Maybe Len would have been an engineer working toward his masters in thermodynamics by now if his life had gone differently instead of sinking to the bottom of the Missouri River.
At least he couldn’t tell how filthy the water was since it was midnight and he was plummeting fast into the dark depths, the glimmer of moonlight above him quickly disappearing. He was a good swimmer, not that it mattered with twenty-pound weights attached to his ankles. He figured he had about two minutes before he passed out and then it would be curtains.
It had been a smart plan. The streets by the docks where Len lived were split in half between the Santini family and James Jesse, who might have been Irish to their Italian, but that wasn’t the root of their animosity. Everything revolved around power in Central—who had it and who didn’t. What mattered was which family had the most territory at the end of the night, like some old-fashioned trade of land equaling wealth, though in some ways that was always true, and Len owned nothing, not even his apartment that he could barely pay the rent on.
Since his best friend was Axel Walker, Jesse’s illegitimate and often troublesome son, Len played for their side, hoping to rise in the ranks on more than nepotism. Looking good to Jesse meant making a splash on the scene, so Len had been working overtime on small thefts over months that caused an increasing decline in how much the Sanitinis were bringing in from their protection racket.
Len kept most of what he stole to save up for when he might need the extra cash, but some he returned to the neighboring mom and pop stores as a Good Samaritan. This made the Santinis look weak, like they couldn’t protect their own. It was all about the long game and how it would make things easier for Jesse to claim those streets in the months and years to come.
It would have worked too, if Len hadn’t gotten caught.
“Nobody crosses Vincent Santini,” the man had said before his goons dropped Len over the side of the docks into the river.
He was going to drown with no one to remember him other than Axel and maybe the handful of people in his building who relied on his technical talents and didn’t care if he was a runner for a mobster as long as their TVs and dishwashers worked. Soon, he’d disappear, another good riddance in the city that he doubted even his parole officer would miss for how often she sighed and told him to make something of himself instead of falling back into bad habits.
But what was there to make of a life without privilege? Len had no prospects, no family, no education, only honed skills of survival. He’d been a thief since he could fit his hand inside a passing pocket. With his record, even at only twenty-five, there was no hope for him in this city that didn’t lean on James Jesse, and now he’d lost that opportunity too.
The water was cold even in Spring since this part of the river was wide between Central and Keystone. The docks wouldn’t see any activity until morning, and not much then either at this location, though with a few shortcuts, it wasn’t far to Len’s apartment. He’d die close to home, if that meant anything. He just wished he’d been smarter, faster, and had another chance to do things better.
Those two minutes must be nearly up, because he was already hallucinating, maybe dreaming, maybe dead and fading away. A light shone in the blackness as he hit bottom. More like a glimmer on pale skin because he’d swear he saw a face approaching as his mind grew fuzzy and his vision dimmed.
Somehow, the face became clearer though, beautiful too, like something ethereal—flawless features, concerned hazel eyes, brunette hair swaying in the water. If he was real, he would have been the exact sort of man who would have made Len pause and take notice and try out one of his famously failing lines on. Maybe the man was an angel, and Len’s passing wouldn’t be as painful or as terrifying as he’d imagined, even as his lungs burned with the struggle to breathe.
The face came close enough that Len could make out every detail. Occasional sunspots like freckles and a wide smile, looking at him in wonder. Then the dream proved true as a fantasy because the beautiful man floated closer and captured Len’s lips in a cold kiss.
A song filled his mind like when one got stuck in his head, playing distantly and sweet like he imagined this man’s voice would be—lovely but understated, just a tune without words.
Len was dying, but at least his last moments were filled with a pleasant dream.
The next moment, he was gasping for breath and finding it, somehow on shore, on the river bank far enough from where he’d been dropped that the Santinis couldn’t see him, but still close enough to walk home. He must have imagined it all, the man in the water, or he’d had an unknown savior, because when he looked down at his ankles, the cinder blocks that had been attached to them were gone.
Coughing into the sand and dirt, he wasn’t sure how he’d ended up here, if he’d been saved or touched by some miracle, but he knew he had to get home, and after he rested, he’d have precious little time to prevent this same fate from befalling him again tomorrow night.
With a mighty push, he thrust up onto his knees, staggered to his feet, and began the slow trek back to his apartment, trying to banish the vision of that lovely face from overriding what he knew could only have been a trick of the mind.
Len didn’t mean to fall asleep when he reached home and shed his soaked clothing. He only planned to rest his eyes for a moment, but he’d underestimated how exhausted he was, and when he roused it was to a loud knock at his door, with the clock on the nightstand blinking 7AM.
He didn’t have time to be tired. That could already be Santinis or Jesse himself furious at Len for failing. It didn’t help that he didn’t feel as though he’d slept. His dreams had been filled with the face he imagined in the water. He didn’t think he’d ever seen a man like that before, but his mind had conjured such a perfect specimen for his final moments.
The kiss had been nice too.
Len couldn’t get distracted by phantoms though. While he had no idea how the weights had come loose from his ankles or how he’d ended up on shore, it couldn’t have been some mystery man, just dumb luck and maybe the universe finally being on his side for once.
