… was that a fish nibbling her toe? It tickled. She giggled — or tried to. The air — water? — would not act right in her lungs.
Suddenly the tickle became a fiery bite. In a flash Sylvia snapped her body double and snatched the fish with one hand despite the dim moon-shot darkness around her, some sense telling her exactly where it was.
The water frothed white at the speed of her motion. Her arm whipped through the water and her fangs bit into the writhing foot-long fish.
What the Hell? Fangs? Water in her lungs?
Sylvia stared around her. She was indeed under water. It was shallow and she was only a bit beneath the surface. Long strands of seaweed and silver leaves like streamers waved lazily below her. The bottom was dim but she — felt? — the stones scattered about with their soft mossy surfaces. Clicks, squeaks, groans, and other familiar underwater sounds bathed her. If she focused on any sound she instantly knew what emitted it and in just what direction and distance it was.
She completed her bite of the small shark, wiggling only feebly now. The taste of the mouthful caused her stomach to cramp. She was suddenly ravenous. But she wasn’t well built for eating under water, though she had no trouble breathing — gilling? Was the water coming through gills?
Sylvia put her free hand to her side. Yes, it was. There was a set just under her ribs on the side. Warmed water flowed from it in a long gust. This was the outflow.
Her fingers were awfully long.
She held her hand in front of her eyes. Her fingers were longer than those of a human’s. Straight spikes on finger tips, thumb nail well hooked. It looked strong.
Were those scales on her arm and the back of her hand? No. Small faintly silver scalloped patterns. Almost like tattoos.
She took another breath — of water! — through her mouth. It gaped wide and took in a long smooth gulp but closed without taking a second. Well, that explained the problem eating if she was a mouth breather!
Her legs flexed slightly, her toes gave one long flex, and Sylvia’s head broke water.
Much better. She took a big long bite of the fish, chewed it well, swallowed. Good. Her hunger eased. The taste was good. She had gotten some entrails and bones as well as muscle but it was all just another flavor and the bones bothered her throat not at all. Not a surprise. It was not the delicate throat of a human.
A deep yawn struck her. Or a good approximation. A long breath of air came into her lungs and she belched — through her gills.
She looked around the little bay. The near-full moon bathed the pale curve of the beach and made dark shadows under the low dense trees and occasional tall palm tree beyond it. Fragments of moonlight danced on the gentle waves. A small cottage with a dark shingle roof stood at the grassy margin between beach and forest. It had a fence around it and a grassy yard, somewhat the worse for lack of mowing.
Sylvia finished the fish, eating even the hard skull. Her palate, teeth, and throat were inhumanly tough and the skull just satisfyingly crunchy. Then she paddled toward the beach. Her legs moved like a frogs, her arms swept lazily forward and back in powerful sweeps like a dog paddle but much more graceful.
She stood when reaching shallow water. A tickling sensation came from her hands. She glanced at them. They were shrinking. No. Assuming normal proportions. Pretty much. The nails remained about a half inch long and were thick and sharp. To a quick glance they would appear normal but they would rip through flesh like the claws of a tigress.
The same tickling affected her feet. Before they became normal she could see that her toes were long, strong, and tipped with claws blunter and bulkier than those of her hands. They also had diminishing webs between the claws, as had her hands before they reverted to human appearance.
So she was a were-creature of some sort. She bared her teeth and felt them. They had become the blunt square teeth of humans, thankfully. Able to pass as human.
Unless her body — She looked down. It was her usual slender wide-hipped long-legged body, with its small bosom — which was expanding out from a nearly flat chest only defined by hard slab of pectoral muscle. Her nipples flowered from flat spots to full size.
Hot damn! What if she was not a were-whatever, but a shapechanger like those in Irish folk tales her mother had told her? Could she will the changes, size her breasts larger or smaller?
Maybe better not to think of experimenting now when her body was returning to normal without her thinking about it.
Irish folk tales … Sylvia Connelly. That’s who she was. A graduate student in ichthyology at the Miami University Institute for Ocean Science. Here in Puerto Rico re-writing her doctoral dissertation to the specifications of her doctoral committee.
And this was her cabin she was walking up to, off the sand and onto the tough grass beyond it. She entered the not-quite-closed gate and shut it behind her, stood looking at the front of her cabin. It was small but nice and she had enjoyed living in it.
But how was she to get in? She chuckled. No purse. No keys. No nothing.
Ten minutes later she was not chuckling. She had never hidden a spare key anywhere, thinking that an easy way for a thief or rapist to get inside her home. And she had circled the house twice and found no way in. The owners had guaranteed that a woman alone would be safe inside this out-of-the-way house. There were bars on every window, the doors were thick, and the locks were not weak spots to be attacked.
Sylvia leaned slightly forward, a hand on a bar of the bedroom window protector, to look inside. Damn it! A shower, clothes, a comfy bed were feet away from her!
Suddenly her throat tilted back and a roar blasted forth that could have come from a gorilla or a tigress.
She tightened her hands on the grate holding the window bars, stuck a leg up against the wall, and with her whole body jerked in fury. The entire protector came loose with a cracking sound and her body twisted as her arms jerked back with the grate attached as if the assembly was flinging itself over her shoulder. Instantly she loosened her grip and snapped her hands away from the grate. It sailed behind and above her as her body rolled backward out from under it.
