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The Drowning of the Phoenix

Phoenix, mermaid, pool

By Rosie Ford Published 10 months ago 15 min read
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The Drowning of the Phoenix
Photo by Ameer Basheer on Unsplash

TRAGEDY IN SIN CITY — LOS ANGELES MAN FOUND DEAD IN PHOENIX CASINO POOL

July 8, 1972 — Michael Powell, 34, was found dead in the Phoenix Casino pool last Wednesday. Preliminary investigations have ruled his death an accidental drowning, likely a result of intoxication.

“Mikey was only a social drinker,” commented his mother. “I’ve never known him to get so drunk he couldn’t make his way out of a four-foot pool. We’re all devastated.”

The investigation is ongoing.

***

By Ben Lambert on Unsplash

TWO WEEKS AFTER THE DEATH

Far below the office window, mermaids sit at the edge of the pool with cocktail trays in their hands. Ogden has always loved watching them. It’s his little oasis in a sea of noise and neon lights and blackness beyond the bustle. The mermaids are like money—he can’t get enough.

Someone knocks on his door. Probably that damn lawyer, ten minutes late again. Ogden doesn’t put out his cigar. “Come in,” he says, not looking away from the window. Not all mermaids are created equal. His is the most popular. It isn’t hard to see why: her golden hair. Her freckled, sand-colored skin, kissed by the Nevada sun. Her body. Ogden only has to get rid of the lawyer and then she’ll be his.

“Hello,” says the lawyer. Ogden takes his time turning to look at him. The lawyer is young and handsome, the product of a wealthy family who made their fortune doing the same thing he’s doing now—returning freedom to people who don’t deserve it. “I have some news.”

“Good or bad?” Ogden asks.

“I wouldn’t say it’s good,” says the lawyer. He clears his throat when the smoke drifts in his direction. “Sorry, could you put that out? Cancer runs in my family.”

That seems like something Ogden should know by now. He takes another drag. “A few minutes won’t kill you.”

“No, but we’re going to be working together for a long time. Mr. Powell’s family has decided to sue.”

Sue?” Ogden spits. “You were supposed to deter them.”

“Yes, but I can only go so far before deterrence becomes bribery from the court’s perspective.” The lawyer loosens his tie. “Or before it becomes a threat.”

Ogden scoffs. “Your father played dirty. That’s what I liked about him.”

The lawyer says nothing for a while. He only stares at Ogden, his eyes blank. After a deep breath, he says, “I could refer you to another law firm or hand off the case to one of my employees if you’re unhappy.”

So he’s not reactionary. Ogden needs someone who fights like a dog. “Just go.”

“Am I fired?” asks the lawyer with a note of hope in his voice. It’s enough to make Ogden say no.

***

By Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

Claire grew up dreaming of being a mermaid. The movie kind, not the Las Vegas kind. She looks up at Ogden’s fourteenth floor window, which is actually the thirteenth floor window, and wonders if he’s looking back. He says he loves watching her from there. Her golden hair makes her the prettiest of all the mermaids, even from three hundred feet up. That’s what he says when they’re alone.

The pool is the kind of pool that would solve the drought if its contents were shared among the residents of the metropolitan area. Unnatural. Unbelonging. A little disgusting, considering all the living things dying for the drought. But it’s a job; Claire needs money as much as she needs water.

She splashes the surface of the pool with her shiny purple tail, which draws the attention of a red-faced guest just off the slot machines inside. He smiles at her because she’s beautiful. She smiles back because it’s her job. He wades closer. She puts her guard up and catches Cora’s eye from across the pool. The other mermaid nods to let Claire know she’s watching.

Claire’s had this conversation dozens of times before. He’ll say hello, she’ll say hi. He’ll ask where she’s from, she’ll say here. He’ll ask if she wants to go home with him, she’ll say she’s seeing someone. He’ll get handsy. The girls will do what they have to do. Claire is tired of it. The customers don’t tip enough to cover the damage they cause.

“Hello, beautiful,” says the drunkard.

