Marty wouldn’t be keeping his treasure. He’d known it last night, hours before meeting Lars for breakfast at the Shore Diner. The only thing changed was how much time he had to get to the marina at Gardner’s Basin and his ancient boat.
He stretched a finger toward the huge jar belted into the old Toyota’s passenger seat. Only one finger, a light touch on the glass, pulled back before she could react. “Lars says you gotta be worth twenty grand, easy. Maybe he’s right. Don’t give a damn myself.”
He really didn’t. Anyway, she wasn’t his to sell or not sell. Twenty grand might be nice, but Lars would find a way to get most of Marty’s share, like he always did. He wanted Marty to control her—as if anyone could—and keep her close. Lars would never understand how Marty got scared at night, when the air in his trailer turned cold as the sea. Or how her singing swirled around him like smoke, trapping him in the trailer’s small living room and pulling him to the jar.
“Don’t know why I showed you to him anyway,” Marty grumbled. “He says I gotta keep you. Can’t do that, though. Can’t.” Last night he’d made up his mind to release her and since then puzzled why he hadn’t done it sooner. When the idea came to him, Marty had felt clean for the first time in days. This morning, though, he’d gotten stupid and showed Lars the mermaid.
Some of the briny liquid sloshed onto the seat from holes punched in the jar’s lid. “You’re going home, lady,” he said. “I’m taking you back where I found you.” He gave a wet cough, took out a cigarette and his lighter. The thing in the jar began turning the lid. Strong she was. Marty lit the cigarette and tossed the lighter on the seat.
“Goody stink,” she said through the holes. Her voice had the pitch of a baby’s. For the moment, the lid stopped turning. “Yer takes me pier?”
“Nah. My boat. It’ll be faster. I’ll take you past most of the weekend fishermen.”
“Yer boat no good. Drown, yer. Takes me back yer sleep place.”
“No,” Marty shook his head to clear it. Too much booze, too many cigs. “You, ah, don’t belong there, see.” Where were the words to explain it? Two days ago he promised to love her forever. Then it was like a bubble broke in his head and he couldn’t stand to look at her, in that jar on his card table, like some freak show exhibit. Marty didn’t know how he ever had.
“Yer no loves me, Marty?” He didn’t answer. “Don’t takes me boat, takes me pier, like I tell.” There was a drag of sorrow in her voice he felt sure she couldn’t feel. She’d told him to lower her to the weedy froth that swirled around the pilings at the end of Caesars’ Pier, should she ever displease him.
“Why there?” he’d asked.
“Got family waitin’ down pier. Lots of crugs sticks to it. We gots some feast ’round them pilings.”
Marty guessed what crugs were. She told him anyway.
“Thems sticking to rocks and piers and bottoms on yer boats. Can’t get away. Easy killing thems.” Behind the glass, her hideous little face had split into a wide grin, one that showed all her pointed teeth.
The lid started turning again. He heard it scrape loose and swallowed a lump of spit. Her head pressed the underside and the lid tilted up.
“Don’t do that,” Marty said. “All your water might spill out.”
She ignored him. “Yer ain’t gonna let that Lars see me no more, is yer? I knows what he wants.”
“You do?” Marty laughed, or tried to. “’Course not. Sorry I showed you to him.”
Lars was Marty’s friend from way back. A petty grifter who got pettier every year. When they’d been young, the two of them would scam old ladies out of their casino winnings. They’d buy the wrinkled darlings a few drinks, do a bit of flirting, then come up with a tear-jerker, hard luck story a few hundred bucks from a kind soul could fix.
Now Marty’s curls had gone salt and pepper and he mostly fished from his skiff and collected from Uncle Sam because his bad foot kept him off the big boats. Lars had long ago given up on the comb-over, but he still grifted small time. These days his marks were retiree tourists. Marty sort of liked the one where Lars would lift a slot winner’s fat wallet, then pretend to be the good guy who found it dropped and returned it full. He almost always got a decent reward. Way better, he’d told Marty, than getting picked up by the cops with someone else’s bread and ID in your back pocket.
