If anyone had been watching, they would have seen the pickup stop at the roadside, water splashing about in the cargo bed. They would have seen a man get out – tall, wiry, freckled; the sleeves of his checked shirt rolled up above his elbows – and walk to the back of the truck. They would have seen him open the tailgate and stand aside as the water gushed out, only to step swiftly into the rush of water and hold out his arms as if to catch something.
They would have seen him gather some invisible burden in his arms and walk – stumbling as though the imaginary load were heavy – away from the roadside and down the bank towards the river. There, they would have seen him release the burden over the water and – no doubt to their great astonishment – have seen a great splash, as of some lithe form arrowing into the water. Discounting the possibility that he was releasing an invisible otter into the water, this hypothetical observer would no doubt have gone on their way and simply assumed they were imagining everything they had seen.
Nick Vargas crouched by the river bank and watched as the Nixie swam away from the bank. She twisted in the water, surfaced and waved to him. “Thank you, Nicholas, ta-la-te!” she sang, her voice chiming musically, and then with a shimmer and a ripple she was gone.
Nick stood and turned to go, but another Nixie song froze him in his tracks. He smiled and turned back to the river, kicking off his shoe, taking off his socks and sitting with his feet paddling in the water. As the Nixie sang he joined his voice to hers as best he was able. The warbling trill grew louder and louder, until at last a dark green, smooth-limbed figure surfaced in front of Nick.
“La-lo-le,” Taloa sang. “Your singing is no better than it was.” She laid her long, webbed fingers on his knees.
“Yours is as beautiful as ever,” he told her.
“You look sad, fa-lo-la,” she told him.
“Surti will need a lot of help,” he added seriously. “She was in a bad place; the worst I’ve seen. They had her on display in a travelling fair.”
“Display, fa-la-le? How could they display a Nixie?”
“They found a way to do something to the water,” Nicholas explained. “I called Laurie; she and the twins are going to try and work it out. I can’t stay long,” he added, “I need to find out how they learned to make faeries visible and whether anyone else knows and besides, the Bureau doesn’t like me taking off mid-case. I guess I could tell them I was releasing a captive Nixie, but…”
“You work hard for us, lo-la-le,” Taloa crooned. “You have found and rescued four of my sisters and…”
“And found one too late,” Nick finished, hanging his head. “I promised I’d bring them back to you, but I let her down.”
Taloa’s fingers tightened on his knees. “You were not to blame, la-lo-le! You are not to blame for all your kind, lo-le-la; you keep your promises.”
“You were young when we met, fa-lo-le, though I did not realise it. Would you, la-lo, have been able to do anything for us, lo-le, as a child?”
Nick shrugged. “You didn’t talk like that before.”
“I had only know you to lie, le-lo, and break your promises,” Taloa reminded him. “I did not see, la-le, that your heart at least was true. You are a friend to us now, la-lo-le, and you work only for us, neglecting yourself. I…” Her song broke off suddenly.
“What’s wrong?” Nick asked.
Taloa surged up suddenly in the water and touched her lips to his. They were smooth and cool and slick, but still Nick’s head spun at the merest touch. He felt giddiness sweep over him and he swayed forward as her arms circled his neck. Whatever reserve he might have felt was dispersed in a moment. He was no longer aware of the slick, amphibian skin. In his mind, he was kissing every girl who had ever captured even a fraction of his heart; colleagues and friends; women he had barely thought of that way and women who had occupied more of his thoughts than he would ever have admitted.
He was kissing Cindy, his brother’s wife, wild and free-spirited; Laurie, his stepsister, never quite a sister, whatever they both insisted; Mallory Grace, svelte and dangerous, his first and greatest teenage crush; and so many others. His mind whirled; he plunged down into the kiss and it felt as though he was drowning.
It was only as Taloa lifted him from the water that he realised he had almost done just that.
“Wow,” he gasped.
“You looked so sad, la-le,” she sighed. “I hoped I might lift your care a little, la-lo.”
“That was… What was that?”
“A touch of clarity, la-lo-le,” she said. “A sight of what you have neglected in helping us so well, lo-la. I hope it shall lead you to something… happy. Do not neglect your own world in your desire to play a part in ours.”
Nick smiled wanly. “Thank you, Taloa,” he said. “I’ll try to remember that.”