The night I went sailing with Simon Star I made a vow to never go near the water again, a vow I have kept to this day with unmatched dedication. The sight of deep water, that black void hiding the unknown, fills me with dread every time I see it. We as a species know more about outer space than we do about our own oceans. If some unholy demon existing solely for our destruction exists in this world, we won’t find it far off in the stars. We will find it below the waves.
It came to the surprise of no one that Simon Star fell overboard. He was completely plastered, having drunk two dozen beers and a quart of vodka in less than an hour, then had the bright idea to lean on the boat’s railing. He was giving a speech full of slurred words, vodka in hand, when the boat came to an abrupt stop. He stumbled backward, falling into the icy sea.
His assistant, Sherry, ran to the railing and shouted his name. He didn’t respond. “Simon! Tread water!” she yelled while tying a rope to a life preserver.
She threw the life preserver and it landed in the murky deep. For an entire minute, nothing happened. Then a pale hand slowly reached out of the sea and grabbed the life preserver. A moment later, Simon popped his head up for air. We reeled him in and pulled him back onto the boat. That’s when our troubles began.
I suppose I’ll start at the beginning. Simon Star was the young CEO of StarCare, a pharmaceutical company he inherited from his parents. He was world-famous for his lavish lifestyle, his drinking habit, and the type of women he kept company with.
I was an accountant at StarCare. At two o’clock on the day Simon fell overboard, I found myself outside his office, nervously holding a stack of papers. I held them to my chest so tight that the red ink stained part of my shirt. A woman in her thirties sat at a desk outside Simon’s office, typing away on a laptop. She had thick-rimmed glasses and wore her black hair in a bun. According to the plaque on her desk, her name was Sherry and she was Simon’s personal assistant.
“Are you Mr. Star’s two o’clock?” she asked without even looking up from her screen.
I nodded. “Mr. Star will see you now,” she said.
Simon’s office was in the corner of the top floor of a tall skyscraper. He sat behind a large mahogany desk covered in photos of him with popular musicians and athletes. When I entered his office, he was leaning back in his chair, feet on his desk, tossing a basketball in the air. “Are you Jackson?” he asked.
“My name is Johnson, sir,” I mumbled.
“Jackson, Johnson, same thing,” he said. He was young, tall, and handsome, with short blonde hair and emerald eyes.
He tossed the ball over his shoulder, sinking it into a basketball hoop in the corner of the room. He got out of his chair and walked to retrieve it. “Do you play basketball, Jackson?” he said.
“No sir,” I said.
“I’m a big basketball fan. Have courtside seats at every Celtics game.”
“That’s nice, sir.”
“Drop the sir stuff, okay? And don’t call me Mr. Star, either. That was my father’s name. Call me Simon.”
I noticed my sweaty palms dripping onto the stack of papers, so I sat them on Simon’s desk. He didn’t notice. “You have a name, Jackson?” he said. “Besides Jackson?”
“Joseph,” I said, knowing that my real last name wasn’t the answer Simon wanted.
“Joey Jackson, that’s a good name,” Simon said. “It’s one of those palindrome things. You know, where all of the words start with the same letter.”
“Alliteration,” I muttered.
“When all of the words start with the same letter, it’s called alliteration.”
“Whatever you say, Joey.”
“Sir, I mean, Simon, there’s a very important thing you need to know,” I said.
“Sherry told me all about it. Something about the books not adding up.”
“I like puzzles, sir. I like going over things that don’t make sense until I understand why they don’t make sense. This morning, I was going over the books, and I realized that two hundred thousand dollars have gone missing from the employee pension account, sir. This is more than the books not adding up. There’s evidence to suggest embezzlement-”
Simon waved his hand and I stopped talking. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll hire someone to figure out what’s going on,” he said. “In the meantime, I’d like to thank you for telling me this. It shows loyalty, something that this company has always praised. If you keep up the good work, there may be a premonition in your future.”
Right then, his watch started beeping. He fiddled with it for a moment before sighing. “I’ve never been able to figure out how this thing works,” he said. “Sherry has to set the alarms for me.”
He slammed his wrist down on the corner of the desk and the watch stopped beeping. “There, now the peace and quiet is back,” he said.
“What was that alarm for?”
“The what?” he said. “Oh, right, the alarm. That tells me when I need to feed Mr. Six Arms.”
He led me over to a table in the corner of the room containing a seemingly empty aquarium. A mini-fridge sat beneath the table. Simon opened it up and grabbed a plastic container full of shrimp. “I got Mr. Six Arms while on vacation in Austria,” Simon said. “He’s a great pet.”
“I’m sure he is,” I said. “Out of curiosity, where is he?”
Simon laughed. “He’s right there,” he said while pointing at a rock sitting in the aquarium.
“Oh, there he is. I can’t believe I didn’t notice him.”
Simon lifted the lid of the aquarium and dropped in a few shrimp. Part of the rock peeled off, turning into a tentacle, and grabbed the shrimp, pulling them closer to the rock. It was at that moment that I realized that the rock had two eyes and a mouth.
“Octopuses are really cool,” Simon said. “They can completely alter their appearance to camouflage themselves. Plus, they’re almost as smart as humans.”
Simon replaced the lid and returned the shrimp to the fridge. “I was sailing over the great battery reef when I met Mr. Six Arms,” Simon said. “He climbed aboard to steal my crab rangoon, so I decided to bring him back with me to the states.”
“That’s an interesting story.”
“I love sailing. Being out on the water, the wind in your breeze, open ocean as far as the eye can see. It’s great. Have you ever been sailing?”
“I can’t say I have.”
“You’re missing out, Joey. Sailing is great. Actually, you know what? Why don’t we go sailing tonight?”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah! I’ll invite some girls, get some beer, and we can talk about these discrepancies you found in a more comfortable setting.”
Sherry grabbed me as I was leaving work and led me to her car. She didn’t say anything as we drove through traffic to the docks. “Does Mr. Star normally go sailing so late at night?” I asked, trying to start a conversation.
She didn’t respond. After spending what felt like an eternity fighting her way through traffic, she finally arrived at the port. Then, and only then, she spoke. “Simon is very concerned with his privacy, Mr. Johnson,” she said. “He has a tendency to drink heavily on these little outings and has a tendency to make a fool of himself when inebriated. In the past, individuals he believed to be his friends have filmed him without his consent and sold the footage to distasteful tabloid magazines. This, of course, damaged the reputation of the company.”
“Don’t worry, I have no intention of telling anyone about what happens tonight,” I said.
“As much as I’d like to believe you, I’m afraid that I’ll need to take a few precautions,” she said while opening the glove compartment. “Please deposit any cameras, cell phones, or other electronic devices on your person into the glove compartment. They will be returned to you as soon as the boat returns.”
“You can’t be serious,” I said.
Sherry placed her own phone in the glove compartment. With a sigh, I did the same. We got out of the car and she led me to a marina filled with boats. “Which one is Simon’s?” I asked.
My question was answered seconds later when I noticed Simon standing atop a large yacht, bottle of booze in hand, dancing to obnoxious dance music. As we approached the yacht I finally saw the name printed on its side: The SS Squid Star.
“Joey! I knew you’d show up!” Simon shouted while running up to me as soon as I stepped foot on the boat.
“When you said you wanted to go sailing, I assumed that you meant a small sailboat,” I said. “This boat seems to be a bit much.”
“I can’t sail. Don’t worry though, this isn’t going to be some giant crazy party, no matter how much I want it to. Hell, the only people other than us and the crew are the girls.”
Simon led me to the top deck, which contained two tables, some lounge chairs, a hot tub, and a railing overlooking the ocean. The tables were covered in food and alcohol. Two women in bikinis sat in the hot tub.
“Joey, meet Opal and Ruby,” Simon said, inspiring the girls to wave. “The one in the red bikini with red hair is Ruby, and the one in the white bikini with blonde hair is…um-”
“Opal,” the woman in the white bikini interjected.
“Right, Opal. Forgot for a moment,” Simon said.
“So, what do the two of you do for a living?” I asked.
“Well, I consider myself to be a dancer,” Ruby said.
“Don’t sugarcoat it. We’re strippers,” Opal said.
“My gift to you, Mr. Jackson,” Simon said while cracking open a beer.
He held it out for me. “Oh, I don’t drink,” I said.
“More for me,” Simon said before downing the entire bottle in a single gulp.
The SS Squid Star was a small yacht with five rooms: the wheelhouse, a storage room, a bedroom, a bathroom connected to the bedroom, and an engine room, in addition to the upper and lower decks that we partied on. It left port shortly after we boarded, traveling far out into the Atlantic ocean. I asked Sherry about this and she assured me that we would be able to make it back to the city before dawn.
