THE IRON FIN
ALEC MCCULLOUGH BIT BACK a slew of curse words. Not a damn thing was wrong, but he couldn’t shake a feeling of impending doom. He ran a complete systems check for the third time, but couldn’t find any reason to scrub the mission.
Everything inside the escape hatch was in perfect working order. Every last dial, gauge and meter indicated that all systems functioned within normal limits. Outside the submersible, saltwater density held constant. Speed was at a minimum, and they drifted silently at neutral buoyancy, holding at periscope depth.
“Something wrong?” Moray’s voice—tense and clipped—echoed in the metal tube. He too hoped for a reason to abort.
Davis, the only teammate enthused about this assignment, gave Alec a sharp glance and tapped the face of the countdown timer. “Five minutes until exit. Time to call it, Mac.”
“Nothing’s wrong,” he answered, his neck tight. Any and all objections had been dutifully noted yesterday—and dismissed. He pulled his dive goggles into place. “We’re a go.”
Cleared for a stealthy exit into the frigid, Scottish sea loch. Ready to rise upward through the dark waters to board an unsuspecting vessel where—sources indicated—Icelandic spies floated, posing as fishermen.
Barring the unlikely appearance of an irate loch kraken, nothing should go awry.
The team’s mission was sneak and peek. Find out what information the men on the boat were after. Avoid confrontation and discovery. Employing a submersible turned a simple, low-priority operation into an elaborate, risky maneuver. Why not slip quietly into the loch from the shore? Why employ such a high-risk technique that would stress the limits of their aquaspira breathers?
This was only the first of two red flags.
He glanced again at Davis. Yesterday, his teammate had stumbled. Over nothing. If Alec hadn’t been looking in his direction, he would never have caught the awkward sidestep. Minor, yes, but the BURR—Benthic Underwater Reconnaissance and Rescue—team required each man to be in perfect form. A slight imbalance on shore might translate underwater into complete vestibular disorientation.
Irrational orders and a man with a balance disorder. That was what had Alec on pins and needles. Despite their reputation in the Navy, BURR men were not indestructible.
As head of his team, he’d expressed such misgivings to his CO. Though Fernsby dismissed his concerns about Davis, his jaw had tightened in unhappy agreement with Alec’s objection to the planned submersible depth. But someone high above both their pay grades wanted this exit technique tested. Yesterday.
The operation proceeded as planned. Three fully-outfitted BURR men crammed in a narrow steel tube—some twenty-five feet below the wind-whipped waves of Loch Broom—were about to attempt the first covert exit of a fully submerged O-class submersible. Fifteen feet below established safety standards.
Thirty seconds left. At the surface, Shaw and Rowen would be in position, staging an exercise on the water’s surface designed to draw the attention of the so-called fishermen, while Alec and his men emerged from beneath, undetected.
Davis looked at him through the thick glass of his diving goggles and spoke around his mouthpiece, “Ready?”
Alec glanced again at the indicator lights. Still green. Time to move. He nodded and spoke the required command. “Open the seawater valve.” There would be no more verbal communication until they reached the surface.
Moray took point, cranking it open.
Water streamed around the outer pressure door and flooded the chamber—ankles, knees, waist. He clamped his lips around the mouthpiece of his aquaspira breather. The loch’s water was cold. Though BURR members were used to cold and wet, hypothermia made for a deadly enemy. Hence the black, vulcanized rubber dry suits they wore. They were heavy, awkward, and required constant maintenance. Still, no one complained. The insulation was essential for the long hours they spent submerged in temperatures often below fifty degrees. As the water pressure increased, the dry suit squeezed tightly against his body, and the swirling currents slowed. Time to leave.
Lifting a large, metal wrench from the hatch floor, he banged out a message for those still inside, announcing their imminent departure. Moray twisted the hatch’s exit wheel, pushed it outward, and began to kick, finning upward and outward.
Davis followed, then Alec. But halfway through the circular opening, Alec slammed into him. The red light from his phosphorescent headlamp illuminated a man, suspended motionless in the dark waters.
Bloody hell. Aquaspira scrubber failure. Hypoxic blackout. Exactly what he’d feared. Returning to the submersible was impossible. Davis had minutes to live, and the water would not drain from the tube fast enough. His only chance was to reach the surface.
Alec punched the sounder beacon attached to Davis’s dive belt, then slapped the UP bag. Millions of methanogenic bacteria entered a rapid growth phase releasing an ever-increasing amount of gas that shot his teammate to the surface. So much for a slow and safe ascent.
Mission failure. There’d be no covert observation or boarding of any ship today. They’d be lucky not to lose a man.
Alec activated his own beacon and began to kick his way free of the submersible door when there was a horrible metallic groan and a loud bang. The rim of the hatch smashed into his right knee, scraping along the side of his calf, catching his ankle, dragging him downward.
An excursion. Freshwater from the hills and rivers feeding into the loch had amassed and run smack up against a mass of salt water from the ocean, forming a kind of wall. One they had unexpectedly crossed. The sudden decrease in water density sent the vessel into an abrupt dive, not unlike a raft going over an unanticipated waterfall.
Excruciating pain radiated through his leg as the hatch door ripped the flipper from his foot and frigid water trickled into his dry suit. A tear. Alec punched his own UP bag and began to kick furiously as ice-cold water crept upward, reaching his waist. He glanced at his depth gauge. Fuck.
