Undead and Underwater

Page 15

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But that was then and, as Fred had just realized, Madison had done the right thing. Fred would never admit it aloud, but she was ashamed of (some of) the unkind things she'd thought and said about Madison. If I hadn't been here-if that rotten bitch hadn't kidnapped my brain and used me to get into the building-Madison could be dead.

"It's okay," Fred assured Madison again, and the blonde on the floor said the same thing at nearly the same time.

And, "I got your message; I came to help." They both said that, too, and then broke off and glared at each other.

Finally: "I'm here now, everything's all right."

"Will you please stop reading my lines?" The other woman had gotten to her feet, something Fred found amazing and ominous, and was gingerly feeling her face and neck and head. "Okay, so . . . okay, that's still there . . . and there's no hole there . . . so my skull only feels like a ceramic pot you chucked out a window. And ow. And ow. Ow-ow-ow."

"Who are you?"

"Again, Red, you're reading my lines, not yours."

"Like hell," Fred snapped back. "You should know, with every word that drops from your insipid mouth, I get more and more pissed."

"You'd think that would shut me up. And yet here I am. Still talking."

Yes, that was annoying. "Whoever you are, you picked the wrong dolphin-loving ex-intern to mess with."

"I'm guessing you're not talking about yourself." She pointed to a wide-eyed Madison. "And I'm not messing with her. You are."

Fred shook her head so hard she almost knocked herself over. Listening to the nonsense made her feel like she was on shaky ground, like her brain was vulnerable and this close to being hijacked again. Being under the blonde's control had been like trying to think through a brain drowning in quicksand. Just remembering how it felt to have a voice that was not her own controlling her nervous system made Fred want to vomit up her lungs.

"This," the blonde was saying, limping to one of her pretty shoes and stuffing it back on her foot, "this is what I get for answering the phone. And listening to what the person on the other end says. And then agreeing to act. And then acting by coming to Boston with my insane-never mind. The point is, I've brought it on myself. Ow. Anybody ever tell you, you hit like someone wearing brass knuckles over their brass knuckles?"

"No." Oddly, that pleased her. "How are you even conscious?"

"It's a secret. So I'll just tell you: I've got a hard head. Like, concrete hard. Cement hard. Trying-to-get-Sarah-McLachlan-to-stop-making-those-sad-animal-abuse-commercials hard. Also you smell weird, does that have anything to do with it?"

Fred wondered if a side effect of being possessed was to feel like nothing anyone said made sense for at least ten minutes afterward. "Does that have anything to do with what?"

"The badass beat down you just gave me. And I couldn't mojo you." The woman was looking at her thoughtfully and, though she wasn't behaving in a threatening manner, Fred sensed she was more dangerous now than she'd been before. "Not all the way, anyway. You shrugged it off after a while. That's never . . . huh. Why do you smell like fish?"

Fred blinked. This was . . . yes. This was happening. "You're in an aquarium, you idiot."

"Touch-ee. Betsy Taylor, by the way." She stuck out her hand.

Fred looked down at it, then back up into Betsy's blue green eyes. Then remembered mojo and jerked her gaze elsewhere. "I'm not shaking your hand."

"Ouch again. It's okay; they warned me about people from Boston."

"I'm not-" Fred shut her mouth. Why am I having a conversation with this creature? My kingdom for a spear gun.

Undeterred, the woman continued, "I'm Betsy Taylor. You must be Madison Fehr. We got here as soon as we could. Sorry if I scared you."

"That's okay." Madison was hiccupping, from fear or adrenaline or both, but got hold of herself enough to shake Betsy's hand. "I didn't handle that very well. I haven't handled any of this very well. I'm rilly, rilly sorry."

"Yeah, I was hoping we could talk about that. And about you, of course. I take it that whatever jam you're in, she's not part of it?" Jerking a thumb in Fred's direction.

Madison, still hiccupping, shook her head. "No. Not yet, but she probably will be, and it's my fault." For the first time, Fred saw how wretched Madison looked and sounded. The girl was barely out of college, had the money to buy anything she liked, and usually looked carefully put together.

Madison tended to dress like she still went to an exclusive East Coast private school: pleated khaki skorts, crisp white blouses, navy cardigans, and her I'm-only-an-intern-but-they-gave-me-this-cool-lab-coat lab coat. Hair pulled back into a curly platinum ponytail. Minimum-to-no makeup . . . the only thing she and Fred had in common. Madison didn't need it, and Fred had always found stuffing her pores with foundation, tugging on the delicate skin around her eyes with pencils and makeup brushes, and plastering her lips with wax preservatives to be exquisitely stupid.