A pile of empty beer bottles coalesced around Simon’s chair as the night drug on. Simon spent hours drinking, hitting on the girls in the hot tub, and telling me about totally awesome parties he’d been to in the past. His words, not mine. Each time I tried to bring up the pension account he simply waved his hand and took another sip of beer, saying that it wasn’t that important. Eventually, I decided to talk to Sherry.
“I’d drop it, if I were you. This discrepancy you found was most likely nothing more than an error on your part, Mr. Johnson,” she said.
“You seem very calm about this,” I replied.
“It’s my job to stay calm during urgent matters, Mr. Johnson.”
She looked out at the ocean, which shone in the night as it reflected the stars. “This is a very nice boat, Mr. Johnson,” she said. “Simon has large parties on it every other week, which people seem to enjoy.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” I asked.
“I think you know.”
In truth, I’d long since realized the reason Simon had invited me. Booze, strippers, a showing of his wealth, all meant to encourage me to keep quiet, to accept the benefits from being buddy-buddy with Simon Star. I like to tell myself that I would have told Sherry to shove it, to stick by my principles. But, deep down, I wonder if I would have taken her offer, to swear to silence for monetary gain. I never got a chance to make a decision because at that very moment Simon decided to cannonball into the hot tub.
There’s something I’ve neglected to mention that is vital to this next part. Simon, Sherry, and I each came to the yacht immediately after work. Unlike Ruby and Opal, who wore bikinis, the three of us still wore our work clothes. In Simon’s case, a charcoal grey suit and tie.
“Mr. Star, I insist that you go change into something more appropriate,” Sherry said. “You might catch a cold when your wet clothes are exposed to the night air.”
“Come on Sherry, it’s a hot tub! It’ll keep me warm,” Simon said before shifting his head to look at me. “Hey, Joey, the water’s great. Hop in!”
I walked over, took off my shoes and socks, and dipped my feet in the pool. This seemed to satisfy Simon. He turned away from me and placed his arm over Opal’s shoulder. She pushed it away so he switched to hitting on Ruby. “You have really nice eyes,” Simon said. “They’re like, really green. Have they always been green?”
Ruby nodded her head and Simon furrowed his brow. “Are you sure? I could’ve sworn they were blue,” he mumbled.
“Opal’s the one with blue eyes, silly,” Ruby said.
Opal slid over to me. “Want to leave these two alone for a bit?” she said.
I nodded and the two of us walked to the lower deck. “So, what do you do for a living?” she asked.
“I’m an accountant,” I said. “I work for Simon, actually.”
“Wow, that must suck.”
“It isn’t that bad. I didn’t even have to meet the guy until tonight,” I said. “Is your boss bad, where you work as a…dancer?”
“You can say the word stripper,” Opal said, rolling her eyes.
“Okay. Is your boss bad, where you work as a stripper?”
She frowned. “Don’t say it like that,” she said.
“Like what?” I asked.
“Like you’re disgusted!”
I put my hands up. “Whoa, I’m not trying to be an asshole,” I said.
“Look, it isn’t ideal, but it is what it is,” she said. “The economy’s shit and there aren’t a lot of people wanting to hire creative writing majors. I don’t need assholes like you treating me like some degenerate because I like being able to put food on my table.”
Neither of us said anything for a few moments. I noticed that Opal was shivering, so I took off my coat and put it over her shoulders. “How nice of you, giving your coat to the stripper,” Opal said sarcastically.
“Look, I’m sorry if I came across as rude,” I said. “You seem like a nice girl, Opal.”
“Jane,” she said. “My real name’s Jane.”
I smiled. “You seem like a nice girl, Jane.”
Our moment was cut short when Simon stumbled to the balcony to give a speech, completely unprompted and to the dismay of his party guests. “It’s a good night, isn’t it?” he said through slurred words. “It’s a really really good night. We’re out here, hic, on the ocean, on my boat.”
“Sir, I think you might want to sit back down, the waves are very choppy,” Sherry said.
Simon laughed. “You’re a good assistant, Sherry,” he mumbled.
Simon leaned on the railing and looked at the sky. “Space is so big, you know?” he mumbled. “But the ocean, the ocean is way bigger. We don’t know anything about the ocean. There could be monsters down there. Wouldn’t that be cool?”
You know what happened next. The boat suddenly stopped. Simon fell overboard. Sherry screamed and thought he was dead. He grabbed the life preserver. We pulled him back aboard.
His skin was pale and clammy and cold. His blank eyes were sunk deep into his skull. Sherry took off her pantsuit jacket and wrapped it around Simon. “It’s okay, sir, you’re going to be alright,” she said.
Simon didn’t say anything, he simply stared at us. “Sir?” Sherry asked.
“I am going to be alright,” Simon said in a deep voice, with emphasis placed on the wrong syllables.
He suddenly stood up and extended his hand for me to shake. “Thank you for joining me on my boat, Mr. Johnson,” he said. I cautiously took his clammy hand. His handshake was as firm as it was cold.
As I shook his hand, I noticed his watch was missing. “You, uh, lost your watch when you fell off the boat, sir,” I said.
“I am going to be alright,” Simon said, his voice sounding a little more like it did before he fell overboard.
Sherry pulled out a small flashlight from the med-kit and waved it in front of Simon’s eye. “Your pupils aren’t dilating, I think you may have hit your head when you fell overboard,” she said.
“I am going to be alright,” Simon said.
“Johnson, take Simon to the bedroom below deck. I need to talk to the boat crew, get them to take us back to shore so we can get Simon looked out,” Sherry said. “Is that alright, sir?”
Simon paused for a moment before speaking. “Yes, that would be alright,” he finally said. He extended his cold, clammy, hand for me and I reluctantly took it.
Sherry walked up to the wheelhouse, passing by Opal and Ruby, who were still standing by the hot tub. I led Simon by the hand down a set of stairs into the interior of the ship. Doors to three different rooms sat before me. “Which one is the bedroom, Simon?” I asked.
He stared at me with his dead eyes, thinking. “The one on the right,” he said. I opened it to reveal a small storage room containing a few shelves covered in emergency supplies. “My memory must be…fuzzy.”
I closed the door to the storage room and opened the middle door, revealing a large room containing the boat’s engine. I closed it and opened the final door, revealing a small bedroom with a large bed, a port window, and open doors to a closet and a bathroom.
Simon sat down on the bed, sinking into its soft mattress. “You should get some rest, sir,” I said. “You were underwater for a while, you must be exhausted.”
“Thank you for worrying about me, Joseph Johnson,” Simon said.
“Do you feel okay, sir?” I asked.
“I feel…tired. I will need to rest before doing anything major,” Simon said.
“Are you cold?”
“No, not cold. Actually, I feel hot. Would you mind opening that window for me?”
Confused, I walked over to the porthole window and opened it for Simon. A blast of icy night air hit me like a boxer. Some water splashed up onto me from the sea, which was only a few feet below the window. Simon took a deep sigh as the room cooled down. “Thank you, Joseph Johnson,” he said.
Simon was acting strange. I didn’t know him well, admittedly, but I knew from our conversations in his office and at the hot tub that he wasn’t the type of person to say thank you. “Sir, may I ask you a question?” I asked.
“Why did you invite me out here?” I asked. I already knew the answer, or at least thought I did, but I wanted to hear Simon say it.
“Why did I bring you out here?” Simon said, thinking hard. “I believe, I brought you out here so I could kill you.”
He laughed. I didn’t. “That was a funny joke,” he said. I still didn’t laugh.
I heard a knock on the door and opened it, letting Sherry into the bedroom. “How are you feeling, Mr. Star?” Sherry said, shoving past me.
“Better every minute,” Simon said.
“That is good to hear, sir,” Sherry said. She glanced at me. “You are excused for now, Johnson.”
As I walked back up the stairs to the lower deck, I passed three men in naval outfits. The crew, I realized, going to fix the busted engine. I ignored them and walked back to the upper deck, where Ruby and Opal were waiting.
I sat down next to the hot tub and sighed. “Simon’s acting weird,” I said.
“He’s a drunk frat boy with the intelligence of a hamster in charge of a multibillion-dollar company. It’s expected that he’d act weird,” Opal said dryly.
“Fair enough, I suppose,” I said. “Did you guys know him before tonight?”
“He’s taken us out with him a few times before,” Opal said.
“It’s always so crazy with him,” Ruby said, smiling.
