A brand-new story from the legendary Harry Turtledove about Governor Bill Williamson, a sasquatch with a plan.
Piles of paper cluttered Governor Bill Williamson’s desk. Jefferson wasn’t a very populous state, but it had plenty of legislators and an even greater plenty of lobbyists. One lone governor didn’t stand much of a chance against them all.
Almost at random, he plucked one sheet from the closest stack. It was about a proposed change to the laws about dredging for gold in the state’s rivers. Or he thought so, anyhow; the words blurred on the page. He held it out at arm’s length. He was a Sasquatch; arm’s length went a long way. The typing looked clear enough, but the letters were too small for him to read.
Muttering, he reached into the top center desk drawer and pulled out a pair of glasses. When he put on the spectacles, he could read again . . . unless he looked down too vertically. Then his glasses slid away from his eyes. If he wasn’t careful, they’d fall off. His nose was low and broad and flat. It didn’t have the kind of bridge most little people’s snoots did. Securing eyeglasses was one more adventure in a world where he fit none too well.
The phone rang. Answering it meant he could decipher the changes to the dredging law later. The handset was made for a much smaller hand, but he could use it even so. “Yes?” he said.
“Sorry to bother you, Governor,” his administrative assistant said, “but Chief Hobbs is here for his ten o’clock appointment.”
“Is he?” Bill said tonelessly. He glanced at the clock one stack of papers almost but not quite hid. As he watched, a digital 9:57 went to 9:58 with a soft thwup. He sighed. Steve Hobbs was right on time. “Okay, Phyllis. Send him in.”
The door to the office opened. The chief of the Karuk tribe walked in. Bill stood up. He wanted to greet Steve Hobbs . . . and to intimidate him a bit. Hobbs was big for a little man—he stood about six-two, and wasn’t what anyone would call skinny. But the governor overtopped him by three feet, and his hand swallowed the chief’s when they shook.
After the clasp, the Karuk seemed relieved to get his paw back unsquashed. Good, Bill thought. He didn’t care for Indians, and he was sure Hobbs didn’t like Sasquatches, either. Their two kinds had been neighbors and rivals ever since Indians found their way to the New World more than ten thousand years before. Sasquatches had learned a lot from their first encounters with little people. One of the things they’d learned was not to trust their neighbors very far.
Rules these days were different. Neither Sasquatches nor Indians had made many of them. None of the old-time stuff counted any more. None of it was supposed to count, anyhow. The two statements sounded very much alike. What they meant, though . . .
“Have a seat, Chief,” Bill said. “Tell me what’s on your mind.”
The office—the whole governor’s mansion—was made to Sasquatch scale. Charlie “Bigfoot” Lewis, the governor who’d built it back in the twenties, had been a Sasquatch himself. Bill enjoyed not needing to worry about ducking when he went through doorways or banging his head on a low ceiling.
Little people, though, often felt like third graders in the principal’s office here. To ease that feeling, high chairs let them sit across the desk from Bill at something close to eye level. Or they did most of the time. When he found out Steve Hobbs was coming, Bill had thoughtfully removed the little-people seats that usually sat in the office and swapped in some with shorter legs.
So the Karuks’ chief looked up and up at him when he sat down. Hobbs’ sour smile said he understood why he was getting the kind of welcome he was getting. No doubt he would fix up a memorable reception for Bill if the governor ever visited Happy Camp, the tiny town near the Klamath River where the Karuk tribe had its headquarters.
But Hobbs was in Yreka now. If he pitched a hissy fit, he wouldn’t get whatever he’d come here to ask for. Playing by the rules, he might. Annoying him for the fun of it was one thing, denying him that to which he was legally entitled was something else again.
“You know we take a lot of salmon out of the river when they come upstream to spawn,” he said.
“Oh, sure.” Bill’s big head bobbed up and down. Back in the old days, Sasquatches had come down out of the mountains to scoop salmon from the Klamath, too. The Karuks had shot arrows at them and set traps to keep them away when they did. But those were the old days—gone, if not forgotten.
