MERMEN Chapters 1 & 2

MERMEN

Book 1, The Mermen Trilogy

(All Right Reserved)

 MIMI JEAN PAMFILOFF

“Woman, do I look like a goddamned fish? Because the last time I checked, I didn’t have a tail. And I sure as hell don’t have gills. I am a man. Mer. Man. So you’d damned well better get used to it.”

 -Shane, the Merman

CHAPTER ONE

Bump. Bump.

“What the fuck was that?” Twenty-nine-year-old Liv Stratton sat up in her sagging life raft, trying to stay conscious.

Bump.

There it is again. Liv’s eyes skimmed the perimeter but saw nothing. Well, except the warm March sun glaring off an endless stretch of eerily calm North Pacific. Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to—

From the corner of her eye, she caught a splash about a hundred yards out. It appeared to be…

Wait. She leaned forward. Is that…is that? No. You did not just see a naked man swimming. The dehydration was playing tricks on her, making her believe she’d just seen a tanned, muscular form floating on his back, everything on display.

You’re hallucinating again. Liv sighed and flopped back onto the raft, shoving her sticky dark hair over her eyes to block the sun from her face. I’m so thirsty. I’m so thirsty. Oh God…

It had been ten days since the fishing boat capsized in a storm, taking with it the crew of eight to the bottom of the ocean. Now she wished she’d gone with them instead of having been ordered into the life raft. “What about your crew? What about you?” she’d screamed over the roar of wind and relentless waves pounding the side of the vessel. Captain Harris, a man in his late seventies with a weather-beaten face, flashed his crooked teeth. “We are men of the sea, my dear. Here we live, and here we will die.”

Moments after boarding the raft, Liv watched in helpless terror as the fishing boat disappeared into the depths of the North Pacific, taking those men with it. They were fathers, sons, brothers, and husbands. She’d gotten to know each and every man during the interviews she’d conducted over her three weeks aboard as an observer, and they were good, good men. But all she could do was watch them die as she hung on for dear life, the violently rolling waves tossing her raft around like a wet sock in a drier.

Why wouldn’t they come with me? Why? She’d asked herself that question over and over again. But in the days ahead, baking in the afternoon sun and shivering through the windy nights, Liv realized the captain never would have left his ship and his men would never have left him. They were a family as close knit as any, and it was the reason she’d chosen them as subjects for her dissertation. That, and Captain Harris, who had been a friend of her father, didn’t mind the intrusion.

Liv glanced at the empty plastic bottle to her side and felt her parched throat aching and burning for the water that was long gone. It had been the only provision she’d managed to grab during the storm, and not nearly enough.

You’re dying, Liv. Accept it. Just let go… She’d said her tearful goodbyes this morning to her mother, father, and two sisters—Krista and Dana—when delirium had convinced her that they were real.

But, of course, they hadn’t been. Her family was safe in Wrangell, Alaska, probably mourning her death along with the crew’s families.

Soon they’ll be right to mourn. Liv suddenly felt another bump, followed by a violent gust of wind.

Liv sat up again, but this time she saw something unexpected: land. Golden sand, black volcanic rocks jutting from the water, thick green vegetation spiked with colossal pine trees. Sweet Jesus…

Liv gaped at the shore, pinching her sanity. How’s this possible? There were no landmasses for a thousand miles in any direction from the spot where the fishing boat went down. No, she wasn’t a map-geek, but she wasn’t a slouch in geography either. And it wasn’t possible to have floated back to Alaska or any other land, for that matter.

Wait. This can’t be real. It can’t be. Yes, another goddamned hallucination.

She placed her hand over her empty stomach and burst with laughter. “Why not let me die?” she mumbled toward the sky, unsure of who she was speaking to.

God?

The universe?

She didn’t know, and she didn’t care. But to die like this wasn’t fair. She was a good person who’d tried her best. Family, friends, strangers she met at the women’s shelter where she volunteered—didn’t matter who—she always gave what she could to everyone. Because life was all about relationships—friendship and love. It was what had drawn her to sociology for her doctorate. It was what separated humans from animals.

Liv was about to lie back again when she suddenly noticed a naked man with long black hair emerging from the waves onto the beach. Her imaginary beach.

Liv rubbed her eyes, but the island was still there.

Ohmygod. She cupped her hands over her mouth. He’s real?

Liv started waving her arms in the air, trying to scream, but couldn’t manage anything above a raspy whisper.

Oh God, please! Please turn around and look at me! Instead, the man grabbed a piece of black cloth from the sand and dried off, looking like he was about to head into the forest skirting the edge of the beach.

