Summer 2007 Volume One Issue Three
Out of the Frying Pan - Kay Wall
Michele Karloff, beach inspector, stretched out her right leg, wincing as the scar tissue pulled from knee to ankle. She leaned forward in her chair and rubbed the withered calf muscle, fingers lingering on the deep welts left by grasping tendrils, gaze fixed on the BEWARE poster opposite.
Her middle finger traced the narrow scar where the surgeon had sewn up her Achilles tendon. Cleanly sliced, the muscle had knitted together well but always started aching around lunchtime. She briskly massaged the area then put on her shoe, sat up straight and waggled her foot.
Sighing, she tossed a half-eaten sandwich into a bin before pushing herself up and hobbling to the door. With one last glare at the poster, she limped through the doorway and across to the path which led down to Titahi Bay. By the time she reached the bottom, the limp was barely discernible. But the line between her eyes would deepen as the afternoon progressed along with the dull ache.
She stopped on the sand and surveyed the holidaymakers with a proprietorial air, pushing her sunglasses up her nose. Everyone wore sunglasses, right down to the toddlers. Summer on the beach wasn't recommended for babies under one any more, the sun was too intense.
As she surveyed the holidaymakers she smiled. Looks just like a scene from great grandma's days, she thought. Except for the protective clothing covering everyone from neck to ankle. And the reinforced steel nets beyond the surf line.
"Useless," she muttered, favouring her right foot. "That won't stop them."
Out of the hundreds on the beach only a handful braved the water, not one of them going any further than waist deep. The two afternoon lookouts were in their towers, settled in for the next six hours.
Satisfied that they were taking the job seriously, Michele turned to scan the path. "Where the hell is he?" She checked her watch. Two minutes late. "Bugger it," she said, setting off.
She walked past an elaborate sandcastle and eyed a poodle. It darted amongst the pre-schoolers, sniffing a hand here, a crotch there, and licking the occasional shell. Michele moved closer, muscles tensed, surreptitiously observing the animal.
At the very instant it lifted its leg to pee, her right foot made contact with its powder puff bum, stopping the poodle before one drop emerged. The sharp pain in her leg diminished as she watched the dog flee up the beach, yelping, to hide behind a plastic blue chilly bin.
Timing is everything in this job, she reflected, rubbing the Special Commendation badge on her lapel. If only dear old Mum could see me now . . . Number One Beach Inspector in the greater Wellington district, achieved at the tender age of thirty-nine.
Before moving on, she looked down at the kids and winked. They frowned up at her, furiously digging their shells in the sand. "So much for the waterfall," muttered their teenage minder.
The beach inspector curled her lip and grunted before moving on.
"What'd you do that for?" Fred, her junior officer, struggled to catch up. "Poor pooch." His bottom lip stuck out even more than usual as he tugged his trousers up over non-existent hips. In spite of the best sunscreen and protective uniform, Fred's face and neck constantly peeled. As he turned from the dog to his boss, he dropped his gaze and picked at the flaking skin on his nose.
Michele's hands curled into fists as she stopped herself from slapping his hand away. "Sentiment has no place in our job. You know that." She glared back at the minder. "She should know better than to encourage developing minds to waste water."
"But it was recycled. Where's the harm?"
"Today dog urine, tomorrow . . . " Michele stared at the desalination plant perched on the edge of the south arm of the bay. "Remember the last great drought. Good habits must be instilled early." So there's hope for you yet, she thought. She pushed her sunglasses up again and set off, prodding sticks and shells with her sharpened cane.
Fred walked parallel, five metres to her side, likewise inspecting the flotsam and jetsam. "Get over it," he muttered, when he was sure she couldn't hear.
They worked along the beach, inspecting spoor in the sand, alert to any abnormally large shells. Footprints and paw prints criss-crossed the tiny marks left by hermit crabs, one line deeper where an enlarged claw dragged. By the time they got half way along the beach, they conversed amiably.