“We depend on those salmon.” Steve Hobbs ran a hand through his shock of silver hair. He looked more like, say, an Italian than an Indian. He probably had white folks in the woodpile.
Well, Bill thought one of his own great-grandmothers had been a little woman. Jefferson was the kind of place where all sorts of people went into the Mixmaster. Nodding again, Bill picked up the paper he’d been looking at when Hobbs got there. “We’re cutting back on dredging again, to make sure the spawning grounds stay good. The miners don’t like it, but the fish need protecting.”
“Good. You aren’t telling me anything I don’t already know,” Hobbs said. “The fish do need protecting—and not just from the greedy-guts get-rich-quick jerks with the dredges, either.”
“Ah?” Bill Williamson got the feeling the chief of the Karuks was coming to the point.
Sure enough, Hobbs said, “Our catches have been way down the past couple of years. It’s not getting better—it’s getting worse. I can tell you why, too.”
“And you’re going to, aren’t you?”
“Damn right I am.” Hobbs nodded vigorously. “Some of the men from the tribe, they fish on boats out of Requa at the mouth of the Klamath and from Crescent City farther north. From everything they say, the merfolk are stealing salmon right, left, and center. If the fish don’t even make it to the river to spawn, we can’t very well net ’em out, can we?”
“Mm, no.” Bill’s head started to ache. As soon as you mentioned the merfolk, you talked about jurisdictional nightmares—nightmares for everybody but the people of the sea, anyhow. “Are you sure you ought to be bringing this to me?” he asked. “Are you sure it isn’t the coast guard’s baby?” One thing a good many years in politics had taught him was how to pass the buck.
“If you let me down, I’ll go to them next,” Steve Hobbs answered. “But I’d sooner keep it at the state level if I can. You turn the Feds loose on something, Christ only knows where it’s liable to end up. And those coast guard guys, they aren’t from here. To them, I’m just a dumb-ass hick, and a dumb-ass redskin hick at that.”
Jefferson was nothing if not a clannish place. The clans didn’t always get along with one another—Sasquatches and Indians were only the most obvious example of that—but they did mostly pull together when outsiders tried to get them to do anything they didn’t fancy. (Of course, if not for Federal rules and regulations, the Karuks wouldn’t have their riverside reservation and their fishing rights along the Klamath; but that was old, settled law by now, and everybody here had gotten used to it.)
“Well, okay. I hear what you’re talking about,” Bill said.
“Yeah. You would. You may not like me a whole bunch, but you know where I’m coming from,” Hobbs told him. “That’s another reason I came to Yreka. We talk the same lingo.”
That lingo was, of course, English. Both Sasquat and Karuk were nearly extinct, understood by more scholars than folk from the groups who’d once used them. Maybe it was progress. Maybe it was tragedy. Whatever it was, Bill couldn’t do a thing about it. He knew only a handful of Sasquat words himself.
Not five minutes after Bill got back to the office from lunch, the telephone on his desk rang. When he picked it up, Phyllis said, “Liam McMichaels is on the line, Governor.”
“He is? Why am I not surprised?” Bill said. “Tell him I’m molting, okay?”
“Excuse me?” his administrative assistant said, in lieu of What the hell are you talking about now?
Bill sighed. “Never mind. Put him through.”
Something electronic clicked. A moment later, a hearty voice said, “How are you today, Governor?” Liam McMichaels sounded like what he was: a lobbyist. He buttered people up for a living. He did a damn good job of it, too.
“I’m fine, Liam. How’s yourself? How’s the family?” Bill also knew how to play the game.
“Couldn’t be better,” McMichaels said enthusiastically. After a discreet pause, he went on, “A little bird told me Steve Hobbs visited you this morning.”
“That’s right.” Bill wondered who the lobbyist’s little bird was. If he found out, he could fire the bastard . . . or maybe not. Maybe a known snoop was better than the unknown replacement McMichaels would assuredly find.
