“What do you suppose it’s doing out there?”
“Damned if I know. Doesn’t look like there’s anyone on board… D’you think they’re asleep?”
“Or maybe it’s been abandoned?”
“That’d be a shame, she’s rather beautiful.”
The two men watched the boat as it bobbed idly in the placid lake, enjoying the opportunity to take a rest after spending half the day hiking. It was always a good sign for one of their trips when they stumbled upon something they hadn’t seen before, but discovering an entire lake was a new record. The sparkling water was like nothing else in the region, and the trees seemed to be bigger and more luxuriously coloured than any they’d seen in months.
A feeling of calm serenity permeated the scene, even as the immaculately carved old boat drew their attention with the same quiet force as an unexpected box in the middle of a field.
“Want to go take a look up close?”
“What if it’s occupied? Or the owner comes back? I doubt they’d be too pleased with a couple of strangers poking around on their boat.”
“Actually I wouldn’t mind at all; you would be doing me a favour.”
The closest man nearly leapt out of his skin at the sound of the voice beside him. Neither man had heard the stranger as he sidled up beside them to gaze at the boat.
The olive green overcoat that he wore contrasted drastically with the bright red plaid shirts around their shoulders, but not nearly so much as the rice-farmer’s hat that sat atop his head. It looked as though there were something on his face as well, but the shade of the hat coupled with the glare of the sun reflecting off the lake made it difficult to tell.
“God damn, you gave me a scare man! That your boat?”
“It was mine, but I might as well abandon it at this point. I don’t know which joker decided it would be a good idea to untie her and let her drift out into the water, but my swimming arms aren’t anything close to what they were – so I can’t exactly go out to steer her back in.”
“That your only problem, mate? Shoot, I’d be happy to help you out. I’m not a half bad swimmer if I do say so myself. Name’s Trevor by the way.” He thrust out his hand in a friendly greeting, seeking to dispel the awkwardness of the stranger’s unexpected appearance. A slight chill ran down his spine as the man turned to face him, giving him a better look beneath the brim of the hat. Not a fleck of skin was visible beneath the mask, a pair of goggles reflecting Trevor’s silhouette back at him as the man took his hand and shook it politely.
“Gunther. Apologies for frightening you, I thought you had heard me approaching.”
“N’aww that’s alright mate, we were just enjoying the view. It’s a beautiful vessel you’ve got out there; I’m Hank.” The second hiker reached over and shook Gunther’s hand, unsettled slightly by the mask.
“Sorry, but I’ve got to ask – why the mask? Air’s pretty clean after all.”
“Allergies,” he responded simply, “they’re rather crippling for a man like myself.”
“Ah, that’s unfortunate. I used to suffer from hay fever back when I was growing up, but I seem to have gotten past it for the most part – so you’ve got my sympathies.”
“I appreciate it my good fellow, you two seem like good eggs. And I do appreciate your offer for help, but how would you go about it?”
“Well I’m sure Hank would gladly keep you company while I swim out and see if I can’t get her moving. How does she move normally? Doesn’t look like she’s got an outboard motor or anything, but oars seem like they’d be impractical for something of her size.”
“That’s the least of our concerns I’m afraid. You see, I’ve no idea who unhooked her in the first place. For all I know they could still be hiding on the boat waiting to ambush whoever tries to board it, and I can’t in good conscience let you go out there alone.”
“Hmm… good point.” Trevor folded his arms and mulled it over, but Hank shrugged and unhooked his backpack.
“No sweat; Trev and I will swim over together and climb up either side. If some troublemaker is waiting, even if we can’t subdue him, we’ll be able to watch each-other’s backs. You’re not going to go running off with our things are you?” He grinned as Gunther chuckled in amusement, casually pointing his thumb at the already considerable pack slung over his own shoulders.
“Oh absolutely, I reckon I could clean you both out and make a tidy profit at the nearest market. Though something tells me I couldn’t get very far; you two are considerably more fit than I.”