Despite his efforts, he’d been dragged downward a good ten feet, maybe more. The rip in his dry suit had compromised his ascent. No matter how hard he kicked, he wasn’t rising any closer to the surface. Not even the UP bag could compensate.
Negative buoyancy—the point at which he would sink instead of float—threatened. White and black spots flashed before his eyes in warning as he ripped the weighted belt from his waist. He kicked. A pause in his strokes. A glance at the gauge. He’d only managed to maintain position. Water slipped over his chest to his armpits, inching its way toward his neck.
What would kill him first as he sank to the bottom of the loch? The increasing water pressure or hypothermia?
Shit. This was the end. A watery grave because some politician didn’t care if he pushed BURR to their technical limits. His family would be notified that he’d succumbed to an “unfortunate accident” during a mission. Mother would be distraught. His sister would be left wondering. At least his brothers would know what happened.
Small comfort that.
Alec fought to keep his breathing from growing shallow, fought to keep his arms and legs moving and redoubled his efforts even though it felt as if he was swimming through honey. Muscle contraction generated heat. He would quit when he was dead and not a moment before.
Something slammed into his shoulder, a claw of some sort gripped his dry suit and tugged him upward. Though the lights in his eyes continued to dance, a new color joined them. Red. The same eerie phosphorescent glow his own headlamp emitted.
Could it be? No. He’d sunk too far. He was hallucinating. There was no way Moray could have reached him, not at this depth.
Except his depth gauge told him otherwise. He blinked. Twenty-five feet and rising. His heart gave a thud of hope. Perhaps today was not his last.
They stopped for decompression. Alec stared through the hazy glow of two combined underwater headlamps. It was Moray. The best swimmer on the crew. But how the hell had he managed to follow him when the submersible took a dive? Or drop to almost forty feet, recover Alec, and head for the surface—all while fighting the negative pull of gravity?
Moray hauled him upward again. Alec kicked, but a fiery pain burst through his right knee. The injury screamed an objection that not even the icy water could quell. He struggled to keep his breathing steady, but the dancing lights returned followed by oblivion.
Pain erupted, and Alec drew in a ragged breath. Atmospheric air. His eyes registered a blur of white clouds overhead. A face swam into focus above his. Shaw, close friend and teammate, bent over him as he slapped two sticks on either side of his damaged leg.
“Hell of a way to land yourself on desk duty.” Shaw’s voice was cheerful. That alone was suspicious. Combined with a blank face, it meant everything had gone pear-shaped. “Better you than me, though. The way that Icelandic fishing vessel rocketed out of here?” He shook his head. “Paperwork on this disaster is going to be endless.”
Beneath him, the floor rocked. The deck of a ship. “Davis?” His speech was slurred, and he focused on the clouds overhead as if willpower alone could stop him from passing out again.
Shaw wound a length of canvas about the brace so tightly that Alec nearly bit off his tongue trying not to howl. “Rowan caught him on his way up.”
“Alive?” Alec gritted through his teeth.
“Hold tight.” Shaw sidestepped the question. “I’m going to give you something for the pain.”
A needle jabbed into his thigh. Blessed numbness began to spread down his leg. But it also crept upward to his hip. Soon the drug would pull him under, and he needed to know if Davis had made it.
“Tell me,” Alec demanded. How much damage had some politician’s grand plan done?
“Mostly. Rowan dragged him from the water and put him on an oxygen mask.”
“Aquaspira failure?” They malfunctioned with alarming regularity, despite efforts to fix problems with the CO2 scrubber. Add to that the technicians’ decree to not use the breathers below the established limit of ten feet, and it was a likely statistical probability. A fact the higher-ups always attempted to overlook, much to their irritation.
“Our first assumption,” Shaw said. “But he presented with acute pulmonary edema and symptoms pointing to an acute cerebrovascular event. It doesn’t look good, but we’re doing all we can. Dirigible transport already has him in the air.”
A stroke? A sick feeling compressed Alec’s gut. Had he witnessed a warning sign yesterday when Davis stumbled?
“You’re next. Hear that whirring? That’s ancillary transport coming for you. Next stop, Glaister Institute, section five. We’ll find the prettiest nurse we can for your sponge bath.”
Airlifting him to the hospital. Never a good sign. A kind of numbness fogged his brain as the painkiller worked its way through his veins. Soon he would drop into a drugged sleep. “My knee?”
Shaw sat back on his heels and gave him a twisted grin. “Nothing that threatens your ability to contribute to the next generation.”
Alec barked a laugh. “Well thank aether for that. A reason to live.” He should welcome the banter, let it distract him. But he just couldn’t leave it alone. “Tell me. The truth, not some fairy tale.”
“Truth?” Shaw whistled through his teeth and shook his head. “Your knee’s pretty messed up. It crunched when I moved it. I’m not sure the Queen’s men can put it together again.”
Shit. Worse than he’d thought. Cold sweat broke out across his body and he shivered. If they took his leg, they took his freedom. Life behind a desk, at a laboratory bench, or—worse—attending patients would be intolerable.
He grabbed Shaw’s wrist. “Fly with me. Don’t let them take my leg.”
