Sea Eyes Chapter 10

23 08 2007

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Freeseas Press Release

The incidence of whale strandings continues to escalate throughout the Pacific Rim region with 118 Pilot whales beaching themselves on a remote beach in New Zealand’s South Island. Despite efforts by local residents and members of Freeseas New Zealand chapter to save the whales, only four were rescued, with the rest humanely destroyed after efforts to return them to the ocean failed.

Strandings have reached epidemic proportions in recent months with the New Zealand incident bringing the total to 27 so far his year, involving over 900 whales. These have ranged from dolphins up to the larger Minkes, many of which died as a result of the beachings.

Standings can occur when the whale’s sonar becomes confused or a member of the herd becomes ill. Freeseas have expressed concern that testing of the Navy’s new Low Frequency Active Sonar (LFRS) system which employs massive sonic blasts to detect enemy submarines, may be the cause of such an unusually high proportion of strandings.

‘Trapped between land and a source of electronic pulses, the whales sonar could easily have been confused and the whales would have sought relief by heading inshore,’ Freeseas director, Kyle Raitt explained.

A Navy spokesman declined to comment.

For a complete documentation of recent whale strandings including details of location, number and species please visit

http://www.freeseas.org/freebase/stranding/htm

or contact Leigh Carson at Freeseas Seattle (206) 555 7327.

To report a stranding call our 24 hour emergency line 1-800-FRESEAS


Chapter Ten

In the boat-coloured Arctic dawn it was impossible to tell where the sea ended and the sky began.

‘The Titanic sank in a sea like this,” remarked Marcus, Voyager’s First Officer, entering the wheelhouse and handing Jamie one of two steaming mugs of coffee he was carrying.

“It was night when Titanic sank,’ Jamie reminded him. “Plus there was another big difference ~” his arm indicated the sweep of the ocean visible through the windows to the bridge. “There was ice. There’s not enough out there to put in a glass with the Highland Park I’m going to have when this watch is over.” He took a sip of the coffee Keith had made and grimaced at the bitter taste. “You know, you really do make a disgusting cup of coffee.”

Marc raised his own mug in acknowledgement. “Always happy to contribute to the ships’ morale.” He moved to the port side of the ship. Below, icebergs the size of suitcases were nudged aside by their bow. “I remember when we’dve needed an icebreaker this far north, even at this time of year. Now we can’t even see the ice shelf.” He put down his coffee and reached for a pair of binoculars, searching the horizon for the ever thinning white line that represented the Northern Polar ice cap.

“Yet there are still people out there who think global warming isn’t real,” said Jamie, braving a second slug of coffee and then setting the cup aside. Each year as the climate warmed, they’d been seeing the ice-shelf retreat. And the looming disaster would not just affect the human population as the oceans began to rise. Entire eco-systems were under threat.

Uh-oh, Jamie. Take a look starboard. We got a problem.”

What now? Jamie thought reaching for this own binoculars. Radar showed no other vessels in their immediate vicinity but that didn’t mean one hadn’t left a problem behind them. His mind ran through the mental list of probable scenarios: oil spill, floating debris left by those who treat the ocean like a garbage dump, driftnets abandoned to strangle anything in their path . . .

As it was it was none of these. Roughly three nautical miles off their bow, a large male adult polar bear was valiantly swimming in search of the non-existent ice.

“Aw, shit!” breathed Jamie, lowering the binoculars. “What’s the estimated distance to the ice?” he asked Kevin who joined them, gazing out to where a magnolia-tinted dot was moving against the flow of the whiter ice that dotted the oceans surface.

“Fifty, sixty miles. Ice thick enough to support the weight of a 1,500 pound polar bear? We could be talking seventy or more.”

Jamie swore again as he trained his binoculars towards the bear once more. Urus maritimus, or ‘sea bears’ were fully capable of swimming fifty to sixty miles, hence their name. But this one already looked tired and a swim of seventy miles was certainly outside a polar bears capability. Add to the problem of retreating ice the fact that more and more polar bears were losing their layer of insulating fat as a result of being to unable to hunt the seals they needed for their survival, the bears were now on the endangered species list and there had been more and more sightings like this one. The problem being that even if the bear made ice-fall, they were often too exhausted after such a long swim to hunt and died as a result of a combination of hunger and fatigue.