They passed through the public area and into the restricted zone, the only part of the beach which had access to the desalination plant. As Fred locked the gate, Michele's sharp intake of breath made him whirl around. His boss crouched, stick pointing, before a large pile of seaweed. He scuttled across behind her and peered at a two metre-long black tendril, a couple of centimetres thick.
"Oh my God," he said, hand over his heart, backing away. "Not again." He stopped and stared at the nearby rocks and sea. "They told us they got them all." He rocked into reverse, instinctively heading for the fence. "Is it fresh?"
The premiere beach inspector steadied her trembling hand and cautiously advanced. "No. It's dull, lost its shine." She stopped one metre short, attention never leaving the object, ready to take evasive action. "Life is probably . . . extinct."
Fred fumbled with the chain on the lock and slipped through the gate. "Washed up or . . . left behind?"
"If you bag it, we can take it to the lab and find out. Fred? Fred?"
She turned in time to see her junior officer bustle through the family section.
"Just going to get a specimen bag," floated back. "Won't be long."
"Christ! Tardy, ill-prepared, where do they get them from?" Michele studied the immediate vicinity before returning to the object. She picked up a stick and threw it. The tendril remained inert. "Can't be too careful," she murmured, stretching to her full extent and jabbing the rubbery shape. "Damn things can still be dangerous hours after separation."
The cane sank into the flesh but produced no reaction. She hooked it into the air, pinching her nose at the foetid odour of decaying fish. "Where's the rest of you? That's what I'd like to know." She lay it on the sand and drew an ovoid shape above, roughly two metres long, adding another snaking arm beside the one she'd found.
Standing back, she studied her handiwork. She whistled and slowly shook her head. "A real granddaddy." She knelt and compared the width of the tendril to her scars, paused, repeated the action and then rocked on to her heels, studying the sea.
Lost in thought, she didn't hear Fred return but felt his tap on the shoulder. She leapt up and almost skewered him. "Pillbrain! Don't they teach you anything in that academy any more? Never sneak up on people in a restricted zone!" She stepped back, arrested by a squelch. "Shit! Now look what you've made me do."
Snatching the rubber gloves and plastic bag, she carefully collected up the specimen. Examining the bit she'd squashed, her eye was drawn to a dull silver object. She poked at it with her fingers, careful not to snag her glove on the jagged edges. Difficult to make out exactly what it was, until she felt a pin. She cut it out, slipped the tendril completely into the bag and handed it to Fred. He held it at arm's length while she carried the mystery object to the sea to clean. As she turned it over, a flickering iridescent blue and green shape emerged and she jerked her head back as if inhaling smelling salts.
An earring in the shape of a frying pan inscribed with the initials W.M.K. "Mum's? Surely not."
She stood perfectly still for half a minute, gazing vacantly over the ocean, remembering the special present she'd given her mother when she'd graduated from culinary school. Unique paua shell earrings, in the shape of a frying pan.
She looked down and rubbed the earring with her thumb, but the initials remained. "Must be."
Fred's increasingly agitated muttering drew her attention. Limping back, she relieved him of the bag, wrote the time and date on a sticker and stuck it on.
Fred circled her sketch, clicking his tongue. "It's huge. Two metres long and one wide. Surely you've exaggerated."
"I don't believe it. The academy said they couldn't get that big."
Michele lifted one eyebrow. "You forget. I've had personal experience." She bent to pull up her trouser leg.
"No, no! Don't! I haven't forgotten, don't show me again."
She dropped the material and stared at him, saying nothing.
He fidgeted and studied his shoes, peeled his nose. "Sorry. You're the expert."
As they walked back to the jeep, Michele remembered Fred's predecessor. Fresh out of the academy, big on theories, small on practise. And now very small indeed, thanks to not listening.
But Fred showed promise. He lacked the blustering bravado of the usual graduate. In fact, if anything he went too far the other way. But that was to his advantage. Healthy respect tinged with a little fear meant you lived to fight another day. And lived to back up your colleague.
She smiled at him as she tossed over the car keys. "You drive. I want to make some more notes."