She scrambled up and turned toward the forest. She was just in time to see trees thrash from the impact of the bars striking them. There was several seconds during which they fell downward from branch cluster to cluster before thudding to the earth.
She stared at her hands. Gripping those rough bars as hard as she had they should be scratched and bleeding. But she felt no pain. She ran her thumb over the inside surfaces of her fingers. She felt a delicate sliding pressure but nothing else. Her fingers felt normally sensitive, yet the skin obviously could be tougher than leather.
She shook her head and turned to break the window pane. She might have become Wonder Girl or the Sea Princess or something weird like that. But she was still a girl who wanted a shower and soft bath robe.
A half hour later Sylvia scuffed into her kitchen in a robe and pink furry bunny slippers, a childhood love she had decided she was too adult to discard. She felt like a normal woman again.
Except for one little detail. Somewhere her hair had come alive. When she shampooed her hair she could distinctly feel each hair — from inside the hair. It was weirder than all her other unhuman experiences. At least fang teeth, however sharp and driven by vice-like muscles, were still teeth and felt like teeth when she bit something.
Her hairs, on the other hand, would coil and straighten themselves individually and in strands and as a whole. She just wished them to do something and, as if they were tiny arms, they did her biddings. Her hair would even wring itself drier, and right now she had willed her hair into a sort of bouffant to keep her hair loose and let it dry quicker.
The sight of her refrigerator and sink and counter and the little kitchen table clothed in its pale blue tablecloth diverted her and gladdened her heart. A house might be a woman’s castle but her kitchen was her throne room.
She opened the frig. Everything still there. The vegetable crisper had not worked perfectly but, except for the lettuce, everything was edible. The opened milk carton had spoiled but the sealed one had not. The opened and resealed bottle of soft drink had lost its carbonation but she had several more cooled down. She opened one, added ice to a glass, and poured the soft drink to its top.
The sharp sweet taste locked her jaws. Her eyes teared and she managed to unlock her jaws, then took a cautious second drink. It was absolutely heavenly.
Sylvia set to making a sandwich, tracing her memories as she did so.
The last she remembered was the day she finished the last required changes to part three of the four parts of her dissertation. A quick scan with a spelling program to check for typos, a half-hour for the text to print, and she’d carefully boxed it up and biked into town to mail to her Institute committee chairman.
San Luisita was some 12,000 people strong, a bit touristy on its beautiful bay but more homey than anything. The much bigger city further up the coast was the real tourist attraction for Puerto Rico. She’d had lunch then done a few hours of touristy shopping.
That was more as an excuse to look at the picturesque buildings and streets and say hello to people she’d known on and off for near ten years, since her mother had brought her here while attending an art conference. Many people knew of the profesorita, the little professor. She was very learned about fishy things, but always ready to listen to the fishermen who would tell her of things that weren’t in books.
Then she’d gone home, bathed, let her hair down from its usual bun or pony tail, the golden curls free about her shoulders, and spiffed herself up. She had put on a sexy yellow dress and heels and a few dabs of perfume.
She left home the fake glasses to take away her prettiness and present a brainy facade, something especially needed when you were blonde like she was. The old-time feminists might fuss about not catering to men’s egos but that was foolish when you were looking for a hunk for a one-night stand. Best he underestimate your intelligence so he wouldn’t try harder to take more advantage of you than you wanted.
The elegant dinner at the Hilton in Ponce, the biggest city on the south shore of P’Rico, was exactly as she liked. She’d had to go to three upscale bars to find what else she wanted.
Two Argentine astropilots had been celebrating the entry of Argentina into the space industry dominated by Australia and the US. They were cute but like a lot of pilots they were a bit short for her. She’d had her eye on one of their three male friends.
That’s where the trouble had begun. Sylvia always kept an eye on her drink to avoid a date-rape drug, but the bartender must have been in on it. Even though she watched him carefully when he fixed her drink he had to have slipped her rohypnol or something similar.
The next she remembered she had came partly back to herself on a boat with three men. One was trying to tie her hands behind her and she’d kicked him in the crotch. A second had tried to choke her from behind and she’d backed into him and tripped them both, elbowing him hard in the gut. But the third had hit her with a pipe or some such and there’d been a bright flash.
Perhaps they had raped her before they threw her over the side, maybe weighted to stay down. But that had not been the first thing on their minds, she guessed. They had been going to sell her into prostitution, something that happened more often than polite society liked to think about. Blonds with blue eyes like her were especially prized in South America.
She had cheated them of that, at least. And when she found them again… She smiled and her teeth tingled slightly as they sharpened a tiny bit toward her shark’s fangs. She calmed, hoping her teeth would return to normal. They did and —
Wow! She was halfway through her third sandwich. Was her appetite always going to be like this?
She left the remains of her meal in the sink when she finished and wandered into her office, stopping at the front door long enough to pick up the pile of mail.
Sitting at her desk she examined the mail. A few bills, a postcard from her Mom, some advertising, and two green cards showing that the post office had twice tried to deliver a package to her personally. This would be the final miniscule corrections on part three of her dissertation which she had mailed — before being killed. The package had to have a confirmation of its safe arrival before the postman would deliver it.
A quick glance at the postmarks suggested she’d been gone a month and her computer confirmed it when she turned it on and brought up the clock-calendar.
Hmm. A month for her to turn from a corpse to — whatever the Hell she was.
She stared through the wall for long moments before getting up and going to bed. Sleep seemed to come instantly.