No, no, no. Don’t go! She started to paddle, but that was when she noticed the cold water pouring in through a tear along the bottom of the raft. What? What the hell?

Bump.

Her body jolted once more, and then a large gray fin popped from the water.

“Oh shit!” This time the words came out loud and clear.

Suddenly, the colossal man turned in her direction. He stared for a moment and then dove head first into the waves. His muscular arms exploded from the water with each powerful stroke, pulling him closer and closer at a speed that wasn’t humanly possible.

“Go back!” she tried to yell, but only produced a throaty whisper. No, no…please turn back.

All she could do now was hope that her salvation was a fantasy or that if he wasn’t, the shark wouldn’t kill him. Or her.

Two large hands popped from the water and gripped the side of the raft. If she’d had the strength to gasp, she would’ve. The man’s face appeared just inches from hers, and it was exquisite—short black beard and dark-green eyes surrounded by long lashes. Ropes of wet black hair snaked down his deeply bronzed, powerful-looking shoulders.

“How the fuck did you get here, woman?” he growled while studying her, his thick lips lacking any sign of warmth or reassurance.

Of course, she didn’t have the mental clarity to respond.

“Well,” he said, “if you live, maybe you’ll save me from the Collection—waste of fucking time.”

Liv now had no doubt in her mind that she was still hallucinating. Large, beautiful men didn’t paddle around in the middle of the ocean and strike up random conversations.

Bump.

The man’s body jerked to one side. He winced and then glanced over his shoulder before being yanked beneath the surface.

Oh shit. Oh shit. The shark. She used her last ounce of energy to flip to her stomach. There was no sign of her manly hallucination, but red liquid clouded the water, encircling the raft. She wanted to scream, but she could barely swallow let alone make a sound.

Large bubbles surfaced next to her, and then the man’s head reappeared.

He half-gasped half-growled. “Fucking shark. Bit my ankle.” He swung his arm and flung a large gray mass right into her raft.

Whatthefuck? The shark flopped around, the lower half of its jaw missing and gushing blood.

Liv stared, unable to believe there was a ten-foot shark bleeding out in her raft.

“And now we’ve got dinner.” The man smiled at her, but it was a cold, calculating sort of smile that didn’t touch his eyes. “By the way, welcome to El Corazón.”

CHAPTER TWO

 Rescue Hopes Abandoned for Alaskan Fishing Boat, Nine Lost at Sea

 Late yesterday, U.S. Coast Guard abandoned efforts to locate survivors from the Alaskan fishing boat Sons of the Sea. Coast Guard representatives stated that the unseasonably rough waters experienced in the North Pacific over one week ago were caused by unusual weather patterns and likely took the crew by surprise. Although rescue efforts began immediately, no survivors or traces of the vessel have been found. Aboard were 29-yr-old Olivia Stratton, who had been observing the crew as part of her sociology dissertation, and John Harris, the captain and owner of the vessel, along with seven other crew members, whose names have not yet been released.

From behind the antique desk in his twentieth-floor corner office situated in downtown Seattle, Roen Doran glanced at the picture of the woman mentioned in the newspaper article. “Too bad. She was pretty.” Hypnotic dark eyes surrounded by thick lashes, full lips, and high cheekbones.

An even greater shame, however, was the cargo vessel bound for Shanghai he’d lost in that same storm. A one-hundred-million-dollar, state-of-the-art ship gone. Frankly, he didn’t fucking buy it. Ships didn’t disappear like that. Oil slicks, debris, human remains—something would’ve floated to the surface. Maybe if the goddamned Coast Guard hadn’t been so damned busy looking for that piece of shit fishing boat, they might’ve found his ship. Right now it was probably docked somewhere in Indonesia, its ten-million-dollar cargo being sold on the black market. And the crew of thirty-five? Likely executed.

It was the first time one of his ships had been pirated. And it will be the fucking last. Not only would he double up on armed escorts through international waters, but he would find those SOBs and have their asses hauled off to some fuck-hole of a third world country where bribes were welcomed. He’d pay to have those men beaten and hanged as a message to anyone else who might think his ships were an easy target.

Suddenly, a familiar wave of sharp pinpricks washed over him and his chest tightened. It wasn’t a heart attack—at thirty-four, he was far too young and far too healthy for that—but it goddamned felt like one and had been going on for weeks. “It’s probably stress, Roen. When’s the last time you took a vacation?” his doctor had asked a few days ago after Roen finally broke down and went for a visit. Roen had told the SOB to mind his own damned business. “Just send my blood-work results to my assistant.” Everything had come back clean. Just as he thought. So what was really the matter with him?

Roen threw down the copy of The Times on his desk atop the other papers he read each day to keep current.

