by Andrew MacRae
The Case of the Murderous Mermaid is part of an anthology by Andrew MacRae called The Case of the Murderous Mermaid and Others, which was reviewed here in KRL last week. There’s a link at the end of this story where you can purchase the anthology.
Miranda the Mermaid hovered in the water and adjusted the top of her sequined swimming suit. A chorus of catcalls came to her ears and she looked out the clear glass of the tank. A small crowd of young men gazed up from the dance floor in appreciative adoration of her nearly naked beauty. Miranda smiled and blew them a kiss and they shouted their approval in return.
Miranda tugged on her skimpy top again. It was new and too tight and chaffed her sides. Her old top had succumbed to the strong chlorine a few nights before and floated off, much to the delight of the watching crowd. The extra tips that night made up for what embarrassment she felt, though after five years working as an exotic dancer in bars, it didn’t bother Miranda to show a little skin. On the crowded dance floor, young men and young women flush with youth and alcohol danced to the incessant beat of classic rock and roll. Miranda saw Marty, the current love of her life, watching her. She waved at him and he waved back. Marty was sweet and Miranda was glad she had hooked up with him in spite of the complication of his being married.
It was time for another breath of air. Miranda kicked her fin-clad feet and swam behind a large artificial coral where an air hose waited. As she drew air from the mouthpiece her long blond hair floated in a cloud behind her. She took several long, slow draughts of air while tugging yet again on her bikini top. Her lungs refreshed with air, Miranda kicked her fins and returned to entertaining the customers of The Grotto Bar and Grill.
* * *
Martin McDaniel stood behind the bar, a wide grin on his middle-aged face as he surveyed the scene. An energetic DJ spun one dance tune after another, multicolored spotlights crisscrossed the dance floor, fake rock walls glowed under black lights and fishnets hung from the ceiling. The expense of adding the mermaid tank six months before had more than paid off. It was going on midnight and The Grotto was packed with customers. Martin’s smile grew wider when Miranda waved at him. Acquiring the nubile, honey blond Miranda as a girlfriend was an unexpected and enjoyable side benefit for Martin.
His smile faded as he spotted Vivian pushing her way across the dance floor, heading his way. Her hatchet-thin face was tight with anger as she looked at Martin and he sighed. If only she would agree to a divorce he and Miranda wouldn’t have to sneak around, but Vivian had already told Martin in no uncertain terms that divorce was out of the question, and that was before he had taken up with Miranda. God only knew how she would react if she ever found out.
Vivian arrived at the bar, elbowing her way in between two customers and planting herself squarely in front of Martin.
“Did you really think I wouldn’t find out? Did you really think you could get away with it? God, you’re pathetic!” Her voice was sharp and shrill and it pierced through the loud music. Kevin saw people turn and look in their direction, while the two displaced customers moved farther away. Vivian had that effect on people.
“Vivian, can’t we talk about this some other time?” Martin spread his arms. “The place is packed. Don’t cause a scene.”
Vivian looked over to the glass tank where Miranda swam. “Such a pretty girl. Too bad.” She turned back to Martin, her hatred palpable in her dark eyes. “The customers are going to miss her when she’s gone.”
“Vivian! You can’t fire Miranda. She needs this job.”
“Well, maybe she should have thought of that before she began sleeping with the boss’s husband.” Vivian turned toward the tank again and saw that Miranda was watching. Vivian wiggled her fingers at Miranda in faux friendship then drew her finger across her throat while her mouth formed a shark-like smile. She turned back to Martin. “I’ll have the bookkeeper cut her final check when he comes in on Monday.”
“Vivian, please. Have a heart.”
A contemptuous snort was Vivian’s answer to Martin’s pleading. She pivoted on sharp spiked heels and stalked away. Martin watched her leave and wondered how he ever could have loved and married her. He tried to remember their early days together, tried to remember some happiness, but he couldn’t. All that came to mind was the vicious shrew Vivian had become; as if by their own accord his hands rose from his side. When he became aware of it he was startled to see his hands making the motions of throttling someone, of strangling Vivian. Martin put his hands in his pockets and looked to see if anyone noticed. Obscured by the glass and water of the tank Martin failed to see the contemplative expression on the watching Miranda’s face.
* * *
At two in the morning The Grotto was quiet, empty of customers and staff. The only sound came from the air hoses burbling in the large water tank.