“And it’s why I’m calling,” McMichaels said. Among other clients in Yreka, he represented the merfolk. They rarely came out onto dry land themselves. They seldom even followed the salmon upstream into Jefferson’s clear, cold, swift-running rivers. Fresh water left them prone to nasty skin fungi and other parasites. They stayed in the ocean almost all of the time.
When they needed somebody like Liam McMichaels to do something for them in the dry world, they had plenty of clams to keep him happy. Metaphorical clams and, if he happened to want them, literal clams as well. Unless they were happy, dry-land folk might well find trouble on the sea. They were in the insurance business, even if some people called it protection money. They did this and that for and with the U.S. Navy. Across much the bigger part of the Earth’s surface, they were the ones who knew where the bodies were—or, more often, weren’t—buried.
So yes, they had plenty of clams.
“Hobbs, he’s not happy about how many salmon they’re taking,” Bill said. “The Karuks have to eat, you know.”
“So do the merfolk,” McMichaels replied. “Things aren’t so easy for them these days.”
“How do you mean?” Bill asked in surprise. Didn’t Liam McMichaels’ clients live off the fat of the land? Well, of the water? Since the end of the Second World War, they’d used some of their clams to buy spearguns from the little men who stayed dry most of the time. Didn’t those let them plow through schools of mackerel the way Buffalo Bill and his merry men disposed of the bison herds on the Great Plains? (And, not so incidentally, didn’t they turn into the most popular underwater murder weapons? Bill imagined political billboards on the seafloor: spearguns don’t kill merfolk! merfolk kill merfolk!)
“I’ll tell you how, Governor.” The lobbyist’s voice saved Bill from his own imagination. “The Russians and the Japanese—and now the Koreans, too—have these huge fishing boats. Fishing factories would be a better name for them. They’ve got nets and dredges and longlines and I don’t know what all else. They park just outside the coastal limit—or sometimes just inside, if they think they won’t get caught—and they suck up fish the way your Hoover sucks up dust. When they leave, the merfolk go hungry for miles and miles around.”
“I . . . see,” Bill said. He wasn’t sure McMichaels was giving him the unvarnished truth. Spreading varnish over places that looked rough without it was part of a lobbyist’s job. But he was sure things were less one-sided than Steve Hobbs had made them out to be. Hobbs had his own axe to grind, of course, and his tribe’s. Bill sighed. One of the things you soon found out when you plunked your backside into this seat was that nothing was ever as simple as it looked. He sighed again. “You can get hold of the folks you represent, right? You don’t have to wait for them to call you?”
“Yes, I can do that.” McMichaels confirmed what Bill had expected.
“Okay. Good, even,” the governor said. “Let’s see . . . Today’s Wednesday. Tell them I’ll come out in a boat from Requa on Saturday morning. We can talk about it then, if that suits them. If it doesn’t, call me back and let me know. We’ll work out something else.”
“Thank you very much, Governor. You’re a gentleman.”
“Well, I try.” The only definition of a gentleman Bill liked was that he was somebody who kept his weight on his elbows. When you weighed around five hundred pounds, that wasn’t just gentlemanly. It was mandatory. Liam McMichaels would have laughed had he told the raunchy joke, but he didn’t. This latest mess felt anything but funny.
You couldn’t go straight from Yreka to Requa. Bill drove the Mighty Mo up the I-5 to Grants Pass, down the US 199 to Crescent City on the Pacific, and then south along the coast on the US 101 to get to where he needed to go. He piloted the humongous 1974 Eldorado past any number of genuine political billboards. Some touted Ronald Reagan, others Jimmy Carter. Polls showed the race in Jefferson was close. Nationally, Bill figured the ex-governor of the state next door would trounce the hangdog Georgian with the Chiclet teeth.
Once he got to Requa, he wondered why he’d bothered. Crescent City was a real port. So was Port Orford, farther north. So were Eureka and Arcata, father south. Requa should have been, sitting right where the Klamath River poured into the sea. It should have been, but it wasn’t.
