When the medical examiner opened the corpse’s chest, he found the body cavity filled with sea water. Two small sea turtles, their shells still soft like the fingernails of a baby, were floating in the briny solution. The lungs were stuffed with starfish, and a squid, colored a sickly maroon, was wrapped around the heart.
The squid refused to let go of the man’s organ, and the medical examiner finally gave up trying to separate the two. He dumped them both in a bucket of salt water, thereby ensuring the pickling of the heart.
“It’s just a drowning,” the Chief Constable said when the medical examiner called. “We found him on the beach. He must have been in the water long enough for the sea life to invade his body.”
The medical examiner tried to point out that it was more likely the man had died of asphyxiation, choked to death by the cluster of starfish in his lungs. But the Chief Constable had already hung up.
The medical examiner sighed and thumbed the switch on his phone several times. When the operator came on the line, he asked to be connected to Scotland Yard in London.
The squid released the heart, gently depositing the organ on the bottom of the bucket. Flickering through a kaleidoscope of colors, it began to swim counter-clockwise. Maroon streaking into blue dissolving into black turning yellow roasting into green.
“Yes? Hello?” The connection with the Yard was filled with crackling static. “This is Dr. Garrow in Suffolk County. I have a most unusual situation up here.” He glanced down at the squid in the bucket. “No, someone a little more specialized, if possible.”
Detective Inspector Phreniwit tapped the glass of the fish tank with the polished handle of his cane. A sea turtle paddled towards the sound. Its knobby nose bumped against the glass.
“Chelonia mydas,” the medical examiner supplied. He stood by the narrow window of his office, smoking his fourth cigarette of the day. “Green sea turtles. They grow to be about two hundred kilograms. The two I pulled out of the body are about three days old.” His voice quivered on the last words. “Which happens to also be my best estimate on how long he’s been dead.”
DI Phreniwit counted the starfish, arms overlapping, strewn across the bottom of the tank like scattered orange rinds. “Seven,” he mused. “Why are there only seven?”
“Seven is an odd number. Yet you say that you removed these starfish from the body’s lungs—there are two of them. Why wouldn’t there be eight or six starfish? Why seven? It implies irregularity.”
The medical examiner blew smoke from his nose. “There’s nothing regular about this entire situation.” His hand shaking, he pointed at the other tank with his cigarette. “I had to remove his heart in order to get the squid out.”
DI Phreniwit tapped on the smaller tank with his cane. The white squid flexed orange and then blossomed into streaks of gold and purple. “Fascinating,” he murmured, staring into the squid’s blank gaze. “Protector or devourer? I wonder.” The squid shifted color again, draining to opaque white as if to give nothing away to the detective’s question. “Have you identified the body?”
“Not yet. I’ve asked Missing Persons and they’ve got nothing that matches. Other than water damage, the body was in good shape, so he wasn’t homeless.”
“Just not yet missed.”
The medical examiner shrugged. “Or he’s a tourist. Not American. Dental work isn’t nearly obsessive enough. Probably British.”
“Dental records are going to be tricky. Whatever work he had—and this is just a guess, mind you, but it looks like a couple of crowns—has been torn out.”
Dr. Garrow swallowed. “Torn out. With a hooked implement of some kind. Near as I can tell.”
DI Phreniwit tapped the glass as he thought. “A hook. Or a fork. Or even something larger.” The hovering squid showed no interest in his coded message of clicks and taps. “Yes,” the detective decided. “I know what you are.” He straightened up, leaning heavily on his cane. “I’d like to see where the body was found,” he said to the medical examiner. “Can you have someone take me there?”
DI Phreniwit found the young woman a kilometer up the beach from the destitute shore where the body had been discovered. She sat at the peak of a jumbled mass of cracked rock, wrapped in a sea-stained yellow blanket. Her hair was damp from the spray, and her skin was waxy and pale from exposure to the cold wind blowing off the turbulent ocean.
Climbing like an old three-legged goat, he clambered up to her and sat down on a nearby extrusion of wet stone. The water soaked through his wool trousers immediately, chilling his buttocks, and he shifted uncomfortably on the stone.
She watched him as he filled his pipe. The blanket was taut about her shoulders, tucked under her legs. A blotch, like a mixture of pomegranate and blueberries, stained the hollow of her right eye, dripping down across her cheek. Her feet were bare and her hands were clasped tightly in her lap. She didn’t speak the entire time he filled, tamped, lit, and stoked his pipe.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” he said after a minute of reflective smoking. “The way the sea moves, undulating and recirculating against the shore. I wonder sometimes what we lost when we decided to give up our flippers and grow feet. What did we give up by climbing onto land? Why did we bother? So much of the world is water; why did we give all that up to walk on land?”
The young woman shivered, but said nothing.
“We were fish then, and I doubt our brains were developed enough to actually think, in the true Cartesian sense, of course. We were just acting on instinct, thrusting ourselves out of the water and onto dry land. How difficult those first years must have been: learning how to walk, learning how to breathe, learning how to eat the desiccated food grown in the dead earth. How different that all must have been from being submerged in water.” He raised his pipe from his lips. “No tobacco, for instance. Nor fire, for that matter. Imagine: a world where we never needed fire. Is that why we did it? Or was it a different sort of ardor that brought us onto land?”
A tear started in the corner of the young woman’s eye, a shining reflection of the ocean caught in her eyelashes.
“I think we crawled from the sea because we wanted to touch Heaven. We learned how to breathe air and stand upright because the sky was so far from the water. How else were we going to reach it?” He sucked on his pipe, blew a stream of white smoke into the air and watched it be torn apart by the wind off the water. “When we gave up scales and gills, we left other aspects of ourselves behind as well—empathy and kindness, possibly. Maybe that is why we forgot to grow wings. Why we forgot so many things.”
He looked at the young woman. “This wasn’t the first time he hit you, was it?”
She shook her head, and the tear tracked down the bruise on her face.
He sighed and looked at the water for a long time, watching the foamy spume dash against the rocks. The breakers growled as they crashed against the shore. “You can’t return,” he said. “No matter the tribute you send to be gathered by the fork of your stormy father. He and your undine mother love you very much, but they can’t change you back to what you were.”
Beyond the cresting waves, moving in the swell of the approaching ocean, light glinted off jeweled scales. Hidden in the hollows of the ocean’s roar, he heard the distant sound of her mermaid sisters singing, each to each.
“I do have some influence with the local constabulary,” he said, staring at the light dancing on the sea. “There is an institute up north by Derbyshire that is close to the sea. I hear the rooms are perpetually damp. I will convince the magistrate that such a place is well suited to your situation.”
He felt her hand on his shoulder, and when he placed his fingers over hers, he found her to be warm. Not cold at all.