I woke early—or perhaps didn’t sleep. My body is still adjusting to the time zone hop from Southern California to the islands north of the Scottish mainland. Orkney. A series of islands, many of them uninhabited, in the cold North Atlantic Sea. To the east is Norway. To the West are Iceland and Greenland. In other words, it’s chilly even in the summer when there is endless light.
It’s stunning, aside from the dead guy currently at my feet.
Still, it’s just one dead guy. If no one was going to be judgmental, I’d admit that my favorite sort of man is a dead one.
This one is sprawled on the rocky beach as if he’s been rejected by the sea, tossed back like rubbish that the tide returned to its origin. He’s not dressed for swimming, and a clear set of fingerprints bruises his throat. I don’t think they’re mine. They could be, but I don’t think I killed him. Jason. I’m sure he had a surname, but I didn’t catch it. I’m fairly sure he was alive when I last saw him. We argued at a nearby pub. I may have kicked him. He may have called me a few ugly words.
Honestly, it doesn’t matter if I did it. If I get arrested, they’ll have my fingerprints, and even if they don’t match the ones on his throat, it’ll be trouble. All it would take is one quick fingerprint match and everything I’ve built would be gone.
I’m not good at jail. I never have been—and if I’m ending up there it will be for a good reason. Not this. Jason was nobody, a stranger I crossed after a few too many drinks. I’m not going to end up in jail for his death.
You need to do whatever it takes to make it in this world. Mama explained that fact of life right regularly, often before the lesson that Men think with their willies, so smile pretty and lead with your bosom.
I check his pockets, retrieve his wallet and mobile phone. I pull out the SIM card, toss it into the water, and then toss the phone, too. I empty the wallet. Far too many credit cards, a few membership cards, and some receipts. They scatter like bits of sea grass tossed into the waves. I hope I’m not damning some poor sea creature to death by adding Jason’s trash to the sea, but the sea should erase his identity soon enough, and I’d rather not leave identifying evidence with the body. Without it, the police are left with fingerprint and dental records if he washes ashore or gets caught in a fisherman’s net.
Dental records can be great to prove identity, but there’s no database. Still, it’s better to be safe. I search for a heavy rock. A few moment later, Jason has fewer teeth, a fractured jaw, and a higher chance of being nothing more than an Unknown Male Victim if he returns to shore.
That leaves fingerprints.
I pull out my Leatherman and slice off most of the skin and meat at his fingertips. It’s easier than the last time I did this. I rinse my hands, toss the teeth and bits of skin into the sea, and continue with my task.
Jason was obviously successful to some degree. I found plenty of money in his wallet—$112 in US money, plus another £800 and €200. It’s damp, but usable. I fold and shove it all into my pocket. There’s no sense throwing cash into the sea. I don’t take his watch or ring. Those are traceable and likely filled with DNA.
After another few moments of handling details, I roll him out into the icy Atlantic, wading far enough that I’m soaked to my hips and shivering. The sea, thankfully, is churning today, and in a few moments, the body is gone. A few credit cards blink like misplaced tropical fish before they’re carried away.
The only witness to my actions is a seal. There is always a seal watching. I meet her gaze, seeking censure and finding none. Wild things are practical in ways that humans fail.
“I’m sorry about the credit cards,” I say, not that she’ll understand or hear me. The wind from over the sea seems to whisk the words away, leaving my lips cold. I hope she forgives me.
Unlike my silent watcher, I am not made for the cold wind or waves. She’s why I’m here at this early hour, standing with my rain boots in the edge of the surf, watching the sun rise up over the cold waters. For a flicker of a moment I wish I could join her, dive into the surf and swim out to the deep waters where she is so at home. It’s a foolish impulse, likely caused by too much whisky and not enough sleep. I’m shivering already from only a few moments in the icy water.
My entire body is off. Still. I can’t seem to find my rhythm in this strange climate. The light lasts for most of the day this time of year, offering around five hours of darkness daily. It’s completely destroyed my internal clock after not even a week. The weather here tilts toward windy and wet, and the whole series of islands has only twenty thousand people.
It’s not a place I’d have thought to visit on my own, but now that I’m here, I want to stay forever. I feel a calm I’d not realized I wanted. The sea is everywhere. Archaeological ruins seem to crowd the islands, and aside from the tourists pouring out of their busses to see some of the bigger sites, I have found myself alone for hours in wide stretches of stunning land. I don’t recall the last time I’d been so far from crowds. Finding that solace was one of the reasons I applied for this job. Life in SoCal is just a bit too crowded for me sometimes. Orkney is an incredible escape.
Being here means that for the first time I love my new job. Most days, I question my sanity. Personal Assistant to a man whose upcoming documentary is called Pinniped! Most people call them seals, not pinnipeds, but my boss is pretentious. Given half a chance, he devolves into lecture on how people reduce both seals and sea lions to the singular term of “seal.”