“Yes, things tend to go crazy when Simon Star is around,” Opal said with a sigh. “Although, he’s never tried to drown himself before.”
“Maybe he was trying to meet his mermaid,” Ruby said, trying to hide a laugh.
“I’m sorry, what?” I said.
“Ignore her, she’s being an idiot,” Opal said.
“Simon thinks there’s a mermaid out here,” Ruby said.
“What?” I asked.
“Not a mermaid. He’s never said the word mermaid,” Opal said.
“Okay then, what do you call a person who lives in the ocean?” Ruby asked.
“Can you start from the beginning, please?” I asked.
Opal sighed. “So, a few months ago, Simon threw some food overboard. Some meat. He saw something eat it, probably a shark or something,” Opal said. “But, he thought that the idea of attracting sharks with raw meat was cool, so he started throwing food overboard every time he took the boat out. Then…things got weird. He started saying that the fish was talking to him, saying thank you. One time, he even said he saw a face in the water, staring back at him.”
“The face…of a mermaid!” Ruby shouted.
“Not a mermaid,” Opal said back.
“Bringing up events you swore to never speak of to Johnson, how lovely,” Sherry said as she walked up to the upper deck.
“Relax, we didn’t tell him any of the really bad stuff,” Ruby said.
“How’s Simon?” I asked.
“Resting. He swears that he isn’t injured, but I know him better than anyone. He’s repeating himself, he keeps asking for water, his eyes are blank…he needs a doctor,” Sherry said. “But, for that to happen, the crew will have to get the engine repaired.”
“How long will that take?” I asked.
“I don’t know, I’m not a mechanic,” Sherry said.
“Have you checked the radio? Maybe there’s another ship nearby, one that can sail here and take Simon to a hospital if we can’t get the engine fixed,” I said.
Sherry sighed. “I’m afraid that isn’t a viable option,” she said. “This ship doesn’t have a radio.”
“What? What kind of ship doesn’t have a radio?” I asked.
“This one, apparently,” Opal said.
“Seriously, what would you do if something bad happened? And, by what would you do, I mean what will you do, because something very bad has happened,” I said.
“I’m pretty sure I saw a flare gun in that box at the bottom of the steps one time,” Ruby said.
“There is no need for that. We will wait for the crew to fix the engine,” Sherry said. “In the meantime, Ruby, could I have a word with you?”
Sherry drug Ruby down the stairs, out of earshot, leaving Opal and me alone. “Seem’s we’ll be out here for a while,” Opal said as she walked to the edge of the deck.
“I don’t know, maybe the crew’ll fix the boat soon,” I said.
Opal shook her head. “No, it’ll take a while. I don’t know much about boats, but I know they don’t come to sudden stops when their engines break,” Opal said. “We should have kept drifting after whatever went wrong with the engine happened, at least for a few seconds.”
“So…what’s going on?” I asked.
“I don’t know, maybe we hit an iceberg,” Opal said, staring out at the water.
“Nah. If that happened, the ship would be sinking. We’d be fighting over lifeboats. The orchestra members would be telling each other it’s been an honor as-”
“There’s a body in the water,” Opal said, quietly.
“Yeah, there’d probably be bodies in the water, in this Titanic hypothetical we’ve concocted-”
“No, Jesus, there’s a body in the water!” Opal shouted.
I ran up to her and realized that she was right. There was a body floating in the water, twenty yards from the boat, barely visible under the moonlit sky. I ran down to the bottom deck and grabbed the life preserver. I threw it, as hard as I could, at the body floating in the water.
The life ring landed with a splash ten feet from the boat. I sighed and made a mental note to visit the gym more. “He isn’t moving,” Opal said as she walked down to the lower deck.
“Yeah, but we can’t just leave him out there. He might still be alive,” I said.
I tore off my pants and jacket. “What are you doing?” Opal asked.
I picked up the life ring. “I’m going to swim out and drag the body back,” I said.
I jumped into the water and the cold swept over me like a hurricane, turning my bones to ice. I struggled against the water as I moved out towards the body floating in the dark sea. The life ring around my shoulder kept me afloat. Eventually, I reached the body and wrapped my arm around its torso. “Pull me in!” I shouted, teeth chattering.
“What?” Opal shouted back.
“The ring, it’s attached to a rope! Pull me back!” I shouted.
Opal tugged on the rope as hard as she could, slowly pulling the body and I back to the boat. I pushed the limp body into her arms and she pulled it onboard. I crawled back on deck, panting.
Opal kneeled down next to me and laid my jacket down on my chest. “That was kinda dumb,” she said.
“Probably,” I replied.
I sat up and looked at the body. It was lying on its chest, motionless. It was the body of a man in his thirties. Tall, with short blonde hair. His skin was pale and bloated from being in the water for so long. I placed two fingers on his neck, looking for a pulse. I wasn’t surprised when none came.
I sighed. “He’s dead,” I said.
“Can’t really say that’s too surprising,” Opal said. “So, now what? It’s not like we can call the cops or paramedics. Even if the radio wasn’t broken, we’re in the middle of the ocean.”
“I don’t know.”
“I mean, we could just throw it back.”
“He’s already dead, it’s not like bringing him back would change that. Besides, do you really want to deal with the hassle of explaining to the cops that you just found a corpse?”
“He could have a family, loved ones. They deserve to have something to bury,” I said. “Come on, help me figure out what happened to this guy.”
The corpse had been stripped of all clothing, save a pair of black boxer briefs. A large slash wound ran down his back, crossing over his spine. A matchbox-sized hole had been carved into the back of his skull. From a cursory glance, it appeared that most of his brain had been removed. A black digital watch was wrapped around his wrist. One that looked scarily familiar.
“No way,” I said, as I slowly flipped the body over.
The face of Simon Star stared back at me. I stumbled back, confused. Opal stared at the body, mumbling under her breath. “How’d that happen?” she whispered.
“Simon?” a cracking voice said.
I turned to see Sherry emerging from the inside of the ship. For a moment, she stood there, silent. Then she sprung into action, running over and shoving me off Simon. She pounded on his chest, trying to resuscitate him. He didn’t budge. Water splattered out of his mouth, forced out by Sherry. Still, he refused to return to the world of the living.
“Don’t worry, sir, everything’s going to be okay,” Sherry said, crying. “Everything’s going to be okay.”
“Sherry, he’s gone,” Opal said quietly.
“No, he’s just unconscious-”
“We checked his pulse,” I said.
“He’s spitting out the water, he’s going to be fine,” Sherry said.
“He’s going to be fine!”
“Sherry! He’s dead!” Opal shouted.
Sherry slowly pulled her hands off Simon’s chest. She stood up and glared at us, eyes red and mascara running. “What did you do?” she asked, holding back fury.
“What do you mean, what did we do?” Opal asked.
“What did you do to Simon? How did he die?” Sherry spat.
“I don’t know, we just found him like this,” I said.
“Oh, you just found him like this? What a relief! Guess he just got killed by aliens then,” Sherry said, words dripping with sarcasm.
“We didn’t kill him,” Opal said. “He drowned.”
“Don’t lie to me.”
“Opal, there are wounds on his back and his skull. That’s what killed him,” I said. “I mean, yeah, we found him floating face down in the water, but that just means the killer threw the body overboard after killing him.”
“There was water in his lungs, it came out when Sherry tried to give him CPR. That means he drowned,” Opal said. “And what do you mean, the killer? Who says there was a killer? Maybe he just fell overboard-”
“If he fell overboard, how did he get the wounds on his back and skull?” Sherry shouted.
“My guess? He tumbled over the railing, again, and got cut up by the boat’s propeller,” Opal said.
“The engine is still broken, you ignoramus,” Sherry said.
“Then he got attacked by a shark or something, I don’t know. The point is, he died of natural causes.”
Sherry bent down, getting a better look at the body. “No, this was murder,” she said. “I’ll acknowledge the cause of death was drowning, but someone forced him to drown.”
“What evidence do you have of that?” I asked.
“Look at his ankle,” Sherry said. I looked and noticed a hand-shaped imprint around the ankle. “Someone held him underwater, with enough force to leave a mark. Which means, someone drowned him and then mutilated his corpse for some sick reason.”
Sherry looked at me. “You’re soaking wet,” she said.
“Hold on, don’t point fingers at me. I’m wet because I swam out and got the body. Opal can attest to that,” I said.
“Joseph was dry when we first found the body,” Opal confirmed.
“Besides, how would I have even drowned him? Holding him underwater by the ankle, that implies that I would have been under him. I would have drowned, too.”
“None of this makes any sense…” Sherry whispered.