“Ha!” Trevor deposited his bag beside his friend’s and stretched his arms, “You don’t give yourself enough credit. Besides, there’s nothing in those packs worth a boat anyway.”
“True enough my good man, true enough. Either way, if you truly wish to help, I would be very grateful – but I don’t wish you to put yourself at needless risk by swimming out into that lake.”
“Risk? What risk? I mean sure, there’s a slim chance some cheeky teenager waiting on that boat with a switch-blade or something, but a little water is no trouble at all.”
“If you insist.” Gunther bowed graciously and stepped back to lean up against one of the enormous trees surrounding the lake.
Strolling down the incline towards the flat sheen of liquid, the two men unbuttoned their shirts and discarded them by the water’s edge. It was a beautiful day, and honestly, they were happy enough to have an excuse to dive into the cool water.
Gunther watched carefully as they slowly crossed the distance between the shore and the mystery vessel. The seconds flicked by, and still there was no sign of movement. His arms folded as he glanced down at the two backpacks, wondering if either of these two overly trusting fellows had packed any batters… or a towel for that matter. The coat was rather toasty on this particular day, and the water looked exceptionally inviting.
In mere moments the two men would reach the boat, and still no response from beneath the lake. He couldn’t tell which man reached the stray vessel first, but after a few seconds of climbing, they were both on the deck.
Beneath the inactive night vision goggles, Gunther’s eyes narrowed.
This was unexpected.
Out on the lake, the two figures moved about on the deck of the boat before descending into the cabin. Gunther considered whether to cut his losses, drop a flare and make his escape. After a minute however, the men re-emerged and waved cheerfully in his direction before diving off the side of the boat.
Unslinging his pack, Gunther stepped behind the colossal tree and stuffed the pack between the roots. Once it was out of sight, he returned to his post and watched with apprehension as the two men returned across the lake.
Of all the times for the obvious trap to not be a trap, this was by far the least convenient.
Emerging from the water with a hearty guffaw, Trevor and Hank strode briskly up to Gunther. Hank addressed him whilst Trevor approached his backpack and knelt down to unzip the top.
“Well! That was chillier than we were expecting, but we’re pleased to report your boat is secure. Sadly we couldn’t find the keys to the ignition. You wouldn’t happen to have them on you?”
“Sadly not, I typically keep them in the closet.”
“We checked there, but we must have overlooked them. Either way, we’ll have your vessel back in no time, so you and your young lady need not worry.”
“Well yeah? That boat of yours is a sweet ride; surely a fellow like yourself has a sweet someone in his life.”
“Sadly I’m between relationships.”
“Ah, that’s a shame, I know how you feel. How long has it been for you?” Trevor asked, smiling as he rummaged around in his travel pack.
“A few years by this point.” Gunther suppressed the impulse to slip into genuine memories.
“Is that a fact?” Hank replied, exchanging a glance with Trevor. “So does that mean those dresses in the closet belong to you?”
Before Trevor could fully withdraw the revolver from the depths of his pack, Gunther swept his foot along the ground, gathering up loose soil and kicking it into the hiker’s face. A yell of surprise left the man’s mouth as Hank lunged at Gunther. Despite his considerable height, the con-man was knocked off balance by the barging assault.
Stumbling back, he caught himself just in time to duck the swing aimed at his head.
Planting his boot against one of the gnarled roots behind him, Gunther slammed his fist into Hank’s stomach. Before he could follow up, Hank brought up his knee with a strike into his foe’s chest. The blow was hefty enough to prevent a counter-attack, but the resulting collision caused all three men to collapse in a pile on the wet grass.
Pumped up with adrenaline as he was, Gunther clutched the pistol as tightly as he could and jerked it hard to the side. A cry of pain escaped Trevor as he released the weapon to prevent his fingers being broken, giving Gunther just enough time to hurl the weapon down to the water’s edge before the two men hurled him off them.
Scrambling to his feet, the con-man reached into his coat and withdrew one of his scratch-built flare-guns. He knew it would be completely harmless unless he shot them directly in the face, and even then it would only incapacitate one of them… but they didn’t know that.