Lars was the reason he had to get to Atlantic City and the pier so damn fast. He’d told Marty to take the creature back to the trailer, that he’d show up later with a friend who might have some ideas about what they could do with her.
“Said I’d do that and wait for him,” Marty told the mermaid, “but I ain’t gonna, and I reckon he’s figured that out.”
Lars stayed two cars back, only speeding up when he saw Marty pull into Caesars’ parking garage. Damn idiot. Did he think he could sneak her past all the tourists and gamblers on the boardwalk? Hell, he probably hadn’t even put a towel over the jar. Lars would have. But then Lars wouldn’t be stupid enough to let the thing go. Shit, they could make millions.
He’d almost gagged when Marty showed him the little monster. The short man called it a mermaid, but Lars wasn’t so sure. It looked more like the dried out fakes you saw in carnival sideshows, the upper half of a monkey sewn onto the lower parts of a fish. But this thing was alive. Its scales had glittered like pirate gold, while its flat-nosed, wide-mouthed monkey face grinned at him from behind the glass.
“Cover that up,” he’d said. “Don’t let anyone see it.” Later, he thought that had been good. They needed the mermaid to be a surprise on the world, not a story some waitress was already telling. At the time though, it was the hideous, toothy face with its I-know-what-you-want smirk.
His “sort of” friend, Nick, who ran a small-time circus around the Jersey Shore every summer, had laughed at him.
“I know what it sounds like, but you gotta see this,” Lars had begged.
“You’re all kinds of desperate these days, Lars, but I haven’t turned stupid,” Nick had said before hanging up. He hadn’t answered his cell after that. Lars had to get in touch with the right people. But no middlemen. He’d needed to think about who’d pay the most, how to approach them. Maybe that Believe or Not tourist trap near Garden Pier. Yeah, they’d do for a start, then who knew?
“I smells it,” the mermaid said. She meant the ocean. The creature had allowed Marty to screw the lid down again. Now her slimy lips moved under a punched air hole. She could breathe air or not, as she chose, but very long out of the water, and her gold scales turned green and started to flake away.
Marty too sucked in the ocean scent and found it calmed him. They’d exited the garage, Marty hugging the big jar close to his chest with his left arm, carrying a plastic bucket and coiled fishing line with the other. Sunlight flashed off the glass and made him squint, which was maybe why he didn’t see Lars right away.
“Hello, pal. Where you going?” Lars’ shadow cut the sun as his big hand fell on Marty’s shoulder.
“You know,” Marty said. “Fishing.”
“Don’t be stupid, dude. That fish lady is worth more than you or I ever dreamed of. We’ll be rich.”
“Don’t need money, Lars. Told you that this morning.”
“Maybe you don’t, but I do.” Lars bent to look at the foot-long, fishy freak. Curved like a question mark, with her ugly head turned inward, she looked dead. Her golden scales were turning dull as he watched, but he guessed she wasn’t dying. He pushed closer until his glasses clinked, then pulled back and gave Marty a hard look. “I told you to keep that thing covered.”
“Sure,” Marty said, eyes unfocused. It was Lars who finally threw his worn jacket over the jar.
“Let’s you and me head for the boardwalk, eh, Mart?” he said. They started walking, Lars grinning, Marty with gritted teeth. “So,” Lars said, as they stepped onto the boardwalk and turned left. “Shall we pay a visit to the museum down the way?”
“No, Lars. I gotta let her go.”
“Let’s get something straight.” Lars stepped in front of Marty. “You and me are partners, pal. We’ve always been partners. And partners don’t cheat on each other. They don’t find gold and hide it.” His long index finger poked Marty’s chest, just above the jar lid. “I trusted you, Mart, and you went and found yourself something big and didn’t even think about letting poor old Lars in on the scam. After I stood by you all these years.”
“There’s no scam, Lars. And I did show her to you. Just thought you’d like to see something special, before I let her go.”
“Give me that.” Lars grabbed at the jar.
Marty backed a step, but he’d never been much for muscle. The taller man had always managed him easily. On his second try, Lars jerked her from Marty’s grasp. Water banged back and forth inside the jar, but the mermaid, apparently still playing dead, didn’t react.