“Look at him go,” breathed Marc in awe. “He must be looking for the Northwest passage.”

“That’s just his problem,” said Jamie. “The rate global warming is advancing the Northwest passage is going to be a reality year-round.” Which wouldn’t help the polar bears.

“Ah, skip. Couple of the crew have spotted a polar bear swimming a couple of miles off starboard,” echoed the voice of David Lesnic, their resident marine biologist over the intercom.

Jamie picked up the mic. “Yeah we see him, Dave. Kev says we’re about sixty miles off the ice.”

“He looks pretty tired,” came the reply. “What do you want to do?”

What indeed? Freeseas might intervene in cases such as whaling with disruption tactics. They might even resort to out-and-out criminal activity in cases such as animal cruelty, but when it came to an animal in distress in the wild – nobody had yet written the manual that set down any guidelines even for an organization which supposedly didn’t have a rule book.

“They’re an endangered species,” Marc reminded him, unnecessarily Jamie thought.

“Thank-you for reminding me of that fact,” he snapped then mentally berated himself. “Look, guys. This is something we’re going to have to learn to see more and more of. All we can do is document it and ~”

“Document it? Listen, we’re just going to become bystanders then we all might as well quit now. The reason we’re all here and not with Greenpeace is the fact that this organization had a manifesto that said we are no longer going to be bystanders and sit back and passively watch the destruction of this planet. At least that’s what I signed up for.”

Marc and he had crossed swords on this particular issue before, Jamie recalled. They called it the Freeseas Prime Directive. They were free to harass and harangue whalers and factory ships but when it came to the oceans inhabitants – Freeseas had a strictly ‘hands-off’ policy. But what, Jamie thought, happened when those residents problems turned out to be strictly man-made? So far nobody back in Seattle had amended the rule book to include that one. He turned to Kevin. “Hold number two still empty?”

“Couple of nets, that’s all.”

“Bring them. Plus we’re going to need floatation devices and a lot of rope. How much Special K do we have on board?”

Marc grinned, seeing where this was going. Ketamine or ‘Special K’ as it was known on the street, wasn’t part of the official ship’s medical manifest but rather a safety precaution when dealing with large land-based predators like bears. “Enough to keep everybody comatose at a Babyshamblers rave.”

“Well, then,” said Jamie handing him the wheel. “Let’s go save the bears.”

Once Zed had an idea in his head it was impossible to distract him. Zed wanted to see where Ben worked and it seemed that nothing, not even Ben’s marked reluctance in the wake of his encounter with the homophobic trainer, could deter him.

It was, after all, a reasonable enough request, Ben supposed, but the encounter with Flip, whose company he had come to enjoy during their diving sessions together, had left him with a bad taste in his mouth. Prejudice was unpalatable in any guise and Ben wasn’t at all sure whether he wanted to take the chance on exposing Zed to it. He hesitated before replying, a little too long, and as if divining his reluctance Zed looked at him sharply. “What is it? What’s wrong?” he asked.

To his surprise Zed dismissed the incident out of hand. “What does it matter what he says or thinks? The guy’s a dickhead.” Zed brushed back his hair, the top long, the back and sides shaved in an undercut, and jammed his baseball cap on his head. It was a gesture that Ben had learned to associate with preparation to do battle, like girding armor, whether the coming battle was with a temperamental recording artist or the world in general. “He sounds like a typical sexist, beer swilling – what’s the word they use in Australia? Ocker – that’s it. Besides, if you were a little more ‘out’ there then this kind of misunderstanding wouldn’t occur.”

“Misunderstanding? And just what is that supposed to mean? That’s I’m trying to pass myself off as straight, is that it?”

“I didn’t say that,” Zed replied. “But if the shoe fits, Cinderella.”

“Oh come on. We spend Christmas and Thanksgiving with my parents. We live together, holiday together, even shop together. How much more open do we have to be, for Christ’s sake? I’ve never denied what I am.”

“No, but you don’t exactly advertise it either,” was Zed’s reply.

“Let me remind you that public gestures of affection are still a luxury confined to the straight community,” Ben countered. He wondered how this had happened. How a discussion could turn so ugly. As ugly as the words the trainer with all his entrenched prejudices, had thrown at him. He had countered on Zed’s support, his understanding. Instead he found himself having to defend his position to the one person he had counted on being on his side.

