Making deals and uncovering the past can be a tricky affair. What is everyone after?
You can read Chapter 1 here, and all the chapters in between. Underground - A Merfolk Secret is coming out next Tuesday, July 17th.
For the first time in seven months, Kate was not looking at a story featuring Julian Brooks, his kids, his company, or his genius way of getting off of the front page. She had new prey, and it felt strangely relieving to set her sights on another target.
“Patrick O’Connor has been one busy bee,” Jeff said as he typed on his computer at light speed.
“Tell me something I don’t know,” she said, highlighting a passage on a printed article. “This guy has been following stories for twenty years, and has four Pulitzers to prove it.”
He’d started his career smoking out politicians, and then he’d moved on to bigger, global issues. From human trafficking to improper industrial waste disposal, the man had an eye for stories that pit human interest against corruption and power. He’d been dabbling in Wall Street stories five years ago, and then had taken a sharp turn into environmental issues, but that was the tip of the iceberg.
“Whoa, he’s survived three assassination attempts, and has been taken hostage twice,” Jeff said, whistling.
“You don’t get to uncover so much dirt without making a ton of enemies,” Kate said, reading one of the few interviews he’d given for the National Geographic magazine two years ago. “He says he wouldn’t love his job so much if it were easy,” she read out loud, chuckling. He sounded more adventurer and explorer than actual journalist, but she guessed that both skills worked well together if there was a clever pen behind them. “I wonder why he’s suddenly interested in merfolk.”
“What’s not to like?” Jeff asked, raising both eyebrows. “A new intelligent species living in the ocean. Shady handling of Ray’s death. Government conspiracy to keep it quiet. Add to the mix rumors of bodies and hunters that go missing in the night, and there’s plenty to look into.”
“Yes, but the whole thing has thousands of reporters looking into it. Patrick doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who goes for the story everybody’s after.”
“Well, he’s not really going after merfolk, Kate. He’s going after you.”
* * *
Major White looked out the window at the street below. Melting snow banks and bare trees met his eyes as he searched for Drake’s tall figure walking among unsuspecting humans. It was still early for their meeting, but Drake always arrived before time.
In the kitchen, Dr. Higgs finished preparing tea, a tradition he’d picked up at Cambridge thirty years ago. His apartment had become the neutral space between humans and merfolk, which worked perfectly fine for the Pentagon. It was in the middle of New York City, easy to contain, easy to patrol, easy to secure.
“You look concerned,” Higgs commented as he brought a mug for White. He was a perceptive man, especially at the most inconvenient of times.
“People are getting impatient in Washington,” White said, sitting down. “They want me to ask for more than Drake’s willing to give.”
“You can always ask nicely,” Higgs said with a smile. “Besides, I’m sure Drake’s expecting you to ask for things you both know won’t happen. That’s how diplomacy works, isn’t it? You pull and push, offer and demand, and somewhere in between, you find common ground.”
White sighed, thoughtful. “There’s so little we know about them.”
“At least the little we do know seems normal enough. Except for the part where they turn into fish,” Higgs said with a shrug.
The Brookses acted remarkably human, and White doubted they were putting on a show. But six months of surveillance had not yielded a complete picture, not even a blurry one, especially when it came to their “City,” and much less to the extent of their skills, both mental and physical.
“They speak our language, eat our food, breathe our air,” Higgs added.
“They hack our spy satellites, build mega-corporations, and breathe our water,” White pointed out. “They’re far from innocent creatures. They’re smarter than we are, and have the resources to cause some real damage.”
“And so talking to them instead of shooting at them is the smart way to go.”
White let out a rare smile. “The miracle here is that they want to talk to us.” He sipped his tea, taking his time to enjoy the sweet flavor. “Christopher was an accident, I have no doubt about that. But why didn’t they disappear afterward? Why did they choose to stay?”
“Perhaps you’re asking the wrong question, Major. ‘Why can’t they disappear?’ might have a far more interesting answer.”
White frowned. He’d thought about this—obsessively so—and he’d always favored the idea that merfolk had chosen now so they could have some control over how to go about their first contact. It had never made sense that staying on the surface was their only choice.