“We should figure out when he died, to help sort this all out,” I said.
“What time does it say on his watch?” Opal said. “If the watch stopped when he was held underwater-”
I shook my head. “It’s a digital watch, it got fried when Simon fell overboard. We’ll have to do this the old fashioned way, by comparing alibis,” I said. “I saw Simon around twenty minutes ago. Then, Sherry came to Simon’s room and I came up to the deck, passing the crew on the way. I talked to you and Ruby for a few minutes before Sherry came up and took Ruby below deck. Shortly afterward, we saw the body and I swam out to bring it back. Around five minutes ago, Sherry came up from the inside of the ship. That’s all I know.”
“I haven’t seen Simon since we pulled him out of the water the first time,” Opal said. “Since then, I’ve spent all my time with you or Ruby. What about you, Sherry?”
“None of this makes any sense,” Sherry whispered. “I was so blown away by seeing Simon’s body, I didn’t notice how little sense it made.”
“Sherry, when did you last see Simon alive?” I asked.
“Holding someone underwater, mutilating a corpse, these things take time,” Sherry mumbled.
“That’s why we need to figure out when he died, so we can figure out who had enough time to kill him,” Opal said.
Sherry took a deep breath. “Less than thirty seconds went by in between the last time I saw Simon and the moment I saw his corpse,” she said.
“What?” I asked.
“That’s impossible,” Opal said.
“That’s what I’ve been saying. It takes close to three minutes for the brain to die from lack of oxygen. How is it possible that Simon died in such a short period of time?” Sherry asked.
“Unless…he didn’t drown?” Opal said.
That’s when we heard the screams. Men’s voices, screaming in agony, coming from the ship’s interior. “Stay with Simon!” Sherry shouted as she ran down the stairs into the ship. I chased after her, leaving Opal alone with Simon’s body.
Sherry tore open the engine room door. What lied beyond was…haunting. Three bodies, one for each member of the crew, lying on the floor. They were dead, throats slashed, bodies covered in bruises and puncture wounds. We didn’t bother checking their pulses. Everything, as far as the eye could see, was red.
I felt sick. I’d felt sick when I pulled Simon’s body onto the boat, but this was something different. Even Sherry seemed disturbed by what we saw. “What type of person could have done this?” I asked. “Not just morally, but physically. These men weren’t just killed, they were massacred.”
“I suppose this means the engine will not be fixed tonight,” Sherry said.
“Way to have empathy,” I said.
“I’m being practical. The person who killed Simon and the crew has already killed four people. I doubt that they will stop until everyone on this boat is dead. The engine being broken means we can’t get back to shore for help. For that reason, I suspect, the crew was targeted. Our killer isn’t just dangerous, they’re also fairly-”
“Shhh,” I said, interrupting Sherry. “Do you hear that?”
I’d noticed a tapping noise, like someone hitting a piece of wood with a bat. Sherry stopped talking and we both heard a muffled voice shouting at us.
“Let me out! This isn’t funny anymore!” the muffled voice yelled.
“Oh right, Ruby,” Sherry said flatly as she pulled a set of keys out of her jacket.
Sherry unlocked the bedroom door and Ruby charged out. Ruby slapped Sherry. “What the hell is wrong with you?” Ruby shouted. “You locked me in there, alone, and just left me? I swear to God, you need to find someone else to help with your little escapades because I’m-”
Ruby noticed the dead bodies and went silent. She took a deep breath. She screamed the loudest, most high pitched scream I’d ever heard. So loud my eardrums almost began bleeding.
“Dead! Bodies! Dead Bodies! Blood!” Ruby shouted.
“Yes, we’ve noticed,” Sherry said flatly.
“They’re dead!” Ruby shouted.
Opal came running down, drawn by Ruby’s screams. “Ruby, are you okay…okay, that is a lot of blood,” she said.
“Yes! It’s a lot of blood!” Ruby shouted. “How are you all so calm?”
“We got most of the screaming done when we saw the first body,” I said.
“First body? There are more bodies?” Ruby asked.
“Perhaps we should move this conversation to the bedroom. It may help Ruby calm down,” Sherry said.
We crowded into the bedroom. Ruby collapsed onto the bed. Opal sat down next to her. “Now then, let’s try to make sense of the last hour,” Sherry said.
The fact that she was wearing actual clothes gave her a sort of authority; she was still wearing her pantsuit. Ruby was in a bikini, Opal had put on my white button shirt, presumably for warmth, and I was standing there in my underwear. Fortunately, the porthole window had been closed, so the bedroom wasn’t too cold.
“There is a violent killer aboard this ship, hunting us down one by one,” Sherry said.
“There’s a killer?” Ruby asked.
“You saw the bodies,” Opal said.
“We need to figure out if this killer is one of us, or someone different,” Sherry continued. “Mr. Johnson, you had the right idea earlier, comparing our nights to establish a timeline of events.”
“Like I said, I’ve been with Opal since you two left to talk. After that, we pulled Simon’s body in-”
“Simon’s dead?” Ruby shouted.
“Yes, Simon Star is dead,” Sherry said bitterly. “Now, if you don’t have anything helpful to add, I’d recommend you stay quiet, because I am trying to figure out who killed him.”
“When you pulled Ruby away, what did the two of you talk about?” I asked.
Sherry sighed. “Simon has always been…always was, fond of Ruby,” she said. “He was injured, and I offered to pay Ruby double if she would…warm him up.”
Opal and I both glanced and Ruby, who shrugged. “I’m broke,” she said.
“I escorted Ruby to Simon’s room and, after a few minutes of chit-chat, left the two alone,” Sherry said. “After that, I returned to the deck and saw you standing over the impossible corpse of Simon Star. I’ve been with you ever since.”
“Which means Ruby was the last person to see Simon alive,” I said.
“Hey, don’t try to blame this on me, I barely know what’s going on,” Ruby said.
“Would you care to explain what happened after I left you and Simon alone?” Sherry asked in a voice that let us all know that she wasn’t really asking.
“Okay, so, I was going to sleep with Simon. I was, honest,” Ruby said. “But…we’ve been on this boat for a while now. And I haven’t had a chance to relieve myself. So I…”
“You went to take a shit,” I said.
“I went to take a shit,” Ruby said. “When I got back, Simon was gone and the door was locked. Then I heard screaming and started pounding on the door, then you let me out, then I slapped Sherry-”
“Okay, we get it,” Sherry said. She sighed. “None of this has been particularly illuminating. I still don’t understand how Simon could have gotten to the other side of the ship, drowned, had his brain ripped out, and be pulled back aboard, in the time it took me to walk up a flight of stairs.”
“Maybe you’re lying,” Opal said.
“I’m not, but I have no way of proving that to you,” Sherry said. “None of us have any way of proving the truth in anything we’ve said.”
“Hold on, Opal and I were together in the time frame where Simon died. We have alibis,” I said.
“Or, the two of you killed him together. Or someone else hid aboard the ship as we left the harbor and is somehow moving unseen through the ship,” Sherry said. “We simply don’t know. We don’t know anything substantial.”
“Well, why don’t we go learn something?” Ruby asked.
“And where, do you propose, we will find the evidence that will make this night make sense?” Sherry snapped.
“The engine room,” I said. “We didn’t check the bodies, there might be clues there.”
“We could do that. Or, and this is just an idea, we could also not do that,” Ruby said.
“No, Johnson’s right. Someone on this ship, presumably one of you three, killed four men, including my Simon,” Sherry said. “I’d prefer if that list didn’t grow to include me.”
I stepped out of the bedroom and gazed into the engine room. Opal and Sherry stood by my side, while Ruby turned around and pretended the blood wasn’t there. It was difficult, seeing the engine room as an actual location rather than an abstract horror, but I forced myself to take a closer look.
“The engine has been completely destroyed,” Sherry said.
“Which means our killer went to the engine room to stop us from getting back to shore,” Opal said.
I scanned the bodies. “Their throats are slashed. That’s different from how Simon died,” I said.
“Hard to drown someone inside a boat without tearing a hole in the side,” Sherry said.
“It’s also hard to drown three people at once. Simon’s death was drawn out, but these men were killed quickly,” I said. “Look at the back of that one lying on his chest, he doesn’t have the slash over the spine Simon had. All these clues point to these men being killed out of necessity, while Simon was killed for a specific reason.”
“Why would someone want to kill Simon?” Sherry asked.
“I can think of a few reasons,” Ruby muttered.
I stepped into the engine room and felt the blood beneath my toes. Gagging, I bent down to get a closer look at the bodies. One of them was holding something in his hand. Carefully, I bent down and pried it from his fingers.