For the first time that day, Fred broke into a smile.* * * *
Professor Lugosi stood back from the microscope, shaking his head. "It must have been startled before it could attack. By a dog, not a very big one going by these tooth marks. I found no trace of skin. However," he sucked in his breath, "there's evidence of lemons."
"But is it the only one?"
"Who knows?" He stared at the slide. "So much of our food contains seaweed extracts. We'd be a valuable food source if they can't find enough in their natural habitat." Eye back on the microscope. "Can't blame 'em for looking."
Michele sagged against the bench as memories of her mother's death five years ago came flooding back, as clear as the day before yesterday. "No Mum," she'd pleaded, "we don't have to have lemon in our tea. Honest, I'd rather have milk."
"No Shelley, I insist. This is a special occasion. You're the first in our family to be top graduate of the Beach Inspector course. We must celebrate appropriately." Her mother disappeared into the garden and returned with a lemon, picked fresh off the tree. They went outside and lunched on the sun deck overlooking a perfectly still, azure Titahi Bay.
Her mother's paua earrings glinted in the sunlight as she laughed and chatted, the surreal play of opalescent colours displaying every tone of green and blue.
When she left, Michele reminded her mother, "You'll stay away from the beach for 24 hours? You won't go near the water until all trace of lemon has left your body?"
Her mother had rolled her eyes and smiled.
"Cross my heart and hope to die," were the last words Michele ever heard her say. Apart from 'bugger' as she stubbed her toe on the rough concrete path.
"It's my fault she's dead," she whispered, coming out of her reverie. "I should have known that she'd walk in the sea to heal her toe. She was so forgetful. I should have clicked then, not later!"
"When are you going to stop beating yourself up over this?" The professor gently took her hands and unclenched them. "You risked your life to save her. No one could have done more. I know."
As he glanced down she pulled her hands away, feeling as if he could see through her trousers. He was the only one she minded seeing her disfigured leg. Mainly because she knew how much it pained him that he hadn't done a better job when he found her, bedraggled and near death, on the sand.
Michele paced around the room. "That tendril we brought in. It had something embedded in it."
She stopped abruptly in front of a large poster and hugged herself. "An earring. My mother's."
"You sure? Let me see."
She handed it over.
She paced around the room again, ending up in the exact spot. She pointed at the life size poster, depicting the most feared creature on the coast. "I'm sure it's that one. The same one that got Mum. And now it's come back. For seconds."
This time when Professor Lugosi took her hand, she didn't shrug him off. They stood together and studied the humped recrudescent back, the two snaking tendrils used to detect and subdue prey. "It didn't feed last night," said Michele. "It'll come back tonight, before the full moon wanes too far. And this time, I'll be ready."
The professor squeezed her hand. "Call the military. Let them take care of it."
She pulled away. "No. This is personal. This is Destiny."
She wandered over to the window and stared at the moon, intermittently covered by scudding clouds. A flimsy, filmy fish spawn mist. Trees swayed across the window in the strengthening breeze while in the distance, a poodle yelped. She rested her weight on her left foot.
"No, Professor Lugosi. This is my bete noire and I'll deal to it."* * * *
"Do we really have to do this alone?" Fred slumped in his seat as Michele turned off the jeep lights. "Are you sure they can't spare any troops?" He watched her get out then twisted in his seat to speak as she opened the back. "It's not proper procedure."
Michele pulled a large box towards her and opened the lid. She flapped her hand in front of her face and screwed up her nose as a stale, rotten fish guts odour wrapped around her face. From a plastic bag she removed a lemon and sliced it half-open.
"What are you doing?" squeaked Fred. "Are you mad?" He scrambled out of the vehicle and attempted to snatch the lemon. "Are you trying to get us killed?"
Michele put it back in the bag and tied the top tightly. "Calm down. It's not a GM lemon. No algae genes in this baby." She glanced towards her mother's bach, invisible in the dark, and blinked back tears. "A pure lemon from the last inviolate tree up north."
Fred gasped. "How'd you get it?"
"Let's just say," Michele shrugged, "a debt's been paid."
