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Excerpt from Death of a Mermaid

Splat!

There's nothing quite like the sound of a good filet mignon hitting the floor—especially a rare one.

"Oh my God!" Margie wailed, and there was a collective intake of breath as every patron in the restaurant prayed that the steak on the floor was not their steak.

"Oh my goodness," said an older lady, wiping at the splattering of blood and juice across the front of her dress.

Margie fled into the back with the empty plate, leaving the steak lying on the floor with its accompaniment of mashed sweet potatoes and tender asparagus.

"Next," I said as I made my way through the tables toward the stranded steak, "we will be performing a juggling act with full water glasses. Stay tuned."

The guests laughed and applauded and went back to their muted conversations. On a foggy Outer Banks night when the ocean view out the fifth floor windows is almost nil, people take their entertainment where they can.

"Are you okay?" I asked the lady as she wiped at her dress.

"Oh yes, I'm fine," she said. "It was a juicy steak, wasn't it? I asked for it rare, and I do believe they got it just right. My iron's low you see, and what's needed is a nice bloody steak to bring it right back up again."

We both stared at the nice bloody steak oozing on the floor.

"Let me get you a wet rag to clean your dress, and of course we want to pay for your dry cleaning bill, or a new dress if that's needed," I said. "We'll get a new steak right out."

"That's very kind of you, but I believe a quick trip to the lady's room will fix me right up. You tell that sweet young girl not to worry a bit." She got to her feet and limped purposefully towards the restroom, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Thank God for an understanding, reasonable customer. In this day and age I was lucky she wasn't threatening to sue for emotional trauma.

I went into the back wait station where Kate was assembling a broom and dust pan for the cleanup and directing one of the other waits to get a mop.

"I can't find Margie, but I told Chef we need another steak," she said over her shoulder as she went back into the dining room. "It's not like Margie at all, is it? I wonder where she went. Is the lady going to be all right?"

"She's a doll," I assured my second-in-command, and went through the swinging doors into the kitchen.

"As if I don't have enough problems," Chef was yelling at the top of his lungs when I came in. "I have peanut butter sandwiches to make, two hundred of them, and I don't have time to be duplicating every entrée that goes to the restaurant!"

"It's just the one," I said, but he couldn't hear me over the rattling dish machine and shouting. Lee the dishwasher was reciting Shakespeare, as usual, in a hip-hop rhyme.

"What, no one knows how to clean a pot around here? Am I the only one who knows how to clean—" crash "—a—" crash "—pot?" Leah Hawkins, the banquet chef, smashed the heavy pot against the side of the metal sink. "Lord Jesus!"

I shook my head, feeling bemused as I went to the kitchen window where Chef stood staring at me.

"Can you explain to me why it is so difficult for a wait person to carry a plate to a table without dropping it?" he asked. "I have peanut butter sandwiches to make!"

"Ah, your expensive chef education is coming in handy," I said. "That's why you're mad, admit it. You resent having to make peanut butter sandwiches for that kiddy banquet tomorrow. You know perfectly well that Margie has never dropped anything before. Have you seen her?"

"No. She's probably checked herself into an insane asylum, which is what all of us who choose to work in this business ought to do," he said, and slid a plate into the window. "There's your rare steak. Again. See if you can get it safely to the table, will you?"

"I'll do my best," I assured him.

After I took the plate to the table and made sure the guest was okay (she was, especially after I told her the steak was on the house), I went in search of Margie. I found her in the back storeroom, sitting on the floor beside a box of rigatoni pasta. She was staring blankly at the wall.

"Margie? Is everything all right?"

"I'm sorry, Callie," she said without looking up. "I've never done anything like that before. Is the lady okay?"

"She's fine. She wanted me to tell you not to worry, that she's just fine."

"Oh Jesus, I think I'm losing it. I was walking out to her table and the guy at forty-three said my name. I thought it was him and it freaked me out. I spun around and the food went flying right off the plate. I don't know what happened." She plucked at the edge of her apron and stared at me helplessly.

"What's going on, Margie? You've been distracted for the last couple of weeks. Do you want to talk about it?" Now wasn't the perfect time for this conversation. Margie had six tables out in the restaurant, but something in her face told me not to rush her. Something was very wrong.

She said nothing, bowing her head so her dark, curly ponytail covered the side of her face. She was twenty-three and pretty in a fresh-faced athletic way. I met Margie five months ago when I took the job as manager of the Seahorse Café in the Holiday House Hotel. In that time, she had proven herself to be an exemplary employee, always cheerful and polite, a wonderful waitress, and never late for work.

"You said a guest said your name and you thought it was him. Who is 'him'?" I prodded.

"He won't leave me alone," she said in a low voice. "I thought he was nice at first, but now he just won't leave me alone."

"Who? Doug?" Doug was the clean-cut young man Margie had been seeing this summer. He worked in the hotel as a houseman, and ever since she broke up with him he'd been walking around looking like someone had kicked him in the stomach.

"I don't know what to do. I don't think I can take it anymore," Margie continued as if she hadn't heard me.

"Tell me what's going on," I said. "Tell me who you're talking about and maybe I can help."

"Callie!" I heard Chef roar from the kitchen. "Margie! What, is this the night of the invisible wait staff? Should I expect the plates to waft themselves out of the window all on their own? Where the heck did everyone go?"

Margie got to her feet. "Jeez, I forgot about my other tables. How could I forget about them? Thank you for listening, Callie. Don't mind me, I've just got a lot on my mind."

She went out of the storeroom and I watched her go. Maybe I was wrong, but all I felt was relief that she was going back to work.

We got busy right after that, and I didn't have a chance to think about Margie or anything else as the line at the door lengthened. Margie made no more mistakes that night, and if she wasn't as cheerful as usual, she was quick and professional and no one complained. It was only later, as I came back up the service elevator after two hours at my desk, that I remembered that I was going to talk to her when she got off. The wait staff was long gone by now, however.

I was debating whether to just go home or to go to Sharkey's as I passed through the deserted kitchen. It was almost eleven, and I was ready to get away from the Holiday House. Even though I was tired, I wasn't ready to go home and stare at my bedroom ceiling. Maybe I would go to Sharkey's.

The kitchen was quiet except for the hum of freezers and refrigerators and the clank-clank of the dish machine. Someone must have left it running by accident.

I went around the edge of the dish room and stopped cold. Oh Lord. It couldn't be.

I closed my eyes and opened them again. It was still there.

A skull.

The eyeholes gleamed at me as water trickled down the brownish plates of the skull. The jawbone was sitting separate from the skull itself, a macabre Cheshire grin.

It was a skull, I could see that; I'd seen them before in museums and in movies. What I had a problem with was where it was: on top of a pile of jumbled silverware in a plastic dishwasher rack.

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