It had a post office and a general store with a screen door so old, the mesh was made from rusting galvanized iron, not aluminum. The airstrip was too short for anything bigger than a Piper Cub. Most of the houses were shacks. The piers . . . They weren’t built out of Lincoln Logs, the way he’d guessed when he got his first look at them. Lincoln Logs would have been sturdier and more uniform.
Three or four fishing boats were tied up at the pier. They looked as outdated and as badly in need of paint as everything else in Requa. When Bill opened the Mighty Mo’s left rear door and got out (the car had no left front seat, which let someone his size drive it), a little man in jeans, a windbreaker, and a Giants cap waved to him.
“Welcome to Requa, Governor!” he called, ambling down the pier toward the Cadillac.
“Thanks.” With a distinct effort of will, Bill didn’t add I think.
The little man held out his hand. “I’m Dave Super,” he said as Bill shook it. Smiling crookedly, he went on, “Yeah, that’s my real name. Translated from something in Karuk, y’know? Steve called me, said you wanted me to take you out to talk to the merfolk.”
“That’s right.” Bill eyed him. “You don’t seem thrilled about it.”
“Only on account of I’m not,” Super answered. “If I had my druthers, I’d buy a coupla crates o’ dynamite, take the Sweetheart on Parade out over the closest merfolk village, and fix them thieving bastards for good.”
“You wouldn’t get ’em all, and you’d never dare go out on the water again,” Bill said. “And messing with the merfolk is a Federal crime.”
“I know. I don’t like any o’ that worth a damn, but I know,” Dave Super said. “You don’t see me doin’ it, even if I want to. But I hope like hell you can make ’em cut it out. Not everybody here’s got a fuse as long as mine.”
Back in the day, the merfolk had had the edge on the local Indians who went out on the sea to fish. They could sneak up on a canoe unseen underwater. Fishermen seldom lasted long after that. The balance of power had shifted when big sailing ships came into these waters, and when little men had started using rifles and explosives. Some merfolk still resented not being able to call all the shots on the ocean.
When you got down to it, how could you blame them? Bill’s own ancient ancestors must have felt the same way when the newly arrived Indians started aiming arrows at them. They hadn’t known about archery till then; all they’d had were sharp stones and spears. But they’d learned . . . and the Indians soon discovered they didn’t want to stop an arrow from a bow pulled by a five-hundred-pound Sasquatch.
Learning how to copy firearms and dynamite wasn’t so easy. The Indians and the Sasquatches hadn’t managed that. With the extra handicap of needing to stay in the water, neither had the merfolk.
Like Indians and Sasquatches, they’d stolen or bought what they couldn’t copy. And they’d learned the political game, as had the Indians and Sasquatches. Governor Bill Williamson was living, blathering proof his folk had.
Dave Super pointed down the pier toward his boat. “You ready to take a ride and do some palavering?”
“Sure, if those planks will hold my weight,” Bill said.
“Don’t worry about it,” the Karuk said. “They’re stronger’n they look.”
They couldn’t very well be weaker, Bill thought. The rickety pier creaked and shook when he set foot on it. None of the planks snapped, though. He didn’t go into the Pacific sooner than he’d wanted to. He also made it across the fishing boat’s gangplank.
“Why do you call her the Sweetheart on Parade?” he asked.
Super cocked his head to one side. “You don’t listen to John Stewart, do you?”
“Nope,” Bill admitted. “Rod Stewart, yeah. Al Stewart, yeah. But not John.”
“You’re missing something,” Super said.
Bill shrugged—politely, he hoped. From what little he knew, John Stewart was a country singer, and he had no use for what he thought of as shitkicker music. Even Sasquatches carried vagrant opinions with no visible means of support.
Dave Super’s crew consisted of one man who looked enough like him to be his kid brother—and who turned out to be named Pete Super. Pete fired up the boat’s diesel. Stinking black smoke belched from the exhaust. Dave undid the lines that secured the boat to the pier. With the grace and dignity of a turtle waddling across a mudflat, the Sweetheart on Parade chugged out to sea.