Vivian McDaniel crouched on the catwalk in the darkness above the tank. She uncapped a sample vial in preparation for testing the water. Vivian took two samples every day at noon, at six each evening and again at two in the morning, after closing. Keeping the water clean was a strict requirement of the city’s operation permit. They were none too happy about The Grotto in the first place, as a raucous nightclub didn’t fit the city fathers’ notions of wholesome family-friendly entertainment. But The Grotto kept itself within the law and as long as it did there was nothing the city could do to shut them down.
Martin was supposed to do this part of the job, Vivian reminded herself bitterly, part of the division of labor on which they agreed when they installed the tank six months before. But in his typical fashion Martin botched it and when the girls began complaining of their eyes stinging from too much chlorine, Vivian took on the task–as she had so many others. The extra chlorine also ruined the mermaid swimsuit costumes. Fortunately Vivian managed to convince the old biddy who sewed and fitted them for the girls that she had used poor quality materials and she agreed to replace them for only the cost of the new material, doing the sewing and fitting for free. It had taken some bullying to get her to agree, but bullying was something Vivian was good at. She knew the financial success of The Grotto depended on her squeezing every cent of savings she could manage. That was another thing at which Martin was useless.
Vivian leaned over the water, quickly dipped the open vial in and out, then sat upright, her mind still on Martin. Talk about a millstone, she thought with anger. She capped and placed the vial in a small carrier and picked up the second vial.
Well, she consoled herself, not for long. The lawyer she spoke with last week gave her good hope she could cut Martin out of his share of The Grotto completely. Vivian’s mouth tightened into a cruel smile as she thought about it.
A sound behind her alerted her to someone else’s presence and she turned around.
“You? What are you doing here? Never mind. You’ll have to wait until I’m done with this.” Vivian turned her back on her visitor and leaned out over the water to take the second sample. The silvery sheen of the water’s surface was the last thing Vivian McDaniel ever saw.
* * *
“You see, Sonny, this here is what we call a clue.” Sgt. Ferguson held out his meaty hand where a shiny blue sequin perched at the tip of his fat finger. Kelly Stone, Detective First Grade and only three months on the force, gritted his teeth and resisted reminding Ferguson that it was he, Kelly, who had spotted the tiny sparkle on the platform where they stood above the pool.
Vivian McDaniel’s body was discovered by The Grotto’s setup crew late that morning. At first it was assumed she had lost her balance on the platform and fell in, but the medical examiner soon put that theory to rest. The bump and abrasion on the top of her head told the stark story. In the early morning hours when The Grotto was closed and dark, someone had clubbed Vivian from behind while she crouched over the pool taking a sample of water and left her to drown.
The duty rotation meant the investigation was assigned to detectives Ferguson and Stone, the old-timer and the new hire. Both men counted the days until Ferguson’s retirement, the former looking forward to days free of work and the latter looking forward to days free of Ferguson.
The small platform above the pool was crowded. In addition to Ferguson and Stone, the dead woman’s not-so-grieving husband was there, having shown the detectives the way up through the twisting back corridors and narrow stairs. Even in the dim light of the catwalk Martin McDaniel’s face had grown noticeably pale.
“How about it, Mr. McDaniel? Any idea where this might have come from?” Ferguson waggled his finger in front of Martin’s face. It was obvious to both detectives that Martin was trying not to look at the bright blue sequin.
“Well?” demanded Ferguson.
Martin licked his lips. “We have three girls who wear sequined swimming suits. They’re our mermaids.”
“And which of those three have blue sequins on their swimming suits?”
Martin looked miserable. “Only one,” he answered in a low voice. “Jennifer has green sequins, Brandy has red sequins and…” his voice trailed off.
Martin looked at the detectives. “And Miranda’s suit has blue sequins. But I know she didn’t do it. She couldn’t have.” Martin’s tone was halfway between defiance and pleading.
Kelly looked across the length of the tank to the other end.
“Mr. McDaniel, there’s a ladder at that end.”
“That’s where the girls get in and out of the pool.”
“Would any of the girls have reason to be over at this end?”
Martin realized what Kelly was getting at. His mouth opened and closed twice before he spoke. “None of them should have been here. The door to this platform is kept locked.”
Even knowing what Ferguson was going to say next didn’t make it any easier for Kelly to take.
“Well, Sonny, looks like we want to have a little chat with a mermaid named Miranda.”
* * *
“But I didn’t do it. I swear I didn’t.” Miranda was near tears. She sat at the small table in the staff break room in the back of The Grotto. Sgt. Ferguson sat opposite her while Det. Stone sat to her right. Miranda looked first at Ferguson, then at Kelly, eager to be believed.