“Some in Washington think they’re not as dangerous as we think, that they can be easily overcome,” White said instead.
“But then you remind them that they can hack into your spy satellites and build mega-corporations, and you’re not so sure,” Higgs finished with a knowing smile, raising his mug for a mock toast.
“What do you think the answer is, doctor? Why do they stay?” White asked, curious.
“Something about the surface has to be better than under the sea, to the point they’re not willing to let it all fall down and come back to it later,” Higgs said, pensive. “We know they live long lives, but building empires takes more than a few decades. I wouldn’t want to start over, either.”
And that adds more questions, doesn’t it? How long do they live? And why would they want to build an empire? What’s their end game?
That last question was particularly prominent in his mind after reviewing the two dozen accounts of unexplained incidents the Navy had given him. The ships targeted didn’t seem to fit a pattern, but it was plain to see that merfolk would have no problem provoking each and every one of those incidents. Was Brooks Inc. sabotaging the competitors? Or was there something more sinister going on?
The doorbell rang, and both men turned to look. “Speaking of the devil,” Higgs said, standing up.
“Showtime,” White breathed as Drake came into the apartment.
* * *
Two months ago, Drake had sat on the same chair at the same table, discussing plans with Major Jonathan White. Since then, they’d spoken only twice, but he had so much information on the man that he hardly felt like a stranger. A potential ally, maybe. A dangerous enemy, definitely. Right now, they were navigating the murky waters of gaining each other’s trust.
Two months ago, with Scott taking a shower and a reporter with their secrets on the loose, Drake had played a dangerous move in the hopes of keeping his nephews safe from Jason Calder, while Wallace roamed free. In so many ways, the whole thing could have backfired, but at least White had come to the negotiating table with a practical mind. In time, the Council had decided to give the Pentagon enough to keep them busy, but nothing that would come back to haunt them. The diving suit represented a competitive advantage, but nothing that would destroy the world down the road.
“The prototype was tested two weeks ago successfully,” White was telling him, images on a tablet showing a group of men in lab coats and one in a black diver’s suit. “I’m bringing you all the lab results as you asked. I can tell you, everyone was impressed.”
“I told you, if you follow the instructions, the suit will perform as designed,” Drake said with a pointed look as White handed him the tablet. “How’s the open sea test going?” Drake asked as he started reading the reports. “Are we still on schedule for next week?”
“Yes. We’re ready to meet your requirements. The Navy will issue a consultant status, presenting you as the suit’s designer. We’ll have a suit ready for you, and you’ll accompany the marines during the dive.”
In theory, the diving suit had been properly built, but humans had a tendency of getting creative, especially with new tech. For the first real test, Drake wanted to make sure everything would work fine. After all, if anything failed, it’d be merfolk who’d be blamed.
He wanted to be there to supervise, yes, but also to reassure the US military that they were playing fair. For a few days, Drake would be a willing “guest” to the Navy, though Major White was expected to attend as well.
“How’s your leg healing?” White asked once Drake finished reading the preliminary report.
Eight weeks ago, in order to stop Wallace from murdering Julian and Scott, Drake had shouted at White to shoot him, so the pain would distort their telepathic link. The distraction had worked, and not only had White taken care of Wallace’s body, he was now earning some of their secrets.
“Dr. Gwen did an excellent job patching me up,” Drake said. “I won’t have any problems diving with your men next week.”
“I’m relieved to hear that,” White said. “You know that we’re capable of accommodating any medical needs you might have.” The major turned to look at Dr. Higgs, and so did Drake. Caught in the spotlight, the doctor stopped sipping his tea and lowered his mug.
“You can send your people to my doorstep any day of the week,” Higgs said with a broad smile. “How’s Scott doing?”
“He’s a tough kid. It’ll take some time for things to settle down, but thanks for asking.”
“I’m sure he can sleep better knowing Wallace is no longer chasing you,” Higgs said, thoughtful.
“We are all thankful that the whole thing is over,” Drake answered with half a smile.
It was the first time White had caught him in a lie.
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