“Your fish lady’s gonna earn her keep,” Lars said.
For a moment, Marty wondered if Lars had killed her, then he saw her face, with its marble eyes and over-wide jaws, where Lars’ jacket had slid aside. She winked at him.
Marty still had the bucket and the fishing line. He waited for Lars to tell him to throw it away, but the other man was staring at the jar. He’d moved his jacket more and Marty could see the gold fish—he sometimes called her that—had her back to them.
“Think it’s okay,” Lars said.
They started walking again. Lars’ long strides kept Marty running. “Wait up,” he panted.
There was a hiss from inside the jar. “Marty,” she called. “Don’t let poor old Lars takes me. Wants yer, Marty. I loves yer.”
“No, no, you don’t.” Marty felt ill.
“I does and me family does, too. Yer likes crugs? I gets yer some, then we goes back to sleep place, yes?”
“What’s she talking about?” Lars asked him. “Sounds like gibberish.”
Marty shook his head and reached for the jar. “Please, Lars. It’s not like you think. Keeping her’s no good. Thought I wanted her, see, but it’s her wants me.”
“Now why would that be, Marty?”
“Don’t know.” He had puzzled on that as well. Why wouldn’t she want to go back to her own kind? She’d offered him crugs before, too, as if she thought he didn’t get enough to eat.
“Let me hold her, eh, Lars.” Marty put both hands on the jar but couldn’t break Lars’ grip.
He wondered if the people around them would notice the scuffle, but the crowd broke like water at the front of his boat. Even the lady with the stroller glided deftly away. She glanced at them then looked down at her kid, who wasn’t doing anything worse than pounding his stuffed bear against the stroller’s front wheel.
Still in full command of the jar, Lars surprised Marty with small talk. “Why’d you take her home in the first place, Mart?” he asked. “She really save your life, like you said in the diner?”
Marty nodded as he looked up. Lars’ fat head acted like a sun umbrella so he didn’t need to shade his eyes. “Just wanted to get a better look at her, you know.” He’d used his empty bait bucket, filling it quickly from the bit of ocean sloshing around in the bottom of his boat. Still coughing up salt water, he’d grabbed her finny hand, dropped her into the bucket, slammed on the lid, then set his tackle box on top. It only worked because she’d been exhausted herself, from pulling him back into the boat. “I was always gonna bring her back,” he lied.
“Then you got a good look and saw dollar signs. But you don’t have the brains for this, pal. Why didn’t you come see old Lars right away?”
Marty eyed the mermaid’s jar. They were approaching Caesars’ shopping pier. If he grabbed it now and ran for the doors, he could maybe get through to the end of the pier. Close to where she wanted. But no, it wouldn’t work. He was too weak and too scared Lars or someone else would stop him. Wish it was my boat was under that pier, he thought, instead of the lifeguard’s.
Then Marty surprised himself and Lars. He grabbed the jar, pulled it away, and ran. He passed the doors to the mall and kept going. Marty didn’t run so good these days, though, what with his bad foot. He slowed to a half-run, and Lars almost caught up.
A security guard started toward them, definitely looking at the jar. Marty looked, too. Lars’ jacket had slipped down, and the mermaid was perfectly visible.
“Hey, old guys,” the guard called. “Keep it to a walk, okay?” Then he turned away, shaking his head.
They both slowed, Marty wondering if the guard saw mermaids every day, so his was no surprise.
“What gives?” Lars’ panted up behind him.
“He seen her, Lars. Didn’t even care.” Marty dropped the plastic bucket so he could get a better grip on the jar. “Maybe you won’t make no money, see.” He kept walking, banged into a young guy, got called an asshole.
“God-damned kids, these days,” Lars said, still sucking for breath. “Hold up, Mart.” He bent over his beer belly, hands on his knees. Marty didn’t know what else to do, so he stopped and waited for Lars to straighten up.
The mermaid’s hands were tucked inward. When she did that, the webbed skin running from her lower ribs to her wrist, like narrow bats’ wings, made it look as if she had fins. Then she untucked her hands. Squirrel hands, Marty thought. She turned one palm up and bent the clawed index finger, beckoning him. Marty put his ear to the lid.
