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THE MERMAID BROKER
A Vega & Middleton Novel
BY SUE HINKIN
Last seen heading out of Ventura Harbor with a SCUBA group bound for the Channel Islands, Santa Monica High School Marine Biology teacher, Isabelle Abbott, has vanished.
Drugged, bound and gagged, she finds herself prisoner in the dark bowels of an underground aquarium complex. Once used by the military for marine mammal research, dolphins are no longer denizens of the big tanks. Instead, a menagerie of freaky razor-toothed predators including Piscum Auratus, a genetically engineered gold shark the size of an SUV, swims in psychotic circles.
To her horror, Isabelle discovers that she and a group of traumatized young women have been trafficked to become mermaids for an international sex tourism ring working out of Southern California. They are only days away from being raped by men willing to pay huge sums for the mermaid experience. Worst of all, to eliminate her as a witness, when the tourists have had their sick fun, more obscenity follows. Isabelle will be tossed to the ravenous monsters in a snuf finale.
Tenacious news reporter Bea Middleton and savvy photographer Lucy Vega, team with Ventura Detective Macintosh Wu. Can they stop the insanity before Isabelle and the others become nothing more than blood in the water?
Praise for THE MERMAID BROKER…
Four books in and author Sue Hinkin is becoming quite proficient at knowing what makes a good thriller. Believable, interesting protagonists, irredeemable evildoers, and thoroughly riveting plots have become signature components of Hinkin’s writing.
–Colorado Book Review
A mermaid found a swimming lad,
Picked him for her own,
Pressed her body to his body,
Laughed; and plunging down
forgot in cruel happiness
That even lovers drown.
–William Butler Yeats, A Man Young and Old, 1926
The ‘dangerous woman trope’ is one we writers and readers are universally drawn to in fiction. The depiction of mermaids is a great example. Beautiful, young, naked-breasted females with lush hair and seductive singing voices, who have been known to kill their lovers, by accident, and sometimes on purpose.
Psychologists will tell you that this taps into a profoundly male sort of fear–the fear that a woman is always going to leave you or destroy you–making the fantasy of dominating a dangerous woman like a mermaid, particularly enticing, especially for males from repressed societies. For more on this, I recently posted a blog on mermaids in literature on my website.
In The Mermaid Broker, I spin The Little Mermaid into a contemporary thriller with a feminist turn. The protagonist is neither Disney’s Ariel who lives happily ever after, or The Little Mermaid of Hans Christian Anderson fame who loses her soul. She is a modern-day heroine who must use all wits to survive despite great personal cost.
In the following excerpt we meet the “Ursula/Sea Witch” character, ninety-something Cloris-Edna Jones, a washed-up former Esther Williams wannabe, who orchestrates the mermaid exploitation show.
This selection is from the protagonist Isabelle “Izzy” Abbott’s POV. She is a young Santa Monica high school Marine Biology teacher who has been trafficked into the stable of mermaids to be sexually exploited and likely murdered as part of an international sex tourism cabal working out of Ventura.
Izzy followed the sadistic, trigger-happy taser-man through a maze of dark passages running between huge aquarium tanks. They were very commercial-looking—maybe holding 50,000 gallons or more. Through narrow, slot-like windows slashing the hall, she glimpsed hammerhead sharks, and something mammoth, golden, and nearly transparent. It moved like a dirigible. The sad whale song recordings she’d heard days earlier echoed through hidden loudspeakers.
Eventually, they came to a small corridor opening into a wider hallway. Taser-man marched ahead toward an open door, then stood like a sentry beside it, motioning for Izzy to enter.
She hesitated. The bright light in what appeared to be a design studio was blinding to eyes now used to darkness.
“Come in, sweetheart. Don’t be afraid. This is the fun part.” The voice crackled like a vintage radio that wasn’t quite tuned in.
A wizened old woman, her face a dried apple beneath a purple beret, stood in the center of a costume shop, arms outstretched as if claiming her world. She wore a black silk sheath dress which made her look like a shiny crow amid racks of glittery apparel. A sewing machine, poised for action on a work table, was ready to piece together uncut swaths of golden cloth.
