Sharkland #1 –
Kill Beth Vol. 1, or, I Want To Do Bad Things With You
(In Which Crosby Lake and Bon Temps LA Are In The Same Universe)
Sometimes when you think things can’t get any worse, Mother Nature decides to play a cruel joke on you, and you discover they can. Big time. And I do mean big.
I was splashing frantically around in the tepid waters of Crosby Lake, probably making things worse by attracting the attention of those eel-like little bastards someone later told me were cookie cutter sharks. I didn’t know what they were and didn’t care. All I knew was that they were all over the place and they had sharp teeth and they were biting the shit out of me while I kicked and flapped and screamed and swallowed lake water and had no more sense about what to do than any creature that was about to get eaten by a shark. Sharks, plural, I should say. Not that I was really aware of numbers, but I could feel what they were doing, and it registered on some part of my brain that was still capable of taking in data for future reference. Not that I thought I had much of a future at that point.
I didn’t even have the gumption to be pissed off. I was just plain terrified. For some reason, when I thought back on it later, I kept flashing on a line from one of my favorite movies, the one where the kid traveling with the rock band is writing his article for Rolling Stone, which he begins with “I was 5000 feet in the air, on tour with Stillwater, and we were about to die,” or something like that. And nobody believes him, although all the bizarre things he reports are the God’s honest truth.
So, there I was, flailing my arms, hitting and kicking and still feeling sharp teeth sinking into me, not consciously thinking I’d never been that scared in my life but it was true anyway, when I looked up and saw the one thing that could make the situation even worse. Something with a mouth the size of a Buick was fastening a bunch of four-inch-long teeth into the netting around me and tugging and slashing, and all of a sudden I and that whole bunch of little dagger-mouths were flying every which way and there was a huge thud as something hit the boat beside me. As I said, not much conscious thought going on at the time, but later I decided it looked like something else you’d never think to find in Crosby Lake, Louisiana. Wonderful. I could get swallowed whole instead of just chewed up piece at a time.
I don’t really know what happened next. I just remember somehow being free of the net and swimming like mad, and being vaguely conscious of a lot of thrashing and bumping going on behind me. Oh sweet baby Jesus, I’m out here bleeding all over the place in a lake full of sharks, I thought. This cannot be a good thing. Swim, Beth, swim. Just swim, girl. Nothing else made sense. One second I thought I was gone, the next I was trying to pull up all the muscle memory I could muster from all those years of competitive swimming in high school. What else could I do?
Just as I thought maybe I had a chance, I became aware of a presence behind me--something was back there, don’t ask me how I knew, because I sure didn’t take time to look over my shoulder. I just knew, and the panic returned. I had no idea where to head for, so I just kept swimming, and as I veered a bit right, something very big and dark came up beside me, and I nearly had a heart attack, but I didn’t, I just adjusted back left. And it came with me. Every time I got off course, or whatever you’d call it, I’d see that monstrous dark shape beside me and I’d correct my direction to keep it on my right side. If it was beside me, since it had no neck to speak of, it couldn’t bite me, right?
It was almost as though it were herding me, taking me somewhere. Crazy thought, right? But as long as it wasn’t eating me, I didn’t care. If it wanted me to go somewhere, I’d go there. Before long we reached shallower water and I was able to stagger up onto the shore. I turned around and saw an orca beaching itself right behind me. It seemed to be struggling, as though it were caught on something. It shuddered and its mouth gaped open. I was right—four inch teeth. The net didn’t stand a chance.
The orca seemed to exude waves of steam, and for a moment it looked like a dolphin doing one of those incredible tail walks they do sometimes. It almost appeared to be trying to stand on nonexistent legs. Then the steam dissipated to reveal a man on the beach, almost up to his knees in water, and totally naked. He staggered a few feet forward, one arm extended toward me. “Are you okay?” he said.
“I am hallucinating,” I said aloud. “Too much Xanax. Blood loss. I’m in shock. Maybe I’m crazy. But I am alive. Standing here talking to a killer whale who just turned into a naked man.” My eyes wandered all over him. Noticeably.
He covered himself with his hands. “The water was a little cold,” he said.
Suddenly I felt a lot more light-headed. “At least it’s not orange,” I giggled, and then I fainted.
When I realized I was conscious again, I also noticed that I wasn’t where I’d been when I passed out. This caused me momentary concern until I realized that I was wrapped in a blanket and propped up against the rear wheel of some kind of SUV. Shrugging the blanket off my shoulders, I inspected myself and noted that I had bandages of some kind wrapped around or plastered onto me at strategic spots. And I seemed to be alone.