When I’m alone on the beach, the seals swim near enough to entice me into the water, and more than once I’ve found myself knee deep in the cold sea. I want to go with them, touch them, be in the water. What began as an extra for my job has become a strange love affair with the chilly waters and the creatures that watch me from the waves. I am . . . happy.
Aside from the dead guy.
Working in LA is far from glamorous. In the land of film, personal assistant to a documentary filmmaker is even less glamorous. Grants fund his work, so job security is nonexistent. Although, admittedly, this isn’t forever: What I really want to do is write. Go ahead. Laugh. Every third person in LA wants to be a writer, thinks they’re a writer, or is pitching something soon. The rest are actors or wannabe directors. I’m aware that I’m a stereotype, but I’m not the first small town girl who succeeded at her dreams. The difference between me and them is that I’m clever, and there is zero limit to what I’m willing to do to achieve my dreams. Zero. Possibly less than zero.
I remind myself of that as my boss saunters my way.
“I thought I’d find you here,” he pronounces.
I glance at Jack, grateful that he wasn’t here at sunrise. I’d rather not share the seals—or explain the body I rolled into the sea.
Jack Abrams is, in the way of successful men, falsely convinced that he’s attractive. Forty-five years old, wrinkles already reaching out from his eyes and lining his forehead, average height, average face, Jack is nothing special. The best I can say is that he’s more fit than most filmmakers, but in the looks department, he’s average. In LA, though, if you collect enough awards, grants, and prestige, looks are relative. When Jack looks in the mirror, he mistakenly sees one of the finer Hemsworth men.
I realize I haven’t answered and try to sound calm as I say, “You missed the seals. I came early to watch them.”
He looks at me in the same way I’ve seen him look at a meal as he decides if he ought to accept it or send it back to the kitchen. “Fascinating, aren’t they?”
We stand in comfortable silence for several moments, both staring out to sea. I presume Jack is seeking seals, and I am quietly praying that he doesn’t see the dead man or his credit cards bob to the surface.
“I need a local. Find one.”
I glance at him. “A local to . . .?”
“Give me the insider view.”
“On seals?” I stare at him, not quite sure what he’s going for here. It’s likely to be some sort of gesture of authenticity. He does that, finds a way to add a touch of humanity to his stories. As much as I think he’s an ass, I like that wherever he films he tries to show the locals as appealing. It balances the occasional big budget project he takes on to “fund his art.”
If you read “ego” where he says “art,” the interview clips are true.
Still, his success fuels my future career, so I nod and listen.
“I need someone with a thick accent.”
He looks me up and down again. He hasn’t invited me to his bed—yet—but he will. Jack Abrams has a reputation for trading favors for fucks. He’s not coercive. I won’t get fired for saying no, but I won’t get ahead as fast. Truthfully, I just haven’t decided if I’m going to say yes when he gets around to offering. I could use a few favors, and I’m not above fucking for them.
For now, I step a little closer and shiver. “Orkney is colder than I thought it would be.”
“The old guys at the pub say it’s because the Vikings cut down all the trees.” Jack’s gaze scans the water, again seeking the sometimes elusive creatures we’re here to film.
“So, would one of them—”
“A woman, Isabel. Better for optics.” He affects a terrible accent and adds, “Why watch old men if there’s a pretty Scottish lass to stare at?”
“She needs to be camera-ready or close enough to have that ‘raw beauty,’ like you have when you put effort into it.” He smiles as he says this, as if it’s a compliment.
I smile back, looking genuine because I’ve practiced that lie my whole life. “You’re always so sweet, Jack.”
He continues looking out to sea.
The only way I could sleep with him is if I have a few drinks first—and it’s been a good day of filming. The high of a good creative day can make even Mitchell, the key researcher for this project, a bit more attractive.
Jack leaves, and I am left alone in the windy weather. For all of my complaints, he’s a genuinely talented man, and when he’s contemplating the project, not much else matters to him. That’s what I want: a story that makes my eyes slip to that far-away place where nothing else matters. I want to be consumed. Instead, I’ve spent the last two years in pointless jobs just to pay the rent.
• • • •
Three days pass in which I realize that no one has mentioned the missing man. He died. Now he’s a meal for the many creatures of the sea that feed on the dead meat they find. Likely he ate enough seafood that there’s a fairness in his body nourishing them now. Really, if you think about it, by moving his corpse those few feet I gave the sea an offering.
I protected myself.
It’s not like I killed him. Probably. I’m fairly sure I would have proof if I did. Murder is like that: It leaves a mark on you.
Since I seem to be avoiding jail, I need to focus on the project. I haven’t found a single person willing to be interviewed—other than the old men who seem eager to tell tales and drink. We put out feelers, and I hung fliers around Kirkwall, the main city in Orkney. No bites.
Maybe we just need some good public relations.