“Yeah, right,” Zed said quietly. “I mean, it’s not like you’re ashamed of us or anything.”

He turned away, but not before Ben had caught the glitter of tears in his eyes. He felt instant contrition but also something else. Something unpleasant that maybe he didn’t want to face up to. The nagging suspicion that maybe he was not just being dishonest with Zed, but also with himself. He sighed, as much to break the tension as rein in his fast stampeding temper. “I’m sorry,” he said. “What more can I say?”

Zed turned. “I love you, but let’s leave that out of this for the time being. And it’s not that you don’t love me, because I know that for a fact. Your problem is you’ve yet to learn how to love yourself.”

Later that night, Ben lay awake, listening as Zed’s breathing assumed the rhythmic cadence of sleep, silently replaying every accusation leveled at him and his own reply. The fact was Zed’s words had hurt him far more than anything the Australian had said.

Not just because they were uttered by someone he cared deeply about, but because deep down he knew that every word was true.

 

Finally, they reached a compromise. Ben would take Zed up to Seabourne on the coming Sunday. As the early summer light hung around until almost ten at night it gave Ben plenty of time to show Zed around, introduce him to Dottie and Oscar, take in the last show of the day at five o’clock, after which he knew the dolphin trainer usually headed for home.

“This is where you work? Wow! Man, this is just so cool.”

Zed’s reaction on seeing Ben’s workplace was every bit as filled with child-like awe as any day tripper’s, with the added benefit that Zed would get more than the official guided tour, and also get closer to the real action than any paying guest.

Everywhere Zed went his music went with him, and a visit to Seabourne was no exception. Today he’d brought with him a portable CD player somewhere between the size of an i-Pod and the kind of ghetto blaster that when turned up to full volume could be used to raze entire city blocks. After the final show had ended, Ben led him away from the stadium and past the seal colony then down towards the dolphin lagoon.

Unlocking the gate he lead Zed through and out onto the boardwalk. As he’d arranged earlier, there was a small bucket of fish in the refrigerator in the equipment shed which he retrieved. Zed had placed the music box dangerously near the water’s edge. Ben moved it a few feet inwards. “Just in case,” he explained. Zed nodded, understanding.

Ben took out his whistle to summon the dolphins. In a flurry of fins they arrived almost before the shrill blast had finishing bouncing off the short choppy swell in the cove.

“I can’t believe this,” Zed kept on repeating. “I mean, this is paradise. No wonder you don’t want to come home at night,” he added, jokingly. He reached out a hand to touch one of the dolphins. Oscar obligingly reared up in the water to afford Zed better access to the place under his pectoral fins which he loved to have scratched. Zed gazed into his knowing eye and took in the dolphin’s extraordinary permanent smile on an all too human face. “I feel I’ve touched the divine,” he added more seriously.

Ben nodded. “I know just what you mean. It’s almost like – coming to work every day to see your best friends.”

Zed sat down on the decking, ignoring the water slapping through the slats. “Hey, you’re not going all esoteric on me, are you?” he asked incredulously.

Ben sat down next to him, also oblivious to the water slopping up through the wooden planking. “You know me better than that.”

They watched as the last of the day-trippers streamed out of the main gate, abandoning the park to the few remaining members of staff whose task it was to clear up in their wake. Nearby came the honk of the pinipeds, perched upon the ramparts of their castle like enormous black rooks. In the west, the sun leaned down and kissed the sea goodnight. Zed reached back for his CD player and the sound of a guitar filled the twilight. Ottmar Liebert’s Dancing under the Moon rippled out across the evening tide.

The dolphins leapt from the water then tail walked backwards. Zed leapt to his feet. “Man! Look at them go. They’re dancing!”

It was true. And they weren’t the only ones. Across the other side of the lagoon, Saamri breached, then dove, his fin marking where he swam excitedly back and forth in time to the music.

Ben wondered why he hadn’t thought of playing the dolphins music before. After all, if their world was largely defined by sound, and given their unusually large ‘silent associational’ areas in the brain, the heavily fissured cortical regions where it is supposed, intellectual capacity and language skills reside, it not only followed then, that they would have some reaction, if not appreciation, of music. He caught himself in time. There he was, Ben silently chided, anthropomorphisising again. He couldn’t believe this to be an experiment that Conor hadn’t already tried.