“Hi. Can I interest you in a drink?” she asks through her customer service smile. “Nectar of the Gods, maybe?”

“I’m more interested in you, actually.” He sits beside Claire on the concrete and his eyes roam over her body. When they finally come back to her face, he says, “Let’s get out of here.”

He’s wearing a diamond-encrusted watch, so that line might work on more desperate girls. All it does to Claire is make her roll her eyes. “I’m seeing someone.”

He laughs. “No one like me.”

Now it’s her turn. She looks him up and down. Lifts her dark eyebrows. Frowns the way one might frown at a dying bird. “Only the drinks are for sale.”

He puts one hand on her hip. “Everything has a price. What’s yours?”

“Please don’t touch me, sir.”

By now Cora has wiggled out of her tail and is making her way over. She’s been doing jobs like this longer than Claire and her experience has given her a good sense for when things are about to go to hell. She comes to stand beside Claire. Looks down her nose at the handsy guest, who still hasn’t let go of what doesn’t belong to him. “She asked you not to touch her much more nicely than I would have. Now I’m telling you.”

“What are you gonna do?” the guest asks. His other hand reaches for Claire’s breast. Cora is about to take a swing at his head when somebody else does it for her. The guest staggers backward and collapses into the water. Ogden follows him in, wraps his hands around the stranger’s throat before he gets a chance to come up for air.

“You don’t touch her,” Ogden says through his teeth. He lets the man take half a breath, then shoves him back under. Claire and Cora call his name, but he’s deaf with rage. “You don’t fucking touch my girls.” Muffled screams float through the upset water. The guest thrashes, but it must be like fighting a tree between Ogden’s height and doggedness. Claire slips out of her tail and into the quivering pool and grabs Ogden by the shoulders.

“Baby, you gotta stop,” she says. He doesn’t respond. She squeezes harder. “Ogden, stop! He gets it!”

It takes the two of them to get Ogden off the stranger. Water drips from his white hair. His shirt is plastered to his heaving chest. There’s murder in his eyes. Claire rests her head against his shoulder. He makes her feel safe.

“Fuck, man!” The guest hacks up a lungful of pool water. “What the hell?”

“How much do you want?” Claire asks.

“What the fuck are you asking me, bitch?”

She puts herself between the stranger and Ogden, who’s about to repeat history. “How much money will keep you quiet?”

He thinks. The water laps at their waists. “Ten thousand. And he has to replace my watch.”

So he’s not rich—he just spends all his money on expensive things. Figures. Ogden shakes his head and climbs out of the pool. Claire kisses his cheek. “Don’t go anywhere,” she tells the stranger. “I’ll get the checkbook.”

Claire goes inside, crosses the casino floor without making eye contact with any of the guests, and rides the elevator to the fourteenth floor. When she’s alone in the hallway, she can’t stop the tears. This is hardly new. Someone tries to touch her at least once a day, but Ogden’s been in such a foul mood ever since the corpse washed up that tonight he just boiled over. Not that he didn’t boil over before; it’s just that now “boiling over” means attempted murder.

“Looking for something?” asks a voice from somewhere behind her. She turns. A security guard. They’re alone in the hallway.

By runnyrem on Unsplash

“I just need to grab something from Ogden’s office,” Claire says. Not that she should have to explain herself—he knows who she is, and who she is to Ogden. And she knows what he does while he watches the mermaids. Everybody in the hotel has a secret; she only keeps the security guard’s because she worries what Ogden might do to him.

“What?” He ambles closer, cornering her at the end of the corridor. Claire stands her ground.

“I left my necklace.” Her hand goes to her throat.

“Do you need help finding it?”

“No,” she says. “I know where it is.”

He edges even nearer, so near she smells the smoke on his breath and clothing. Then he boxes her into the doorframe, one arm blocking her escape route. “Let me help you.”

“I’ll tell Ogden,” Claire says.

The security guard makes the right decision. She still backs into the office so she can keep an eye on him until the door is shut and locked. When Claire finds the checkbook, she tucks it into her glittery bra and wastes no time on her way back to the pool.