“I’m coming. But, McCullough, it’s bad.” Pain floated in his eyes.
“I want to wiggle the toes I was born with when I wake up.” He tightened his grip on Shaw’s arm. “Find Dr. Morgan. Promise.”
Of late, Navy surgeons were all too eager to install the latest prosthetics rather than undertake the extensive work of surgery to repair, or simply replace, a limb. Dr. Morgan took a more conservative approach.
“You know I don’t make promises.” Shaw’s face was tight. “Not even to pretty girls. And you’re far too ugly. But I’ll find this Dr. Morgan. Make him exhaust every other option first.”
He might hate the answer, but he could trust a teammate’s word. And Dr. Morgan. Alec exhaled and let the drug take him under.
He blinked up at the blue of an overhead low-pressure mercury vapor light. Cold, hard steel met his fingertips. A rubber mask pressed to his face exhaled with a faint hiss and a hint of ether. He began to float toward the ceiling.
Above him, an oval coalesced into a familiar face, and Shaw’s voice drifted in. “Good news, Mac. The doc found a solution. Bumped you ahead of another patient. Guess he likes you.”
Alec tried to lift a hand to the mask.
“Easy now,” Shaw said. “Leave it be. We’ve got this. When you wake up, it’ll all be better.”
The lights grew brighter for a moment. Then, with a flash, darkness descended.
A swish of skirts, leather heels tapped a rhythm against linoleum, both coming to a rest beside him. A pen nib scratched across paper, and two soft fingers pressed against the pulse point of his wrist. He must be in the Fifth Ward, hidden away in the basement of Glaister Institute.
“Water.” His voice scratched.
“You’re awake,” the nurse gasped, turning for the door. “I’ll find the doctor.”
Her footfalls faded as someone at his side released a long-suffering sigh. “Scaring away the nurses already with your incessant demands.”
Alec peeled open desert-dry eyelids as the hulking form that was Rowan unfolded himself from a nearby chair. “You on guard duty?”
“Keeping an eye on things,” Rowan answered, pouring a glass of water and pressing it into his hand. “This doc of yours seems trustworthy, but the rest?” He shook his head. “You want me to leave you—drugged into unconsciousness—with bored surgeons roaming the halls? They have as many sharp blades as we do, not to mention other torture devices.”
A grin cracked Alec’s dry lips but fell away when his eyes focused on a square lump beneath the scratchy wool blankets. His heart slammed against his sternum, beating wildly. Forcing words past his lips, he asked a question he wasn’t certain he wished answered. “Is it all still there, my knee? Leg?”
“Took the doc nine hours to piece you back together, Humpty Dumpty. Said the only other options were to fuse the joint or take the leg.”
Hand trembling, Alec took a sip before setting the glass down and reaching for the blanket. Sweat beaded on his forehead as he yanked the blanket aside. Linen. Yards and yards of it wrapped about his knee. All of this surrounded by a square, metal cage from which rods extended into—and possibly through—his knee.
He looked to his toes. Still there. He wiggled them. Still functioning. He flexed his ankle and felt the starched sheet beneath his heel. But all sensation to the knee was gone.
Dr. Morgan appeared in his doorway, a wide-eyed nurse behind him. “Good to see you awake, Dr. McCullough.” He glanced at Rowen, amused. “You have a most protective group of large friends. I can’t say I’ve ever operated under such… close observation.”
“He means threats,” Rowen clarified. “Shaw promised to remove the Doc’s own leg if he mucked up the installation. He posted me here to ensure your exceptional care continues.”
“Installation?” Alec felt numb.
The doctor cleared his throat. “The cage is temporary. Do not attempt to bend your knee yet. The soft tissue I managed to save needs time to heal. Two weeks at a minimum.” The surgeon’s next words dropped a giant soul-crushing weight upon his chest. “Unfortunately, the bone and cartilage of the knee joint itself was beyond repair. I’ve replaced it with the arthroflex, an experimental artificial knee joint.”
Artificial? Experimental? Fuck. They’d never let him dive again.
“YOUR TOES AS WELL?” Frowning, Isa McQuiston looked up from her young patient’s hand, hoping she’d heard wrong.
Nearly all Finn moving to the cities chose to remove the webbing between their fingers. Why? Horrified stares. Ridicule. Outright contempt for a physical deformity that was deemed clear evidence of personal failing. Scars were easier to explain away. She herself had made the exact same choice.
Avra slid her hand from Isa’s grasp and looked over her shoulder at the small group of family members gathered about the warm peat fire that burned in the center of the blackhouse. A man—the young woman’s father—gave her a nod of encouragement. “Everything.” Avra swallowed hard. “All at once. Today.”
“You do realize you’re facing several long hours of surgery and a painful recovery?” Isa warned. “Fingers and toes—and even the tips of ears—are densely populated with nerve endings.” She kept her back rigid, resisting the impulse to turn and glare at the man. “If your family is pressuring you—”
“You don’t understand,” Avra objected, her voice petulant. “I’m doing this for myself. I’m sixteen, and I’ve never left this village because my mum refused to go. I miss her dreadfully, I do. But I want to see more, do more. I sent samples to a seamstress in Glasgow, and I’ve been offered a position. My da found a job building ships. And my aunt contacted a matchmaker.” A delighted gleam lit her silver eyes as she announced, “She already has eight men who wish to meet me!”