Fred switched on his torch and shone it into the box. "Is this what you've been doing all day?"
"Yep." She rummaged around and pulled out a pair of snorkels, extra long, and handed one over. "Conceal it in your trouser leg."
When Fred stepped back, hands firmly at his side, she rapped him on the shin. "Look, it's just a precaution. We'll get the bastard on shore." She turned away. "Probably."
Fred grabbed the snorkel and stuffed it down his trousers. He took a couple of hesitant sideways steps. "Hope I don't have to run anywhere." His crab-like movement enabled him to continually face the sea.
"You'll manage. Now take it out and grab the other end of the box. We'll set up by the rocks near the restricted zone."
"When are you going to tell me the plan?"
"When we have to act. I don't want you forgetting anything."
They struggled down the narrow moonlit path, box catching on gorse and broom, until they reached the beach. The tide was on its way in, waves lapping over rippled sand, repeating sushi, sushi, with each ebb and flow.
After dumping the box behind the largest rock, they paused to catch their breath. Michele shoved it a little closer to the fence and then opened the lid, holding her breath.
Fred pinched his nose. "Pooh. What else is in there?"
"It's been five years since these saw the light of moon. Five long years . . . " Michele's eyes took on a dreamy expression and she looked up at the heavens. She stood and left the shelter to walk a couple of metres towards the sea, stopping to stare over the waves. "I knew they wouldn't get him. Nothing could track that bastard into those depths. Nothing!"
"Nothing?" said Fred, as he hunkered down against the box. After reducing the end of his nose to a bleeding sore, he sat up. "But this stuff'll stop it, eh? This is the very latest in repellents, isn't it? Isn't it?" He peered into the container and pulled out a non-stick frypan. "Oh shit! Don't tell me you brought the wrong box."
The glint of moonlight on the elongated metal handle caught Michele's peripheral vision and she whirled around. "There's the old ways and the bold ways and then," she winked and smiled, "there's the tried and true ways. You keep that well within reach."
Fred turned the frypan every which way before aiming the handle at the sea. "Concealed harpoon?" His eyebrows climbed into his fringe. "Tiny nuclear weapon?"
He didn't bother asking again as his boss worked methodically on, oblivious to his presence. She concentrated solely on the articles in the box, which she removed one at a time, setting them down with icy efficiency, pushing Fred out of the way as she worked to a precise pattern.
For the next two hours Fred clutched the frying pan to his chest, continually glancing from the tide to Michele, ensuring she was always nearest the sea. After moaning about the inadequacy of their weaponry, he studied their surroundings. He tapped Michele on the shoulder. "Hey. I don't think this is a good spot. Cliff behind, fence on one side, sea out the front. Only one narrow escape route."
"And that's one more than we'll need." She slapped him on the back. "Make yourself comfortable. It'll probably be another hour before it shows." She leaned against a rock and studied the sea.
"Comfortable? Ha ha, very funny." He gripped the frying pan and stared at the back of her head. Looked towards the jeep and then back again. Raised the frying pan . . . and then slowly lowered it. "I know the theory boss, but, what's it really like? Face to . . . face? What's the most important thing to remember?"
"Do exactly as I say. No matter how silly it sounds. And do it straight away." She turned and looked deep into his eyes. "Never hesitate."
"Yeeees. Um, could you be a little more exact?" He propped up his chin with the pan and spoke through clenched teeth. "Like, what the hell do I do with this?"
Michele sighed and tilted her head. "Okay. When it emerges . . . " She ducked as her junior officer's arm jerked forward, nearly taking her head off with the pan. His mouth opened but no sound escaped. She spun round.
Out beyond the breaker line, a hulking dark object appeared and disappeared as the swell covered it. It could have been a rock, except rocks don't move. It could have been an upside down dinghy, but dinghies don't stay parallel to the seabed. It could have been a weather balloon; they explain all sorts of things.
"Yess," hissed Michele. "He must be ravenous. He's early." She snatched up the pepper spray and hung it off her belt. She removed the lemon from the plastic bag and slipped it into a pouch around her waist. She ducked under Fred's arm and grabbed a couple of cloves of garlic before slapping him hard across the face. His eyes barely flickered.