So, I’m at the pub again. A different one. Tonight is a “peatfire tales” event where locals tell folklore to tourists who sip one free glass of single malt while enjoying the unique scent of burning peat. I came here searching for the local or locals who could go on record for the project—or at least some people who might talk to me so I can find some possibilities for Jack.
I started the night determined not to be charmed by either the folklore or the fire, but when I realize that there weren’t any “pretty Scottish lasses” to lure into a video spot, I give in and order myself a quality glass of whisky. I am, after all, a writer. Unpublished perhaps, but I am still a writer. More importantly, I’m an excellent liar. That’s the trick to success in life: the ability to lie, to con, to manipulate. Well, that and a wee bit of ruthlessness. My mama taught me that part.
Tonight, the only ones here are tourists with family or friends. The only single person here, other than me, is a pretty young woman standing at the back of the room. She’s as far from the fire as anyone can be without leaving the room, so she’s draped in shadows. She has long brown hair, falling to her low back. Her body is neither slight nor heavy, and her height is average. She wears jeans, a plain cotton top, and a long cardigan. Nothing about her appearance is atypical, except a small smile that says she knows secrets or perhaps is holding back laughter. She holds her body like an athlete, and when she moves to the side to let a server pass by, I can’t help thinking that she moves as gracefully as the sea. I wonder briefly if she is a dancer or runner. Either way, I cannot pull my gaze away.
When she smiles, I swear I can feel my body tilt toward her the way the sea follows the moon. Before I mean to do so, I’m across the room, beside her, too near her. She is not the first woman I’ve flirted with at anonymous bars. She likely won’t be the last. She is, for reasons I don’t ponder too closely, the first person who has ever been irresistible to me.
“Hello, Isabel,” she says with a strange lilt to her voice.
I swear I can hear waves. I glance at the storyteller with her musicians, wondering how they created that sound with no electronics. I look to the window, into the darkness where the sea waits.
“Would you like a drink?” The woman extends a full glass to me. “Or have you had too much already?”
I realize that she has two drinks. She was expecting me. I don’t know how—or how she knows my name.
When I try to ask, she touches a finger to her lips and says, “The storyteller is still speaking. Be polite.”
Mutely my gaze follows her hand as she points toward the woman at the fireside. The woman at the fire might be speaking Gaelic or gibberish for all I know. Her voice lifts and falls, drifting to a whisper and erupting in a roar. There’s music in her words. Scotland seems like a land where music is the pulse that underlies the whole of the landscape. It reminds me of home. Not California, but my real home in the South. The music is different, but in both places, it rises up from the land. Here, the sea’s waves move in the people, and the language rolls. The syllables are merely waves that found their way through human lips. It’s different than the bayou, where thick air feels like it makes our words and our motions slower. The bayou makes the mundane turn mystical.
And a few moments or hours later, when the woman at my side meets my gaze and simply walks away, I’m fairly certain that she’s wrought of music and sea. I could swear I hear it, feel it, moonlight over waves, waves crashing over my head. It’s all fine, though, as long as she’s there. It’s inexplicable. My glass of whisky is full yet again, so I could be drunk. Either way, I follow her, follow the music that slips from her skin, the waves that roll in the sway of her hips, the steady beat of her footfall. As she glances back at me, I want to tell her that I’d follow her anywhere.
I try to say just that.
I turn and leave the few lights of the tiny town behind. She’s there, just ahead of me. She glows like she’s swallowed the moon, and I am nothing but water that must follow her pull.
I’m knee deep in the sea when I realize she’s gone. She slips away in the darkness, and I am left without her light. I back away until I’m standing at the edge of the sea, cold and alone and still far too drunk.
I sleep or perhaps pass out. When I wake, I see a lump in the dark beside me. It’s not as warm as me, but it’s not so cold that I mistake it for a rock. Seal. I feel like I’ve been offered a rare gift when I snuggle closer for warmth and it doesn’t move away. I’m grateful for the body heat as the liquor continues to hit me. Night is only a few hours in Orkney, so my whisky-soaked mind sees no issue with waiting—especially now that I have the seal to snuggle.
“Thank you,” I whisper, carefully patting the slick skin of its back.
When the sun breaks over the sky, I see that I am not, in fact, cuddling the chilly body of a pinniped. I can only surmise that I was drunker than I thought, because there next to me is another dead man. This time it’s Mitchell, a researcher on the team, clad in a puffy coat that I had mistaken for seal’s skin. He’s on his side, and his massive girth makes him seem vaguely seal-shaped in this position.
He’s been stabbed. Blood has pooled around the edges of his body, collected in the crevices where the sea has steadily carved its mark. I check myself, seeking clarity. Am I a killer? Well, yes, of course I am a killer. I’ve been a killer for years, but am I responsible for this body?
I have no recollection of buying the knife that’s caked with sand and crusted blood.
“Did I kill you?” I ask, the words no more than wasted air in the sea breeze. “I should remember if I did.”