Then I heard retching sounds coming from the other side of the vehicle and struggled to my feet. Now that nothing was chewing on me, although I still felt like hell, I was sufficiently emboldened to decide I was going to find out what was going on. A dark-haired guy who looked to be in his mid-twenties, now wearing faded jeans and a t-shirt, was bent over spilling his guts—or someone’s—and looking thoroughly miserable. “Hey, Aquaman,” I said. “I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but you got some ‘splainin’ to do.”
He looked up, still gasping, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and lurched toward the car, now coughing harshly. Digging in what looked like a small athletic carrying bag, he fished out some kind of wet-wipe and cleaned himself up. “I did the best I could with what I’ve got on hand,” he said, “but I didn’t give you any antibiotics or anything. Just a lot of Neosporin. We should get you to a hospital. Mandeville’s not too far away. I’ve got some sweatpants and another t-shirt in here. Might be a little bit big, but you might be more comfortable.”
“You travel prepared for anything, eh?”
“You’d be surprised. I got my leg caught in an illegal trap once when I was out for a run, and you wouldn’t believe what I had to do.”
“Out for a run?” Where—or better yet, how—would an orca run, I wondered.
“Yeah. Best way in the world to let off steam. You just have to do it in a safe place or you could wind up living your own version of 127 Hours.”
“I’d have sworn I saw two legs when you were—“
“Sorry, I can’t shift clothes, just myself. Wanta see the scar?”
“No, no, I’m just glad you got out of your, ah, predicament with everything intact. You did, didn’t you?”
“Yup, my propeller works just fine, thanks. Anyway, do you know what just happened?”
“I know I thought I was a goner, but obviously I’m still here. Evidently thanks to you.”
“Yeah. That’s what I meant. Did you make the connection between…shall we say your rescuer and me?”
“I haven’t been smoking or snorting anything that would do that, so I’m kind of assuming a lot of stuff.” I shivered and pulled the blanket tighter around myself.
“The word is shifter,” he said, sounding uncomfortable and a little defensive. “A lot of people are still suffering from what I call The Russell Edgington Effect right about now, so you never know how they’re going to react, even though I have about as much in common with him as I do with—“’
“A killer whale?” I said, getting the giggles again. “How do you DO that?”
He handed me the clothes he’d mentioned. “How should I know? Do you know why the lights come on when you flip a switch? I’m guessing no. They just do.”
The sweatpants went on easily over my bikini, but everything was just a little bit baggy on me. “Does it make you get sick?”
“Not usually, but I did a lot of things I don’t normally do, like take on a really big shape, which requires more energy, and then I didn’t stay in it very long, and I guess I managed to—uck—ingest quite a few of those critters. If I’d stayed in body awhile longer, I’d have digested them fine, but I changed back right away and my system couldn’t handle it.”
“Well, I guess I should say thank you, ah, I don’t know your name.”
“And I don’t know yours.”
“The way I feel right now, I almost need to look at my driver’s license to be sure. I think it’s Beth.”
“Allen. Parrish. Somebody at the adoption agency had a really sick sense of humor. Nobody knows why the blanket I was wrapped in had that printed on it. Maybe it was something official, because this actually IS Allen Parish. But it also sounded like a name. But that’s neither here nor there. You can call me Al, and we probably ought to be getting out of here.”
My breath caught in my throat. Maybe I wasn’t safe after all. “Are they still out there?”
“I’m not sure. They were listing to starboard last I saw, but I am not going back to finish them off. Take too damn much energy. Besides, I’ve already got a headache clear down to my knees. I am not Moby Dick, y’know.”
“You were big enough to scare hell out of me,” I said. This did not seem like the time for whale jokes or dick jokes, moby or otherwise, but the mere fact that I’d considered it made me think I was feeling better. “Why did you ram them, then?”
“Jeez, what did you want me to do, use the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart technique? That only works in the movies! And you’ve got to have a hand to do it with.”
“What?” I said incredulously.
“Sorry, everybody teases me about talking in movie-ese.”
“I know what you said. I just couldn’t believe I heard it right. Kill Bill is one of my favorite movies!”
“Oh, Volume Two, of course, where she goes after Bill.”
“What do you—oh crap, we don’t have time for this,” he said. “We’d better get moving. We’ll figure out a story on the way to the hospital.”
We did try to stay on the subject, but we kept drifting back to our favorite movies. It just seemed so natural, and he was the first person I’d had that much fun actually talking to for, well, maybe years. First guy, anyway. “I loved that scene where she was lying on the floor of the bathroom crying, then grinning, then giggling, then laughing, then crying again. That felt so right. I know what it’s like. Sometimes I don’t know what I feel, and I get so confused, and I wonder if the people who consult psychics are maybe onto something, because maybe some of them really can see clearer than the rest of us. But how do you know which ones?”
