She desperately wanted to escape.
Wendy had moved deeper into the crowd and was now holding a microphone under the nose of the young diver who’d posted a video to YouTube. Mer recognized at least three of the other divers giving separate interviews.
Leroy stood on the stern of the LunaSea, the straw in his mouth whirling like a mangled pinwheel. He made eye contact with Mer and motioned her to meet him in the shop. Grateful to get away, she wiggled through the horde and bounded up the stairs of the two-story building.
By the time Leroy entered the shop, Mer had found two YouTube videos. She hit Replay and handed him her phone.
Rob’s tinny voice described his ghostly encounter.
She shook her head. “It’s generated eighteen thousand hits. The rescue clip has even more. After tonight’s news, it will be everywhere.” A new horror occurred to her. “Do you think this nonsense is going to tarnish my reputation?”
“You saved a man. That’s usually a checkmark in the good column.”
“But this YouTube clip makes it sound like I saved him from a ghost.”
“If you believe Rob, you did.”
“I don’t. And neither will most research facilities, including the two that have my applications.”
“You’re taking the long way round the barn, Mer. What’s got your knickers in a bunch?”
“Living in the Keys was supposed to be temporary. I’m a scientist. A researcher. I have to be seen as serious. Credible. Now I’m linked with ghosts and ghouls. Someone even suggested that Rob encountered a mermaid. Seriously?”
Leroy waggled his straw. “I’d like to see a mermaid.”
“You’re not helping,” Mer said.
“Doesn’t change the fact that I want to see one.”
Mer punched her code on the security pad. She’d never been so happy to see the massive gate lurch open, granting her access to the exclusive Key Largo neighborhood. The day’s bizarre events had left her with an unfamiliar fatigue. All she wanted now was to enjoy a bath, sip a glass of wine, maybe spend a couple of minutes scanning the Internet for research opportunities, and then off to bed for some much-needed sleep.
She replayed the rescue in her mind. Again. Few things in life defied explanation, and it bothered her that she didn’t know the science behind this particular oddity. No one had yet posited a satisfying hypothesis for how a distressed diver had traveled five miles from the Spiegel Grove to Molasses Reef without the use of teleportation, a TARDIS, or a wormhole.
The last rays of the sun cast long shadows across the empty street. Years ago, this stretch of land had been an airstrip, before a savvy developer realized that planes didn’t need the view. A canal paralleled the street on one side. Palatial homes, built to withstand tropical storms and hurricane winds, rose above carports, garages, and surge levels on the other side. When the economy crashed, many of these ground spaces were converted into illegal rentals for those who couldn’t afford homeownership in the Keys.
Finding an affordable place in the Keys was as common as spying a roseate spoonbill flying through the mangroves. They could be found, but it took someone in the know to point them out. She’d been lucky. Her brother knew a friend, who had a neighbor with an unoccupied furnished granny flat and a cash-flow problem.
She neared the end of the road. One house separated her home from the ocean, and the two driveways shared the same access before branching apart. An unfamiliar car blocked the narrow entry, its liftgate open.
Lights blazed in the neighboring house. In all the time Mer had been here, she’d never seen anyone next door. Now she couldn’t even pull into her own driveway, one more irritation to add to an already vexing day.
She parked on the street. Slinging her backpack over her shoulder, she tiptoed down the driveway and slipped past the passenger side of a Range Rover. Enough light fell from the neighbor’s house to illuminate the gear in the back: two rebreathers, a couple of tanks, and several large black bags. She shook her head. There was more cash wrapped up in that unattended gear than she’d been awarded for her last research grant.
The main door of the residence opened, and Mer sidestepped into the shadows of her own property.
“If you’re trying to avoid detection, you shouldn’t park under a streetlight.”
Mer squeaked, her heart in her throat.
A man stepped onto the driveway from the path that led to the other house. His face stirred memories, and she froze. Ian Phillips. It couldn’t be.
“I wasn’t hiding,” she said.
“On this, we agree.”
Yup, it was him. Still infuriating a dozen years later.
Darkness bleached the color from his features. With half his countenance in relief, his sharply angled cheekbones and severe jaw reminded Mer of an artful black-and-white photograph. The only softness about him was his voice. Low-pitched and smooth, it raised goosebumps on her arms.
Just as it had when she first met him.
Mer tried to regain control of her pulse. “What are you doing here?”
“Still as direct as ever, I see.” He tapped a button on the liftgate and it closed with a pneumatic sigh. The window tint hid everything from view.
“If you want nice, you shouldn’t jump out of bushes and scare me.”
He tipped his head back and laughed, a baritone boom that transformed his face. “In the future, I’ll take more care, lest I find myself on the losing side of a war of words with you.”
“You’re avoiding the question.”
He slouched against the car, his hands in his pockets. “I was surprised to hear from your brother. We’d lost touch over the years.”
“I sense a pattern.”
They stared at each other. He’d aged well. Had she? She smoothed her hair back self-consciously. He used to tease her about her wild curls. Said her mane and height reminded him of an Amazon. But that was a long time ago.
Footsteps on the front porch broke their contemplation. A woman, about Mer’s age with straight red hair, leaned over the railing. “Selkie, I just opened a bottle of wine. You coming up anytime soon?”
Selkie. He still used the nickname.
“In just a minute,” he said. “I’m speaking with our neighbor.”
The woman dipped her head lower. “Hey there! Sorry, didn’t know you were home. You must be Dr. Cavallo. I’m Fiona. Come on up. Have a glass of wine with us.”