Isa fought an urge to wince. Ten years ago she had been Avra, determined to abandon the Isle of Lewis for the mainland, to marry well, to make her mark on medical science. One item on her list had been accomplished. Many would argue she’d managed the second. But the third had proved impossible. Her heart shrank a bit. All too easy to place a finger on the very date life had forced her to set aside her own hopes and dreams.
“None of your goals require perfectly shaped toes,” Isa pointed out, eyeing the tightly laced leather boots Avra wore with great skepticism. “You will find it painful—or impossible—to walk for quite some time. It may delay your departure.”
Aether, she hated being the voice of good sense and reason. Hated her drab, woolen skirts, how her hair was scraped into a tight knot. Hated how she needed to constrain even her physical movements so as to convey both competency and respectability. But her acceptance as a healer was hard-won, and she could not afford to alienate a single individual among her people. If she lost an essential source of income, her uncle would win. Again.
She’d rather walk ten miles barefoot upon barnacles.
“Yes, but…” A flush rose to Avra’s face as she leaned forward. Her voice emerged as a whisper, “What if I contract a marriage with a progressive? He might find defective toes repulsive.”
Caught between the urge to laugh and scold—for Finn features were a gift, not an abnormality—Isa choked.
In her experience, a husband rarely cared what was at the end of his wife’s legs, being more interested in what was between them. Besides, any Finn man trying so very hard to assimilate to such a degree should skip the matchmaker altogether and marry a Scottish woman. But she didn’t dare voice such an opinion.
“It’s but a small flap of skin,” Avra continued. “In Glasgow, it serves no purpose and can only cause trouble.”
In the city, what good is being Finn?
She’d heard that question asked far too frequently, and had yet to find a satisfactory answer. In recent years, more and more Finn were tempted away from their traditional fishing villages to seek their fortunes in cities where technology breakthroughs promised a life of wealth and luxury. Many returned, broken, but the rare story of success was an unrelenting siren’s song.
To fit in, to be fully accepted in the city, a Finn must appear to be no different from Scots. To look “other” was to invite comment, to solicit derision. Nothing could be done about their odd, gray eyes. But ears, fingers and—yes—even toes could be altered.
Once, extra skin stretching between the fingers and toes was celebrated—the more the better—among the Finn as proof of a pure heritage, of their descent from the gods and goddesses of the sea. Those days were long past.
Conform? Or stand proudly apart? Both had merit. But a nail that stuck out was almost certain to be hammered down. Avra must reach her own decision.
Item by item, Isa unpacked her surgical equipment. Gleaming scalpels, clamps, needles and scissors. Lengths of fine ophthalmic catgut and silver wire for sutures. Balls of lint to mop up the blood and flannel to bandage the incisions.
“You understand that the operations require general anesthesia,” she said, presenting the dangers bare and unvarnished. A moment of truth that turned many a Finn away from the surgery. “You’ll feel no pain, but there is a risk the narcotic might trigger the diving reflex and drop your heart rate dangerously low.”
And sometimes a heart beating too slow might simply… stop. It was an outcome that had been all too common in the past, and one of many reasons Finn gave surgeons a wide birth, calling upon them only when truly necessary.
The girl pressed a trembling hand to her throat. “I thought…” She gulped as Isa placed a leather and rubber mask upon the table between them, studying the embedded brass gauges that allowed her to monitor various respiratory gas levels. “I thought you’d solved that particular problem.”
“Not entirely,” Isa disclosed, her chest tight with the memory of every time she’d lost a patient. “I have a specially formulated mixture of volatile anesthetic agents for Finn and rarely encounter complications now. But the longer you’re asleep, the higher the risk. Are you certain you wish for me to operate upon your feet?”
The young woman’s eyebrows drew together as this new worry carved a groove in her forehead. Isa gave her time to weigh her options, but continued to position her paraphernalia upon the bleached canvas she’d spread over the kitchen table. As the only flat surface available in the small cottage, it would serve as an operating table.
“I do,” Avra replied, setting her jaw. “I do not wish a small flap of skin to keep me from my goals.”
Isa could refuse to proceed, of course. But this procedure was part and parcel of the profession she’d adopted. If she refused to alter Finn, they would take matters into their own hands. She’d seen the results. Without anesthesia or sterile procedures, the unlucky developed infections that festered, oftentimes ending in blood poisoning. The lucky merely bore angry, disfiguring scars.
But—they rationalized—at least they wouldn’t be ogled as a quaint curiosity—or worse—be called a selkie. A tiresome and irritating piece of fiction.
The selkie was a mythological creature. Imaginary. Though the sea called to each of them, not a single Finn—man or woman—had ever shape-shifted into the form of a gray seal to slide into the surf beneath the moon.
“All three,” she agreed with some reluctance. “Provided you promise me the choice is your own.”
“I swear it upon the sea and the moon that turns the tides.”
Her fingers tightened around the bottle of ethanol she held. It was uncanny to hear a Finn oath sworn upon the intent to sever ties with that very community.
Avra held a trembling hand out above the white cloth, and called to her grandmother. “Mummo?”
“You wish the first cut ceremony?” Isa asked, blinking in amazement.
