A couple of months ago, you got a preview of chapter 2. Here's the entire chapter as exclusive content before Underground - A Merfolk Secret is released next week!
You can read Chapter 1 here.
Major White had a problem: the expectations of what he could gain from the merfolk were growing by the day. He was the only officer who’d sat down and talked to one of them, and the only one Drake wanted to negotiate with, a fact that secured White’s position as the Pentagon’s spokesman to the merfolk community.
Truth be told, White wasn’t sure if Drake had wanted it that way, or if it had been a matter of being at the right place at the right time. It all had started when an unexpected injured Scott had shown up at Dr. Higgs’s apartment along with the press, followed a few minutes later by Drake himself.
The hours the major had spent debriefing the entire incident were nothing compared to the hours his superiors had talked to him about what was in store with a future partnership—or a future takeover.
“In almost six months of surveillance, your intelligence team has hardly gathered any solid facts about these people,” Vice Admiral Johnson’s grave voice pointed out to the room full of high-ranking Navy officers, where Major White felt completely out of place. The Navy was conducting its own investigations, and not a day went by when he wasn’t asked questions here and there.
“That’s harsh, Johnson,” Admiral Coleman said with the familiarity of a long-time colleague. His clever green eyes and bald head seemed to glow under the conference room lights. Of all the people White had talked to who weren’t scientists or Military Intelligence officers, Coleman was the most interested in understanding all the details surrounding merfolk, from society to biology, from family to business, to the point he’d requested all the transcripts gathered regarding the young Brookses’ school activities. “There’s a six-hundred page report on Julian Brooks and Brooks Inc. already waiting in your office. I’m sure one of your subordinates has read it by this point.”
Nervous laughter ran through the dozen men in attendance. “Besides,” Coleman continued, “you can’t expect a full dossier in six months, especially when your subjects talk with their minds, and have security systems more sophisticated than ours.” The laughter died as suspicion took over the room. “I’m actually eager to know how things are going with the project, Major.”
The project, as was whispered in the halls of those who knew about merfolk dealings, was White’s crowning moment of achievement so far. When Drake had requested protection for Julian’s children, he’d offered in return a piece of technology at the merman’s discretion, and once Wallace’s body had been taken and the Brooks household had regrouped, Drake had come forward with a clever idea: a special diving suit.
It could go deeper and faster than current designs, and best of all, it was virtually invisible to sonar. With the amount of pressure everybody was putting on it, it had to succeed. Not only was White’s reputation on the line, but the merfolk’s intentions were being measured by the project itself. If it failed, Drake would lose any credibility for the merfolk community. If it worked, then it was the first project of many to come. Or at least that’s how the Navy wanted to see it, especially since they had the most to gain.
“The prototype has passed all initial testing, as you’re aware, sir,” White answered, while greedy eyes met him all around. “They requested that the final testing phase be conducted under their guidelines, though. They want to be present.”
“We’ll let a group of them onto our base?” Vice Admiral Johnson asked, surprised.
“The final phase needs to be tested in open sea, Vice Admiral,” White answered. “I think Drake intends to be the only one to inspect it, but he would be on one of our ships. I’ve been working on securing the right vessel—”
“You’ll get the right one, Major,” Coleman said with all the authority in the world. “This is too important.”
“This might be the only opportunity we have to study one of them in a real-life environment,” Johnson chimed in, a predatory smile on his face.
“With all due respect, Vice Admiral,” White said, “what they’re willing to share depends on what we’re willing to give back. And that also counts for respect. Drake is one of the highest-ranking members as far as we’ve been able to map. Disrespecting him is not in our best interest.”
“They can also dive at least a mile and a half, and are smart enough to be a real game changer in underwater warfare,” Johnson pressed. “Not to mention that mental talk they do guarantees complete radio silence. The more we know about them, the better we can plan contingency strategies.”
“You seem to be forgetting something,” Coleman interrupted. “Brooks Inc. is a multimillion-dollar company with dealings in many of our top-secret projects. Merfolk are not stupid, Johnson, and are not unprotected. I bet they’re also not gullible.”
At least someone read the six-hundred page report, White thought with an inward sigh of relief.
“All I’m saying, Admiral,” Johnson said with a sore expression, “is that we should weigh the pros and cons of having one of them willingly coming to us. We may never get another chance.”
Especially if all you want is to find ways to exploit them.
“Hmm,” Coleman grunted, thoughtful. “I’m sure we can come up with something.” It didn’t matter how much White opposed it, the Navy would do whatever the Navy wanted to do. “There’s another matter we wanted to discuss with you, Major White,” the admiral said, redirecting the conversation. “As our expert on merfolk skills, we’d like your opinion on a separate matter.”
“I’ll do my best, sir.”
“There’s a current Navy investigation going on that you might not be aware of. For a few years now, we’ve been hearing about some rather strange incidents at ports all over the world.”
“Unexplained incidents,” Johnson emphasized, the room suddenly too interested in the conversation. This is why they really called me here.