I didn’t like him. Our last conversation was ugly. He called me a “glorified prostitute” and said that my only qualifications for the job are that I’m “fuckable and desperate.” He wasn’t wrong, but I still tried to slap him. He stopped me, shoved me at the wall, and ground his hips against me. His last words to me were “So high and mighty, aren’t you? If I offered you enough money, you’d change your tune.”
I’m careful not to push him over as I move away. Mitchell is a large man, and he’d be impossible to roll without help. I unzip his jacket, pull out his passport and bills. He has more cash than I would expect. I pocket it, toss the rest, and continue to try to depersonalize his body in case it’s found. After enough practice, the process is easy.
Mitchell is the fifth dead man I’ve frisked.
I worry, briefly, about his disappearance. Muggings happen in Scotland, but Orkney has the lowest crime rate in the nation. Briefly, I hope that means they also don’t have any sort of police force able to investigate disappearances. There are so many islands, so many cliffs, that a search seems improbable. And, more importantly, the landscape seems to invite dreamers who just want to get lost. Since I’ve arrived, I’ve been battling the urge to wander and maybe find whatever I’ve lost inside me.
I pat Mitchell again. “I hope this isn’t what I lost, Mitch. The urge to kill.”
I rip his shirt so I have a way to hold the knife, and then I use the blunt end to knock out his teeth. It’s easier than it ought to be. I turn it around, slice off the flesh of his fingertips. Routine. Simple. It’s not perfect, but the sea should help hide what the blade doesn’t.
Afterward I wipe the knife and handle clean and hurl the knife as far as I can.
I’m not a killer; I’m simply practical.
Once, when I was a kid, I’d killed a man. Okay, admittedly, I killed three of them over a couple months, but it wasn’t like I did it for pleasure. As far as I know, I haven’t done it since. I’m not certain about Jason or Mitchell, but I don’t go seeking men to kill. I’m not a sociopath. I killed a few men early in life, but I was just a girl with plans. I was acquitted when no bodies were found. The charges went away, and I changed my name. Met a guy. Daniel. Paid for papers. Then I had a clean slate, a new life.
I did not kill Daniel, although he did turn up dead a year later. Part of me didn’t so much mind, because he knew the old me and new me. I suspect I might’ve killed him if I’d been thinking clearly, but I wasn’t. Fate handled it.
Is the “real me” what I’ve found here? Did I kill two more men and forget? Had I killed Daniel after I got my papers from him?
I remember killing the ones whose lives I ended when I was nineteen. I remember the sounds of the bayou when I slipped my tiny boat with dead cargo into the water and went in search of the pigs. They eat more than the gators, despite what television shows say. Eaten by gators is just sexier or something. The pigs are practical, though.
Here on Orkney, I have no pigs. The sea, however, is willing to help.
The tide is coming in, and soon the dry spot where I’ve been cuddled up to a dead man will be in the waves. The tidewater starts puddling around my feet, covering Mitchell inch by inch.
In the surf, I see a seal. They seem to be everywhere here. It’s easy to understand why Jack chose this series of islands. The seals bask on rocks that jut out of the water or amidst the rocks on some of the coastal stretches. They haul out on land, but never quite let us approach.
I should’ve known that it wasn’t a seal offering me warmth in the early hours. Maybe they’ll offer him some warmth as his body finds its final home in the cold waters of the North Atlantic.
• • • •
Several hours later, I’m at a table in the Lynnfield Hotel dining room where Jack has stationed us today. It’s mid-morning, past the breakfast crowd and not yet time for lunch, so we are alone in the room. Like many of the restaurants I’ve visited on the islands, there is a strange out-of-time feeling to the room. The mix of antiques and no-longer-modern but not-yet-antique touches doesn’t clash, but there is a strange sense that the year could be years past or years future.
Time moves differently on these islands, though, so this seems right. The extreme imbalance of the light and darkness, the peculiar lack of trees, and the constant press of sea and wind have started to re-shape me. I want to ask the others about it, but no one in the crew speaks to me unless it’s for business. The nature of my position is that I belong to Jack, as if I am an extension of his eyes and ears.
“I’ve come for the job,” she says. “For your film.”
The woman from the peatfire readings stands in front of me.
I’m first tier, technically doing the interviews unless he wants to follow-up. Meanwhile, he sits at a table to my left with a pot of tea and a stack of pages he’s alternately scowling at or scrawling on.
“Margaret. You may call me Margaret.” She pronounces these words as if she’s bestowing a gift upon me, and I don’t feel able to ask for her surname. She has the same small smile that she had at the pub.
Jack looks up at the sound of her voice. I see him notice her voice and her figure. She’s not wrapped in the layers that our crew still favors. Instead, she wears a simple black cotton t-shirt, jeans, and low hiking boots. Her only concession to the weather is a red scarf.
“We met,” I manage to say.
“Yes. More than once.”
