Pawns and Phantoms (An Everland Mystery)
by Misha Handman
Copyright © 2022 by Misha Handman
Thursday, August 16th, 1953
Thursday is usually harbor day, when ships come in from the Sea of Dreams. My plan was to meet up with some friends, grab an iced tea, enjoy the sun, and make jokes about the tourists. But last night had been a long one ó back-to-back afternoon and night shifts at different bars, a few more fights than usual, and Iíd stuck around to help clean up after some mobster threw up all over the bathroom, then had his guys carry him out of there like it was no problem. Long story short, I oversleep and wake up in a panic that Iím going to miss the whole thing.
I freshen up, race out the door, and hop a tram down to Coast Street. When I get there, the tram that runs along the shore isnít anywhere to be seen, so I start hoofing it down the boardwalk. Some folks see me coming and cross the street. Iím kind of used to that, though; Iím one of the biggest guys I know, and I basically fight for a living, so Iíve got a few bruises, a few lumps, and a whole lot of muscle. A buddy once said to me, "Todd, you got a face that could crack a mirror," and he wasnít wrong.
So yeah, I look like a furious thug out to catch the guy who broke a bottle over his head. I donít blame people for getting nervous.
I come around a bend in the road and head towards a stretch of path that runs alongside a rocky section of the bay. Thatís when I hear a heck of a lot of splashing, plus some curses, coming from the other side of the outcrop. Iím in a rush, but when thereís a scuffle, sometimes someone needs a bailout, so I go over to the edge of the rocks to investigate.
Thereís a man up to his waist in the water past the rocks. Heís trying to pull a briefcase out of a mermaidís hands while she laughs and pulls back. As I come over the edge of the rocks, I spot a second mermaid slipping up behind him, presumably to knock him on his back; based on the water dripping off his close-cropped hair, I assume this has happened at least once already.
"Okay, folks, knock it off," I say as I clamber down to the small stretch of beach. Mermaids arenít generally bad sorts. They just like to goof around. The thing is, theyíre not great at boundaries. Or hints. Or near-death experiences.
The mermaid holding the briefcase drops it as she spins to look at me. The man immediately overbalances and falls backwards into the second mermaid.
"Go away, longlegs!" the first mermaid giggles. "Weíre playing."
"Yeah, I can tell. Come on, the poor guy has played enough."
The second mermaid wraps her tail around the man with the briefcase and tugs his feet out from under him.
"Donít you know the boats are coming in?" I ask.
"Boats," the first mermaid says with a musical lilt, "are for walkers. We donít care about them." She playfully shoves the sputtering man. "We prefer games."
I cross the beach. "Look, I dunno what this guy did, but I think heís had enough. Youíre going to hurt him if you keep going." I step into the water to try to pull him to shore, trusting that mermaids donít generally like fights.
This time, I trusted wrong.
A third mermaid, whoís been laying low in the surf, pushes off the bottom of the sand and reaches her hands around my waist. "If you want to play, tooó"
Which is when I punch her in the face.
Iím not proud of it. But when someone grabs me by surprise, especially when Iím keyed up, I fight back.
From the look of things, no one was really expecting me to do it. The mermaid who had been pulling at me shoves herself backward into the water at top speed. The other two, eyes wide, follow her as fast as they can swim, leaving their victim to flop in the waves. Once theyíre far enough out to be swimming comfortably, two of the three flip their tails into the air and dive; I know just enough mermaid to know that means something pretty rude. The third one ó the one I punched ó pauses long enough to put two fingers up to her eyes, point at me, and smile menacingly. Then she flips off and is gone, too.
I shake my head and reach over to help the other guy to his feet. "You okay?"
"Iím good. Iím fine." The guy shakes water off his briefcase, stumbles as the next wave hits it mid-shake, and then lets me take his arm to get him out of the water and onto the rocks; itís not hard to do ó Iíve got a solid seven inches and a hundred pounds on him. Heís a thin fellow, maybe thirty or forty years old, and he canít be more than five-eight.
"Thanks for the help. Might have taken me a while to get rid of them, otherwise." He sits down on one of the higher rocks, pulls off a shoe, and starts shaking water out of it.
"Why were you tussling with a bunch of mermaids anyway?" I sit down next to him. My shoes could use a shake, too.
"Following a lead, my boy, following a lead. Those mermaids were witnesses to a clever crime, but unfortunately they rather took offense to my line of questioning." The guy turns a smile on me that probably works a lot better when it isnít part of a general drowned-rat look. I give him a closer look. Short blonde hair, thin mustache dripping onto a suit that looks like it doesnít get rumpled that often, but isnít nice enough to recover from this one. Nice chin, too.
"You donít look like a cop."
"Iím not." The man steps a bit closer. "My card." He reaches into his breast pocket and hands me a soggy business card with a flourish. It reads: ĎVANCE CARSON ó PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR ó DISCRETE. DELIBERATE. DEDICATED."
"Oh, youíre that other detective," I say before I have a chance to shut my damn mouth.
Vanceís face falls. The thing is, Everland feels like a big city to me, but itís not a big city by mainland standards. Maybe eighty thousand people live here, and half that many live in a handful of small towns and camps around the island. If you work for the big companies, like Hawthorne or Second Star, youíve got investigators on staff to help you out. If you work for the mob, youíve got crooks to help you out. If you work for City Hall, youíve got crooks to help you out.
For everybody else, there are two private detectives on the island, and I think just about everyone calls Vance Carson Ďthat other one.í
"I mean, uhÖ" I start.
Vance waves it off. "Iím a private detective, yes. And you are?"
"Todd. Todd Malcolm." I hold out my hand, and Vance gives it a pretty firm shake, all things considered.
"Well, like I said, Todd, thank you for lending me a hand. Those mermaids didnít know what hit them!"
Iím not sure whether to smile or be mortified. My face sort of flickers between the two, which probably makes me look angry more than anything else. "They were probably just messing around. You know how mermaids can get."
Vance puts his shoes back on and stands up, looking me up and down. "Donít sell yourself short. You know, if youíre ever looking for a bit of extra work, I might be able to throw some your way. Nothing illegal, of course, but my investigations sometimes carry me into troublesome situations." He reaches up to pat me on the shoulder. "If you have the time."
"You going somewhere dangerous?" I ask.
"Stop by my office ó letís say Saturday morning? Iíll fill you in, and you can decide if youíre interested." And with that, heís strolling away, cool as a cucumber, as if heís not dripping water with every step. "And again," he calls over his shoulder, "thanks for the assist."
I stare after him for a moment, then go on my way. If I donít get to the docks soon, Iím going to miss the boats.
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