“Half of them have been explained,” Coleman said, annoyed at Johnson, “albeit in a less-than-satisfactory manner. We would like you to take a look at our records of these incidents and report back on any theories of possible merfolk meddling. We also expect that, in the future, you may extrapolate what you know about merfolk to see if it’s possible they’ve been behind most, or all, of these incidents. The better understanding we have, the better hindsight we’ll get.”
The admiral extended a silver flash drive with the Navy’s insignia engraved on it. “It goes without saying that this is for your eyes only, Major.”
“I’ll get to it right away, sir.”
* * *
On her Wall of Truth, Kate Banes added a line about a news article speculating whether Brooks Inc. was considering taking over a small group of companies in Alaska. Since she and Jeff had discovered that “David Brooks” hadn’t aged a day, they had started wondering when Julian Brooks was going to announce his early retirement, and if that meant Christopher would take over the boat empire.
On the left side of the whiteboard, she had a special space reserved for her ongoing investigation: What happened in Brazil?
Major White had implied the incident was real but not related to Wallace, as David Brooks had told her. A lot of reporters had pursued that story, and half believed it was a hoax, while the other half believed it was a Brazilian government cover-up. She knew it was real, she just didn’t know where the dots would take her.
A knock on her door brought her back to the here and now.
“Your ten o’clock is here,” Jeff said, bringing a package to her desk. “And here are all the stories about Brooks Inc. from the past six days. You’re slacking off, Kate,” he joked. She’d been following so many leads that she was getting behind on her daily Brooks reading, but that was nothing a good cup of coffee and the weekend couldn’t solve.
Ever since Julian Brooks had come into her office and nearly seen her Wall of Truth, Kate didn’t allow anyone into her four walls. She met everyone in a conference room, and the man who had requested a meeting today was no different.
Patrick O’Connor was an independent top journalist who did research for major newspapers all over the world. She’d met him once a couple of years ago at a journalism ethics conference in Seattle, but that was as far as their paths had crossed. However, Kate had no doubt that Patrick was here for one reason alone: merfolk.
Veritas Co. was the news company that had out-scooped everyone when it came to merfolk stories. Even now, their speculative articles on merfolk life on the surface—presented as theories and not real life, even if they were one hundred percent accurate—had an active social media community and a wide range of readers. They had also been the ones to bring Roy Wallace, allegedly the first known merfolk hunter on the planet, into the light, and that had set the virtual world on fire.
As she entered the conference room, she wondered where Roy Wallace really was, and what would happen to him when the merfolk found him.
Patrick stood up to meet her, forcing her to look up, up, up. The guy was easily six feet tall, and as he shook her hand with a smile, his baby-blue eyes were already calculating how he was going to sweet talk her.
“Miss Banes, it’s so nice to finally meet you,” he said, as they both took a seat.
“Kate, please. I have to admit, your e-mail sounded rather intriguing. You said you wanted to share some sensitive information?”
He nodded, bringing a briefcase to the table. “I’m sure you must be bombarded every day with questions to reveal your sources—”
“Tons. But the ones threatening to expose me as a hack for fabricating that merfolk are real are the ones that truly make my day.”
Patrick took out a manila envelope, along with a pack of enlarged photographs. “I gotta say, what I find the most fascinating about your news coverage is that, for all you’ve managed to uncover, it must be very frustrating that you never got to see the merman in real life.”
The image of Scott Brooks glaring at her from the back seat of her car flashed into her mind. She’d seen the pale scales on his face—had driven him to Dr. Higgs so he wouldn’t bleed out, as a matter of fact—but Patrick here was right about one thing: She’d never met Christopher Brooks. His father, his “uncle,” and his little brother, sure, but not the merman himself.
“Well, you know how it is. I’m just happy there is enough evidence for the public to know. I can only imagine what we’ll discover tomorrow.”
Something about his smile made her uneasy.
“Well, Kate, I’ve been doing my own research for the past six months, and I think there’s much more to the story than you’re letting on.”
She blinked, feeling an imaginary spotlight encasing her. “I’m not sure I’m following you.”
“I was late to the party, I’ll admit that,” he said. “By the time I arrived in Maine, the town was already talking about commissioning a statue to preserve the exact place where Neil Thompson found Ray, the merman.” He paused to show her the first image of the beach, now a tourist trap that sold everything from keychains to magnets, towels to umbrellas, all printed with mermaids, mermen, fins, or scales. “So you see, I had to backtrack through a lot of rumors, misinformation, and nonexistent witnesses. Even the hospital staff has clamped down after months of harassment.”
“There’s only so much you can say about an event,” she said, thinking back to the day when the hospital doctors had called a press conference to declare that merfolk were real.
“Exactly. So instead of treading where everybody treaded, I decided to tread where you treaded.”
An alarm bell rang loud and clear in her head. “I’m sorry, what?”
“I’m sure I sound like a stalker, but hear me out,” he continued, presenting the next photograph of the hospital ER, a trauma room, and a blurry image of a hall. “There’s a reason why Veritas Co. broke this history-changing event first, so I reframed my research into understanding why. And to answer that, I went looking into what Veritas Co. was doing at the time of these events. Interestingly enough, you were in that exact same town in Maine the days after Ray arrived in the human world, but before it became worldwide news.”