“No. But my grandmother requested it,” her voice softened, “and I’ve broken her heart enough.”
An old woman rose from the gathering of relatives and crossed the room to stand beside her granddaughter. Tradition—one most Finn largely ignored—required the eldest family member to mark the moment a Finn renounced any future right to lead the community as an elder. “It is decided?” Her grandmother’s voice was weak and thin, as if watered down by a deep sadness.
“Yes, mummo.” Avra’s voice was as resolute as granite. “It needs to be.”
With a faint nod, the old woman placed a hand—wrinkled and webbed—upon her granddaughter’s head. Drawing herself up straight and proud, she began to speak in the old language, “I stand as witness—”
The throaty consonants catapulted Isa back in time, to the first day she herself had broken with Finn convention. A vat of dull, brown dye had boiled upon the stovetop, a monthly ritual, ready to conceal the coppery roots that sprung from her head. Defiant, she’d crossed her arms and refused. “The chemicals burn,” she’d protested, then, knowing she was about to unleash a thousand furies, continued, “And why bother? My Scottish ancestry is an open secret.”
Her refusal had sent the household into an uproar. Eyes wide, her brother and sister gaped. Mother cried. Uncle Gregor frowned. Grandmother had all but disowned her. But Isa had stood firm, forever altering the course of her future.
Though her stomach knotted at the memory, any regret was directed at the events that unfolded afterward. Naïve of her to think her relatives would ever understand her viewpoint. She’d become a problem to be solved, her future a situation to be manipulated.
A certain melancholy washed over her as the matriarch spoke the final words of the invocation. “The waves have surged and cast you adrift. But the moon’s pull is unceasing, and the sea endures. When the tide turns, may you find the current that carries you safely home.”
With a shake of her head, she knocked aside the unwelcome emotions, consigning them to a distant corner of her consciousness. She needed to focus. Reflecting upon the implications of this surgery could wait.
Isa uttered the response in the old tongue. “Until then may you find the tranquility of deep waters within your heart.” Swabbing the skin that stretched between the third and fourth finger of Avra’s right hand, she lifted the scalpel and made the first cut. Blood welled along the incision, and she waited for the matriarch to pronounce the final words.
But they did not come. Instead, the old woman stared at Isa, her gaze razor sharp. “Once I called your grandmother friend,” she said, continuing in the same old tongue. “For her, I make you this offer. Decline to finish. Leave my granddaughter intact, and I myself will play matchmaker on your behalf.”
Irritation pricked her skin. Every Finn woman wished to see her safely marriage-bound, but she’d come to value her freedom far too much. She enjoyed this new career, traveling about in her houseboat from community to community, attending to various medical complaints, many of which were Finn specific. How many Scottish physicians knew to warn a Finn not to dive with a spleen infection? To treat digestive complaints with Epsom salts and oil of thyme to rid them of parasites? “Thank you, but I do not seek a new husband.”
The matriarch’s mouth opened once more, but Isa was spared her reply as the door to the blackhouse swung open. A frigid blast of air blew inward, and the flames leapt at the sudden flood of oxygen. All eyes, however, fixed upon the man who staggered inward, his clothes sodden and dripping from the storm that raged outside. He dragged a woolen cap from his head. “I need the healer. It’s happened again.”
“Who?” Avra’s grandmother demanded.
“Abel. We found him on the beach. Alive, but he’s lost much blood.”
Those were the only words Isa needed to hear. This surgery could wait. Thrusting items back into her doctor’s bag, she turned to find the old woman holding out her cloak. “He is a good man,” the matriarch said, hustling Isa toward the door. “A father, with many mouths to fill.”
Outside, the howling wind hurtled shards of icy rain into her face as she followed the man down a footpath that snaked its way toward a blackhouse crouching beside a bluff. A weighted net fought to keep its thatched roof atop windowless stone walls. Anemic wisps of peat smoke escaped the central hole only to be yanked away by the wind. Just beyond, the surf crashed and boomed against the rocky coast.
They hurried across the threshold and into a smoky room. A single oil lamp hung from the rafters casting a weak, yellow light. Three young children quietly playing with marbles at the far end of the house stopped to stare. A hugely pregnant woman—presumably their mother—rose from her seat beside a bed whose sole occupant lay motionless, his face pale and drawn.
Though her eyes were red and puffy, she blocked Isa’s approach, giving the man who had delivered her a pointed stare. “Are you certain she can be trusted?”
He shifted on his feet. “She is Finn.”
And Finn avoided sharing anything that might be considered an eccentricity with outsiders. What could be so amiss that denying her husband treatment was even an option?
“My practice focuses upon Finn,” she said, drawing the woman’s intense and anxious gaze. “Whatever his complaint, the details will not leave this room.”
Hand upon her abdomen, the woman nodded, then stepped aside.
Isa pressed the back of her hand to the man’s forehead. Cold and clammy and unresponsive to her touch. His breath was shallow and his face slack. When she pointed the light of a decilamp into his vacant eyes, they danced. A nystagmus. Not good. “Was he conscious when you found him? Has he spoken?”
His wife shook her head. “He woke up once, but his words were garbled and made no sense. I spooned broth into his mouth, but he barely managed to swallow.”