"Snap out of it, man! Hold this." She unwrapped his unencumbered hand and closed his fingers around a jeweller's grinder, then tilted his head down. She lifted her leg and began to pull up her trousers.
As the puckered flesh was revealed, Fred's eyes widened. "No, no. Not that!" He leapt to her side and together they watched the creature barely pause at the barrier before battering its way through the waves and into the shallows.
Fifty metres away, at the edge of the water, it hesitated, seaweed and barnacle encrusted shell glittering and streaming in the moonlight. One long shiny tendril emerged and waved in the air before lightly touching the dry sand. It then pointed to the four points of the compass before concentrating on the beach. First it indicated the north end then gradually swept around until it pointed straight at the sheltering rocks. The tip quivered for a few seconds, then continued south before returning to the beach inspector. A stubby tendril mirrored every movement.
Michele went to push her sunglasses up her nose, but they weren't there. "Haliotis iris," she breathed. "The paua. New Zealand's abalone."
"Flip me gently," breathed Fred, frying pan rattling against the rock supporting him. "I don't think this is big enough."
Michele laid her hand on his shoulder and the trembling stopped. "Trust me," she said, "it's plenty big for what we want."
He dropped the grinder and started picking at a dry spot on his chin, staring fixedly ahead. "Man! That has got to be the hugest paua in the world."
Tendril and stub quivering like a diviner's rod, the mollusc slightly raised its shell to reveal a dark mass of black with dozens of tiny wriggling arms. Then all movement ceased and they heard a loud schloop as mucus was secreted around the muscular foot and it moved on to the sand.
On land the creature progressed smoothly but slowly, having to stop every five metres to secrete more mucus. It left a slimy trail which glowed eerily in the moonlight, phosphorescence glittering. Occasionally it altered its path to avoid branches but the tendril always pointed to the rocks.
Michele turned to the weaponry. "Bugger it. It's bigger than I thought. Most of this is useless. I'll have to get real close." About to take a step, she suddenly jerked rigid as her right leg cramped. Stuck fast by a pain she'd never experienced before, she grabbed Fred's shoulder. "My leg. Rub my leg. It won't move."
He tried to step back, but one glance at the paua's ponderous advance dropped him to his knees. Michele felt his shaking hands on her heel and her fingers tightened as the pain intensified. She hissed through clenched teeth, "Harder," as Fred's fingers fluttered over her scars.
She saw him wince and relaxed her grip as his hands went to work, kneading the muscles, unknitting the knots, easing the ache until she could support her weight. "Thanks," she said, gently pushing him aside as she limped over to the box. "Change of plan is needed."
Fred stood and raised his hands. "WHAT PLAN?"
Michele drummed her fingers on the box lid. "If I'd told you we were going to kill that with a frying pan, how far from Titahi Bay would you be by now?"
A sniff, a pause, a mumble. "Auckland?"
The drumming stopped. "Never lose that honesty, Fred, it's a rare commodity." She sensed him moving closer. "You'll have to wield the frying pan while I provide a distraction."
He grabbed the implement and stared at it. "Do what?"
Concentrating on the box, as if the plan was drawn there, Michele didn't bother looking up. "The non-stick coating on that pan consists of a special poison. So potent that no mutant mollusc can stand it. It's instant death."
The frying pan shot away from Fred's chest to be held at arm's length. A shadow fell over Michele. "Don't worry. It's not toxic to humans."
The shadow disappeared. The schlooping sounded ever closer to be joined by a noise of something sweeping the sand, crackling over shells and dried seaweed. A sulphurous odour wafted over them, gradually increasing in strength.
"It's been feeding at the deep-sea vents, safe from our probes," said Michele. "Cleaning out the worms. Now it needs proper sustenance."
Ready for action, they peered over the rock. The paua was only thirty metres away.
Michele took a deep breath, pushing at non-existent sunglasses again. "I'm going to be the bait." She looked at Fred. "I wish I could do it alone, but I can't. I need you. And I know you're up to it."
