Jack Dalton had been in some sticky situations in his time with the CIA, but this one felt like the flypaper his mama used to hang outside the ranch house during long Texas summers, and he wasn’t sure he would be able to talk his way out of it.
He stood on the edge of a scenic overlook—which in Jack’s mind was just fancy-talk for “cliff”—near beautiful Clear Lake in northern California. It was a vast body of freshwater that was pretty stunning, even if Jack had only gotten a quick glimpse of it as he was shoved out of a beat-up Cadillac with a gun digging into his kidney. Now he had his hands over his head and his back to the twenty-foot drop into serene waters, the gunshot wounds to his shoulder and thigh both bleeding sluggishly. He was stripped of his gun and jacket and wore what used to be a white t-shirt and black jeans, along with heavy boots that would not be good for swimming.
Fat Tony and his men piled out of the Cadillac and Jack thought maybe now was the time to try and reason with the internationally renowned mob boss with the politically incorrect name before he got turned into fish food. “Tony, listen,” he began, and yelped when Fat Tony tipped the barrel of his gun down to point at his balls. “Or don’t! How about you talk and I listen instead?”
“Man, you never shut up, do you?” Fat Tony groaned, rolling his eyes, the gun still pointed at Jack’s crotch. “Not gonna miss your constant yapping, that’s for sure.”
“Oh, so you are gonna miss me—” Jack started.
He went silent when the expression on Fat Tony’s face grew even more irritated, his skin flushing an ugly shade of red. “I’ll ask you for the last time, Johnny—or whatever the fuck your name is, you rat—who are you working for?”
Jack barely stopped himself from rolling his eyes. He was clearly about to die anyway, no matter what he said—Fat Tony needed to work on his motivational techniques. Not that Jack would have ever told him the truth, but it would’ve been nice to have somebody try to bribe him for once instead of threatening him with a gun. Briefly, he wondered who the fuck blew his cover, because he was certain it wasn’t anything he’d done.
“He ain’t gonna tell us nothing,” Skinny Pete said from near Fat Tony’s elbow.
Jack thought not for the first time how ironic it was that mobsters always had names that were the opposite of how they looked. Fat Tony was about as big around as a fence post, and Skinny Pete was… well, not skinny. He wondered how you could work that into a stand-up comedy routine—and then he didn’t wonder that, because Fat Tony took a step closer to Jack.
“I’m out a hundred grand because of this dick,” Fat Tony lamented, gesturing at Jack with the gun. “I’ve gotta do—”
He cut off as Jack reached for him, intending to grab the gun out of his hand and yank Fat Tony in to use him as a shield. Since he’d been shot twice in the past three hours, however, it didn’t work out like that. He didn’t grab Fat Tony correctly, and he slipped out of Jack’s bloody grip, elbowing him in the stomach. The gun in Fat Tony’s hand went off—thankfully not in Jack’s direction, it fired into the grass—but because of the struggle and the dizziness from the blood loss Jack slipped and lost his balance, stumbling toward the edge of the overlook.
Everything that happened next was like a slow-motion scene from a bad movie: just as Jack thought he had his footing back, Fat Tony turned and kicked him in the shin, hard. Jack felt himself falling but could do nothing to stop it, arms pinwheeling helplessly as the earth disappeared from under him and he fell into the water below.
It was a steep drop and the impact with the water stunned him enough that it was almost like being unconscious… except he was very much aware he was drowning. Jack tried to move his arms and legs but his limbs were too heavy and he sunk like a stone. The surface was too far and Jack’s lungs burned and he knew he was going to die. He’d always thought it would be from a bullet or an explosion, he didn’t think he would drown… but it didn’t matter now, so… Jack stopped fighting.
But suddenly there were arms wrapped around him, and then it felt like he was moving. Like swimming, but much faster… and then everything went dark.
The next time Jack opened his eyes it was bright, too bright as he gulped in air, choking a little, and… he wasn’t dead? There was someone leaning over him, and Jack squinted a little and saw the most beautiful man he’d ever laid eyes on. But then he glanced to the side to see where he was… and he must’ve gone insane because that man, the most beautiful man Jack had ever seen?
He had a fucking tail.
Jack’s brain—you know, the part that wasn’t hung up on the fact that the dude had a tail—quickly catalogued his surroundings. The walls around him were high and made out of wood, and he was lying on some kind of floating floor… a houseboat, he realized, but a large portion of the bottom had been cut away so the lake water could flow in and out. There was a staircase off in one corner, and from the look of the ceiling it probably led to a loft, but the main floor was a mess of tools and miscellaneous junk, along with a cook-stove and a refrigerator.