Facial hypesthesia with dysphagia. Dysarthria. The evidence mounted in favor of diagnosing an apoplexy.
Drawing a stethoscope from her bag, she slid it beneath the blanket to listen to his heart—a regular rhythm, but too slow—and continued gathering a history. “You said this is the second time this has happened?”
“No,” the man spoke. “He is the second fisherman to be attacked.”
“I’m sorry.” Isa’s head jerked up as her eyebrows drew together. “Did you say attacked?”
“He left on his fishing boat,” the wife said, “and was gone for weeks. Today, my son found him on the beach like this.” She tugged down the blanket covering her husband’s form.
Isa’s mouth fell open and her eyes grew wide. She struggled to regain a professional demeanor. And failed. “What in the seven seas…” This was far, far outside her experience.
A pale, flesh-like cylinder—tube?—of about three inches in length protruded from his stomach. Someone had tied the end off with rough twine. It appeared to have been severed from… from…
“That is what we hoped you could tell us,” the man volunteered. “We found him like this, with blood oozing from the tentacle.”
“Tentacle,” she repeated, as if pronouncing the word aloud might help her make sense of what her eyes observed. Gingerly, she reached out with a probe, half expecting the rubbery mass to move of its own accord. It didn’t. Flipping it across the man’s abdomen, however, revealed rows of tiny suckers. “Not sea kraken.” Not only was the tentacle not squid-like, but sea kraken of such size had claws embedded in their suckers and rarely ventured this far north into the cold Atlantic.
“No,” he agreed.
“Then it must be…” Her face twisted in confusion. Octopuses were not known for attacking men. Not in such a manner. Provoked, they might bite with their sharp beaks or wrap an arm about a man’s arm, leg or neck. But to pierce the abdomen with a tentacle? Unheard of. “How can it be…?”
He nodded. “Octopus.”
Knees weak, she resisted an impulse to drop into the unoccupied chair. “Impossible.”
And yet the evidence lay before her.
“Can you save him?” his wife asked, her voice a whisper of hopelessness.
Closing her eyes for a moment, Isa took a deep breath and spoke her thoughts aloud. “This is far, far outside my experience. On the surface, it appears to be a case of apoplexy, bleeding in the brain. With care and time, he might recover. But the presence of the tentacle complicates matters.”
“Can it be removed?” the man prompted.
“Certainly.” Isa ran damp palms over her skirts. There was no other course of action, even though it would stretch her skills to their limit. “It must be removed. If not, infection will set in when the octopus flesh begins to decay.” The patient’s wife winced. “However, removing the tentacle is also risky. It might be a simple procedure. Or it could cause further bleeding.” Depending upon what had been pierced, he could easily die. She opened her black bag and began to prepare for an entirely different surgery. Placing the anesthesia mask upon the bedside table, she looked into his wife’s eyes. “I can promise you he will feel no pain during the surgery. The decision is yours to make.”
A desperate and horrible sound came from the afflicted man. All flinched as they turned toward the bed. His chest expanded drawing a deep and labored breath, a gasping, rattling, endless inhalation.
And then it stopped.
But there was no exhalation.
“I’m so sorry.” Isa grabbed his wife’s hand. “He’s gone.”
ALEC CLENCHED HIS FISTS. Punching his brother in the eye would be immensely satisfying but would solve nothing. “My knee is fine,” he growled. Again.
“It’s fine for a civilian. Excellent, really,” Logan agreed. “But not even I can pull enough strings to send you back to your team. How many times do you need to hear it? Until Dr. Morgan produces the appropriate paperwork documenting that the artificial joint meets BURR specifications, you cannot be reinstated. Given it’s experimental, that might be never.”
He clenched his jaw. “Well I’m not staying here.”
He glared at the windowless laboratory buried beneath the Glaister Institute in the heart of Glasgow. A temporary assignment, he’d been promised, but months had passed in this humid, saline pit of despair, and no end was in sight. The artificial light and stagnant air ate at his soul. No matter how many immense saltwater tanks it held or the number of bizarre sea creatures that swam in their depths, it didn’t—couldn’t—hold a decilamp to the exhilaration of working on the open ocean.
“Casting aspersions upon Lord Roideach’s facility?” Logan’s eyebrows rose. “BURR teams have benefitted from multiple innovations that emerged from this very laboratory.” Across the room a technician, one Miss Lourney, puffed with pride as his brother ticked off item after item upon his fingers. “You yourself reverse-engineered that Russian nematocyst weapon in under two hours.”
“After Roideach’s people spent a month studying it, unable to reproduce the coiled thread.” Alec scoffed. “Every other item on your list was developed when the lord was in his prime, some five years past. Now?” He shook his head. “The man himself is never present and has no idea that his laboratory technicians are incompetent. They insisted upon using the Volterra equation when the viscoelastic material was clearly nonlinear. He ought to dismiss them all.”
“I beg your pardon,” Miss Lourney snapped. She planted a fist on her hip. “That was an oversight that would not have happened had we been informed the trigger material was silicon-based. A fact you kept close to your chest.”
Tipping his head back, Alec focused on an overhead network of pipes covered in a sheen of condensation. “Which you would have deduced for yourselves if any of you bothered to keep abreast of the latest internal reports.” He missed his team, where everyone went above and beyond to perform to the best of their abilities and no one was allowed to rest upon their laurels.