Ferguson took on the attitude of a stern uncle. “Now, Miranda. Let’s not have any lying, understand? You’re already in enough trouble as it is.”
“No.” Miranda shook her head. “No, it’s not true. I’ve never been anywhere near that platform. You’ve got to believe me.”
“What we have to believe, young lady, are the facts. One, you’ve been having an affair with the dead woman’s husband. Two, she was going to fire you from a job you badly need. Three, of the three mermaids here only your costume has blue sequins and a blue sequin was found next to where Vivian McDaniel was attacked.” Ferguson slapped his hand on the table. Miranda recoiled at the sound. “Those facts add up to only one thing, young lady. You hit her over the head and left her to drown in the pool.”
Miranda covered her face in her hands and sobbed.
It was Kelly’s turn to try.
“Let’s go over it again, okay?” Her face still covered by her hands, Miranda nodded.
“You left here at one o’clock in the morning when The Grotto closed.”
“It was more like one-twenty. I had to change.”
“You went straight home.”
“No, I told you. I stopped by Mamma’s first.”
“Tell us about Mamma, Miranda.”
“She’s a costume maker. She makes costumes for dancers all around the city, we all know her.”
“Isn’t one thirty in the morning a bit late to pay a visit?”
“Not for Mamma. She’s a night person. Lots of us girls stop by her place after we get off work.”
“Were there any other dancers, any other girls there?”
Miranda shook her head. “No, just Mamma and me. She made me a cup of tea and I drank it while she let out my top a little.”
“And after you left Mamma’s you went straight home.”
“Yes, straight home and right to bed. Swimming in that tank for hours really wears you out.”
“And you were by yourself and didn’t see anyone until this morning?”
“No, it was just me and Middy.”
Ferguson jerked his head up. “Middy? Who’s that? You didn’t mention anyone else before.”
“Middy, I mean Midnight, my cat.”
“Oh.” Ferguson heaved his large bulk up from his chair. “I think we’ve got enough for now, Stone. Let’s get the Little Mermaid here downtown and wrap this case up.”
Miranda turned to Kelly. “You’re going to arrest me? But I didn’t do it!”
Kelly placed his hand on her arm. “I’m sorry, but we haven’t any choice.”
“But what am I supposed to do?”
“A public defender will come and talk with you once you’ve been booked.”
“Will you come with me?”
Ferguson interrupted Stone’s reply. “Not Sonny, here. He’s got a witness to interview first, right?”
Kelly sighed and nodded. As the junior partner of the team he got to take care of the lesser details. He’d go and interview Mamma and confirm Miranda’s visit while Ferguson escorted Miranda into the police station. Kelly could tell Ferguson was already picturing the photographs in tomorrow’s newspapers.
* * *
Det. Kelly Stone parked his compact car on the street outside a dilapidated bungalow where a sign reading,
“Mamma’s Costume Shop” hung crookedly from the eves. The shop, also Mamma’s home, was only two blocks from The Grotto, wedged between two equally rundown industrial buildings. Kelly narrowly missed stepping in the slurry of mud and water covering most of the cracked sidewalk in front. He made his way to the shop’s door. The handle turned and he entered.
Costumes filled the room. They hung from poles that ran from wall to wall, from hooks in the ceiling, and they were draped across chairs and tables. Most of the costumes were for dancers, skimpy outfits with frills and of every color, but Kelly also saw clown and pirate costumes, army uniforms and ballroom dresses.
“I’ll be there in a minute.” The voice that called from beyond a beaded doorway was thin and reedy.
“No rush, I don’t mind waiting,” Kelly called in response.
He walked over to a wall covered with framed photographs. Most were of dancers and other performers, some dating back decades from the look of them and almost all signed with words of thanks to Mamma for her costume work. Kelly noticed a number of photographs without signatures mixed among the others. They all featured the same attractive young woman. In some photographs she twirled a baton while in others she was dancing. The woman’s hairstyle and costumes were from at least a half-century ago.
A repeated shuffle and thump announced Mamma’s arrival. Kelly peered through the incomplete light at her. Mamma looked to be in her early seventies but carried about her the impression of irresponsible youth. She was short and thin and walked slowly, her cane thumping with each step. Atop her head was a wig of bright orange hair, slightly askew. Her face was drawn with age and pale but her eyes gleamed with interest in her visitor. With sudden recognition Kelly realized she was the young woman in the old photographs. Mamma made her slow way over to a chair, pushed aside what looked like a velvet smoking jacket and sat down facing her visitor. She looked from Kelly to one of the photographs and then back to him.
