<br><h3> Chapter One </h3> Hail beat against her window to the bay. Hallie Marsh barely noticed. Born in San Francisco, she'd lived all her thirty-two years in a city that could serve up rain, fog, or sunshine at any time - and occasionally, all three at once. <p> The patter of tiny particles hitting the glass was strangely hypnotic. Life had no great problems; her routine was pleasant and consistent - why, then, was she feeling discontented? <p> Crossing the room to a built-in armoire, Hallie opened the cabinet door and peered at her shelf of cashmere sweaters, each neatly folded and stacked by color. Fashion seemed annoyingly irrelevant in 2008, with the country in deep recession. She'd already donated many of her clothes to a family service organization, where she volunteered on weekends, but there was always more to give. <p> Edith Marsh applauded Hallie's altruistic efforts, often reminding her daughter how blessed she was; Hallie's good looks were a strong advantage in the world of today - as well she knew. What was it Ken Skurman had called her? - "A study in contradiction." <p> "The first time I met you," he'd confessed, one late afternoon at the office. "You were a pretty blonde with a turned up nose and a girl-next-door smile. With those looks, I figured you had to be spoiled, and all that do-gooder stuff you preached was phony. Now that I know you, you're still spoiled, but you're a <i>genuine</i> phony." <p> Hallie's laughter was appreciative, though she didn't agree with his assessment. If a woman cared about helping people, but still took pride in her appearance, why was that phony? <p> She had tried being plain-looking several times, but it always proved her point. Once she had even strolled into the sacred halls of Neiman Marcus dressed in a T-shirt, Levi's, dark glasses and a scarf (not Gucci) wrapped around her hair. <p> Mrs. Bacon, the effusive blue-rinser who'd waited on her family for 20 years, had walked right past one of her "favorite customers" without the slightest sign of recognition. <p> Plucking a sweater from the shelf, Hallie pulled it over her head, slipped into slacks, then sat down at her dressing table. The makeup routine was fast and easy - a quick brush of the hair, foundation with sunscreen, a touch of rouge, lipstick - and voila! <p> Next came leather flats, a raincoat, her briefcase, and a half-hearted attempt to straighten her sheets. The unmade bed would stay that way until ten-or-so o'clock, when lively Lena, her condo-keeper, would arrive to spend an hour on the cell phone while cleaning the kitchen, sing along with her iPod while "straightening up," then leave shortly thereafter. A few spots might get overlooked in Lena's zest for life, but her honesty and loyalty were indisputable. <p> <p> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>Mystery of the Mermaid</b> by <b>Merla Zellerbach</b> Copyright © 2009 by Merla Zellerbach. Excerpted by permission.<br> All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.<br>Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.