“Takes me to yer trailer, Marty,” she said in her babyish voice. “If Lars no lets yer, kill him.”
“What?” Marty’s tongue felt thick.
“Lets me out. I bites him. Makes blood. Goody licking.”
“Now, what’s she saying?” Lars stood straight.
“Nothing. She’s just, ah, just wants to go home.”
“Don’t think so.” He let Lars imagine she meant home to the sea. “Give me the jar, Mart.”
Marty looked down at the lid. One of her eyes was visible through an air hole. Why not, he thought. Why not let Lars have the thing? Marty had wanted to keep her, to hear her songs so badly, he’d cried whenever he felt guilty about a sentient being living in a jar. Now he couldn’t wait to be rid of her, something she seemed not to have guessed.
Then he looked at his friend. Lars’ bald dome gleamed in the sunlight, his fringe was going grey. The thick, black-rimmed glasses made his eyes huge and time had carved deep crevasses around his mouth. He was tall, had been handsome once. Marty had envied Lars, looked up to him, admired and tried to emulate him. Lars had been the leader, the guy with ideas, also the guy who saw to it they always made out—somehow.
Marty glanced down at the mermaid again and knew what he would do. He spun away and made for the beach ramp, running again. His feet hit sand, sloughed through it. Marty’s foot hurt bad, but he didn’t care. He angled away toward the pier, moving faster than he had in years.
Lars was after him, of course, closing fast with his longer legs. Marty reached the lifeboat, parked sideways to the surf, tossed the jar in the bottom and pushed at the boat’s stern. It moved, but not much. He tried swinging it around to get the bow in the water. Lousy way to launch a boat, he thought. How’d they ever get it floating in time to save a swimmer?
As the bow rose on a wave, Lars slammed into him, shoving Marty and the boat deep into the surf. The little man leapt over the gunwale, turned and grabbed the oars.
“Come back here,” Lars yelled. “Damn it, Marty, don’t be stupid.” He waded in. Marty tried but wasn’t fast enough. Lars had hold of the side of the boat.
Marty glanced at the jar. It was tipped at an angle against the middle bench and the lid was turning—fast. Lars reached for it.
“Don’t,” Marty shouted. He was too late. The lid clanked into the bottom of the boat and she exploded through the opening. The mermaid was stunning, the way she landed on Lars’ arm, slithered up it, clamped her jaws over his face.
The really horrible thing was Lars didn’t scream. He couldn’t, Marty guessed, with teeth like curved daggers stitching his mouth closed. Marty could see his bulged eyes and the blood, splashing everywhere. Lars pulled at the monster, but she was slick with sea water, slime, and his blood. He couldn’t get a grip. He backed to the sand, fell on his rear, then went down onto his back.
“Lars!” Marty could finally move. He couldn’t turn the boat so he jumped out, stumbled through the waves and fell on his knees. She let go then, twisting herself around to look at Marty.
The little man opened his mouth to call for help and made a soft squeak. Didn’t matter anyway; Lars was dead. Where his face had been was a red pit. One eye remained, sort of, and the bottom of his chin. Blood turned his Hawaiian shirt black, sank into the sand around his head, pinked the foam that slipped in and out around his big feet.
She slid off Lars, came to Marty. “Goody fun,” she said. “Takes me yer trailer Marty. I wants to sing to yer.” Marty got to his feet, shaking like a malaria victim. He walked toward the boat, which had washed back onto the beach, threw up in it, then retrieved her jar and filled it with seawater.
She wriggled inside and let him screw the lid down. Marty stood, holding the heavy glass against his chest. He didn’t see the lifeguard and guessed he wouldn’t. People were sitting on the beach not twenty feet away, yet no heads turned, no fingers pointed. He felt bad leaving Lars, but was there a choice?
Marty headed for the parking lot where he’d get into his car, he and the mermaid. He’d drive home to his trailer and set her down on the card table. No one would stop him; the cops wouldn’t find them. And when it got dark outside, she would sing.