“I’m coming!” Len called when the knocking refused to cease. It wasn’t Santinis or Jesse or they would have stopped knocking and kicked down the door by now. It had to be Miss Maggie. Only she ever got this uppity before 9AM.
Yanking the door open, Len stood in his sweats and long-sleeved T-shirt, barefoot and still chilled from his time in the river, but clean after a quick shower when he’d arrived home. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and scrubbed at the closely shorn length of his hair.
Miss Maggie was indeed the person on the other side of the door—he hadn’t even needed to peer into the peep-hole to confirm—but she looked particularly surly this morning.
“Leonard. About time. I might be an old woman, but that does not mean I want to see some young man walking buck naked through my halls at all hours just because you had a wild night.”
“Excuse me?” Len took a moment to process what she was complaining about. He hadn’t started to undress while still in the hallway last night, had he? He was out of it when he returned home, but not that disoriented.
“You know I support your lifestyle whatever it may be just so long as you keep the volume down after 11PM and act respectfully, but this was just vulgar. Are you playing some game with the boy?”
“Game? Miss Maggie, I have no idea what you’re—”
But before Len could finish his sentence, the woman yanked someone else into view, who was wearing what appeared to be one of her housecoats and nothing else, not even shoes, though that wasn’t what stopped Len short.
It was the man from the river. Same hair, same eyes, same everything.
Len really had died last night.
Which meant he was in Hell if he was still dealing with this woman’s petulance.
“Keep your evening activities confined to your apartment. Now, mind yourself, young man,” she said to the flesh and blood figure who’d saved Len’s life last night, “because I expect that nightgown returned at some point, preferably washed.”
She shoved the man into Len’s arms, and he had barely a second to register the full form of him, slim and tall, maybe half an inch taller than Len and just as beautiful as he remembered, before Miss Maggie hurried down the hall in a huff.
Len stumbled backward, causing the man to stumble with him, and pushed the door closed more on reflex than conscious choice. The man was real. Len hadn’t imagined him. But if he’d saved Len’s life, why was he only showing himself now?
And why the hell wasn’t he wearing any clothes?
“I found you,” a breathless voice said as if in awe of Len, immediately evoking the memory of that same voice singing. “I knew I would, but still…I found you.”
Carefully, Len pushed at the man to hold him in front of him so they could get their bearings. He didn’t seem very stable on his feet. Had he been drunk last night? Was that why he was swimming in the river at midnight naked and wandered all the way here in the same state? His eyes didn’t look intoxicated though.
“You are even more handsome than when I saw you in the water,” he said with an intensity to how he stared that made Len shiver in expectation, though of what, he wasn’t sure, but the peek of long legs out of the housecoat wasn’t helping his straying thoughts.
Len’s looks had gotten him out of sticky situations before. He knew what he had and how to use it, but he didn’t think he compared with this lithe elfish beauty before him with a smile that lit up the whole apartment. Len’s expressions always came across as sarcastic smirks, though often that was on purpose.
“It’s you,” Len said, unable to articulate anything more than that. He pulled his hands from the man’s shoulders, thinking it too intimate considering he was wearing nothing more than a nightgown.
“Yes.” The man stepped into his space as if beckoned by a magnetic pull.
“You saved me. You found me.”
“My apologies it took so long. I hesitated to follow, and once I decided to, I had trouble finding my feet, as they say. I knew the Breath of Life would lead me to you though. Our souls are intertwined now, Leonard. Ah, but you prefer Len, don’t you?”
How…? “How do you know that?” And what was he talking about?
“You know my name as well.”
“No, I… Bartholomew. Barry,” he said before he could finish denying it. Had they met on the shore after all and Len simply didn’t remember?
“Yes,” Barry said, smiling wider still.
This was too strange. Len’s head was pounding, he was exhausted, and he still had to worry about James Jesse and the Santinis. He could not get caught up with some weird nudist—flower child—whatever this man was—when his life was in shambles.
“Look, I don’t remember everything from last night, so if you explained this before, who you are, I’m sorry. I appreciate what you did. You saved my life, but it won’t stay saved for long—”
“Those people who tried to drown you will continue to wish you harm,” Barry said, nodding in understanding.
“Yes. So if you came here expecting something more than my thanks, I hate to disappoint you, but I don’t have much to offer.”
“Oh, I am not like my brethren, I swear to you. I wish for no boon or life debt.”
Okay. Was this guy a method actor or something? Maybe he was just crazy. “What do you want from me then?”
“I wish to stay with you,” Barry said as matter-of-factly as asking for cab fare. “Forever.”
Holding up his hands to ward off whatever reaction might come next, Len chose his words very carefully. “Barry, I will give you something to wear and then maybe there’s someone we can call, okay? Or a hospital you came from?”
“I came from the sea.” Barry said, unfazed by Len’s line of questioning. “Well, the river in this case, but all water is connected in my world. We can transport between depths through magic. I like bodies of water close to cities. The rest of my kin stays away, which I prefer, and I get to experience more of the human world.”
“Human world? Your…kin?”