Isabelle stepped through the door.
Over a large white desk hung an array of framed pictures of a slim, pretty woman in a bathing suit, caught in synchronized swimming poses, meeting with Hollywood glitterati, and diving into a pool of mermaids. Below them were what appeared to be framed medals from competitions.
“Esther Williams had nothing on me, Cloris-Edna Jones. Oh, yes. Do you remember her? Esther Williams–Film Star, Neptune’s Daughter. Silly me. You’re too young, but you can Google her.”
You going to give me access to a computer, old woman? I’ll Google 9-1-1.
“‘America’s Mermaid,’ they called her. Couldn’t act her way out of an inner tube but came alive the minute she hit the water. Oh, those were the days. And I was right by her side. Technically, I was a much better swimmer, better figure, too, if I dare say.” She struck a pose as if ready for the paparazzi. “But it was all stupidly political. Couldn’t drown her, now could I? Can’t say I hadn’t thought about it though.” Her bitter laugh turned into a coughing spell.
She sounded to Lucy like the swimming pool version of the insane fading film star, Norma Desmond, in the classic movie, Sunset Boulevard.
“Okay, dear,” she chirped, “let’s get you measured up and off to water ballet practice.”
“Water ballet practice?” Izzy was not the toe-pointing type, but she’d do anything to stay alive.
“Oh, yes. It’s a combination of synchronized aquatics and waterboarding. You’ll be wonderful, dear.” She laughed again, this time daintily into a lace handkerchief. “Hop up on the riser and off with the clothing. Chop-chop. Don’t have all day.” She picked at a puffy pink pincushion affixed to her wrist by an elastic band.
Izzy hesitated and looked over her shoulder at taser-man. He stood planted at the door, arms across his chest, ready for the show.
“Come, come, child.” As she guided her unwilling model onto a riser the old lady squeezed Izzy’s elbow hard and dug long, red fingernails into her flesh. The crooked old digits still had impressive strength.
Burning with humiliation, Izzy dropped her clothes, the woman whipped out a measuring tape as if ready to start flogging. “Lovely form, dear—breasts a bit modest, but perky.”
In minutes the crone finished her task, entered the numbers on a small legal pad and tossed it onto her desk. “I think I have just the thing for you. We work with a Circus seamstress up in Montreal and she has sent me several brilliant costumes. But for now, something more practical.” The woman shuffled over to a gym-type locker and pulled out a nylon racing Speedo in bright blue.
“Put it on, dear. Off to your practice. A lovely neoprene tail is awaiting.” Have fun and don’t forget to hold your breath.”
Izzy stepped into the suit then taser-man approached and yanked her down from the dais. His touch was tepid and wet like a dead fish. She tensed with repulsion.
The old lady laughed again. “Don’t worry, dear. Oscar takes good care of all my mermaids.”
Izzy gulped and struggled not to throw up as he dragged her away.
Sue Hinkin is a former television news photographer, NBC-TV Art Department manager, as well as a college teacher and administrator. A graduate of the American Film Institute and long-time L.A. resident, she now lives in Littleton, Colorado. The Mermaid Broker is her 4th Vega and Middleton thriller. See more at www.suehinkin.com.
Deep appreciation to the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, home of my amazing critique group at Tattered Cover bookstore in Littleton, Colorado. A shout-out to the brilliant and supportive Colorado crime writing community including my friends at Sisters in Crime-Colorado and the Rocky Mountain Mystery Writers of America.
Props to my husband, Alan Klein, and to my straight-shooting beta readers Lacey Greer Pare’, Marlene Simon, and Carolyn Olson. Deep appreciation to Liz Cooke for her editing magic.
Special acknowledgement to the Downtown Denver Aquarium Mystic Mermaids. Kudos for performing underwater in blinding saltwater, wearing 30-pound neoprene tails, dodging sharks, barracudas and 400-pound groupers. You women rock.
Sincere gratitude to Susie Brooks, publisher at Literary Wanderlust. It’s a privilege to be part of this great indie team.
Links to Sue’s website, blog, books, etc.: