fairies go rogue and endanger human lives, we show up and stop them.
I don’t get involved in the whys of my missions. I just get the job done.
My job here today was to round up the frisky mermaid, then turn her over to my superiors at the Hunters’ Watch Brigade, or the HWB as I called it, for questioning and possible reform. To do that, I’d brought along my trusty sidekick, Max. I turned and yelled at him over the chaos of the lurching, and soon-to-be listing, charter. “Cut her loose before she sinks the damn boat!”
Max, my thirty-five pound, black-tabby Maine Coon cat had skills. He leapt up, extended razor-sharp claws, and slashed the fishing line. The rod sprung free. Max bounded up to the back of the fish-fighting chair, and yelled, “Cut that anchor loose, Captain Tom. Now! If you don’t, we’re all going down to meet Poseidon.”
Captain Tom’s expression fell, and his jaw went slack. Yeah, poor guy. It was hard for humans to comprehend a talking cat. To his credit, he moved into action and obeyed the cat’s commands. The back of the boat lurched free from the threat of the deep.
I stalked to the stern, and pointed my index finger at Max. “You stay here, understand me? Keep the captain safe, and do not follow me into the water. Our guys from the HWB should be here any minute to collect the mermaid.”
He flipped me a black-striped paw. “You get to do all the cool stuff while I wait for the cleaners. That’s just great, Sam.”
I tossed him a half-smile. Max had always fancied himself a monster-hunter too. But even with his awesome skills, cats had limits.
I leapt up onto the wide side rail of the Fish& Get ’Em, double-checked the ties on my pink string bikini, then dove down into the cool, blue water.
The sea is my home, and, as soon as the salt water covered my sunburned skin, things felt right. As a halfling daughter of Poseidon, it took only seconds to adjust my inner sensory gills. The sensation of breathing underwater was liberating, like a cool breeze on my face on a sunny afternoon. I looked around for my catch, balancing on a bank of fire-red coral rock just fifteen feet under the drifting boat.
I grinned. This capture was sure to make Shade and his fellow commanders sit up and take notice.
Max wasn’t the only one with skills. With ninety-nine successful missions behind me, my intention was to be the best damn monster-hunter in the Hunters’ Watch Brigade.
“Freaking mermaids . . .” My words were clear and pure underwater, but if any humans had been near, they would have only heard a distortion, a fracture of my voice. The stories I’d read in human literature spoke of mermaids as denizens of the deep who lured sailors to their deaths. Those tales were, in truth, based on fact.
Moriah the mermaid was the latest uber-bitch of the deep, and I wondered if her story would change the history books. My father always warned me to steer clear of the mermaids, and mermen were strictly off-limits.
I tapped the raised line of a seven-inch scar with three distinct barbs on my left wrist twice. My scar looks kinda like a cool tattoo to any curious human eyes, and it mimics what lies beneath. My trident, Atlantis, sprang forth from the scar and materialized before me.
Seven-foot long, with three crystal tines, Atlantis felt secure in my hands. The ice-blue sparkling staff was both my weapon and a gift from my father for my twelfth birthday. He’d insisted I take it for protection if I chose to remain on Earth with my human mother, so I’d complied. Besides, how could I turn down a super-cool weapon that had bling, and magic?
I gripped the crystal staff diagonally, with both hands in front of me, then aimed the three tines out to show I meant business. Spotting the fish-tailed floozie, I stalked over the red coral toward the floundering mermaid.
The top of her body was human-like, her generous boobs uncovered, with perky nipples that jutted skyward. That topless slut. And, just like in the movies, her bottom half was scaled and fishy. Her green tail looked powerful, its fin the biggest part of her. The fishing line from Captain Tom’s charter boat was tangled around her emerald-scaled hips. She struggled to free herself, and plucked the fishing hook out of her side.
“Looks like I foul-hooked you,” I said.
She turned and glowered at me, her blond hair floating around her like an angel’s halo. “How dare you interfere?”
I jabbed my index finger upward, motioning to Captain Tom’s boat. “I dare because these men have done nothing to deserve your anger. I’m here to take you in for questioning, to make sure you leave these innocent humans alone.”
Planting her fists on her green hips, she said, “Just who the hell do you think you are?” She eyed Atlantis with suspicion.
I beamed. I’d never met a monster who hadn’t given my weapon the respect it deserved.
“You’ve got two choices, Moriah. You can come with me, surrender to the Hunters’ Watch Brigade and take your chances on rehabilitation with them, or we can conclude this conversation with my father, Poseidon.”
The mermaid flinched, and swam backward. “How do you know my name?” Her face was awash in terror and surprise, her eyes as wide as sand dollars. “You’re no daughter to Poseidon. You’re half-human.”