“Yes, that’s me. Back before the polio got me. I was quite a looker, wasn’t I?”
“You were and still are.”
Mamma smiled at the compliment. “Oh, aren’t you the charmer! Come and sit down.”
Kelly went to a nearby chair, moved a pink tutu and sat down.
“Well young man, what brings you here? What’s the world outside like these days? I wouldn’t know. I haven’t left this house since I don’t know when.”
Kelly showed her his badge and told her the purpose of his visit. Mamma’s eyes narrowed.
“Well, of course Miranda was here. Why would she lie about a thing like that? It’s exactly as she said. She had tea with me and I let out the top of her swimming suit. Honestly, you couldn’t possibly think Miranda killed that horrible woman, can you?”
“We don’t really have a choice, all the evidence points to her.” Kelly went on to describe the finding of the blue sequin and Vivian’s threat to fire Miranda, concluding with, “She’s down at the station now, being booked and fingerprinted.”
When Kelly finished speaking the room became quiet. An elderly cat sauntered in and jumped into Mamma’s lap and she stroked its long yellow and white fur. The cat purred loudly and Kelly was startled to see it had only one eye.
“This is Precious,” said Mamma. “She’s my only family now.”
The room became quiet again. Mamma’s eyes closed as she petted the purring cat. Kelly was willing to wait. He knew he had to give her time to think.
At long last Mamma gave a deep sigh and opened her eyes. She looked at Kelly, “How did you know?”
Kelly made a deprecating gesture. “It wasn’t too hard. You were the only other person who handled Miranda’s swimming suit. The sequin must have caught on your clothes.” Mamma nodded. Kelly continued. “And then there’s your cane.”
Mamma held her cane out. “What about it?”
“There’s mud at the bottom. Just like the mud on the sidewalk outside your house. How’d it get there if you haven’t been outside?”
Mamma lifted the cane. The dried mud was plain to see. “Very clever of you, young man.” She sighed again. “I didn’t mean to kill her, you know that, don’t you?”
Kelly nodded and Mamma continued. “After Miranda told me she was going to be fired I decided to go there and see if I could do something. I thought maybe if I offered to make more costumes for free she would change her mind, but when she turned her back on me I couldn’t help myself. I just bopped her on the head with my cane. I didn’t think it would really hurt her.”
“And she fell in.”
“Yes. When I saw she wasn’t moving I tried to reach her, but there wasn’t anything I could do. I mean, there wasn’t anyone around who could help and I can’t swim.” Mamma looked down at the cat on her lap. “And so I left her and came home. I tried to go to bed but I couldn’t sleep a wink. I suppose I was waiting for you.”
Mamma stopped petting Precious. She picked up and placed the elderly cat on the floor. Precious gave a mew of protest.
Mamma looked up at Kelly. “Will you help me up?”
“Of course.” Kelly rose from the chair and crossed to where Mamma sat.
“What will become of Precious?” Mamma asked, as Kelly helped her to her feet.
“Maybe Miranda’s cat Midnight could use some company,” suggested Kelly. Mamma nodded her approval of the idea.
Kelly saw Mamma’s coat on a hook near the door. He fetched it and held it for her as she slipped her thin arms into the sleeves.
“Thank you, young man. You have very nice manners. Not like some policemen I’ve known.” Mamma smiled a mischievous smile. “The stories I could tell.”
Kelly returned her smile. “I look forward to hearing them.” He offered Mamma his arm and she took it, clutching tightly. Mamma looked around the room as if seeing it for the last time and then looked at Kelly.
“Do you think there will be news photographers at the police station?”
“I’ll call ahead and make sure of it.”
“Oh good. This will be fun. Let’s go make a grand entrance, shall we? One that will knock their socks off.”
And they did.
Purchase a copy of the anthology this story is in here: store.untreedreads.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=7_48_697&products_id=1026. Andrew will be speaking at the Fresno Chapter of Sisters In Crime on May 2.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories in our mystery section.
Sounds really interesting, thanks for introducing us to it!
Good story, Andrew, filled with clearly drawn characters who were easy to visualize. I imagine your research required spending time with a number of exotic dancers. Poor guy.
Andrew, I enjoyed the mermaid tale. Well done! Georgia
Enjoyed this story and the other two in the book. I highly recommend the book.
Recent Spoof by Gail Farrelly = Martians: Earth Day, Phooey! We Want a Mars Day! http://www.thespoof.com/4IrE
Great stuff. Love your cozy [sparkly] style.
What a fun read. Great play on words, too.