Goddammit. I can’t breathe. Loosening his black tie, he stood and walked over to the large window overlooking the shimmering evening cityscape of glass and steel. Whatever this thing was, it felt like his own personal pestilence. He couldn’t even get his dick hard this morning with…whateverthehell her name was that he’d brought home last night. Or had she brought him home because he was too pissed on scotch?

Doesn’t fucking matter.

Maybe it was time to take a break. He hadn’t taken a day off in ten years.

There was a faint, very recognizable knock on his door.

“What is it, Cherie?”

The petite Asian woman entered, quietly closing the door behind her. “Sir,” she said, holding out a sealed white envelope marked “personal” along with a stack of papers, “I know you asked not to be bothered, but I’m leaving for the day, and this just came for you. It’s from your lawyer in Chicago.”

His lawyer? Phil usually called or emailed when something came up. And something always came up. With the largest fleet of cargo vessels in the world and one hundred thousand employees operating in over one hundred twenty countries, there was always something happening. Usually bad somethings—customs issues, port strikes, union negotiations. But that was why Doran Cargo was the biggest, pulling in over ten billion in revenue each year. They knew what the hell they were doing, and Roen didn’t take shit from anyone. Pirates included.

Roen picked up the Gripmaster from his desk and began squeezing the large spring in his hand. “Put the envelope there.” He glanced at the correspondence tray. “And get my asshole lawyer on the phone. Tell him it’s urgent.” Phil, his lawyer, knew Roen hated surprises.

Cherie dipped her head of silky black hair. “Yes, sir. Right away.”

She disappeared out the door while Roen squeezed away, trying to release some tension. Wasn’t working.

Moments later, the phone on his desk rang, and he hit the speaker. “What the hell is inside the envelope?”

“Oh, if it isn’t the Sexiest Man of the Year,” Phil said dryly.

“Stop giving me shit.” That PR nightmare happened over six months ago, but Phil still brought it up. Roen wasn’t sexy, he was a bastard. And he had little interest in being a celebrity. But at the time, he needed to soften his image in order to get a new merger to slide through. It worked, but the price was far beyond anything he could’ve imagined. Fan clubs, paparazzi, and…fucking Phil. “What’s in the damned envelope?”

“I’ll stop giving you shit when you stop pulling me out of meetings and saying it’s an emergency when it’s not.”

“I said it was urgent, not an emergency. You picked up the phone. Now answer the damned question,” he said coldly.

“You’re really asking what’s in the envelope sitting right in front of you?”

Damned lawyers. Always have to make everything into an argument. Of course, that was why he liked Phil. The bastard had no soul and his heart was made from a money clip. Just. Like. Him.

“Yes,” Roen replied. “If you want to keep your million-dollar retainer, you’ll tell me before I hang the hell up.”

There was a grumble, but Roen knew Phil would answer the question. That was how all of Roen’s relationships worked: Roen asked. People did.

“Look, Ro”—Roen stopped pumping the spring in his hand. Phil only used his nickname when the shit was about to hit—“I get paid to handle your business affairs not your personal bullshit. Otherwise, I would’ve called. I forwarded the paperwork to you as a courtesy because you’re a friend.”

“I don’t have friends. What’s in the envelope, Phil? Last time,” Roen growled. Was it a paternity suit from one of the women he’d fucked? He was always careful, but one thing he’d learned, some of these women went out of their way to create accidents.

“Your father’s will.”

Roen sat down in his black leather chair. “Will?” His father was dead?

“No one told you,” Phil realized. “Sorry. I assumed you knew—the paperwork showed up from his lawyers. I thought you’d been notified.”

Good riddance. Roen was sixteen when he’d said goodbye to that prick, and he’d meant it.

“I didn’t know,” Roen said, rubbing his brow, “but it doesn’t matter. The man was a…” He was about to say a disgrace, an embarrassment, a psychotic lunatic who’d put Roen, his mother, and younger brother through the worst possible torment with his paranoid delusions and environmental crusades that included terrorist-like activities. It was the reason their mother fled Glasgow, along with him and his brother, to the States when he was ten, where they lived under assumed names. His mother did everything in her power to hide them, even making them speak “American” so people were less likely to notice them. But despite her efforts, it wouldn’t take long for their father to find them. He always found them. Then they’d run again. After a few years of trying, his mother eventually gave up. Perhaps that was the beginning of the end for her.

“Never mind,” Roen said, deciding not to waste his time thinking about any of that. “Go back to your meeting.”

“I plan to. And I’m shutting off my cell.”

“Do whatever the hell you like. But if you’re not available when I need you, I’ll find someone who is.”