Len curtailed his reactions as best he could. “Barry, is there anyone I can call to come get you?”
At last, a bit of that sunshine disposition flickered. “I have no one. No family or friends to speak of. That is why I chose to follow you. I was drawn to you, Len,” he stepped forward, making Len nearly step back, “in the water, in your last moments, like I have never been drawn to anything. Others of my kin would have let you die, drowned you themselves, or forced a more self-serving pact, but I knew I’d finally found the one who could give me legs.”
If this guy snapped, Len was fairly certain he could take him, but he hoped it wouldn’t come to that. “You are not a mermaid, Barry. You’re a man. You’re on legs right now. You did not have a tail last night.”
“You only saw my face.”
“You didn’t have a tail because mermaids don’t exist!”
“I shall prove it to you. I need only to submerge in water to call out my tail. Then will you believe me? Your bathroom should have what I need.” Without waiting for an answer, he glanced around the apartment and pushed past Len deeper inside toward where he suspected the bathroom to be.
Len needed to get this guy out of his home, even if he had saved him last night.
He found Len’s bathroom quick enough and proceeded to turn on the taps to the tub before Len could organize his thoughts for a proper protest.
He tried anyway. “Listen, I don’t have time for this.”
“I am used to cold water, but perhaps I shall try something warmer,” Barry said as he held his hand under the water and adjusted the taps accordingly. “Is warm water nice?”
“I…yeah, usually. Can we please just talk about this—”
Barry disrobed without shame, right there in front of Len, just shed the housecoat and stood there nude. He was even more beautiful bare, entirely hairless below the neck, thin like a swimmer but well-muscled, without a single scar or imperfection other than the sunspots that Len thought only enhanced how beautiful he was.
Being gorgeous and naked in Len’s bathroom did not change that he was clearly insane, however.
“Barry, you can’t just… We need to talk about this.” Len turned to stare at the wall. He was a hardened criminal. Sort of. Sometimes. It should not be this difficult to throw someone out of his home!
“Not until you believe me. Our conversation will go nowhere if you think me mad.”
He was a smart crazy person at least, but that didn’t help the situation. Len had to focus on the Santinis, on what to say when he saw Jesse, on how to get himself out of this mess so he didn’t end up dead some other way tonight or days from now without having to flee the city. He’d break parole if he did that, and the money he’d saved so far wouldn’t last him long on the run.
Maybe the Santinis didn’t know where he lived. If they did, surely they would have sent someone to rummage through his things looking for that extra cash. Maybe they did know and someone was on their way now. No point in rushing over when they thought him dead.
“Barry, please, just put the housecoat back on or grab a towel. I’ll get you some clothes—”
“Do you not find my form pleasing?”
Out of the corner of Len’s eye, he could tell Barry stood facing him, hands running down his hips and thighs like he really was unused to legs. “It is very pleasing, but it’s not… I hardly know you.”
“Ah yes, human decorum. I might fail at that on occasion, but I will try my best. I know so much of your world, but I have not experienced it firsthand. Still, you know me better than you think through our connection. The Breath of Life is a powerful bond. I am yours now. You are welcome to look at me.”
Len was certain some of the porn he’d watched over the years had lines like that. “Barry…”
“I do not wish to make you uncomfortable. I will get into the tub to conceal myself until the water is high enough. Hopefully, you will not find my tail displeasing.”
Barry stepped into the tub and lowered himself enough that Len allowed a glance his direction. Even mostly hidden, he was enchanting to look at. Despite having come from the water last night, his hair had perfect body and poof to it. Why did someone so gorgeous and who had saved Len’s life have to be nuts?
“I have to figure out how to handle those men who tried to kill me. Do you understand?”
“Of course. I will help you.”
“No offense, but you’re a little skinny to be a bodyguard. This is going to take strategic planning.”
“I am an excellent planner. I often have to dodge others of my kin. I am not popular as I don’t conform to the merfolk ways. Kill or be killed—it loses all the magic of life, even when magic surrounds me in the water. How can one live like that?”
Len almost took the words as an attack, though he knew Barry didn’t mean it that way. He’d never killed anyone before, but his plans to rise in the ranks with Jesse meant one day he would. Kill or be killed was the only way he could survive in this city.
“You were right, warm water is nice, though the cold can be pleasant too.” Barry tilted his head back and sunk lower into the water. He couldn’t stretch his legs out, so his knees bent, and as he lay there, he shifted them to the side so they disappeared beneath the edge of the tub, which was nearly full now.
Scrubbing a hand down his face, Len tried to think of how to get this naked delusional poet out of his apartment without drawing the attention of his neighbors when he heard a strange wet slap and a contented sigh from Barry.
“There, you see? I am merfolk, Len, but you gave me legs, and now, I am yours.”
The red glimmer in Len’s periphery before he looked up had to be an illusion because of how tired he was. There was no way it could be anything else.
But when his gaze focused on Barry in the tub once more, it wasn’t a pair of feet propped on the edge that he saw but the unfurling of the most beautiful deep red tailfin he had ever laid eyes on, trimmed in gold-tipped scales.