Though even among the military elite, it was possible to overreach. Over a month had passed, but anger, guilt and sorrow still swirled together in his gut. That unwarranted enthusiasm of Davis for their last dive mission? Explained by the drug vial found in his sea chest. Striving to increase the ability of his red blood cells to carry oxygen, Davis had used an intravenous blood thickener of dubious origins and had, according to the autopsy report, thrown a clot to his brain.
If the man wasn’t already dead, Alec would strangle him. Davis had put the entire team at risk. Still, he’d called the man friend, and his death left an empty, hollow space inside Alec’s chest. Would his teammate still be alive if he’d forced Major Fernsby to address his concerns?
His brother clasped his shoulder. That had Alec’s instant attention. Logan avoided casual touch. Always had, even amongst family. Which meant he wanted something, and when Logan Black wanted something, there were few screws he wouldn’t turn.
Alec braced himself.
“Nonetheless,” his brother said with deceptive good humor, “your prompt grasp of the problem and instantaneous solution has convinced the Glaister Institute to offer you your own laboratory.” He slapped a sheet of thick, letterhead paper onto the workbench before him. “Congratulations! You’ll answer to no one but yourself. Except, of course, the Institute’s Board.”
Slowly, deliberately, Alec lifted the paper, touching its corner to the flame of a Bunsen burner. “No. Not for all the treasure of a sultan’s palace.”
Logan’s lips twitched. “What if I threw in the harem too?”
With huff of disgust and a glare that threatened to incinerate them both, Miss Russel stormed from the room. Miss Lourney, Roideach’s other laboratory assistant, frowned at him.
“My apologies,” he offered. “My brother can be an insensitive oaf.”
With a roll of her eyes, Miss Lourney turned back to her work.
“You have a way of burning bridges.” Alec tossed the charred offer into a sink and crossed his arms, waiting. His brother always had more than one option up his sleeve.
“It was worth a try. You’re certain you never witnessed Roideach’s people acting… suspicious?”
“Unless you count a certain shifty-eyed glance at the great man’s empty office before making excuses and slinking out the door for an exceptionally early tea?” He shook his head. “No. Now what is it that you really want from me?”
A crooked smile broke out across Logan’s face. “Follow me.”
Though his knee ached with the first few steps, it settled down to a low, manageable throb as they walked down a long hall, then turned off into a narrow corridor. Several flights of stairs—connected by cobweb-strewn passages and doorways—at last led them to a corroded iron door.
His brother produced a rusty punch key, a previous generation’s concept of security. Whatever lay inside, it was certain to be unpleasant. Even as a child, Logan was more likely to present a frog rather than a flower. He and his brother had been treated to many “gifts”—various reptiles, rodents and stinging insects—quite often left for them beneath the bedsheets. With a scrape and a hard twist, the door creaked open admitting them to—
“An air shaft?” Dust swirled, and Alec coughed. “When was it last used? During King William’s rule?”
“Possibly. More importantly, it’s long forgotten.” Logan closed the door before crossing the room to a stack of wooden crates upon which a silver refrigeration case rested. His fingers hovered above the latches. “A perfect location to unofficially store questionable items.”
“And you want me to…?”
“Work for me. For the Duke of Avesbury on behalf of the Queen.”
“As a spy.” Alec shook his head. “No thank you. If I wanted to sneak about on my own, I wouldn’t have joined the Navy.” Still, since Logan had breached the subject, he had to ask. “How is Quinn?”
Theirs was a family with interesting branches grown from an unhappy marriage. Only Alec and Quinn were full, legitimate siblings. Though all four children had been raised beneath the same roof, Logan and his sister, Cait, were the products of illicit affairs. Midst the constant squabbling, they’d formed a solid alliance, each developing unorthodox skill sets to discourage excessive parental intrusion.
And old habits die hard. Today, all four of them pursued unique careers incompatible with polite conversation.
Like Logan, Quinn was a Queen’s agent, but spent most of his time abroad. Or so Quinn led all to believe. No point in asking where he was or when he might return. Logan would die before giving up the slightest of secrets.
“Alive and fit, if perhaps uncomfortable.” Logan drew a deep breath. “I need your help. And you need mine. Commodore Drummond has issued papers for your discharge based on medical grounds.”
Every muscle in Alec’s body clenched, bracing for a fight he could not hope to win. He cursed. If the man wanted him out, there was little he could do.
“Wait.” Logan held up a hand. “I pulled on strings, ropes, leashes and lanyards to make those papers go missing. Then I called in several personal favors. Fernsby is in line for a promotion. In the event your knee never passes muster, I can’t reinstate you onto the BURR team, but I can see you installed as Fernsby’s replacement.”
His gut twisted at the thought of no more missions, no more deployments. Desk duty. But the alternative—discharge—was unthinkable. “I accept.” Though he’d expected to work for several more years—perhaps grow a few gray hairs—before such a position became inevitable.
His brother laughed, then shook his head. “It’s not that easy, not when the duke is involved. There is a task you must accomplish first.”
He should have known. Nothing with his brother was ever straightforward. He sighed. “What’s in the case?”