A glance at the watch on his left wrist told Bill it was just past ten. He was supposed to meet the merfolk three miles from shore at eleven. Unless the boat crapped out altogether, he would get there in good time. Dave and Pete seemed to take for granted the idea that she would keep going. Bill decided he would do the same.
It was somewhere in the mid-sixties. The air smelled of salt. It was moist, even misty. When Bill looked at the sun, he didn’t have to look away at once. Gulls fluttered above the Sweetheart on Parade, screeching and jostling for position.
Pointing up at them from behind the wheel in the little cabin, Dave laughed and said, “They scrounge from us.”
“They steal fish, too, every chance they get,” Pete added.
“Damn right they do,” Dave said. “If they knew about money and booze, they’d make pretty fair people.” Bill laughed at that. When he did, Dave asked, “What? You think I’m kidding?”
“Not even slightly,” Bill answered. “I was laughing because I thought you meant it.” That seemed to satisfy the fisherman.
Waves rolling out of the northwest sent the Sweetheart on Parade up and down, up and down. The motion was pretty steady and not too severe. Bill didn’t especially care for it, but it wasn’t bad enough to make him worry about whether breakfast would stay down. He caught Dave and Pete eyeing each other a couple of times, no doubt wondering if he was turning green under his russet pelt. He was glad not to be more entertaining.
Behind them, the shore receded. The mist made everything not just small but also indistinct, as if it might not really be there at all. Bill knew it could have been worse; fog might have altogether swallowed the land. Back before boats carried compasses, let alone radios, how had anybody ever had the nerve to go out on the trackless water?
Dave killed the engine. “Stand away from the anchor chain, Governor, if you please,” Pete said.
Bill did. Pete pulled a lever. The anchor splashed into the cold, green-gray Pacific. “We’re about where we’re supposed to be,” Dave said. “They’ll know we’re here, too. They’ve got damn good ears, the merfolk do.”
Pete lit a stogie. The smoke smelled nastier than the diesel exhaust. Bill moved upwind from him. Two dolphins sprang into the air before arrowing back into the sea. He eyed them with delight. Pete was more experienced and less delighted. “The merfolk use ’em for watchdogs,” he said. “Sheepdogs, too.”
“Do they?” Bill said.
“Oh, yeah.” Pete nodded. “Dolphins drive fish an’ chase off sharks even on their own. When the merfolk tell ’em what to do—”
“It ain’t just dolphins, either. Killer whales, too,” Dave Super broke in. “They’re like . . . I dunno, the merfolk’s Dobermans, maybe. If they told one to smash up this boat, we’d be swimming pretty damn quick, but not for long. Somethin’ my size-—even somethin’ your size, Governor—that’s just a snack for a killer whale. Like a seal, say.”
“They want to talk. They don’t want to fight.” Bill spoke to reassure the Super brothers . . . and himself.
As if on cue, there was a soft splash not far from the Sweetheart on Parade. Pete Super pointed into the Pacific. “We’ve got company,” he said with no great liking in his voice. “If they do want to talk, they’ve got the chance.”
Bill stared at the merman. He’d seen photos of merfolk before, of course—who hadn’t?—but photos always told you less than you wished they would. It was like the difference between a photo of a steak dinner and the dinner itself on the table in front of you.
He could see only the top third of the merman’s body. The rest stayed under the sea. The merman’s skin was wet and shiny and the exact color of a Greek olive. His head was large and round, with ears as tiny—as rudimentary, really—as a sea lion’s. His eyes, set farther apart than a little man’s or a Sasquatch’s, were black all the way across. His nostrils were no more than a couple of slits; his split upper lip bore a bushy mustache of stiff yellowish hairs that gave him something of the look of an aquatic Otto von Bismarck.