“I was following an ‘internet hoax’ video,” she said, leaning against the back of the chair. “I thought it was a clever story, but ultimately, we wanted to unmask the truth. And we did. It just turned out that it wasn’t a hoax. Nothing but us doing our job, I’m afraid.”
He nodded, but she knew he wasn’t convinced. “Of course. I found traces of your own research as I did mine. It turns out a couple of hospital employees remembered you when I showed them your picture. One nurse in serious need of people skills, and a chatty janitor named Johnny.” He showed her the next photograph of an older man wearing a janitor uniform, holding a card with her name.
Johnny had stolen Christopher Brooks’s watch when it had been discarded in the ER, and sold it to her for ten grand. She’d given him the card so they could arrange the payment, and then she’d taken the watch to an expert, who had ultimately told her it belonged to Julian Brooks.
“You recognize him,” Patrick said with a smile that did little to settle her stomach. “He told me this incredible tale about a merman who wears watches. Diving watches, if I’m not mistaken.”
She leaned against the table, nodding. “He did sell us one very expensive diving watch. But we could never back it up. It’s not in the videos. Not in Neil Thompson’s original video, and not in any of the hospital videos other patients shot. It was a dead end.”
He nodded again, thoughtful. “I thought the same. I mean, I watched all those videos to the point I can recall them second by second. The things we do for our job,” he said, shrugging.
“I’m sorry, Patrick, I just—I’m not sure what you want me to say. I still don’t know what you want or why you’re here.”
“Honestly? I was hoping you would let me see the watch.”
She shook her head. “We no longer have it.”
“Not even pictures of it?”
“Between you and me? Let’s just say that buying potential stolen property is not exactly something my editor wants to admit, or cares to have a registry for. It’s as if it never happened.”
“It was a long shot,” Patrick said, smirking. “But even without the watch, maybe you’ll want to shed some light on some of my theories. Maybe you’ll want to add something else to this crazy merman story.”
“This ‘crazy merman story’ is unfortunately also my story. I can’t share any information with you, I’m sure you understand.”
“Right. We have such competitive jobs,” he joked, slipping his pictures back into the briefcase. But just when Kate thought this thing was over, he opened the manila folder he’d left out. Printouts and more photographs followed, along with receipts and handwritten notes. When he showed her the next photograph, she saw the fancy hotel where Julian Brooks had taken up residence while plotting how to get his son out of ORCAS. “So I went back to stalking you. The day Ray became known to the public, you checked into this five-star hotel for three nights, a far cry from your motel when you were just following an internet hoax.”
It took her a second too long to come up with a suitable explanation, and he held up his hand before she could even start a reply. “Wait, let me finish. I think by that point you’d discovered something really big, big enough for Veritas Co. to foot the bill.”
“You think so?” she asked, with a nonchalant air. She reminded herself that if Patrick knew the entire story, he wouldn’t be telling it to her. No, if he knew the truth, he would be selling it to the highest bidder. “But, I’m afraid that’s none of your business.”
“Come on, Kate, knowing is our business. So, here I am, staying at this fancy hotel of yours, thinking: ‘How does a merman get a diving watch, and how does that connect back to this hotel?’ So I researched diving and Maine, and do you know what was dominating the news cycle in those days?”
Christopher Brooks’s diving accident. The words flashed in red bold letters in her mind at the same time Patrick said them.
“Shouldn’t you be talking to Christopher Brooks, then?” she asked, unwilling to let him see how much he was rattling her.
“He’s kind of a hard guy to find. Plus, research has been…well, consuming. Now, I have all these theories about how Christopher Brooks’s diving accident resulted in a merman wearing a diving watch in the ER the next day, and how his absurdly wealthy father was able to cover that fact up. And then I also have all these other theories as to how you found out, and somehow worked out an agreement to get these exclusive stories before anybody else.”
She laughed, unexpectedly and a little too high pitched. She’d sat down with Julian Brooks for one very short dinner to say almost the exact same thing, except she’d known the merman was Christopher, and at that time there was no deal on exclusive stories. If Patrick had followed another set of breadcrumbs to arrive at a dangerously similar conclusion, then she was doomed.
“So, what?” she asked, slightly apologetic for her outburst. “You think I’m part of some sort of cover-up by a multimillion-dollar company and the government to hide merfolk?”
His eyes lit up. “Who said anything about the government?”
“Isn’t that a standard checkbox for all conspiracies?” she replied smoothly. “Look, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but how and when we find our stories here at Veritas has nothing to do with secret deals. We work hard, we follow leads.”
Patrick looked at her, his hands resting on the stack of papers and photographs. “I know where my leads are taking me, Kate. I might not have all the pieces, but I have enough. You’re a good journalist, and I don’t have to tell you how important this story is. Don’t be greedy now, this is bigger than you or this news outlet. Whatever your reasons to keep hiding things, I’m giving you this chance to come clean before this whole thing falls on your head. And don’t think for one moment it won’t.”
His words lingered in the air for just a little bit too long.
“I think you should leave,” Kate said, standing up.
He nodded once. “I’m sure we’ll see each other around.”
Read Chapter 3.
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