The man hovering over him was lying partially on the floor with Jack, but the end of his tail hung in the water. Large blue eyes watched Jack’s face, full of concern and framed by long lashes. He had tan skin dotted with the occasional freckle or mole, sharp cheekbones, and a tangle of wet blond hair. Patches of blue-green scales were visible on his neck and over his ribs, and when he breathed in three little slits on either side of his throat opened and closed.
He was the most beautiful man Jack had ever seen, and he had a tail and gills.
“I’d ask if you were okay, but that seems redundant since you’ve been shot,” the man said, a wry little smile appearing on his face. He reached for something out of Jack’s field of vision and produced a well-stocked first aid kit. “Do you want to freak out before or after I help you?”
Jack blinked at him a few times, not entirely sure he wasn’t dreaming. Mermaids didn’t exist, right? Or mermen, but that didn’t change the fact that he was face-to-face with Ariel. He must’ve said that out loud, because the man laughed out loud, and God, his laugh was so pretty.
“But I don’t even have red hair,” the man teased.
Jack kept staring. “Jesus, you’re so beautiful.”
Shock flitted over that gorgeous face, a pink flush spreading over his nose and cheeks. He ducked his head a little, rummaging around in the first aid kit with long, slender fingers. Another splotch of scales decorated the back of his left hand, making it reflect the sun filtering in through the skylights each time he moved it.
“Um… you’ve lost a lot of blood,” he said, delicately stepping around Jack’s compliment, less like he was bothered by it and more like he didn’t believe it. He made a triumphant sound and came up with a pair of scissors. “I need to cut your clothes off. They’re sort of ruined anyway, and I can find you something else to wear.” A pause. “I’m Angus—Angus MacGyver. Most people just call me Mac.” When Jack didn’t say anything right away, he raised an eyebrow. “This is the part where you tell me your name.”
“Jack.” His real name slipped out before he could think about using one of his aliases. “Jack Dalton.” Mac gave him a small smile, and since Jack didn’t protest he started cutting off his t-shirt. Now that the shock and adrenaline have worn off a little, Jack became more aware of the throbbing pains in his shoulder and thigh. “So… you’re a… you have a tail.”
Mac tossed the remnants of Jack’s shirt aside and got to work on the denim of his pants. “I do,” he confirmed, and the fin on the end of said tail splashes a little in the water. He extracted Jack’s wallet from the back of his pants and laid it out to dry. “It’s kind of a long story. The short version is that I’m a science experiment gone wrong.” He left Jack’s underwear intact and checked out his shoulder. “Looks like this one’s a through-and-through.” He took out a bottle of antiseptic wash. “This is gonna sting, I’m sorry.”
Before Jack could tell him it was fine Mac had started cleaning the wound and Jack hissed loudly. He still felt dizzy and if he looked around too much everything started spinning. “This can’t be real,” he muttered, blinking to try and stay awake. “You’re… you’re a mer… man? Can’t be.”
Something cool touched his forehead and it took Jack a second to realize it was Mac’s hand. The touch was grounding, and the dizziness faded slightly.
“I’m real, all right,” Mac said, injecting some kind of anesthetic into the meat of Jack’s shoulder. Then he sewed up the entry wound with steady hands, and tapped Jack on the cheek to get his attention. “Roll on your side for me? Careful, don’t jostle your leg.” Jack did as asked, and Mac repeated the entire process on the exit wound, then covered both the front and the back of Jack’s shoulder in sterile dressings. He had Jack roll on his back again and scooted down a little, scales shimmering. “Okay, your leg’s a little worse than your shoulder—the bullet’s still in it. Do you want me to give you something to knock you out?”
Jack was tempted to say yes, but he didn’t want to lose consciousness again—he hated being vulnerable like that. For some reason, though, he felt like he could trust Mac… but he didn’t want to get knocked out and wake up only to discover it was a dream. Besides, he figured he’d probably pass out from the pain anyway, so he shook his head and watched as Mac gathered the tools to extract the bullet.
Mac heated up a pair of forceps with a lighter until they were sterile, then rinsed the wound with antiseptic. “This is gonna suck,” he warned.
Jack breathed out harshly and nodded, and Mac wasted no time, digging the forceps into the wound. Jack clenched his teeth around a scream, fingers clawing into the wood beneath him. The dizziness was back in full force, and as Mac found the bullet and pulled it out, Jack felt himself fading away.
The last thing he heard before the blackness embraced him was Mac’s voice, soft and clear like the water below: “Go to sleep, Jack. You’re safe here.”