There was a tense pause as the hikers eyed him off, their fists clenched and mere seconds between them. None of them made a move.
“You know, normally I make a point of never hurting anyone directly if I can help it, but you two have me in a bit of a bind.”
“Yeah, no shit. Why the Hell did you get us to swim out to a boat that you knew damn well wasn’t yours, then just stand around while we came back?! What did you think was going to happen?”
“Honestly, I thought there was something in the lake. It appears I was mistaken.”
“Shit, I didn’t want to make assumptions based on the outfit, but you really are some kind of sociopath aren’t you? So what, you were using us to check if the coast was clear were you? Hell, if something had been in that lake we could’ve been killed!”
“Better you than me. Besides, you’re both fine, and if you do as you’re told, you’ll stay that way.”
Another pause filled the air as the two men glared at Gunther.
Slowly, they relaxed their bodies and straightened their postures out of a fighting stance.
“Alright.” Trevor replied, suppressing the fury in his voice, “What do-“
By the time the sound of the splashing water had reached their ears, the tongue had already struck the side of Hank’s body. There wasn’t enough time for him to cry out before it had whipped back into the water, his last look one of terrified shock.
Trevor bellowed in dismay, turning to face the source of the attack. In an instant, Gunther was sprinting at the tree line, his heart hammering in his chest as he made for the travel packs. Trevor glanced back over his shoulder at the fleeing con-man, and after a second’s thought he too was retreating from the water’s edge.
“Get back here you bas-“, the wet, sticky tongue latched onto his back, stopping him in his tracks. Gunther ignored the scream as he snatched up one of the backpacks and hurled it behind the colossal tree. Pivoting on the spot to grab the second, he saw the tongue plunging towards him from out of the lake.
Gritting his teeth, he threw himself flat on the ground behind the travel pack. The tongue covered the bag with its oozing surface, and to Gunther’s alarm, one of his boots as well. The breath was knocked from his lungs as the tongue jerked him towards the lake, his coat skidding along the wet grass. With mere moments before it would have been too late, he tore the buckle free from the boot and let it slide free, rolling onto his stomach before hauling himself into a sprint for the trees once more.
Digging into his coat, Gunther seized a smoke-bauble and smashed it against his chest, a billowing cloud of noxious black vapor expanding out to obscure his escape. Reaching the colossal tree in which his pack was hidden, the con-man slid behind it and pressed his back against the trunk so that lay between him and the lake.
There was no sound besides the thumping of his heart in his chest.
The seconds ticked by…
With an explosion of water, something emerged from the lake, the force of its impact causing the ground around Gunther to quake.
Sinking back into the roots of the tree, Gunther slid down and wrapped his coat around himself, the fabric naturally changing colour to blend with the lichen on the tree bark. A moment later, a monstrous, feminine palm slapped against the trunk above his head. The hand bore the same slick, viscous slime as could be found on the skin of most mermaids. The flesh was bone white with flecks of mottled orange here and there.
The fingers probed up and down, searching for the escapee as he held perfectly still.
“Oh come on! I’ve been so patient waiting for all three of you to be out by the water at the same time; can’t you just give it up and get out here?”
As slowly as he could, Gunther slid his hand between the roots of the tree and into one of the pockets of his pack, trying to ignore the log-sized fingertip mere inches from his face. Locating the object he wanted, he drew it up to his chest and aimed it to the side, towards the trees further down the lakeside.
Squeezing the trigger, the pressure-gun launched the clear rubber ball into the air and into the foliage some distance away. At the sound, the hand immediately withdrew and the hefty form of the mermaid shuffled towards the source. Slipping from between the roots, Gunther dragged out his carry pack and slung it over his shoulders. Picking up Trevor’s abandoned bag, the con-man loped away into the forest.
“All in all…” he thought as he arrived at his caravan, pulling aside the hidden curtain and dumping the hiker’s bag inside, “…that didn’t go too badly. It was well worth the boot.”
He folded his arms pensively.
“… Still… I think I’ll sleep in tomorrow.”