Logan waggled his eyebrows, and Alec rolled his eyes. Such drama. But as the lid lifted and a cold fog flowed out of the refrigerated case, a piece of ragged flesh torn from some creature of the sea became visible. White with interlacing streaks of red, it glistened.
Interest sparked, and he stepped closer. “May I touch it?”
Alec lifted the scrap of rubbery integument and turned it over in his hands. “Kraken?”
“That’s what Professor Corwin thought at first.” Logan lifted a lid off one of the crates to reveal a small, portable aetheroscope. “Look closer.”
Though he was no cryptozoologist, the last few weeks studying predatory mollusks proved useful. Columnar epithelia, gland cells, neuronal fibers, connective tissue, striated musculature. Everything one would expect to find upon histological examination of cephalopod tissue. And yet…
He adjusted the focus as baffling details revealed themselves beneath the lens.
A thin lattice-work of what appeared to be charred carbon fibers formed a kind of internal network around which the various cellular strata grouped. It was—or had been—a living tissue with a fabricated core. Neither artificial nor natural, but both at once.
In a heartbeat, Alec was caught in Logan’s net.
Straightening, he regarded his brother with a frown. “A wire mesh. Upon which cephalopod tissue has been grown. How is this possible?”
“Exactly what we’d like to know,” Logan replied. “Particularly as the man who collected this sample—along with a number of odd reports of deaths that may or may not be related—has gone missing.”
“Missing. From where?”
His brother tipped his head and lifted an eyebrow. “Do you accept the commission of the Queen’s agents?”
Alec rubbed the back of his neck. There would be a steep price to pay—of that he was certain—for allowing himself to become entangled in Logan’s web of intrigue. But what else awaited him in Glasgow? He could work as a general surgeon, take a wife, produce offspring. A perfectly ordinary life. Absolutely nothing wrong with that. Except… to be cut off from the inner circles of the Navy and the innovations emerging from Glaister Institute? He wasn’t ready to let go of that. “I do.”
“Took you long enough,” Logan said. “Professor Corwin, chasing rumors of selkies near the Orkney Islands—”
“You laugh, but Icelandic agents have approached our shores, why not disguised as mythological creatures? Recall why your failed mission was launched.”
Good point. Alec sobered. “Continue.”
“It has recently been brought to the attention of the Queen’s agents that there are shadow committees within our biological research facilities, ones that seek to investigate certain human… oddities. They call themselves CEAP, the Committee for the Exploration of Anthropomorphic Peculiarities. Speculations regarding the existence of selkies would certainly pique their curiosity. We believe the professor may have run afoul of one such committee.”
“Though rumors proved false, an underlying pattern emerged. Inquiries led Corwin to the Outer Hebrides. Near a beach on the Isle of Lewis where this particular tissue fragment washed up, there was a curious incident involving a fisherman. A man found half-dead upon his boat was carried ashore. The local physician offered assistance, but the family waved him away. Instead, they brought in an itinerant, self-styled healer. The man died shortly after her arrival.” Logan tapped a finger upon a crate. “This put the good doctor’s nose out of joint, and he adjourned, grumbling, to the local tavern where our man, Corwin, overheard a most bizarre claim.” Eyes gleaming, his brother paused for effect.
“Don’t make me beat it out of you,” Alec warned. He stopped himself from leaning in. Not a chance he’d give his brother the satisfaction of seeing him dangling on a hook. “It’s a bad habit of yours.”
“Much as I’d like to see you try,” Logan snorted, “I need you intact.” His eyes flashed with pleasure. A grand reveal was imminent. Alec held his tongue. “As the doctor drank himself under the table, a snippet of conversation filtered through the general chaos. Corwin heard a man mutter about this not being the first time someone was killed by an octopus attack.”
“An octopus—not a kraken—attack?” That far north, both species rarely reached a substantial size, but only the kraken were given to attacking humans unprovoked. “How old is this Professor Corwin? Perhaps he’s gone hard of hearing?”
“He was entirely fit for duty, unlike some.” Logan threw a withering glance at his knee.
Was. Alec narrowed his eyes. “Go on.”
“The octopus is reported to have stabbed a tentacle into the fisherman’s stomach.”
“Stabbed?” Alec repeated. He glanced at the aetheroscope, scratched his jaw, but didn’t question his brother’s words again. “Strangled is at least a remote physical possibility—indigenous octopuses of sufficient size can survive off the northern coastlines—but the only sharp portion of an octopus’s anatomy is its beak.”
“Yet there is this.” Logan waved his hand. “An unexplained scrap of flesh, not easily dismissed. Moreover, my agent has gone missing.”
“And who better to act as an interim operative then your wounded, BURR-trained brother?” He gave a bark of laughter as it struck him. “The laboratory assignment was no mistake, was it? Orchestrated by none other than you, designed to drive me slightly insane while forcing me to study mollusk biology.”
Logan smirked. “I’d offer you a TTX pistol, but—”
“I’ve far, far better in my BURR locker,” he said, dismissing the weapon. “Assuming I’m permitted access?”
“Of course. You have full clearance and are authorized for independent shore duty. You report only to me. You share your findings only with me. Investigate the tissue’s origins and collect, if possible, a larger sample of the material. Blend with the locals and find out more about these rumors. Keep your eyes and ears open for news of Corwin. I want to know what’s going on.”