It was a disposable camera, the type you’d see at old tourist traps. “One of them had a camera,” I said as I held it up for all to see.
“That shouldn’t be on this boat, I was very clear with the crew that absolutely no cameras were allowed,” Sherry said.
“Seems one of them snuck a camera on anyway,” I said.
I shoved past Sherry, walking back to the bedroom. “Where are you going?” Opal asked.
“To a room with better lighting,” I said. I stepped up onto the bed and tore apart the camera, pulling out the roll of film. I unrolled it and held it up to the light, squinting at the tiny photographs. “Hopefully, one of the crew members took a picture of their killer.”
Staring at the undeveloped film, I caught a glimpse of the horror that transpired in the engine room. In the photograph, one crew member was dead on the ground and one was being strangled by the monstrous arm of a figure in the center of the photograph, an arm made of red muscle and tendons so thick they resembled tentacles. The killer’s fingers were like knives, long and sharp with pieces of bone sticking out at the end.
Half of the killer’s face was wrong. Half a dozen eyes, rows of jagged teeth, part of its skull unraveling like twine. But the other half, the other half was familiar. The normal half of the killer’s face was the face of Simon Star.
No, not the face of Simon. The face of the man we pulled aboard after Simon fell overboard, the man with the dead eyes who I carried to the bedroom.
I jumped off the bed, leaving behind red footprints on the white sheets, and handed the film to Opal. “You need to see this. All of you need to see this,” I said.
Opal looked at the photo and fell silent. Ruby looked at the photo and ran to the bathroom to vomit. Sherry looked at the photo and shook her head. “This doesn’t make any sense,” she said.
“Really? Because I think this is the first thing tonight that has made sense,” I said.
“Please, enlighten us on how any of this makes sense,” Sherry said, rolling her eyes.
“There’s something that I didn’t pick up on earlier, something important,” I said. “Simon’s watch. He lost it when he fell overboard, right? But he had it when we reeled in his corpse. How is that possible?”
“He found it while he was drowning?” Ruby guessed.
“No, that’s dumb. The only possible answer is that Simon never lost his watch,” I said.
Sherry and Ruby stared at me, presumably thinking I was insane. I sighed. “Sherry, you wondered how we could have been with Simon’s drowned corpse for minutes when you’d seen him alive less than thirty seconds prior?” I asked.
“Yes, it doesn’t make any sense,” Sherry said.
“What if Simon was dead the entire time? What if he drowned when he first fell overboard, and the man we helped back onto the boat wasn’t Simon?” I asked. “It would certainly explain how he could be both alive and dead simultaneously.”
“But, that man was Simon!” Sherry said. “He looked like Simon, he had Simon’s clothes-”
“Clothes can be stolen, appearances can be faked,” I said. “That man didn’t have Simon’s personality. You knew Simon better than any of us, tell me honestly that the man we brought to this bedroom was Simon.”
Sherry stood there for a moment, lips pursed. Finally, she spoke in a quiet voice. “Simon was already dead,” she said.
I nodded. “I’m sorry, Sherry, he drowned when he first fell overboard,” I said.
“Hey, not to ruin your big revelation moment, but there’s still a pretty big elephant in the room,” Ruby said. “That thing in the photograph isn’t human.”
“Of course not,” I said. “The things that it has done tonight, staying underwater for extended periods of time, killing three men in an instant with its bare hands, no human could do these things.”
“But, if it isn’t human, what is it?” Ruby asked.
I shrugged. “Hell if I know. All I know is that it’s smart, deadly, and can disguise itself as a normal person,” I said.
Ruby put her hands over her mouth. “Oh my god,” she said.
“What is it, Ruby?” Opal asked.
“I just realized…I almost had sex with the sea monster that killed Simon!” Ruby shouted.
I laughed. It wasn’t funny, not really. But the absurdity, combined with the horror and the stress, made it impossible to keep a straight face.
“So, what do we do now?” Opal asked.
“There’s an evil Simon monster running around the ship. Let’s lock ourselves in here and just wait for all of this to blow over,” Ruby said.
“There’s a problem with that idea,” Sherry said. “This creature was able to disguise itself as Simon. What reason do I have to believe that the monster isn’t one of you?”
“This thing killed the entire crew in, like, five seconds,” Ruby said. “If it was one of us, it would have already killed us.”
“Not necessarily,” I said. “When we brought it on board, the creature could barely stand. It didn’t kill the crew until it rested here for a while. Reshaping its entire body to resemble someone else must take a lot out of it.”
“As would killing the crew,” Opal said.
“Right,” I said. “If one of us is the creature, then the creature would be absolutely exhausted. Waiting in here would give it the time it needs to rest before killing us.”
“We need to split up and search the ship,” Sherry said. “That way, we can either find the creature while it’s weak, or confirm that one of you is the creature.”
“Yeah, no. I’ve seen horror movies. I’m not going to go wander off alone and get eaten,” Ruby said.
“Then we’ll go in pairs,” I said. “Opal and I will take the exterior of the ship-”
“I would much prefer to search the exterior of the ship,” Sherry interjected.
“Whatever. You and Ruby take the decks and the wheelhouse, Opal and I will keep looking down here.”
As we split up, Ruby gave Opal a hug. “Don’t get eaten,” she said.
“I don’t think that will happen,” Opal replied.
Sherry and Ruby went up to the decks, leaving Opal and me alone in the bedroom. “So, we should probably get to searching,” I said.
“Yes, we should,” Opal said. She pulled a drawer out of the nightstand and dumped the contents on the bed. She began sifting through the various junk that accumulated in Simon’s room.
“Right, we should focus,” I said. “Simon…fake Simon…the creature spent more time in here than any other room. I’m sure we’ll find something.”
We didn’t find anything of note in the bedroom. The bedsheets were wrinkled, but that was to be expected. The porthole window was closed, but that didn’t seem important. The faint stench of the restroom gave credence to Ruby’s alibi, but no clue to the location of the creature.
“We should move on,” I said. I walked over to the door and began to open it. I stopped as an idea entered my mind.
I got down on my knees and looked very closely at the doorknob. “Ruby said Sherry locked her and fake Simon in here, right?” I asked.
“I believe she said that, yes,” Opal replied.
“Why would she do that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Probably to keep anyone from barging in. But…something doesn’t make sense. The monster got out of the room to kill the crew, but the door was locked.”
“Maybe it’s one of those doors that, when you lock it, it can still be unlocked from the inside,” Opal said.
I shook my head. “No. This type of lock can be locked with a key on one side and can only be unlocked with the same key on the same side,” I said. “And, the wall isn’t scuffed or anything. The door wasn’t forced open.”
“Maybe the creature figured out a way to unlock the door from the inside,” Opal said.
“No, that doesn’t make sense,” I said. “Ruby was still locked in the bedroom after the crew was killed.”
“In that case, there are two possibilities. Possibility one: there is some sort of secret hatch between this room and the engine room-”
“We didn’t find any hatch.”
“True, but it could be very well hidden. There’s also another possibility,” Opal said. “Someone unlocked the door while Ruby was in the bathroom, letting the creature out, then locked the door again before the crew died”
“You’re saying that the creature has an accomplice?” I asked.
“I’m saying it’s a possibility.”
I pondered Opal’s words. “The key never left Sherry’s hands,” I said. “If the second scenario is the truth, then Sherry is working with the creature.
“Are you sure that the key never left Sherry’s hands? What if she set it down somewhere and someone picked it up? Or, and this is the worst-case scenario, Sherry isn’t Sherry anymore?”
The idea sent shivers down my spine. “We can’t get caught up in speculation,” I said, shaking my head. “We still haven’t checked the storage room.”
I walked out of the bedroom, past the door to the engine room, and into the storage room. Opal followed. As I opened the storage room door, I was greeted with a terrible sight that I had become depressingly numb to, the sight of a dead body. A woman’s body was laying down in the cramped storage room, leaned up against a wall beneath a window. “My God,” Opal said as she glanced over my shoulder.
I took a deep breath and focussed my mind. There wasn’t time for horror, only time for cold, logical thought. “The door to the storage room was unlocked. The shelves are covered in various boxes that have not been knocked over, this tells us that the fight either happened extremely quickly or the victim was killed somewhere else and brought here after the fact,” I said.
“What are you doing?” Opal asked.
“Listing off clues before they slip my mind,” I said. “The window is open, and the coldness in the room means it has been open for a while. My guess is that the creature tried to throw the body overboard to remove the evidence, but ran out of time.”
“You’re looking at everything but the body,” Opal said.