“My dad and his brothers get around. What can I say?” I shrugged. My father’s reputation was well-known around the seven seas. I didn’t have to justify his behavior.
I jabbed Atlantis toward her. She jerked back like a fish on the line, but I pursued her. “You violated the supernatural code Moriah—you’ve injured humans. You’ve sunk four charter boats in the last month.”
“What business is that of yours?” Her words were haughty. Most monsters had the same reaction when they found out the HWB tolerated zero interference with humankind. Hey, I didn’t make the rules. I just enforced them.
I’d joined the Hunters’ Watch Brigade when I turned twelve years old. My mom signed me up under Shade’s protection when it became apparent that my demigod heritage made me stick out in a crowd. And honestly, working for Shade is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. I get to travel to exciting locales, use super-cool weapons, and stop supernatural bullies from picking on unsuspecting humans.
“Call it a public service of sorts. I volunteered for this assignment, and we don’t take kindly to supernaturals misbehaving.”
“You’ll never stop me, halfling. You don’t have the guts.”
Okay. Now she was pissing me off.
“Yes. I will. We’ve been tracking you, collecting data on your shenanigans up and down the Florida Keys.” I flourished my hand through the water. “Some of the humans wised up. They reported your activities. Sure, the sailors were stinking-assed drunk because you scared them witless, but you know as well as I do that humans can’t know about us. By that breach, you put a target on your back.”
“You could not possibly understand my pain.” Moriah frowned, and for a minute I thought she might cry. In another context, I would have found her beautiful, ethereal, like a siren of the deep. But when the mermaid turned to hurting people—whatever her reasons—it wasn’t pretty at all.
“So, what happened to you? Let me guess. It’s a tale as old as time, right?” I glanced at my nails and almost yawned. “You fell in love with a man, and he did you wrong?” It was the same old story . . . and the reason I maintained my rule of not getting mixed up with human men.
“He told me he’d come with me,” she said, and lowered her head, her beautiful expression almost broken. Could mermaids cry? Underwater? Her story was really tugging at the heartstrings. I could almost hear violins as she went on, “He told me he loved me.”
I firmed my lips. “So, one jerk of a sailor rejected you, and now you’re taking your grief out on all these innocent men? By sinking their boats? How is that right?”
“They’re all in it together,” she cried, her sweet frown morphing into a mangled grimace. Seriously, if I hadn’t seen all sorts of freakish monsters in my time with the HWB, I might have been terrified. “All men leave. None of them can be trusted,” she said.
So, she’d figured out the truth about life, and love. I nodded my agreement, totally empathizing with her fishy story. One thing was for sure, Moriah was one pissed-off mermaid. “Totally sucks that happened to you, girl, but I won’t allow this to continue.”
She fisted her hands on her curvy green scaly hips again. “And just what do you think you can do to stop me?” She tossed her blond head back, her voice echoing through the water.
Yes, I felt bad for her. But trust her, no. Not even close.
“I can do this,” I said, and aimed Atlantis at the angry mermaid. A bolt of electrical energy snaked out from the three tines. The charge blasted her back against the white sandy bottom. She landed with an audible oomph, totally incapacitated. The blast from my trident fried the remaining threads of monofilament fishing line tangled around her.
I grinned. You’d think a weapon from Poseidon would just move water around, but no, sometimes Atlantis surprised me with these freaky bolts of lightning. Totally cool, it was like the weapon knew what I needed before I did.
I ran across the coral reef, stopping before the mermaid. A rather large flounder startled away from my bare feet, and swam off to safety. I held my crystal fish fork up, ready to lance her about the throat. “I’m taking you in so you can explain yourself to my supervisors.”
The high keening sound of a speedboat’s motor cut through the silence of the clear seawater. I looked up toward the charter boat. Good. My backup is approaching. Once they arrived, we’d haul the fishy bitch up to the surface so the soldiers I work with could take her in. I just hoped they had some reliable way to contain her. All in a good day’s work, though. I practically beamed, thinking of how pleased Shade would with be with my catch of the day.
I’d worked hard to make my way through the ranks to become a Lieutenant Hunter for the organization. Was I a little competitive? Well, yes, but in my line of work, that was an asset. I liked it when my boss was happy with me. It meant more missions, more money, and more advancement. Bagging the mermaid had been way easier than I’d counted on.
“I’m not leaving until they all pay, halfling!” Moriah’s voice boomed through the water, popping my ears like a sonic boom. Oh, shit. I whipped around to the sound of her voice. I’d forgotten lesson number one—never take your eyes off a furious mermaid.
She was fast, I’d give her that. In one fishlike dart, Moriah was on me. She swung her mighty finned tail around, and pounded me in the legs.