I’m sure she’s wrong. I’d have remembered her if we’d met repeatedly. “No, at the pub. I’ve only been here a few days and . . .”
She looks past me then. Smiling.
“And who have we here?” Jack asks.
His voice is slick and charming, and I know already that he’ll offer her a job. Margaret will be the face and voice speaking of the sea. It seems fitting. She makes me think of the ocean, or maybe I’m simply smitten. The way she moves feels too fluid for land.
“. . . with Isabel.”
I look up, realizing that I’ve been lost in my thoughts. “What?”
“Of course,” Jack says, speaking right over me. “These days one can never be too sure. Some men would treat a woman wrong, take advantage. You’re smart to be cautious of strangers, but”—he drops an arm around my shoulders companionably—“Isabel will vouch for me.”
“He is a talented filmmaker,” I reply dutifully.
“And a gentleman.” He squeezes me slightly as he says it.
I nod. I can’t say he is—or isn’t. Silence seems more like truth. Somehow lying to her seems wrong.
We settle at the table where Jack was working, and the server takes this as a cue to check in on us. In short order, another pot of tea is en route to us.
Margaret’s hands wrap around the teacup as if she’s afraid it might suddenly fall or shatter at her touch. She drinks carefully, and I worry that I’ve truly slipped into some other world for a moment. Perhaps this is what a psychotic break is like. I keep finding dead men, and I’m attributing odd traits to a perfectly lovely Scottish woman.
“Since you’re here for the seals, have you heard of selchies? Or of the Finfolk?” she asks.
Jack tenses. “This is a scientific film.”
“Ah.” Margaret pushes her teacup away. “I thought you were asking after local commentary.”
“On tourism, maybe the impact of the fisheries. Not fairy tales. Do you know about the seal watching tours or the fisheries? Or—”
At this Margaret’s smile slips a little. “The fisheries get angry at the seals for hunting fish, as if they should know that those fish are reserved for humans. Trap the fish in tiny spaces—” Her lips press as she cuts herself off. Inhales. Exhales. The smile returns. “I have no need to speak of them. There is nothing to be said that will change man’s greed.”
“Well, then, tourism? Or some sort of encounter with the seals?”
“An encounter with the seals,” she echoes. Her hands curl around her teacup again. This time her fingers are too far forward, as if she intends to lift it with only her palms.
Without thinking I pull the cup forward by its base, resettling it in her hands.
She startles at the gesture, staring at me again as if I am some curious thing.
Trying not to shake and spill the hot liquid on her, I carefully pour Margaret’s tea before I say, “I thought ‘Selchie’ was the Orcadian word for pinnipeds, seals.”
I am rewarded with a smile. I’d do a lot more than pour tea for such a look. Margaret may not be carrying the moon inside her skin as I thought when I was too far into my whisky, but she is remarkably alluring.
Jack makes a small face, but he doesn’t pursue the topic. I have no doubt that Margaret would feature in stills for the film, a human touch for the scientific project. It sells. Footage of seals isn’t enough. Tourists in Southern California can walk up to the colony at La Jolla and take selfies with them. Until we’d come here, I’d questioned the logic of the project. Who hasn’t seen a pinniped up close?
“Tell us,” Jack relents.
“Here, on the islands,” Margaret says, “there are selchies, seal-folk, and there are Finfolk. The Finfolk, like many fey things, steal away mortals. They are cruel and hurtful.”
“Humans or Finfolk?” Jack interjects.
“Yes.” Margaret’s gaze drifts to the windows, and I can see in her the same longing I feel when I stand at the edge of the sea.
“The selchies,” she adds, “are not cruel. By nature, they are seals. Harmless. Playful. They come ashore, and they shed their pelts so they might meet the humans they see from afar.”
She turns to meet Jack’s gaze and then mine. “They see you watching them. They see you with your cameras and your curiosities, and so they come to you.”
Despite all of the reading I’ve done on pinnipeds the last month, this is new to me. The words pluck at something I’ve heard since we arrived in Scotland: a warning in a song in a pub one night, one of those folksy lamenting tunes that go beautifully with another glass of Scotland’s finest drink.
“You cannot understand the seals if you don’t know of the Finfolk and the selchies,” Margaret warns.
“I’m sold.” Jack leans back in his seat and claps his hands together. “We’ll want you standing at the water when you talk. Intersplice your story with footage of the pinnipeds. This can work.”
He’s scribbling notes now.
“Isa, get her information.” He’s up and moving. “I’ll call Ned. We’ll want”—he glances at her, and she’s no longer a woman but a subject behind a lens even though his hands lack the camera in this moment—“hair loose. There’s always a breeze, so that natural thing.”
He glances at me briefly. “Talk to Carrie.”
“Cheri,” I interject.
He waves my correction away. “The costume girl. Talk to her about wardrobe. She can’t wear that.”