She writes the check. Ogden signs it. The stranger goes away, hopefully forever. The rest of her shift is busy but uneventful, and at 2:00 AM she gives Cora a long hug goodbye. Ogden thinks Claire is the prettiest mermaid at the casino, but it’s hard to see why when Cora works here too. She’s tall and goddessly with skin the color of locust bark. She doesn’t look real.

“Stressful day, huh?” Cora says, letting go of Claire far too soon.

“It’s just nice to talk to someone who gets it. It’s like nowhere is safe in this hotel anymore,” Claire says. “That security guard—the one who watches us—he cornered me in the hallway.”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah.” Claire pushes her hair behind her ear. “I told him I’d tell Ogden and that was enough to get him to back off, but . . . .”

“You shouldn’t have to tell him in the first place.”

Claire chews on the inside of her cheek. “No. I shouldn’t.”

“Maybe you could tell Ogden anyway,” Cora says.

“I can’t. He’ll kill him. I don’t want anyone else to die.”

Cora crosses her arms. “Why do you care? Aren’t you sick of getting harassed while you’re just trying to make a living? Maybe somebody needs to be the example here, and maybe that creepy security guard should be the one.”

“Michael Powell was the example,” Claire says. There’s a break in the conversation. When Claire speaks again, her voice is shaky. “If things were going to change, they would have changed by now. Anyway, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Be careful,” Cora says.

Claire shakes her head. It doesn’t matter whether she’s careful or not.

By Matthieu Rochette on Unsplash

Ogden takes her home in his Italian car after her shift. She likes being waited for. He stops outside the apartment and puts on the parking brake, his hair turned to gold in the light of the street lamp. “You’re quiet. What are you thinking?”

Claire shrugs.

“Tell me,” Ogden says.

“It’s just—do you really think you should be causing trouble right now? You’re under investigation.”

The air gets cold. “The hotel is being investigated. It’s a civil case.”

“And what if it stops being a civil case?” Claire asks.

“Are you accusing me of something?”

She doesn’t answer. Ogden’s open palm collides with her cheek. Claire’s touches the growing welt, vision blurry. “How dare you, Claire? You’re the one person in this world I thought I could trust.” Ogden. Gorgeous, volatile, savage Ogden. He makes Claire feel safe, except when he doesn’t.

“You can,” she whispers. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I even brought it up.” She didn’t deserve that. He sure as hell doesn’t deserve an apology.

Ogden leans back in his seat, his grey eyes closed. When they open again, they settle emptily on Claire. He kisses her with so much softness she can’t help but take the gesture as an apology. With her head against his chest, she asks, “Will you stay with me tonight?”

“In these apartments?”

“What?” She touches his lips. There isn’t much he won’t do if she offers something in exchange. “You think you’re too good for a place like this?”

He fucks her in her own bed for the first time. Whatever problems they had are forgotten now, when he’s small and powerless and asleep between the thin walls of her territory. She stays up, watching him breathe, seeing him in a way she’s never seen him before. He says he loves her; he just doesn’t say it very often. She loves him. More than anything. But when he asked her to move into his house on the hill, it felt so wrong she made up an excuse to stay in the apartment with the thin walls and the gunshots outside.

***

The lawyer is ten minutes late to his appointment with Claire and Ogden. She’s chosen a table in the corner so she doesn’t have to look over her shoulder. It’s strange to be at the Phoenix in daylight; she’s never seen the stained glass windows in the restaurant paint the marble floor with colored sunlight. Ogden has given her the day off after all the stress of last night. He’d give her every day off, but she can’t afford to owe him that much.

“This is just an informal meeting,” says the lawyer. “I just want to see if you remember any details that might help with the case. Could you tell the story of that night from the beginning?”

Claire shrugs. Ogden squeezes her hand. “I came in around six o’clock, like usual. It was slow until around ten o’ clock and I don’t remember much after that. So much was happening.”

“Around what time did Mr. Powell come in?”

“I don’t know.” Claire tucks her hair behind her ear. “I don’t think I saw him the whole night.”