“I liked the scene right after she killed him,” Al said, glancing over his shoulder to make sure we weren’t being followed. “He asks her how he looks, and she says—“
“You look ready,” we said in unison.
“And she leans over and puts her hand on his,” I said.
“And a tear slides down her cheek,” Al added.
I put my left hand over his right one on the steering wheel. “Because she still loved him,” I said. “Even though she killed him. Tell me life’s not complicated sometimes.”
“Maybe that’s why I spend a lot of time as a dog,” Al said, rather sadly, I thought. “Dogs are simple. I knew I should never have introduced Dennis to that psycho professor at the Marine Research Institute. At firstI just helped him design his website for Crim Diving. That was legit. Then he wanted to set up one for this other new thing he was getting into—a snuff site. Know what that is? The real thing. Shark of the week club. Exclusive at first, word of mouth advertising, get ‘em hooked and then start charging. Only none of that bunch was smart enough to figure out how to do it without getting caught. I guess he thought I was. That’s when I realized he was heading for totally batshit crazy and I was not going to help him go over the line. He’ll probably try to make me shark bait sooner or later.” His hand seemed to be shaking a little even though he was gripping the wheel pretty tight.
“We need to warn my friends,” I said.
“Where are they? We have a little reception problem out here in some places. Besides, you’re not in very good shape. I need to take care of you first.”
I was feeling really shaky by that time so I didn’t argue with him. I remember feeling guilty just before I absolved myself of it by passing out again.
I woke up in the hospital in Mandeville just long enough to hear Al saying something about how I was lucky to be alive and had been raving a bit so not to pay too much attention to me if I said anything weird. I took my cue from that and muttered over and over that I must have hit my head on something because I really couldn’t remember squat about much of anything. Eventually Nick and Sara tracked us down and we all—believe it or not—settled in at the beach house. It was safe enough. All we had to do was stay out of the water. The police wanted us around for questioning anyway, so they stashed us there and promised that if things took longer than expected, they’d square it with any professors who wondered why we weren’t in class.
“Are we sure we trust these people?” I asked. “After all, Sara knew that sheriff all her life and look how much good that did her.”
“The Staties are handling this,” Al reassured me.
“Can you trust them?”
He stood gazing out the window of my room as though expecting to see a fleet of dorsal fins closing in on us, even now. “One of ‘em, for sure,” he said. “If it hadn’t been for him, I’d never have got out of that leghold trap. That thing was a bitch. He tried prying it open with an antler, but that didn’t work, and he was afraid if it snapped shut on him, he might wind up with half his head sliced off, so he finally managed to wedge a hoof in it and we got it off me. He’s got big feet, so it worked.” I must have been giving him a really funny look, because he said “I’m not the only shifter in the world, you know. Sometimes we find each other. It can be really handy having even a little bit of an inside track to law enforcement. It may not be strictly legal to discriminate against us, but then it’s not legal to feed beautiful girls to sharks either.”
I got up from where I’d been curled up on the bed and stood beside him. When I touched him on the arm, he literally jumped. “Someone’s wound up a little bit too tight,” I said. “Besides me, that is.” I turned him around and backed toward the bed, bringing him with me. “Maybe you need to let off a little steam.” I know, I hardly knew him, but after all, he had saved my life, and he reminded me a bit of Gordon, who I’d always considered not my type but basically a good guy. Hell, who even knows what my type is?
Hearing a noise at the door, I looked over and saw Sherman poking his nose in. He entered hesitantly, tail wagging slightly, eyes on Al, who was quickly shedding clothes. Sherman ducked his head, hind quarters elevated, and let out a low “ruff.”
“Nothing like a good run to let off steam,” Al said, kicking off his jeans and socks,
It happened so fast that all I could do was stand there with my mouth hanging open, watching the beautiful Golden Retriever who appeared out of nowhere go bounding across the room toward the door. Sherman whirled and tore off down the hall. A few seconds later, I saw the two of them flying across the front lawn at a mad gallop. The Golden gave a loud bark and Sherman instantly banked left toward the woods. I guess that was canine for “Stay out of the water!”
I lay back on the bed, a little nonplussed both at what I’d just seen and at being turned down for a dog. A real one. Then I decided it made more sense to simply shrug it off and be glad I was alive. And Sara, Nick and Sherman were alive. So was my strange new friend Al, who might wind up being more than just a friend, but finding out would have to wait a bit longer. But that was okay. There was always tomorrow. Well, actually, as I’d just learned the hard way, there wasn’t always a guaranteed tomorrow, but I really didn’t want to dwell on that. Today, I could still say with Scarlett O’Hara, “Tomorrow’s another day.”