And then he leaves, lost to any measure of civility now that his mind is on the project. This, too, is part of my job. I handle the hurt feelings. I explain his “creative genius.” I turn to Margaret prepared to do my due diligence, but she’s staring out the window again.
“He’s doesn’t mean to insult you.”
Margaret stares at me in confusion. “There was insult?”
I exhale in relief. “Not intentionally. He’s very focused.”
“Can I get your information?” I ask. “Your mobile number?”
Margaret stands. “I am not one for being indoors. Walk with me, Isabel.”
And once again she moves with such speed and grace that I wonder if she runs in her free time. I am stone sober today, but I still struggle to keep pace. It does not occur to me to ask her to slow or to refuse to follow her.
We walk quickly, me trailing her slightly, until she stops as suddenly as she had begun. At the water. At the precise spot where I found Jason a few days ago. Warily, I look around for evidence that he was here, a washed-up credit card or shoe. There is nothing.
“Nature sets things right,” she tells me.
I nod mutely.
“Shall I tell you of the selchie and of the Finman?” she asks softly.
“Sure.” I don’t see any reason not to listen, and there are several good reasons to indulge her.
“You don’t believe, then?”
I laugh. “In fairy tale creatures? No. I’m from the middle of nowhere, but that doesn’t make me a fool.”
Margaret glances at me without turning, so she looking at me from the corner of her eye. “So, do you think me a fool, Isabel? An island ‘lassie,’ as your man would call me.” Her own musical voice grows harsh, as if she’s using the clunky accent Jason affected. “A wee island fool willing to be used to sell your film?”
“No.” I swallow with difficulty. “He’s not my man, either. He’s my employer.”
“Fine. You still do not believe the things I tell you, though?” Margaret sounds angry now, as if I’ve insulted her.
“I don’t question what you believe, but—”
“I believe in truth,” Margaret insists. “The things I see. The things I touch with my hands.”
“Me, too,” I agree.
“Then you’ll want to hear about the selchie and the Finman. They weren’t from the same place, but they wanted the same things.” Margaret’s voice rises and falls, as if heartbeat and breath and the sea all aligned at once. Her voice was all of them, pulling my lungs to motion as she pulled the waves to her. It was foolish, and fanciful, but I would swear on my father’s grave that she was somehow controlling all of it.
“The people forget that the selchies aren’t as kind as the stories say. They forget that water folk are kin to the fey things that live in the isles,” Margaret sing-speaks. “The Finfolk, though, if they are remembered at all, are known to be man-stealers. No one forgets their cruelty.”
“But both are cruel? And . . . steal people?”
“They’re fey,” Margaret answers with a half-shrug, as if that’s an answer. Maybe, to her, it is. “What they wanted, they took. What they needed, they stole. Who among us doesn’t want to do the same?”
I don’t reply. What is there is to say?
“Do not ever lie to me, Isabel.” Margaret reaches up and cups the side of my face. “I am not so different from the sea. My anger is damning.”
I’m not sure what the right reaction is in that moment, but I’m fairly certain that mine is far from wise.
“Come to my hotel?”
Margaret shakes her head. “I am not much for buildings. Even when a pretty woman will be there to greet me. I came inside once today. For you. Another day, though.”
• • • •
The next night I’m in front of the hotel where we’re all staying when Jack comes outside for a smoke. He startles at seeing me there. After a moment, he lights a cigarette, takes a long drag, and says, “You’re not at the bar.”
I shrug. There’s no polite way of telling my boss that I decided that I ought to stop drinking entirely because I’ve almost doubled my up close and personal contact with corpses in the past week.
“Did Mitchell say anything about a trip?”
“No . . .?”
Jack scowls. “I wanted him to research the fairy tales that woman was talking about.”
He glances at me, motioning the hand holding the cigarette as if reeling a reply from me.
“Her name is Margaret.”
“Right.” He smokes silently for several moments before saying, “I don’t need an assistant.”
“Are you firing me, Jack?”
“No, I’m just pointing out the obvious. You knew that when I hired you, right?” He is hazy with the halo of smoke around his head. “It’s more of a liking someone to handle details and any other needs I have. I have needs, Isabel.”
“Sex wasn’t in the contract.”
He shrugs. “True, but if it’s not offered, I won’t keep you on payroll. That’s not a secret, Isabel.”
As much as I want to argue, claim insult, I don’t feel like lying. I’ve started to think I lie to protect other people, avoid conflict, as much as to get my way. I don’t actually care about conflict, and my way is not what I thought it was. I glance over at Jack and admit, “I figured I’d have a few drinks and let you take me to your room when you got around to it.”
“I don’t care about the job enough any more.” It feels good to be so honest with him, to not feel so trapped. After a pause, I add, “And you’re not as handsome as you think.”
He stares at me in shock.