She caught me off guard with my preemptory victory dance. The force of her tail fin dislodged Atlantis from my grip. The trident flew from my hands and landed on the bottom twenty feet away. I landed on my back, stunned, the water knocked out of my gills. Sand billowed up all around me, obscuring my vision, and my chest burned like the fires of Hades. Oh, hell no, she did not nail me with that slimy green tail. . . .
Sitting up, I blinked sand out of my eyes. I waved my arms up to clear the cloudy water obscuring my view.
I heard a splash, and looked up. Max had jumped into the water, and was swimming toward the mermaid, fury lighting up his blue-green eyes. His black-striped fur was plastered against his hide. Why the hell was he in the water?
And then I saw the reason. Max had disobeyed my direct order to stay on the boat because he was coming to protect me. He swam toward the lady fish with iron-sharp claws extended.
Moriah ignored Max, and dove for Atlantis.
I shook my head no. She was going to pick it up, and use my own weapon against me. I blanched, then screamed, “No, Moriah! Don’t. Touch. Atlantis!”
But my warning came too late.
Max didn’t have time to intervene, though I was impressed that he’d tried. He had this insufferable thing about protecting me, and while I loved him for it, sometimes he tried my patience. I darted up from the sand, caught Mr. Super Kitty in my arms, and sheltered him from the impending explosion.
When the blond green-scaled denizen touched my trident, a surge of blue-white magic blew through the water, and blasted Moriah into a million tiny little fishy bits.
The explosion was remarkable, and the shock wave blew us back through the water. Damn. . . .
It generated a blast that would hammer the shores of the Gulf and the Atlantic with waves all the way up to the coast of Miami. Captain Tom’s boat lurched above us, but stayed afloat. I bit my bottom lip. Oh, boy, my dad was sure to hear about this mishap, and then there’d be hell to pay. Well, at least the surfers on the coast of Florida would see some action today.
I curled my fingers, calling Atlantis home. When my trident bolted toward me, I gripped the staff firmly.
The only issue now was, Moriah’s accidental death meant my vampire handler Shade wouldn’t have anyone to question. He was a furious taskmaster. As founding leader and co-commander of the HWB, Shade made every monster hunt his business. Unlike me, he prided himself on understanding the reasons behind bad supernatural behavior. Sometimes I wondered if he wasn’t a little obsessive-compulsive about conspiracy theories. Crap. He was gonna be mad as hell. He liked to interrogate bad supernaturals, and he hated it when I killed them.
I snagged what was left of the Mayhem Mermaid, one lone green tail fin, and ascended toward the surface with Max in my arms.
A second later, we bobbed our heads above the waves.
Max held on to me tight, gasping for air, his sharp claws caught in the top of my pink bikini. With a furious kick of my long legs, I leapt out of the ocean onto the deck of the sleek black HWB speedboat.
MAX GASPED IN a deep lungful of air when Sam plopped him on the deck of the HWB speedboat. The Hunters’ Watch guys had moored the two boats together, and Captain Tom stared over from the Fish & Get ’Em with sharp eyes, and a confused expression. Sam tossed the mermaid’s green tail down beside him. Max wiggled his nose, and fought to breathe. The damn thing stank to high heaven.
Three supernatural agents stared at them, their mouths agape, making them look like fish out of water. When Max realized they were leering at Sam’s bikini with rapt appreciation, he growled. Sam tapped the deck of the boat three times with the butt end of Atlantis. “Don’t even start, boys,” she warned.
“Somebody get her a towel. Now,” Max demanded. If it had been up to him, she’d be dressed from neck to toes in a black neoprene wetsuit.
The HWB attracted alpha males of every persuasion. Some of them were human, but most of them weren’t. Today, Shade had sent two white-blond Nordic elf twins who stood at least seven feet tall, taller if you measured their jutty pointed ears.
The other soldier looked like a musclebound, almost-naked lifeguard from Baywatch. He even wore tight little red swimming trunks, and he smelled like coconut rum, his tanned skin shiny from suntan oil. Max looked back at Sam. Was she staring at the lifeguard?
“We’re here for the pickup.” One of the elf twins approached Sam, and offered her his full-length purple cloak. She wrapped it around her shoulders. “Where’s the suspect, Silverton? And what the hell was that explosion we heard?”
Sam motioned to the mermaid’s tail fin, then shrugged. “She touched my weapon. That’s all that’s left of her.”
All three of them backed away from her a couple of steps. She grinned. “Gotta respect the trident, right?”
“You killed the suspect?” Nordic Elf Twin Two said, his lips twisting into a grimace. “What are we supposed to tell Shade?”
Max didn’t exactly care for the elf’s condescending tone. “Sam never touched her. The suspect tried to kill her. I saw the whole thing.” Max gestured to the mermaid’s tail fin with an outstretched paw, then coughed up seawater.