“Right, sorry,” I mumbled. I bent down and began my examination. “The victim is a young woman wearing a red bikini. Her hair is dark red, possibly from the blood. Her skin is ice cold, which means the murder happened a while ago. Her face is…damaged.”
I carefully turned the body over so I could check its back. “There’s a large slash running up the victim’s spine, a small hole in the back of the victim’s skull, and bruises around her ankles, all wounds matching Simon’s body,” I continued. “Unlike Simon, there are cuts on the back of her knees, which have created a sizable pool of blood beneath the body. And her face…”
I took a deep breath and glanced at the corpse’s face. It was a nightmare. Half a dozen slash marks crossing over her face, bits of skin hanging off like ribbons. Pieces of broken bone stabbing through her cheeks like knives. And her eyes…her eyes were the worst part. One was missing, leaving a dark socket that I couldn’t help but stare into. The other eye…the other eye was more horrifying for reasons I don’t have the stomach to describe properly.
“Her face is damaged,” I repeated. I sighed. “This body combines the precision of Simon’s body and the brutality of the crew. It isn’t just that she was killed that bothers me, it’s the desecration of her corpse afterwards that terrifies me.”
“Sherry color coded us,” Opal whispered, staring at the corpse.
“What?” I asked.
“Simon wasn’t very smart, so she assigned us colors so we’d be easier to tell apart. Platinum blonde hair, a white swimsuit, and the name Opal for Jane,” Opal continued.
“Oh,” I said, glancing at the corpse’s dark red hair and bikini.
“Cherry red hair, a red swimsuit, and the name Ruby for Kerry,” Opal said, her voice flat and dry. “That corpse is…was…Ruby.”
I was silent for a moment. “I’m sorry, I knew she was your friend,” I said.
“You said the body was cold, right? That means she was killed before we split up,” Opal said. “That means the creature is up on the top deck with Sherry. We need to go kill her before she can get any stronger.”
Opal turned for the door. I began to follow her, then stopped. “Something about this doesn’t feel right,” I said.
“What do you mean?” Opal asked.
“Just finding Ruby’s body. It was easy, too easy. Nothing tonight has been this simple,” I said. “And, even if it is Ruby’s body, when did she die? And how did her body get here?”
“My guess? Right before the crew died. If there’s a passageway between the bedroom and the engine room, it wouldn’t be inconceivable for there to be a passageway between the engine room and the storage room. Ruby was locked in with the creature. It killed her and tried to move her body to the storage room. But, it ran into the crew, so it killed them. It didn’t have enough time to dispose of Ruby’s body properly, so it just tossed her in the storage room and hid in the bedroom. Then, because its Simon disguise was compromised, it disguised itself as Ruby to buy time.”
“I suppose that’s possible,” I said. “But, there’s still this nagging feeling in my mind, like I’ve missed something. Why was her face slashed but Simon’s face left alone?”
“Simon’s body was left in the ocean, the creature didn’t think we’d find it. Ruby’s body was left on the ship,” Opal said. “The creature slashed her face to try and hide which of us it killed. Unfortunately, it forgot about Sherry’s color coordination.”
“The window, why did it open the window?” I muttered. An idea popped into my head. “What color underwear was Sherry wearing?”
“Was Sherry wearing red underwear?” I asked.
“I…I don’t know? I don’t understand why you care,” Opal said.
“You have a pretty good theory as to how this body got here. But there are other possibilities,” I said. “Let’s assume that Sherry was wearing red underwear underneath her pantsuit. Let’s imagine that, while we were fishing up Simon’s corpse and Ruby was in the bathroom, Sherry decided to check in on Simon and Ruby. What if the creature killed Sherry, relocked the bedroom door, and drug Sherry’s body to the storage room?”
“But we found Ruby’s body-”
“Did we? Or is that just what the creature wanted us to think?” I shouted. “What if the creature killed Sherry, took her form, slashed her face, and threw her clothes out the window so we’d think that Ruby, not Sherry, was the imposter?”
“It’s possible, I suppose,” Opal said.
“The question is, which theory is right? Which one is the imposter?” I said.
“I think I know a way to figure out who this body belongs to,” Opal said. “Earlier, when we were in the hot tub together, did you notice Ruby’s birthmark?”
“Ruby had a crab-shaped birthmark on her left shoulder,” Opal said. I hadn’t paid much attention to the girls’ shoulders, but I did vaguely remember seeing something like that. “If that body has a crab-shaped birthmark, it’s Ruby. If not, it’s Sherry.”
I bent down and looked at the faceless corpse’s shoulder. Sure enough, there was a small brown birthmark on its left shoulder that looked somewhat like a crab. “It’s Ruby,” I said.
“So, now we know,” Opal said.
“I suppose we do,” I said. “Still, I don’t understand why the creature opened the window, or why it would go to the trouble of slashing Ruby’s face when her hair and clothing gave her away.”
“Misdirection,” Opal said. “Ideally, we would have never found this body. But, if we were to find this body, wouldn’t it be beneficial to the creature for there to be that shadow of doubt in our minds, for us to point fingers at one another instead of at Ruby?”
“That makes sense,” I said. “Maybe I’m just letting my own biases towards Sherry cloud my judgement.”
We both paused for a moment. Then reality hit us. “Oh my god, Sherry!” I shouted.
We ran out onto the deck, past Simon’s corpse, and up to the top deck where we’d partied hours earlier. Ruby was up there, standing in front of the hot tub, staring out at the sea. Hearing our footsteps, she turned to face us. “Hey guys! How’s it going?” she asked.
Opal and I stopped dead in our tracks. I stared into Ruby’s eyes. They were green, were they green earlier? I focussed on her face, looking for the flaws in her disguise, searching for the evidence that she was a monster. I don’t know if it was proof of her inhumanity or just me looking for something that wasn’t there, but she looked…wrong.
“Guys? Why are you being so quiet?” Ruby asked.
“Ruby, where’s Sherry?” Opal asked.
“I think she’s searching the steering wheel room, I can go get her if you’d like,” Ruby said.
“That won’t be necessary,” Opal said. Her voice was calm. To me, it sounded like she was carefully holding back any emotion to avoid tipping our hand.
“Sherry! Ruby and Joey are back!” Ruby shouted, ignoring Opal. “So, what did you guys find down there?”
“Something interesting,” I said quickly.
Sherry walked out of the wheelhouse, clutching a stack of papers close to her chest. “What’s going on?” she asked.
“Stop! Don’t take another step!” I shouted.
Sherry stopped dead in her tracks. By coincidence, we had formed a triangle up on the top deck. Ruby stood by the hot tub. Twenty feet away from her, Sherry stood by the door to the wheelhouse. And, twenty feet from both of them, Opal and I stood at the top of the staircase.
“What on earth is going on?” Sherry asked.
“Yeah, you guys are acting a little weird,” Ruby said.
“We found something, in the storage room,” I said. I kept a close watch on the faces of both Sherry and Ruby, hoping to catch a slight twitch that would give them away. Neither of them acted out of the ordinary.
“The tension is killing me,” Sherry said sarcastically. “What did you find?”
“A body,” Opal said. “A woman’s body. Ruby’s body.”
Sherry turned to look at Ruby. Ruby raised her eyeballs. “Not to rain on your parade, but I’m pretty sure I’m still alive,” Ruby said.
“The creature disguised itself as Simon Star, it could have easily changed its appearance to that of the real Ruby,” Opal said.
“I am the real Ruby!” a woman who was not really named Ruby said. “Besides, how do you know that the creature disguised itself as me?”
“You spent more time with the creature than anyone else,” Opal said. “Also, we found Ruby’s body.”
Ruby laughed. “Sherry, can you believe this?” she asked.
Sherry didn’t find it funny. She just stared at Ruby, eyes burning with rage. “You killed Simon,” she whispered.
“What? No! There has to be some kind of mistake!” Ruby shouted.
“Turn around,” Opal said.
“Why?” Ruby asked.
“Just do it,” Opal said.
“Okay, fine!” Ruby said. She turned around, sarcastically raising her hands over her head. “Can I ask why I’m being forced to turn around?”
“The birthmark,” I said. “Ruby had a birthmark on her left shoulder. It’s the type of small detail the creature would miss when mimicking someone’s appearance.”
There wasn’t a birthmark on the left shoulder of the woman standing by the hot tub. “You aren’t Ruby, are you?” Opal asked.
Before Ruby could answer, a bang rang out, echoing in the night. Everything seemed to move in slow motion. Ruby fell, face first, into the pool, red blood flowing from a hole in the back of her head. The papers in Sherry’s hands fluttered down, revealing the handgun she’d concealed behind them.