“You’re a sadistic prick, Roen.”

“Yes. And I’m not losing any sleep over it.”

“That’s because you can’t lose what you don’t have.” Phil referred to the fact that Roen didn’t sleep. He worked all hours of the day and expected the people who worked for him to be available. Period. Lucky for Phil, though, Roen trusted him and that gave the man a degree of latitude when it came to their relationship.

“I run a shipping company. It never sleeps, so neither do I.” Two hours each day would do it.

“Yes, but you have capable, well-paid people who can run the company for you. Not to mention you also have a new, hot piece of ass in your bed every night. Yet, you still choose to work. By the way, is it true you fucked that actress last week and then asked her to leave at two in the morning because you had a conference call?”

It was true. But the call had been pertaining to an important deal in Shanghai, and he hadn’t wanted any distractions. Now, why had she felt the need to tell the tabloids? It was foolish to believe he gave a crap about what anyone thought.

“Women come and go,” Roen said, sidestepping the question about the actress, “but my company took fifteen years to build.” And fact was, beautiful women were a cheap commodity. All Roen had to do was walk into a room and they flocked. “There’s something about you,” they’d say. Or, “Your eyes are such an unusual shade of green.”

Truth was, he didn’t really know why women seemed uninhibited in his presence or aggressively pursued him like hungry animals. Maybe it was a combination of his money and six-six height or his thick light brown hair—hell, who cared?

Roen’s eyes gravitated toward the unopened envelope. “Goodbye, Phil.”

“Wait. Since I have you on the phone, I sent those insurance claims. Make sure you sign them toda—”

Roen hung up. He wasn’t in the mood to talk business now that the envelope had taken on a whole new meaning. It was an official end to a relationship he didn’t want. He only hoped that inside would be vindication—an apology from his father for the pain he’d caused Roen’s now deceased mother and brother. That man had taken away the only two people Roen had ever loved because of his crazed bullshit.

Roen opened the envelope and found a letter paper-clipped to an old map that looked straight out of a ridiculous Looney Tunes episode—a few landmarks and a giant “X” right in the middle of the page. He skimmed the letter—some random garble about an island in the North Pacific. Clearly, his father had been a crazy asshole right until the bitter end. Case in point…

Roen, my boy, this island and its treasures will become yours if you choose to claim it. And I hope you do because there is no greater cause on this earth than protecting it. However, you must always remember, whatever you do, to never turn your back on that which the island asks of you. Never question the island, son, because—

Roen chucked the letter into the wastepaper basket along with the map. He wanted nothing to do with it or his father. Leave the past where it belongs.

He picked up the stack of insurance papers and began skimming through them before signing. Page after page of affidavits, cargo valuations, waivers, and…

“What the hell?” The report filed by the Coast Guard showed the approximate location of where they believed the cargo vessel went down.

He dug his father’s map from the trash. There were no lines of longitude or latitude, but the position was the same: approximately two thousand miles west of San Francisco and a thousand miles south of the Delarof Islands, the most southern point of Alaska.

Roen dialed Cherie. He knew she wouldn’t really go home until he told her to leave because she doted on him like a lovesick puppy. No, he’d never laid a finger on the woman and never would. She was under his employ and that meant something to him. Even selfish pricks needed to draw the line somewhere.

“Yes, sir?”

“What ships do we have on the Seattle to Shanghai route?”

“One moment.” Cherie clicked away on her keyboard. “You’ve got one ship departing Chinese waters now and an empty vessel unloading at port.”

“Here in Seattle?”

“Yes,” she replied.

“Tell the crew I’m sailing with them.”

“Uh…okay. Is everything all right, sir?” It was highly unusual for Roen to ever step foot on a ship, and that was because the motion made him violently ill. Ironic, given his fascination with boats, but maybe it was his disdain for the sea that drove his need to conquer it. He wasn’t sure, nor did he care. Just as long as he didn’t have to go swimming. Or touch any fish. Fish were vile.

“Everything’s fine,” he replied. “Just cancel my meetings the rest of the week. If anything urgent comes up, send it to Orman.” Dylan Orman was president of operations and his right-hand man for the last decade. Orman could handle most anything in a pinch.

“Yes, sir. I’ll do it right away,” Cherie said.

“Good. And make sure there’s a helicopter onboard.” Every ship had a landing pad for emergencies, but rarely carried air transport. They’d definitely be needing one if he was going to find the exact spot on the map.

He hung up the phone and suddenly felt that dark cloud washing over him again. His heart pounded like a goddamned war drum and his gut twisted into excruciating knots. What the hell is wrong with me?