The lifeguard leaned down, and pounded Max’s back to help him expel the part of the ocean he’d swallowed. He twisted away from him, and hissed.
Sam knelt beside them. “What’s wrong with you, Max? I told you to stay on the boat.”
He wheezed, and sneezed up seawater, spraying their faces. “She was coming straight for you.” After three more retches, he sat back and looked at her. His fur was itchy, already drying in the hot ocean sun. Sam wrung the seawater out of his usually spectacular tail. “I couldn’t let her get to you,” he said.
“You have no business putting yourself in the line of fire like that. I’m the monster-hunter, you’re the sidekick.” She stroked back his soaking-wet whiskers with her fingertips. “If anything ever happened to you, I’d never forgive myself.”
“Same here,” he said, and started to fire up his purr. The effort threw him into a coughing fit, and Baywatch Boy leaned away from him.
“So your cat interfered with your mission, Silverton?” Elf Twin Number One asked. “Shade will likely be furious. You realize we’ll have to file that in our report.”
Sam stood up to face him. “He did no such thing. Max saw I was compromised, and like any good team member, he attempted to protect me.” She turned and rubbed Max’s chin in a show of thanks, and smiled at him. “You should commend him in your report.”
Max was practically giddy with her attention, with the way she defended him. But who was he kidding? In his cat form, he couldn’t possibly have helped her down there against a creature like Moriah.
What the hell good was a talking cat anyway when supernaturals pulled stunts like that? He narrowed his eyes at the HWB agents, jealous of their human-like form, and angry that he didn’t look like them. “The mermaid was reckless. At least now we don’t have to worry about her sinking any more damn boats. Job well done.”
“Sure, kitty. We’ll let you explain that to the vampire,” Baywatch Boy said.
Max sighed. Regret gripped him. All he could do was admire Sam from afar.
Captain Tom coughed, took two steps back, his eyes pinched tight, and suddenly clutched his chest. Elf Twin Number One hopped over to the charter boat to help him.
Max frowned. It had to be pretty weird for Captain Tom to see all this. He hoped the man wasn’t having a heart attack. “Is he gonna be all right?”
Sam cast Captain Tom a weary glance, and Max followed her gaze. The last thing she needed right now was to try to explain why she and her familiar were having an outright conversation regarding mermaid hunting, or for that matter, the presence of the HWB guys. She stood up and faced the captain.
Captain Tom gestured at the tail on the deck, and his face turned sort of whitish green. “That . . . the, uh . . . was that a mermaid?” He looked like the words tasted odd on his tongue.
Max stood and switched his tail. Sam nodded. Humans weren’t supposed to see things like Moriah, and other monsters the Hunters’ Watch Brigade dealt with, things they protected them from.
“She near ’bout sank my damn boat, girl,” Captain Tom said.
“She’s gone,” Sam said. “Remember our agreement, though. You promised your silence about what you saw out here in trade for that handsome sum of cash we paid you.”
“Damn, girl. No one would ever believe me anyway,” he said, and gestured to Max. “Thanks to you and your talking cat for saving my boat.”
“I’m under strict orders to wipe his memory,” Elf Twin Number One said, holding Captain Tom’s arm, steadying the old salt. He pulled a sparking green amulet on a golden chain out of his tunic. “Look at this for a minute, Captain.”
Max cringed and looked away.
“Oh, hell,” Sam said, and looked away as well. “Not this again.”
Messes like this called for extreme measures, but Max hated it as much as Sam did. They still weren’t sure what a memory wipe did to a human brain, and if Captain Tom suffered any long-term consequences, Sam would blame herself. Humans and supernaturals didn’t mix. It was what it was.
Max sighed, and walked over to her, weaving in and out around her ankles. Sam was a woman without a country, it seemed, unable to mix with humans for obvious reasons, and smart enough to keep most supernaturals at trident’s length.
Still, stopping the boat-sinking mermaid was the least they could do for their fellow man. Sam had been amazing down there. Her mission scorecard was filling up with confirmed kills. So what if Shade didn’t have anyone to interrogate? His loss. If the paranoid bloodsucker wanted to be angry at anyone, he’d gladly take the heat for Sam. That was what sidekicks did.
Max put his paws up on her long legs, drawing her attention, making sure to put claw marks in the elf’s purple robe. “Now the humans here are safe, for the time being. And so are you.” That was all that mattered in his book.
A brilliant green flash of magic from the Elf’s amulet stole Captain Tom’s memories of hunting mermaids off the coast of Key West.
“Great,” Sam said, her tone morose. “Now I have to deal with explaining myself, and what went wrong with our mission, to a seven-foot vampire.”
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