Opal and I stared at Sherry, dumfounded. She glanced at us. “What?” she asked.
“You shot Ruby!” I shouted.
“No, I shot the creature that killed Simon, Ruby, and the crew,” Sherry said. The nonchalant tone of her voice terrified me.
“Why do you have a gun?” I shouted. “You don’t have a radio, but you have a gun? What, were you afraid of Simon being kidnapped by pirates?”
Sherry pointed the gun at me and Opal. “Let’s all calm down,” Sherry said. “No reason to escalate things any further.”
I looked at the hot tub. Ruby’s lifeless body floated in a pool of her own blood. She didn’t look like a monster anymore. She just looked like a victim.
“She isn’t turning back,” I said. “Why isn’t she turning back? When you shoot the shapeshifter, it’s supposed to turn back into whatever the hell it really is.”
“Why would it turn back? Changing your shape takes a lot of work,” Opal said. “Listen, Joseph, you need to calm down. We all do. The creature is dead now. It’s over now.”
I stared at her. She wasn’t scared, she wasn’t sad, she was just calm. I looked at her, at her white hair and her pretty face and her slim body. She was still wearing my white button-up shirt, the one with a tiny red dot over the breast pocket. Everything clicked in my head and I realized how much of a fool I’d been, how easy it had been to trick me.
“No, it isn’t over. Not yet,” I said. “The creature is still alive.”
“Oh?” Opal said, raising an eyebrow.
I turned to face Sherry and took a step forward. “Sherry, what color underwear are you wearing?” I asked.
“Excuse me?” Sherry asked, completely blindsided by my question.
“What color underwear are you wearing?” I asked, more forcefully this time.
Sherry paused. “Red,” she said finally. “It was Simon’s favorite color.”
I took another step towards Sherry. “I get it now,” I said. “Everything that’s happened on this boat, why all of this is happening. The clues were there, I was just too stupid to put them together.”
“Take another step and I’ll shoot,” Sherry said.
“If you do that, you won’t know why Simon died,” I said.
I took another step forward. Sherry kept her gun trained on me, but didn’t shoot. “Talk,” she ordered.
“Let’s start at the beginning,” I said. “Not with the boat leaving the shore, because this all started long before that. It started six years ago, when trust fund frat bro dumbass Simon Star inherited a controlling stake in a multi-million dollar pharmaceutical company.”
“Be careful with your words, Mr. Johnson,” Sherry said.
“Simon’s father had been CEO before him, so it only made sense for Simon to be CEO, too. Unfortunately, Simon was…not qualified. He was a magnet for scandals. Enter Sherry, his intelligent, ruthless, and loyal secretary. Who, as I’m sure we’ve all realized, was madly in love with him.”
“What? No, my relationship with Simon was purely professional in nature,” Sherry said, cheeks red.
“Sherry would do anything to protect Simon. So she came up with a plan to protect Simon: kill everyone who stood in his way,” I said. “She began inviting ex-girlfriends, paparazzi, business rivals, nosy accountants, anyone who could bring scandal to Simon’s name, to go out on Simon’s boat. A boat without cameras or any way to contact the shore. One with strippers desperate for money enough to stay silent.”
“Once far enough from land to ensure the victims wouldn’t escape, Sherry would bribe them. And, if bribery failed, kill them and dump their bodies overboard,” I continued. “That’s the really bad stuff Ruby mentioned, right?”
Sherry groaned and rolled her eyes. “Congratulations, you solved the big mystery. I killed people for Simon. Not that that’s much of a revelation, considering the dead body lying in the hot tub,” she said, flippant, gesturing at Ruby’s body with the pistol.
“You’re a monster,” I said, taking another step.
Sherry whipped the gun back and shot in front of my feet. “Did I not tell you I would kill you if you took another step?” Sherry asked.
“If you kill me-”
“I don’t find out why Simon died. Yes, I know,” Sherry said. “Tell me, do you actually have a point you’re moving towards, or are you just stalling for time?”
“You killed people. Simon, Ruby, Jane…they all stood by and watched,” I said, glancing back at Opal. “But you didn’t kill Simon, at least not directly.”
“What do you mean, not directly?” Sherry asked.
“Simon’s death was the result of two monsters, by the cruel twist of fate, crossing paths,” I said. “Those monsters are you, and the creature. Have you stopped to wonder, what this creature is, or why it targeted this boat?”
“Okay, I’ll bite. What is the creature?” Sherry asked.
“I don’t know the specific species, in fact, I’m almost certain it hasn’t been catalogued, but we’ve seen enough to come up with a rough idea of what the creature is. It’s highly intelligent, incredibly strong, and can change its appearance. My guess is it’s some sort of undiscovered deep-sea creature that somehow ended up near the coast,” I said. “The most interesting thing about this creature, even more than its shapeshifting, is its diet. Simon and the woman in the storage room had their brains and nervous systems ripped out. I believe that the creature eats human brains.”
“Fantastic, Simon was killed by a zombie,” Sherry said dryly.
“Now, here’s where we get into speculation. Brains are edible, but there isn’t a good reason to eat them when there are other cuts of meat available, especially when you’re in a hurry. Which means the creature targeted brains for specific reasons,” I said. “What if the creature doesn’t just eat brains for sustenance? What if the creature has the ability to absorb knowledge and memories by consuming brains?”
“And what evidence are you basing this absurd hypothesis on?” Sherry asked.
“The creature knew our names when it was imitating Simon,” I said.
“What if it simply listened to our conversations before killing Simon?” Sherry asked.
“Maybe. But I doubt it observed enough of our conversation to speak fluent English,” I said. “Now then, we’ve established what the creature is, now let’s discuss its motives. I believe that this isn’t the first time the creature has approached this boat.”
“The mermaid,” Sherry whispered, ideas clicking in her brain.
I nodded. “The bodies you’ve been throwing overboard? The creature has been eating them, slowly learning how to mimic a human appearance and speech,” I said. “And then we arrive at tonight. It swims up to the boat, hungry for its next meal. But, I accept your bribe. The creature goes hungry. And it gets mad. It grabs the boat’s propeller, forcing it to the stop.”
“And Simon falls overboard,” Sherry said.
“The creature drowns him, eats his brain, and realizes the mistake it’s made. If Simon’s dead, so is its food supply,” I said. “If you were the creature, what would you do?”
“Climb aboard the boat and let us bring it back to shore,” Sherry said.
“Yes! It copied Simon and stole his clothes, forgetting his watch by mistake. We reeled it in and I carried it to the bedroom. There it rested, making sure we kept the room cold and brought it water,” I said. “But, there was a problem. Its disguise wasn’t good enough yet. We could all tell that something was wrong. It was close to human, but still so far away that it fell into the uncanny valley. So it came up with a new plan. Eat the brains of the people on board, becoming human enough to assume one of our lives, then swim to shore.”
“While it was resting in the bedroom and Ruby was in the bathroom, it heard the crew begin fixing the engine,” I continued. “The creature freaked out! If we got back to shore before it killed all of us, its plan would be ruined. So, it squeezed out the porthole window, closing it as it left to cover its tracks, and swam around the ship. It broke in through the storage room window, moved to the engine room, and slaughtered the crew.”
I took a step forward. At this point, Sherry and I were only a few feet away, while Opal was still back at the staircase. I stared Sherry dead in the eyes. I opened my mouth and mouthed four words: Opal is the creature.
I dove for the deck. In a split second, a thousand calculations ran through Sherry’s head. Ultimately, she chose to trust me. She pulled the trigger, shooting Opal directly in her heart.
Opal screamed and stumbled back, falling down the staircase. Sherry pointed her gun at me. “Talk!” she shouted.
“After killing the crew, the creature jumped out the storage room window and swam around the boat. It wanted to crawl back into the bedroom and keep imitating Simon, but that wasn’t an option. Ruby was already banging on the bedroom door. Worse, Opal was standing on the lower deck, keeping guard over Simon’s corpse,” I said. “Again, it was forced to change its plan.”
“It drowned Opal and assumed her form,” Sherry said.
“Yeah. I didn’t suspect her, because I thought she had an alibi for the entire night, but that wasn’t true. She was alone for a few minutes after the crew died,” I said. “I didn’t think much of it because I assumed the crew killer would have had to go by us to get to the deck. I didn’t factor in the fact that the creature could swim.”
“Next, I assume, the creature hid Opal’s body in the storage room?” Sherry said.