Up in Ben’s office, the computer displays glowed a pale gray. Zed was like a kid let loose in a toyshop, flitting from one monitor to another. He stopped, picking up a tangle of wires and plastic jacked into to the main computer.

“So this is it. This is the all-seeing Eye?”

“I don’t know about the all-seeing part,” Ben replied. “In fact, your rather pessimistic prediction of a digital snowstorm has proven to be the most accurate benchmark for its performance so far.”

Zed slipped the goggles over his head. “Now is the winter of our discontent,” he mimicked.

“Funny,” Ben replied, removing them before Zed could render them permanently in operational.

“Sound into vision. Man, what a buzz.”

“Literally, as a matter of fact. The processor analyses the pulses, then breaks down the components. Here ~, “ Ben opened a window on the desktop. “We feed in the data and the computer constructs a basic image from what was sonared.” The monitor displayed the schematics of Ben’s office at nearly 100% resolution. Pity they had not thus far managed the same with a human interface, Ben reflected glumly.

Zed’s attention span had already led him to tune out and he was now scrolling through a list of WAVE files on another machine. He double-clicked at random and one of Lily’s sound grabs spilled out into the room.

“What is this? The dolphins?”

“No, it’s the killer whale,” Ben replied, trying to sound nonchalant. Even the name made him nervous. “I was running a comparative analysis earlier against recordings of dolphins. We’ve based the technology around the Eye around dolphin echolocation but I was interested to see how the frequencies varied between the two species and if the variables would result in any demonstrable improvement in resolution or accuracy. Those are Lily’s recordings. She’s studying killer whale dialects.”

Zed began to drum a counterpoint beat to the calls with two pencils on Ben’s desk. “So how many sound grabs do you have?”

“There’s about 80,000 samples in the database. What are you thinking?” Zed was on to something, he was sure.

“Say we overlaid these sounds with music? Maybe not just the usual ambient, new age stuff but we can do that too. Hey! I’ve got it. You’re going to love this. Instead of Zen Funk let’s go for Orca Trance. There’s so many new age albums out there that feature dolphins and whales, but this,” he paused to listen again. “These dudes are the hard rock bands of the ocean. I could really do something with this stuff. Out Moby Moby with my whales, man. It’s a killer!”

Ben rolled his eyes deliberately at the pun. But he had to admit there was merit in the idea. “I’ll have to talk to Conor. After all, the recordings belong to the institute, we’d need their permission.”

“But it is a good idea, you gotta give me that,” persisted Zed as they went to collect Bethany from Lily’s office.

“Yeah, it is a good idea,” Ben admitted, grudgingly.

Bethany had been excited at the prospect of meeting Zed. For one thing, Lily had said she could stay up later than usual. And then Ben had promised that he and Zed would take her out to dinner. At a real restaurant. Restaurants were something Bethany had little experience of. For one thing, Uncle Carling had always said she was embarrassing to be seen with because she always spilled her food everywhere. At school they’d taught her that her plate was just like a clock face. Just like she’d learned how to tell the time by feeling where the hands were on the clock, all she needed was for someone to tell her what time her food was. Meat at three o’clock. Potatoes at six. Peas at nine. Carrots at noon and gravy 24 hours a day. Once somebody told her that, eating got a lot easier. Except of course, Uncle Carling didn’t see it that way. For some reason he still didn’t like to go out with her. Since she’d been at Seabourne Bethany had begun to wonder why her momma never stuck up for her in front of Uncle Carling. Maybe momma didn’t know how much it hurt her when Uncle Carling said unkind things to her. But no matter how bad that hurt, it hurt worse when momma kept silent. Maybe momma couldn’t say anything because she was just too hurt inside herself by what Uncle Carling had said. At least, Bethany hoped that was the reason. And not the fact that her momma kept silent because she agreed with him.

Bethany liked the sound of Zed. He sounded friendly. For one thing he laughed a lot. Everything seemed to be funny to Zed. He laughed at the dolphins, he laughed at Saamri, he positively howled with delight when she showed him Puzzle. And he even laughed at Ben. As his voice didn’t come from as high up as Ben’s she concluded he must be shorter. He sounded younger too.

When they’d finally left the dolphins, he and Ben had taken each of her hands and swung her between them as they headed for the parking lot. Now Bethany laughed too. It was just like flying. ‘Again! Again!’ she cried.

