The Search - short story by Derek Paterson
The Search
by Derek Paterson
Appeared in From The Yonder 2 anthology
published by Joshua P. Sorensen, March 2021
Available from Amazon
Available from Amazon

By strength of will alone Marina stopped herself from fainting, as the pungent smell of the fish soup assailed her nostrils.
She gazed down at the plate the servant had placed before her. Pieces of fish floated in cream. To other people, it must smell delicious. To Marina it smelled like death and corruption.
“Eat up, eat up,” Sir Edwin said, and though he appeared to direct his words to all his guests sitting at the dinner table, Marina could not help but think he was speaking to her and her alone.
She did not think she was being paranoid. In fact she knew she was not.
Sir Edwin, a close neighbor, had invited her to his house before, curious about his new neighbor, but Marina had always politely refused. However, having learned that the guest of honor this evening was to be Lord Dareth Cavendish, the celebrated naturalist, she had immediately sent an acceptance note.
Sir Edwin said, “Is the soup not to your taste, Miss Pesci?”
She did not correct his mispronunciation of the surname she’d taken upon moving to this area and occupying the old house on the edge of the marshes. She was aware of the probing nature of his question. And aware also of the naturalist’s penetrating gaze, his interest in hearing her answer.
But of course, she saw it now. Lord Cavendish was not here because of the fauna unique to these sprawling marshlands. Sir Edwin must have appraised him in advance of his suspicions. Those suspicions had arisen some weeks ago, Marina knew, when he had gone for an early morning stroll, and had glimpsed a shape in a pond that had startled him. Marina had not swum in the pond since, she had found a more remote place, far from human eyes, but clearly Sir Edwin had not been able to forget the incident. Marina had hoped that perhaps tonight she might convince him that he had been mistaken, that the swirling mists had played a trick upon his senses, that his imagination had painted a fanciful sight that did not exist. She realized now the folly of her plan. He was beyond convincing.
The young man seated next to her said, in the act of filling his glass from the jug, “May I offer you some water, Miss Pesci?”
Oh how devious, she thought, watching as the jug came to hover over her own glass before she could say no. He tilted it so water began to pour from the spout, carefully, very carefully. But then—oh!—an unfortunate tap on the glass’s rim, and it toppled toward her. The spilled water ran off the table and cascaded onto Marina’s lap, drenching her skirts. As was intended. At least he hadn’t tipped the soup over her as well. That would have been disgusting.
“Oh my goodness, how clumsy of me, I am so terribly sorry,” the young man said. He offered Marina his napkin but she ignored him and used her own napkin to dab up the water. As she did so, her gaze wandered around the table. She saw it then. Not just Sir Edwin and Lord Cavendish. All of them. They were all expecting the water to have affected her.
The young man wouldn’t stop apologizing. She sensed his genuine embarrassment at being part of a ruse that had clearly backfired and made its originator, their host, look quite foolish. Marina raised her hand, silencing him, but she also smiled to soften the gesture.
She pushed her chair back and stood up. “This is most unfortunate, I am quite soaked. I shall have to go home and change my clothing.”
Sir Edwin cleared his throat. His cheeks were red. “Most unfortunate indeed. I shall have my carriage brought around at once.”
“There’s no need, Sir Edwin, the walk is a short one and the air will do me good. I bid you goodnight. The soup smelled delicious, by the way.”
She left the room to an awkward chorus of good nights. A servant opened the front door for her and she went down the steps carefully, trying to keep control over her legs, willing them to remain legs. It had been close, so very close.
The winding gravel driveway took her away from the house and in no time she was screened by trees, which gave her a sense of relief. She did not like being scrutinized by prying eyes. It was part of her makeup, part of her natural defense instinct. To be exposed invited death, or worse.
The sun had sunk below the distant horizon and now night fell across the land. No one could possibly see her now. She changed direction and headed down to the river that flowed through the estate. The chuckling water called to her. She could feel her legs trembling. Further downstream, the river ran past her house. It was the quickest way home.
Stepping close to a tree, she undid her fastenings and slipped off her still-sodden skirts, and also the waterproof oilskin leggings she’d worn beneath, having been forewarned by some sixth sense that such precautions might be necessary. The leggings had prevented the water from reaching her skin. If it had... she doubted whether she could have maintained her form. She would have transformed in front of a roomful of people. The very thought made her shudder.
She was about to remove the rest of her clothing when a Lucifer sparked in the darkness; the match’s crimson glow reflected upon the river.
“A fine night for a walk, Miss Pesci.”
She recognized the voice at once; it was Lord Cavendish. He must have left the house soon after her, must have taken another path to arrive at the river moments ahead of her.
“Or are you walking?” He gazed at the river and his meaning was clear.
Marina said, “Do you make it your business to follow women into the night, sir, and cause them alarm?” She was surprised she could still speak; fear of being unmasked constricted her throat.
“I apologize if I startled you,” he said. He used the burning Lucifer to light the shag tobacco in his pipe. The smell was acrid and unpleasant. “Sir Edwin thought his trick with the water jug would cause you to change before his very eyes. And perhaps it might have.” He gestured with the pipe stalk, indicating the oilskins. “But you were more clever than he.”
“If you know what I am,” she said, knowing that he did, “then perhaps you have encountered others? Of my folk. Elsewhere in this land.”
The silence between them stretched interminably. She began to doubt if he’d even heard her question.
He stared at his pipe for a few moments longer before he slowly shook his head. “Truthfully I had thought your species gone, Miss Pesci,” he said. “It pleases me greatly that you are not. And yet....” His eyes came up to meet hers, and he sighed. “I am so very sorry.”
She’d wanted his expert knowledge, not his pity. The fact he could not offer her any information broke something inside her. Her anger should have been directed toward Sir Edwin, not Cavendish, but her fragile veneer had been torn away by tonight’s events and she threw herself at him. Before he even had time to cry out, her widened jaws closed over his head and came together with a terrible crunch, ending him.
She feasted with an abandon she could never have shown at the dinner table. As she did so, she pondered what his next words might have been. No doubt he would have suggested she accompany him to Edinburgh, where he might study her in his laboratory, while also offering her protection. As if she could not protect herself. In time he would reveal her existence to the world; science would never be the same again. Which was guesswork on her part, but Marina knew she was right.
And if she’d refused his offer? Would he have turned and walked away and kept her secret? No, she did not believe Lord Cavendish, a famed naturalist, could have ignored such an opportunity. Far more likely that Sir Edwin’s estate workers would have crept to her house during the night, bringing nets with them so they could capture her and drag her off to become a fantastic exhibit. Or a laboratory experiment. She shuddered at the thought.
When she’d had her fill, she stood up and removed the last of her clothing. She could bear this form no longer. She walked into the river and the cool waters surrounded her, nurtured her. The change came quickly, she only just had time to drag Cavendish’s remains after her. And his pipe. She stuffed him and her clothes under a large rock near the river bottom, where they would never be discovered. His disappearance would forever remain a mystery. She let the current take her.
She quested ahead to the limit of her senses, for any trace of her folk. And as always, found none. Their scent had long since vanished from the rivers, the lakes, the sea.
She would never stop looking. But she remembered the sympathy she’d seen in Cavendish’s eyes, and thought troubled thoughts.

-The End-

The Search - short story by Derek Paterson
The Search
by Derek Paterson
Appeared in From The Yonder 2 anthology
published by Joshua P. Sorensen, March 2021
Available from Amazon
Available from Amazon
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