Fred lifted his chin. "Yeah?"
"Yeah. I've seen you in the kitchen. Nobody's handled a frying pan like you since, since . . . my mum died."
Sagging shoulders straightened as Fred puffed out his chest.
Michele clapped him on the back. "You'll get one shot, and one shot only. We have to get the poison directly in its mouth."
As Fred's shoulders threatened to relax, Michele's diction quickened. "Forget about the poster with its chitin teeth and circular saw mouth. That frying pan," she pointed, "is the best design our researchers could produce. Slip resistant for easy insertion and reinforced to damage the teeth." As she talked, she squeezed lemon juice on her hands and face, dabbing the remains over the rest of her body.
Now only twenty metres distant, the paua shifted gear and advanced faster.
"Don't worry," she continued. "They can't handle pure lemon juice. If there's no algae genes, it acts like an electric shock. One touch and ZAP." She dabbed Fred with the other half. "But it'll only slow it down, it won't kill it so stay out of reach. When it rears up to grab me in its mouth, dart in and shove that frying pan down as hard as you can."
Fred swallowed hard. "Okay. I can do it. It's just an overgrown mollusc. No big deal."
As the shellfish drew to ten metres, Michele picked up the grinder and stepped out. The creature slowed but continued forward, tendril curled back on its shell like a coiled whip. Michele indicated for Fred to follow but out slightly wider. As he left the rock, a small black shadow dashed across the sand, yapping furiously. The powder puff poodle danced around the paua, nipping in and out at its rear end, snapping at the waving arms.
The arms retracted as the tendril snaked out, but the dog stayed just out of reach, yapping dementedly. The shell lowered slightly and the paua perambulated towards Michele, ignoring the dog as it latched on at the back.
The premiere beach inspector never took her eyes off the mollusc as she manoeuvred herself into a favourable position, enticing the creature further up the beach away from the sea. As long as she kept on higher ground, it would have to rear up high to cover her and that would give Fred his best shot. She couldn't see him but could hear his steady breathing as he kept pace.
Only a couple more metres and she'd be in the best spot, on top of a half-submerged pipe from the desalination plant. She could perch there, fending off the tendril with the jeweller's grinder while Fred came in behind, frying pan at the ready.
Two more paces, she thought, preparing for the big step, and then it's crunch time.
Too late, peripheral vision caught a dancing black shadow as the poodle darted around. It ran between Michele's legs and she tripped, dropping the grinder as her head struck the pipe. The poodle fled, yelping, while she lay, stunned, a familiar sensation gripping her left leg.
A jet of mucus covered her body and she slid across the sand, wits clearing as she instinctively wiped the suffocating muck from her face.
The bastards, she thought, it was a GM lemon.
Fred, reaching the same conclusion, retreated. As the paua slowly reeled in its victim, he thought he heard it laughing. But surely it was just the sand squeaking as the beast prepared to rear.
As her foot bumped against the shell, Michele struggled to sit up. Groaning, she thumped the rubbery tendril constricting her leg as it squeezed harder. Her hand rebounded and she struck out again, wincing as she hit something sharp. Something that glinted in the moonlight as the beast swayed. Something beautifully surreal, shining blues and greens as vivid as in daylight.
"You want the whole bloody family?" she screamed, pounding on the shell. "Mum wasn't enough?"
The paua trembled then reared up, snaking arms wiggling, bright white circular saw mouth gaping. Scalpel teeth dripped mucus, flinging it out ever wider as they started to rotate. Michele fell back on the sand, hands searching for some sort of weapon, anything to at least put up a fight.
The grip around her leg relaxed. She felt something nudge her arm and watched the tendril put the earring directly in front of her face. Wiggle it. Then it gently wrapped around her shoulders and sat her up. Wiggled the earring again, transfixing her with fiery flashes.
Michele hesitantly touched it with her finger. "No," she mumbled. "It ate you. I saw it. I'm sure."
The creature's stump swayed a couple of times.