When Bill’s gaze swung to his hands, he was reminded how far apart merfolk were from those that peopled the land. Sasquatches and yetis and the various races of little men were all primates, all apes too smart for their own good, all close cousins. The merfolk’s closest relatives were dugongs and manatees and the sea cows the Russians had hunted to extinction in the eighteenth century. Just about any digit on the merman’s hands could oppose any of the others. They might almost have been bird feet, only without claws and with half-webbed fingers.
He held a slate, a grease pencil, and a sponge in those odd hands. The first two could have come from a Kmart. The sponge was . . . a sponge. A real sponge. Not a block of cellulose taken off a supermarket shelf, but a once-living thing plucked from the ocean floor.
“Hello,” Bill said, and the merman’s ears twitched as they turned his way. “What do I call you? You speak English, right?”
UNDERSTAND ENGLISH, the merman wrote—he was a lefty. NOT SPEAK. MOUTH TOO DIFFERENT. As he rubbed the words off with the sponge, he opened wide. He wasn’t kidding. He had bony plates instead of teeth, and a tongue that could only be described as weird.
“What do I call you?” Bill asked again.
CALL ME ISHMAEL, the merman answered. Bill didn’t guffaw. How and why he didn’t, he couldn’t have said, but he was proud of holding back. Ishmael rubbed again, then wrote, NOISE IN MY TALK MEAN NOTHING TO YOU.
“Okay. Fair enough. I’m Bill Williamson. I’m Governor of Jefferson. I can speak for the people on land here.” I hope I can, anyhow, Bill thought.
I HEAD SQUID CLAN. Ishmael rubbed and continued, OTHER CLANS CLOSE BY LISTEN TO ME.
How big was the Squid Clan? How many other clans lived or roamed close by? What did Ishmael think close by meant? Just because the other clans listened to him, would they follow his lead? Those were all interesting questions, weren’t they? Bill had answers for none of them. He’d paid less attention to the merfolk than he should have. They were like the lilies of the field—they toiled not, neither did they spin. In a modern politician’s terms, they paid taxes not, neither did they vote.
“If we can agree about salmon, your clan and these others will stick to the agreement?” Bill asked.
Ishmael’s head went up and down in a slow nod. By the way he did it, Bill guessed it was a learned gesture for him, not one he used naturally. WE STICK, he wrote. UNLESS WE STARVE, WE STICK.
“You could drive a semi through a hole like that,” Dave Super remarked.
“Maybe you could,” Bill said. “But anybody will do almost anything if he gets hungry enough.”
LAND PEOPLE STARVE WITHOUT SALMON? Ishmael asked.
“Well . . . no,” Bill said, and won identical dirty looks from the two Super brothers. He went on, “They won’t have such an easy time, though.”
SAME LIKE US, THEN, Ishmael wrote. Bill supposed it was. Ishmael erased his words and scribbled again: WE GIVE A LITTLE. THEY GIVE A LITTLE.
Bill grinned, even if he wasn’t sure the expression meant anything to Ishmael. “You know how politics works, all right.”
Before Ishmael could answer, another merman broke the surface next to him. No, this was a mermaid. She was just as bald as Ishmael, just as olive-colored, just as mustachioed. But those cannonball breasts left no doubt of her gender. For centuries, European artists had painted mermaids as scaly below and blond, fair, and blue-eyed up top. If that wasn’t Wishful Thinking with a capital W and T, Bill had no idea what would be.
She also carried a slate, a grease pencil, and a sponge. Bill took that to mean she understood English, too. But she wanted to talk to Ishmael. She tapped him on the shoulder. When she got his attention, they both ducked their heads under the water. People’s languages dissolved into meaningless noises when they did that. Maybe the merfolk’s talk did the same thing in the air.
After longer than Bill would have been comfortable without breathing, Ishmael and the mermaid came up again. SHE SAY BIG SHIPS GO AWAY FOR NOW, the Squid Clan’s chief wrote.
“That’s good to hear,” Bill said. Without the factory ships close offshore, the merfolk would have less need for salmon near the mouth of the Klamath. They would for a while, anyhow. One thing at a time was all you could do—when you could do even that much. The governor nodded, he hoped politely, toward the mermaid. “Thanks for bringing the news. What do people like me call you?”