That other one was wearing makeup: bronzer and blush. She didn't need it, either, which pissed Fred off. Irrational and irrelevant, but tonight she was a slave to her baser emotions.

"I don't suppose either of you are in a smoothie mood, huh?" Betsy asked.


"If neither of us is the problem, what's the problem?"

Madison was having trouble meeting either woman's gaze. "Um, I'm the problem. Me and the bad guys. Okay, these guys I met? They think I'm Fred? And they wanna kill lots of Undersea Folk?"

As Fred stared, Betsy-sounding truly unpleasant for the first time-said, "I hate when women make everything a question? I don't understand how you can't hear how annoying that sounds? Like you can't get your thumb out of your butt and be assertive?"

Fred snorted; her sentiments exactly. She hadn't anticipated having even one thing in common with Betsy Taylor.

"What do you mean, the bad guys think you're me?"

"And who are you?" Betsy asked.

"Don't do that." The only thing that made Fred more uncomfortable than the people who recognized her were the ones who pretended they didn't recognize her. "If you've ever watched TV or been on the Web, you know who I am."

"Wow, the ego on you. And if I'm calling you on having a big ego, it's time to reexamine your life. Let's try one more time: Who are you?"

"This is my work friend," Madison lied. Fred did not consider the platinum-haired dimwit a friend. But this is my pain in the ass sounded unkind, even to her ears. "Betsy, this is Dr. Fredrika Bimm. She's one of those mermaid people."

"By mermaid people do you mean heavily medicated people?"

Fred slapped the counter in her annoyance. "Oh, come on! It's been all over the news for months. Mermaids are real, they're called Undersea Folk, and we're all going try to live in peace. Hum your favorite parts from 'Come Together' and it'll all fall into place."

"I've been busy with my own stuff-does this sound familiar since I just said it? So how about you get to the actual reason we're all in a big fish warehouse on a Tuesday night after the place is closed when I could be around the corner enjoying an oyster milkshake at the-the"-Betsy held up one finger in the universal hold-on-a-second gesture, fumbled through her dark green tote bag, then whipped out Boston For Dummies-"Union Oyster House. Says here it's the oldest tavern in America."

"You called a tourist for help?" Fred asked Madison, who had the decency to blush at the shame of it. "And you! Step away from the guidebook. First, you should have gone with Rough Guides. They're not as bossy. Second, mermaids exist, I'm one of them, and that's probably why Madison's in trouble. I have to speculate, though, since Madison hasn't coughed up the reason she's in trouble. As for you . . ." Fred seized Betsy by the arm and hauled her up the stairs . . . and up, and up. Madison tripped along behind them, wringing her hands. Fred was unaware women did that outside of gothic novels. "I can see we're gonna be stuck in neutral unless I can get you past this one thing."

"You mean about you being clinically insane? It's okay, though," she added hastily as they came to the top level, and the top of the tank. "My husband is, too, so I'm not judging. What does any of what you're doing have to do with-Hey, a turtle!" She peered into the enormous tank, home to several dozen species of fish and reptiles. "And sharks!" Then: "Whoa."

She had whoa'd because Fred had kicked off her flip-flops and stripped down to her . . . nothing. Yep, she was down to her nothing. Then she stomped over to the stairs beside the side of the tank, ascended them, and-

"I'm pretty sure you'll need a note from a parent or a doctor before you do that. Seriously. Will you get down? Hey-don't!"

-dropped in.

* * *

The NEA's Giant Ocean Tank** was a four-story live exhibit at the heart of the aquarium. More than twenty feet deep and over thirty feet wide, the thing held two hundred thousand gallons of salt water as well as turtles, stingrays, eels, reef fish, sharks, assorted excrement from same, discarded food from same, coral reefs-lots o' stuff, in other words. The water itself was bathtub warm.

From inside, Fred could see wavy, indistinct versions of Betsy and Madison looking down at her. She was a little nervous. Not out of fear of the tank's inhabitants. Like all Undersea Folk, Fred shared a low, telepathy-based form of communication with the fish here, and they were (for the most part) on friendly terms. Yes, they'd gone on a hunger strike a couple of years ago when Fred refused to pipe in more Pet Shop Boys (coral reef fish adored '80s glam rock for reasons unknown to Fred, who loathed it). Yes, there were occasional power struggles. But in general they got along.

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