“Really? The toxicology report stated that he was quite intoxicated at the time of his death. He’d been drinking for several hours.”

“Obviously,” Claire says. “But they serve alcohol on the casino floor. Maybe he came out and fell in the pool and drowned after we closed for the night.”

“But don’t you lock the doors?”

“Security is supposed to close,” Claire says. That isn’t true, but she’s tired of that asshole watching them and Ogden doesn’t know half of what goes on in his own establishment.

Ogden rolls his eyes. “Whoever was on duty that night is getting fired today.”

Claire smirks, but only for a second. That’s something, at least. “You’ll have to ask Cora. I didn’t see anything that night, and the only time I saw Mr. Powell was in the newspaper.”

The lawyer stares at her. He knows. Chewing on his lip, he looks to Ogden, but Claire gets to him first. Her hand settles on his thigh. “Baby, I’m not feeling well. Can we go home?”

“Of course.” Ogden gets up and offers her his arm. He nods to the lawyer. “We’ll talk tomorrow.”

“I really think we should talk now. Right now.”

Claire kisses Ogden’s neck. Whatever the lawyer has to say is forgotten.

On the way home they fight about this and that, nothing that matters, except to Ogden. He puts his hands on her. She takes a few laps in the pool at the mansion to calm down. He drinks half a bottle of wine and comes outside, expecting her to make him feel better about the whole thing. Like always. She rubs his shoulders and keeps the wine flowing. He wants her so she sits on his lap, her hands on either side of his face.

“Baby, can I ask you a question?”

“Anything you want,” Ogden slurs. He reaches for the wine bottle, but his slippery hands knock it into the pool. The contents billow red in the water. He laughs and kisses her. “Damn. Oh well.”

By Edge2Edge Media on Unsplash

“Why do you get so mad when other men hurt me, but then you turn around and do the same thing?”

“Because you’re mine to hurt, sweetheart,” Ogden says. It’s the answer she expected, but it isn’t the one she wanted.

She smiles and pats his cheek. They kiss again, his hands on her soft hips, her hands on his chest, one last time, like old times. But he doesn’t taste like Ogden—he tastes like wine. The water is warm from the heat of the day and his eyelids are heavy. “I love you, Ogden.”

He doesn’t answer. She lets him go and he just doesn’t come back up. It shouldn’t be this easy. It wasn’t this easy with Michael. It doesn’t even feel wrong.

Claire climbs out of the pool. She takes one last look at Ogden, expecting a struggle from someone so vital. But there’s nothing, only a body distorted by the water and the diffusing red wine. She wrings out her hair and goes inside, sniffling.

While she’s packing the diamonds Ogden got her into her purse, along with a few bands of hundred-dollar bills, the doorbell rings downstairs. She peeks out the window. That damn lawyer. His shiny shoe taps against the stoop while he waits. It probably won’t be long before he starts snooping around.

Claire hurries down the spiral staircase and throws the door open, her breaths rapid with feigned fear. “Please, you have to help me,” she pants, her hands tightening around his lapels. “We have to go.”

“What? What’s going on?” the lawyer asks.

“I don’t have time to explain. I’m not safe. We have to go. Just get me somewhere safe, please.” Her eyes, bright with desperate tears, meet his. The tears are real; it’s only the story that isn’t.

Being the good man that he is, a protector, a knight in shining armor, the lawyer lets her into the passenger seat of his car and they take the highway out of town. His eye keeps wandering. He’s probably just as bad as all the others, not to mention suspicious after the meeting earlier. Damn Michael Powell for pushing her to the edge. If God is at all fair, damned he is for trying to take what didn’t belong to him.

Short Story
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About the Creator

Rosie Ford

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Comments (2)

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  • Dharrsheena Raja Segarran10 months ago

    Because you're mine to hurt. My blood boiled at that line. Ogden is such a jerk! I'm so glad Claire got away with everything!

  • I enjoyed reading this story. The characters are interesting and drama plus! Great entry to the challenge. I subscribed to your work.

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