"Mum? Is that you?"
The stump assented.
"PAUA FRITTERS," reverberated through her skull as Fred pushed her aside and shoved the frying pan deep into the closing mouth.
"FISH FINGERS," he yelled, pulling Michele away as the paua flopped forward, black muscle expanding and contracting, tendril and arms writhing. A copious quantity of mucus spilled on to the sand and it reversed towards the sea, just as the poodle dashed in.
"NO," screamed Michele. "It's my mum. You've killed my mum." She struggled to break free but Fred clamped his arms around her, holding fast as a scientist to a research grant.
A sulphurous black liquid oozed from the holes along the paua's shell as its foot extended then shrank, jetting mucus up to fifty metres away. The tendril whipped backwards and forwards, slashing the air until it latched on to the stuck poodle. It beat the dog against the shell, bashing its brains until they ran out its ears, tearing the flesh, snagging its eyes on the barnacles.
A massive shudder dug the foot into the sand. The tendril stiffened then tossed the battered remains into the air while the shell popped off and landed on its back, catching the poodle. The naked muscle quivered like a half-set blood pudding in an earthquake, before melting in its own sulphuric acid, hissing and deflating as a cloud of obfuscating gas hung above.
When the mist dispersed, Fred helped Michele over to the depression. All that remained was a battered frying pan, a black scummy pool, and a flashing opalescent object. Fred put on his gloves and retrieved the earring, washing it in the full tide. He handed it to Michele. She cradled it in her palm and wiped her nose with her sleeve, then had to use the other one.
He threw away the gloves and put his arm around her shoulders. "I'm sorry." His hand headed for his face, then stopped and sought Michele's hand instead. "I didn't know you were related."
The premiere beach inspector pulled away and sat, rubbing her left leg. "There's no marks. She didn't hurt me."
Fred hesitated then knelt. "But it wasn't her. It was, it just, it sort of, morphed. Sort of became a . . . a werepaua."
"Sort of extracted what was useful from a food source. And retained it. Naturally. Without the aid of technology." She pinched each nostril and blew.
Fred stared at the huge shell. "Oh shit. Shit, shit, shit. They're infertile, aren't they? They can't breed?" He stepped away from Michele.
"Don't look at me like that!" She grasped his hand. "How do we know she meant harm? How do we know she wasn't just trying . . . to make contact." A tear slid down her cheek. "She was closing her mouth when you darted in."
"Sorry," Fred mumbled, "but I can't relate that, that werepaua, to your mother."
Michele looked down then took a deep breath. "Don't apologise. There's no room for sentiment in this job." She drew herself up to her full height and strode across to the shell. Fred followed and stood beside her, their shoulders touching. A torch appeared at the path and headed their way, a bright jerky object now that the moon had dropped behind the hill.
Professor Lugosi panted up and pushed between them. "Are you okay? Did you get it?" The light lingered on Michele and passed quickly over Fred. "It didn't harm you?"
They shook their heads.
"The military are on their way. I rang before I left, exactly when you said . . . "
A heavy vehicle drone drew closer, followed by harsh engine braking. They turned and watched a dozen lights spear the dark beside the beach inspector's office. Doors slammed, the lights went out and a strong beam swept the bay twice before stopping on them.
Michele put the earring in her pocket and faced the light, hands on hips. "All this because some bloody expert behind a desk decides we'll make more money on seafood exports if they're naturally lemon flavoured. 'Fill the lemons with algae genes, that'll make 'em palatable.' And throw in a few growth hormones, they've never done any harm."
Her left leg tingled as her foot automatically stretched and contracted, stretched and contracted.
Professor Lugosi handed her his handkerchief. "You've got a bad cold."
"Thanks," she said. "I can't stop sniffing." One blow and a copious quantity of mucus filled the handkerchief.
Fred said, "Can you imagine what we'd have to deal with if it wasn't just the paua farm that had been washed into the sea?"
They turned as one and stared out over the bay, the tread of running soldiers muffled by the waves' rhythmical sushi, sushi.
- END -