“Success didn’t change your looks or the flab at your middle or your horrible manners.” I know better, but I keep on talking. “You’re rude, and if you weren’t famous, you’d never get laid without paying for it. And truthfully, I’m not enough of a whore these days to trade sex for a paycheck.”
Jack’s quiet for several minutes before saying, “You’re fired, Isabel. Find your own way back to LA. And you can pay for the rest of your trip if you stay past tomorrow’s check-out.”
He walks away, dropping his cigarette on the ground where it smolders.
I stomp on it before I collect it and toss it in the rubbish bin. Rain or not, that’s an asshole move. He’s not too good to care about the environment. Litter, especially in an area where rain is constant, makes its way to the sea. He’s adding poison to the sea where the creatures he supposedly adores live and eat. Rage fills me. I want to scream at him, to make him pick it up.
“Fuckhead,” I mutter.
Melodic laughter drifts from behind me. I know it’s her before I turn. Margaret. Something of the sea is in her every sound and move.
“Who offended you this time?” she asks.
“My boss.” I pause and correct myself, “My ex-boss now. He fired me because I don’t want to sleep with him.”
Margaret stares at me. And I am afraid. There is something feral in her that I’d not seen until now, and I can’t decide if I should run or cling to her.
“It’s okay. I shouldn’t have said—”
“Filth.” Margaret glances behind us, to the closed door. “I try to correct them, to make them understand. They destroy everything they touch with their filthy ways.”
“I’m sorry . . .? “
Margaret looks at me, her eyes brighter than seems possible. “You don’t understand, Isabel. I thought you were different, but human women never understand either.”
“Human . . .?”
She makes a gesture like she is cutting the air. “You will not have relations with him.”
“Right. That’s why I’m fired.”
Margaret nods. “I shall fix this as well.”
“My being fired?”
Her attention snaps to me. “His offense.”
• • • •
I wake several days later to the sound of someone hammering on my door. My resolve to surrender booze fell apart after I was fired, and I ended up on a bender of the most pitiful sort. I am alone in my room with a bunch of empty bottles and food wrappers. Obviously, I’ve left the room at some point, as not all of the food was stuff I had here when I started drinking.
On the other side of the door is Margaret. Behind her is Jack.
“I won’t go on the boat with men alone.” She crosses her arms. “He says I must, but unless you are there, I shall not. I signed nothing.”
“It’ll cost you,” I tell Jack. “Hotel tab. All of it.”
I know the project is behind schedule. He’s lost a researcher, and he’s lost me. I can’t imagine he knew exactly how much I did for him—actual tasks, that is, even though I refused the one he’d apparently hired me to do.
“No plane ticket,” he says.
I shrug. I’m not sure when I want to leave—or if I will. I’ve fallen a bit in love with Orkney.
“Fine. Hotel bill in full for another week. Downstairs. Five minutes.” He walks away.
Margaret lingers. She reaches out and strokes my cheek. Then she’s gone, too.
“Pay my bill, or I’m not getting on the boat,” I call.
He says nothing, but fifteen minutes later, I’m standing at the front desk as he prepays another week’s lodging.
For reasons unknown to anyone but Jack, we are to go out onto the sea in a rigid inflatable boat. These “rib” contraptions seem sketchy to me, but half the tour companies in the islands and over in the Hebrides use them. I guess I’d rather trust the locals than my land-loving fears. Honestly, I’d have climbed aboard a Minke whale if it meant seeing Margaret.
When we set out, the small boat holds a captain, the cameraman, Jack, Margaret, and me. The captain watches Margaret carefully, and unless my eyes deceived me, he made the sign of the cross when she boarded the craft.
“I have great respect for the sea,” he tells me in an overly loud voice. “Those things that live in it are why these islands thrive. They protected us from the Norsemen in years gone by, and they protect us now.”
Margaret smiles at him. “Indeed.”
Jack rolls his eyes, not that she sees, but I do. Maybe he’s right to doubt the stories of the island, but there’s a long space between doubt and mockery. I don’t believe in selchies, or lindwurms, or faeries, or any number of things I hear of in the tales here, but I realize as well that we all believe in things that seem a touch far-fetched if we put them out on the table in front of strangers. That’s what she’s doing. For his film. For me. I wasn’t sure how it was for me, but I got the sense that it was in some way that only Margaret knew.
“Once . . . a selchie lay with a Finman,” she begins once we are far from land.
The camera’s eye is trained on her, as is mine. The boat’s captain does not look back at her, at any of us. He’s not in the frame of the film.
There is only Margaret and the sea.
“Their child, a girl, grew up with the need to bring mortals into the sea,” she continues. “She offered them like gifts, tithes to the waves. She culled the herd of men that came to the edges of the sea. It was not enough. Never enough.”
Jack, to my side, opens his mouth like he’s about to object.
“The men were cruel, and the women weak. Too afraid to shed blood.” She glances at me, smiles, and leans forward to tug Jack into the frame of the film. “The daughter of the sea found a way when she could, culling them as a shepherd with a flock.”