“It quickly moved Opal’s body there, not to hide it, but to frame Ruby. It slashed Opal’s face to conceal her identity and slit open her knees, using the blood to change the color of Opal’s hair and swimsuit to match Ruby’s,” I said. “It left the storage room window open by mistake because it was in a hurry. It swam back to the lower deck and put on my shirt, which I took off before going to get Simon’s body.”
“Why would it steal your shirt?” Sherry asked.
“I don’t think it can mimic clothes. It had to steal Simon’s, remember? And Opal’s swimsuit was busy being used to frame Ruby,” I said. “After that, it rejoined us and blended into our group. It made up some bullshit about Ruby having a birthmark to get you to kill Ruby and stood back, waiting for you to kill me.”
“You’re so smart, Joseph Johnson,” a distorted voice said.
Opal, or rather, the creature disguised as Opal, stumbled into view, clutching the gunshot wound on her chest. Blood the color of oil dripped down onto the steps as she climbed up to the top deck. “Game over, I lose, you win, right?” she spat. “Well, here’s the thing. Don’t think this is over just because you found the killer. Now that the truth is out, there’s no reason for me to-”
Five more gunshots rang out as Sherry unloaded her gun into Opal’s chest. Five bullets pierced her chest, creating five geysers of obsidian blood. Opal gritted her teeth and scowled at us with twisted eyes. “I. Wasn’t. Done. Talking!” she shouted.
There isn’t a word in the English language that can properly describe what Opal did next. The closest I can think is unravel. Opal’s flesh unraveled, ripping into thin strands of muscle and skin. The strands around her arms weaved back together, creating new arms with bulging muscles and sharp claws. Her shirt tore to shreds as four more arms sprouted from her back. Dozens of shards of bone poked out from within her flesh, stabbing the air like a porcupine’s spines. Her head split open along her nose, revealing rows of jagged teeth. Opal roared with her monstrous maw as dozens of eyes spread across her body popped open.
I skitted away, running into the wheelhouse. I glanced back and saw Opal charging at us, closing the distance with inhuman speed. She didn’t run like a person; she ran like a beast, each of her half dozen limbs slapping into the deck. Sherry slammed the door shut behind us and quickly twisted the lock.
“We’re going to die,” I mumbled.
“We aren’t going to die. You may, but I intend to survive this,” Sherry said, bracing the door with her body.
Opal slammed into the locked door with enough force to knock Sherry to the ground. The door stayed shut, but the impact was more than enough to create a sizable crack on the door.
“Hold the door!” Sherry shouted.
I followed her command, jumping to my feet and putting all of my weight behind the door. The monster pounded on the door and I struggled to hold it shut. “You said you weren’t going to die. Would you care to let me in on your plan?” I asked.
“I have more ammo in here,” Sherry said as she rifled through a drawer.
“Oh, perfect. Remind me, how did the first five bullets go?” I asked.
Sherry ignored me and tore through the drawer, throwing out all kinds of junk. Paperwork, navigational maps, matches. Finally, she pulled out a box of bullets and held it up, smiling. At around that point we realized an unfortunate detail of the wheelhouse: it had several large windows.
Opal’s tentacles burst through the windows and sunk their claws into my back. The tentacles whipped back, ripping me from the wheelhouse and tossing me across the deck. I landed at the top of the staircase and rolled down.
From the bottom of the stairs, I could barely see what happened next. Opal pulled Sherry from the wheelhouse and dragged her across the deck by her throat. “It annoys me, being forced to consume the mind of someone so vile,” the Opal creature said in a voice that sounded like the screams of the damned. The creature stopped at the side of the hot tub.
“But, you leave me no choice,” Opal said as she reached in and pulled out Ruby’s corpse. “You ruined this one.” Opal tossed Ruby’s body aside.
Opal dunked Sherry’s head into the hot tub. It was faint, but I noticed a slight twinge of pain in her dozens of eyes as her claw touched the water. Sherry swung her arms wildly, trying and failing to get free from Opal’s grasp.
With a groan, I pulled myself to my feet. My ears were ringing and I could barely stand. As I shook my head, trying to throw off my stupor, I noticed the box of emergency supplies at the bottom of the stairs. I crawled over, opened it, and dug out the one item that could save me.
I stumbled up the stairs. Opal still had Sherry held underwater. I raised my arm, pointing the flare gun at Opal. I pulled the trigger. The glowing flare shot from the barrel, exploding as it struck Opal in the back.
Opal screamed as the fire consumed her body. Her grip slipped and Sherry’s popped up from the water, gasping for air. Opal’s monstrous arms flailed around wildly as her screams filled the air. Opal stumbled forward, falling into the hot tub with a tremendous splash. The flare stopped burning, but the monster’s pain continued. The water of the hot tub, far warmer than the water of the ocean, burned her oozing skin. Opal thrashed around in the hot tub, too distressed to think.
Sherry crawled out of the hot tub. I ran over to her, helping her to her feet. “Get to the wheelhouse and grab the matches,” I shouted.
As the words left my lips, one of Opal’s arms whipped back, slamming into my chest and throwing me halfway across the deck. Opal climbed out of the hot tub, her claws digging into the wooden deck. I tried to crawl away and Opal pointed one of her arms at me. Hundreds of strands of flesh erupted out, stretching towards me and wrapping around my body.
The strands near my chest bunched together, weaving together into a solid mass. After a few seconds, a fake face stared me in the eyes. The face was nothing more than a face, and its eyes were missing, but I still recognized the ghastly mug smiling at me. It was the face of Opal.
“That was a mean trick,” the face said in a sing-songy voice. “Even Sherry’s gun didn’t hurt as much as that flare. But, it will take a lot more to keep me from killing you.”
I tried to speak but strands of flesh wrapped around my throat, strangling me. “This face, it’s the face of Opal. The stripper Simon and Sherry hired to entice you,” the face said. “You actually fell for her, didn’t you? You know it was just an act, right? I absorbed her memories when I killed her, I know she had no affection for you. Sneaking off with you, telling you her real name, you giving her your coat…all lies from a woman who knew Sherry planned to put a bullet between your eyes.”
I struggled to breathe. I felt life slipping from my body. “Don’t worry, though, Joseph. You can ask her yourself when you meet in hell,” Opal said, unhinging her jaw to reveal a throat full of blade-like teeth.
Sherry kicked open the wheelhouse door and stepped out. She was still dripping wet and covered in blood, but there was a fire in her eyes. In one hand, she held a box of matches. In the other, she held dozens of matches. In one swift motion, Sherry ripped an entire box’s worth of matches across the striker strip, igniting the matches, and threw them at Opal. The matches spread as they moved through the air, landing all over the deck.
“Burn,” Sherry whispered. Fire consumed the deck, a deck covered by spilled booze and oily flesh. The blaze engulfed the creature. It screamed as it burned away, its strands of flesh turning to ash.
The fire burned through the strands holding me down, severing them from the monster and allowing me to break free. I crawled to the edge of the ship, trying to escape the inferno.
The creature had the same idea. The small amount of monster left from the fire crawled to the edge of the ship, where Simon fell off. It jumped away, landing in the cold black sea, and swam away.
The heat and the smoke were so strong I could barely think. I climbed over the railing and hung there. And I waited, for what felt like hours. Eventually, the blaze died down, and I attempted to pull myself back onboard. But, by that point, I was too injured and too exhausted. My grip slipped.
Another hand grabbed my own and pulled me back onto the ship. It was Sherry, saving me for saving her. “Is it over?” I asked, lying against the railing.
“I don’t know,” Sherry said.
I looked around the trashed deck, covered in burned wood and shattered glass. The creature was gone, but the remnants of its rampage remained. Ruby’s body, partially burned, laid by the railing. Five other bodies sat in other parts of the ship.
Sherry and I spent hours watching the water, waiting for the creature to come back. It never did. Dawn came, bringing with it a fishing boat that brought us home.
Sherry told the cops everything that had happened. The police didn’t believe her. Especially not after I told them that Sherry went crazy and killed everyone. The fact that her fingerprints were on the gun that killed Ruby, coupled with the police finally noticing that eighteen different associates of Simon Star had gone missing recently, was enough to put Sherry in prison for the rest of her life. Part of me envies her. She’s safe, behind bars.
I think about that night a lot. I think about the horrors I saw. Part of me wishes it was a dream. But I know it wasn’t. I held onto the film that showed the creature killing the crew. I look at it every time I doubt my own sanity.
The creature is still out there. I know it is. It’s hurt, but it’s alive. And sooner or later, it’s going to find some unlucky sailor and become human enough to come onto the shore. And, when that happens, it will come for me.