I GO BY ETHEL. Her printing was neater than Ishmael’s, her grasp of idiom better. Both of them, though, were light-years ahead of anything Bill could have done with their style of communication.
“Ethel . . . Mermaid,” he said slowly.
YES, THAT’S RIGHT, she wrote.
“O-kay,” he whispered. Sometimes you could twist the long arm of coincidence till it came off in your hand.
WHAT? she asked—she hadn’t heard him. Then she added, SING OUT, LOUISE!
Bill’s older daughter had just graduated from Jefferson State Ashland as a drama major. Sing out, Louise! wasn’t coincidence. It could only be malice aforethought. “Do you like dry-land people’s drama?” he asked her.
YES, THAT’S RIGHT, Ethel Mermaid repeated. She rubbed. HELPS TO UNDERSTAND YOU AS MUCH AS I CAN.
“I guess it would,” Bill agreed. Dry-land scholars studied the merfolk’s way of life like that. Why shouldn’t their opposite numbers in the water return the favor?
WE NEED SOME SALMON, the mermaid wrote. WE STAY BY RIVER MOUTHS BECAUSE OF THEM. She rubbed, then added, WITHOUT THEM, WE WOULD HAVE A GYPSY LIFE.
He looked at her. Her expression was unreadable, at least to the likes of him. All the same, he asked, “Do your people think you have an odd sense of humor, Ethel?”
I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU MEAN, the mermaid wrote. And either she had no idea what he meant or she’d just answered his question for him. He didn’t know which, but he had a pretty fair notion of how he’d bet.
Ishmael had watched and listened to the byplay without seeming to care about it at all. Now he wrote, IT IS AGREEMENT?
“It is as far as I’m concerned,” Bill said. Dave and Pete Super looked glum and ticked off, but they kept their mouths shut. Bill went on, “I’ll make sure it suits the Karuks’ chief, too. If it does, we’ll go on from there. If it doesn’t, I’ll come back here in a week to tell you. Then we’ll see what else we can work out.”
TELL HIM ONE MORE THING, Ishmael wrote. MAN WHO RUNS BOAT, TELL OTHERS WITH BOATS, TOO.
“Go ahead,” Bill said. He called back to the cabin: “Dave, you paying attention?”
“I’m watching, yeah,” Dave Super answered.
Ishmael wrote, DON’T MESS WITH US, YOU WITH BOATS. SEALS OUR FRIENDS. WE TRAIN SEALS. THEY HELP US.
Dave and Pete both snickered. “You mean, like for SeaWorld?” Dave said.
- FOR NAVY, Ishmael answered.
Both Karuks stopped laughing very abruptly. Bill Williamson didn’t blame them a bit. Navy SEALs were no laughing matter. If they shared toys with their aquatic instructors, boats full of hotheaded troublemakers might find themselves in trouble, not making it.
And SEAL stood for SEa, Air and Land. Like Liam McMichaels, SEALs could go places and do things the merfolk couldn’t on their own. Troublemakers who bothered the Squid Clan might end up in hot water on dry land.
YOU UNDERSTAND, YOU KARUKS? Ishmael asked.
“Oh, yeah. We gotcha, all right.” Dave sounded anything but happy. He did sound thoughtful, though. And Pete looked thoughtful. As far as Bill was concerned, that all went on the plus side of the ledger.
To the governor, Ishmael wrote, TELL KARUK CHIEF SAME THING.
“I will. You bet I will,” Bill promised.
THIS IS BEST WE DO, Ishmael wrote. ANYTHING ELSE, HE LIKE WORSE.
“That’s how it looks to me, too,” Bill said. “But I still have to talk to him.”
IS GOOD. HOPE I NO SEE YOU IN WEEK, Ishmael wrote, and disappeared into the Pacific. Ethel Mermaid followed a moment later. Dave Super started up the Sweetheart on Parade’s diesel. Among other things, it powered a winch that hauled up the chain and the anchor at the end of it. When the anchor came out of the water, Dave started back to Requa.