Margaret stands and pulls Jack to his feet. The boat shifts, but the captain keeps us steady. Maybe that’s easy, but I’m terrified.
She leans in and kisses Jack.
And I am no longer thinking of anything but this, but him touching her.
Steadily, as if it’s nothing, she reaches up and chokes him. He flails, trying to pull away, clawing at her wrists and forearms, kicking.
“Don’t stop filming,” I whisper. There is no other way to believe this. I’m not sure why I want to, but a tiny sliver of logic reminds me that there were two other dead men I’ve seen lately. Men I have wondered if I killed.
The cameraman drops his camera and leaps overboard. The captain does not look behind us. I, however, cannot look away. She chokes Jack, kisses him, cradles him as he goes limp, and when she stops kissing him, he is dead.
Margaret sighs, and I am certain that her sigh is why the winds have begun to churn the sea. Suddenly, the waters seem more like the edge of a storm than the calm sea of an hour ago.
“If he were pure, he would’ve survived. I’d have tasted goodness, and he would’ve lived.” Margaret meets my gaze. “Three for sacrifice.”
“You . . . killed them.”
“Did I, Isabel?” Margaret’s voice is a whisper of waves, so slight that I barely hear her even as I am next to her.
“You did. The camera. You killed Jack on camera.” I point at the camera, which is sideways at the bottom of the boat. “It’s on there. Proof.”
“You killed all of them. The men. The ones I found.” I sound a bit manic, but I thought I’d murdered a few men again.
It happens, you know?
“I thought it was me,” I whisper.
“Perhaps it was.” She motions me to the camera.
I debate between watching and letting it record. It’s the only proof I have. I left the shore in a boat with a captain and three people. Two others are dead—because the cameraman won’t survive that cold water.
“Come with me, or they’ll send you to prison,” Margaret points out calmly, voice still a murmured whisper.
She shakes her head. “No. You chose them. Each dead man. You chose him. I paid your dowry.”
I pick up the camera, stop the recording, and watch it. There is no proof. Margaret’s face is never in the frame. I try to back it up, to see earlier footage of her telling a tale. The cameraman must’ve done something wrong in his fear. None of it is there.
Margaret opens a rucksack, pulls out a fur, and strips. She stands bare naked for a moment and says, “Come with me, Isabel.”
She clutches the fur to her and jumps into the water.
I scan the waves, for her and for the missing cameraman, but all I find is a seal.
“Are you going?” the captain asks, finally glancing back at me but steadfastly not looking over the edge of the boat. “I’m headed to shore, miss, so if you’re going . . .”
I look back into the waves, and I am faced with the same beautiful woman I’ve found fascinating. The only significant difference is that she’s blue now and as she moves I see a tail fin.
“What . . . this is . . . Is that a costume?”
Margaret laughs, and the sound is the lure of the sea. She is the voice that drowns sailors, that crashes ships on rocks, that invites a woman to her doom.
Still blue, Margaret shifts so she’s floating on her back, bare breasts breaking the surface of the water like a mermaid. When my gaze lifts from her chest to her face, she says, “You are not afraid, Isabel. Not of death or blood. And you are not happy. Do you want to be happy?”
I glance at the men, think of the recording, of my empty life, of the fate that will await me on land. There is no hope on shore. I’m not sure if death or life awaits me if I agree, but I see no other answer. I leap overboard, and in moments, I feel Margaret’s arms wrap around me. Her bare skin against my layers of clothes and jacket.
Together, we sink into the sea.
• • • •
Days later, the boat is found, drifting. Empty but for a camera. The crew attaches a tow rope.
Silently, the fishermen haul the boat to shore.
After they dock, their captain lifts the camera from the boat. After a few moments, the men start playing the footage. The captain watches as one man is tossed overboard by a woman’s hand. The camera drops. Another splash.
“You . . . killed them,” a woman’s voice says in the recording.
“You did. The camera. You killed Jack on camera. It’s on there. Proof.”
“You killed all of them. The men. The ones I found. I thought it was me.”
There are pauses as if she’s speaking to someone, but no other voice is recorded.
Finally, the same woman says, “I’m innocent.”
Another splash, and then nothing but the sounds of the sea.
On the whole of the recording, there is only the sea and the voice of one woman, a drunken one that they’d all heard at the pub more than once. No one knew her, only that she’d come with the filmmakers, and like them, she’d vanished.
“Toss it in the rubbish bin,” the man closest to him says. “The sea took them. Her, too, from the sound of it.”
Murmured prayers and gestures ripple over the crew. Not a man there has a family without a tale of someone lost to a storm. Death was the price paid for a life drawn from the waves. The sea gave, but the sea demanded tithing.
“Better strangers than our own,” one of the fishermen says.
A seal watches them as they discard the camera, and then a fin—that several of them will swear was blue—flashes in the waves as the seal departs.