“Ask you something, Governor?” Pete said.
“Sure. Go ahead.”
“What the hell were you going on about with that ugly old mermaid?”
“John Stewart,” Bill answered, deadpan. Pete stared at him. He swallowed a sigh. “Never mind. Any joke you’ve got to explain, it isn’t funny any more.” He hadn’t much expected to find himself with more in common with a mermaid than with a little man. But there you were. And here he was—on his way back to shore, thank God.
The phone on Bill’s desk jangled. His hand jerked. He was working on a speech. He scratched out the word he’d just messed up, then lifted the handset. “Yes?” he said.
“Chief Hobbs is here for his eleven o’clock appointment, Governor,” his administrative assistant said.
He glanced at the clock. It was 10:56. Sure enough, the Karuks’ chief was as compulsively punctual as usual, like most people who dealt with other people for a living. “Well, send him in, Phyllis,” Bill said.
As he had before, Bill stood up to greet Steve Hobbs. He hadn’t gained as much for the Karuks as Hobbs had wanted him to. Better to remind the Indian ahead of time that getting huffy about it wasn’t exactly brilliant.
By the chief’s sour expression, he didn’t need that kind of reminding. “I got a phone call yesterday,” he said without preamble.
“Did you?” Bill kept his voice as neutral as he could.
“Uh-huh.” Hobbs nodded. “Fellow on the line sure knew a lot about where things were at in Happy Camp.” Meditatively, the chief went on, “Sounded like he knew how to blow up just about everything in Happy Camp, too.”
“Did he threaten to do that?” Bill asked. Threats crossed the line, even for a SEAL. One of Ishmael’s friends or students or whatever he was might be getting too enthusiastic for his own britches.
But Steve Hobbs said, “Nah. He was just . . . theoretical, if you know what I mean. If you planted a charge here, this’d happen, or you’d hide in the crawl space under the gun shop if you wanted to ambush a car—stuff like that. Never said he would, just let me know he could, or one of his buddies could.”
“You didn’t trace the call, did you?”
“Nah,” Hobbs said again, which was what Bill had expected. “We aren’t set up to do anything like that. Who would’ve figured we’d ever need to?”
“All right, then,” Bill said. “Why don’t we all just see how the agreement goes for a year or two, in that case? As long as you keep your excitable boys in line, I bet Ishmael can do the same with his, regardless of whether they swim or walk on two legs. If he doesn’t, the Feds will come down on him.”
And if you don’t, the Feds will come down on you. Bill didn’t feel the need to say that. No, he didn’t like Indians any better than they liked his folk. Like Steve Hobbs or not, though, he knew the Karuks’ chief was no dope. Hobbs could read between the lines.
He could also read between the lines of the agreement. “Damn merfolk’re gonna cheat,” he said morosely.
“Probably,” Bill agreed, which made Hobbs sit up straight in his short-legged chair. The governor continued, “As long as they don’t cheat too much, though, you’ll come out all right and so will they. They’ve got to eat, same as you do. And isn’t a bargain, even one that’s not perfect, better than going broke fighting each other through the courts for years and years?”
“Cheaper, anyway,” Hobbs said. “I’m not so sure about better.”
“Cheaper all kinds of ways,” Bill said, thinking of Karuks with crates of dynamite and SEALs with plastique and rocket-propelled grenades.
“I guess.” Yes, Steve Hobbs followed him again.
“Cheaper and better,” Bill said. “When you try to cut the other guy’s heart out and eat it, most of the time you find he’s got his knife in your chest, too, just about hilt-deep. Politics isn’t pretty, but it’s better than that.”
“I guess,” Hobbs repeated. He didn’t want to admit any more than he had to, but he couldn’t very well call Bill a liar, either. After all, they were both in the same racket.
“Something Fishy” copyright © 2020 by Harry Turtledove
Art copyright © 2020 by Red Nose Studio