Ben dropped Beth back to earth as they reached the car and she remained hanging on to Zed’s hand. He felt for his wallet and keys then suddenly realized he’d left them behind in his jacket at the office.

“You want us to come with you?” offered Zed.

Ben knew from experience he could be there and back in the time it would take them to get there with Beth. “No. You and Beth wait here. I shouldn’t be more than five minutes.” And he headed back along the path towards the main building at a jog.

“I don’t care what you say. You don’t have to put your head down that monster’s throat four times a day.”

Flip’s voice, rolled out into the silent building, lashing the empty corridor like an angry breaker.

Hello, thought Ben. It appeared as if Flip had changed his mind about the beneficence of the whale. Despite normally disapproving of eavesdropping, Ben found himself instinctively slowing as he approached the half open door to Lily’s office. It looked as if his concerns were to be finally vindicated, after all.

He drew level with the door. Inside he could see Lily pacing the space between the desk and the window while Flip sat perched on the edge of her desk.

“I thought your new system would solve the problem and give that son of a bitch a taste of his own medicine,” Ben heard Flip continue. “As it is, if you want any more tests ~,” his voice trailed off as he saw Lily staring past his shoulder at the door. Turning he spotted Ben. Then without even acknowledging his presence he reached across from where he was seated and slammed the soundproofed door shut.

Maybe the whale’s gay, Ben thought. Dismissing the conversation he headed for his own office.

After Ben got back from collecting his jacket from his office, they drove to a near by restaurant. Zed had read the entire menu out to Bethany and told her she could order whatever she liked. It made her feel very grown up to tell the waitress what she wanted. Whenever she’d gone out with momma and Uncle Carling they’d always ordered for her. Sometimes it wasn’t what she’d really wanted but she’d been so happy at going to a restaurant that she hadn’t liked to spoil things by telling them that. Besides, she knew Uncle Carling would only get mad at her if she did.

This time she got exactly what she wanted. Cheese burger and fries and a shake. Zed had even told her which o’clock everything was, including her drink. And even though she managed to knock some of the fries off her plate, nobody told her off about it. In fact, Zed told her not to worry. He did that kind of thing all the time.

And it really didn’t matter that Ben hadn’t been able to get her Eye working. She was learning to do things so well very soon she wouldn’t need one at all.

Every so often the thought would return to worry him like a nagging toothache.

Seabourne.

Funny, thought Kyle that no one had ever reported seeing any of the orcas or dolphins they’d claimed to have released. “It’s a big ocean out there,” Tomio had pointed out, playing Devil’s advocate. Still, as self serving as their publicity machine was, Kyle would have thought it would have been in their own best interests to keep the public informed on how well their former captives, or ‘guests’ as Seabourne insisted upon calling them, were fairing. Or not, as the case might be. One only had to take the case of Keiko, the star of the ‘Free Willy’ movie, and the well-meaning but totally misguided efforts to release him back into the wild.

The intention had been to reunite Keiko with his matrilineal group off the coast of Iceland. This was of course, precisely the kind of action Freeseas encouraged. Except, Keiko had been in captivity for too long. He’d forgotten how to hunt so releasing him was tantamount to a death sentence. So he spent the remainder of his days in an ocean pool similar to those up at Seabourne. The difference being that unlike the animals at Seabourne, Keiko could not catch so much as a mackerel even if it swam up to him and danced on his nose.

At least, McHugh claimed his animals could still hunt. But then little Luna, the baby orca who was separated from his pod could also hunt. But that hadn’t saved him in the end. Separated from his family, the orca who was little more than a toddler in human terms, had tried desperately to bond with humans. After all, orcas were social animals. This was a case of the Marine Mammal Protection Act working against the whale. Humans were by law, forbidden to approach and the combined efforts of Freeseas, local residents and other organizations failed to get Luna moved and reunited with his resident pod. Luna’s human-like need for companionship was the same as any child’s and eventually led to tragedy when the whale got too close to the propeller of a tug boat and was hacked to death. If Panda were out there then, wouldn’t he be driven by the same need? To seek out companionship? And if so, wouldn’t there have been sightings by now?

He scrolled down through the environmental impact report Freeseas had spent the last three years putting together on the effects of building the causeway across the way. Of course, Seabourne would claim that the Seagate meant that tidal patterns in the bay had not been disrupted. The data in front of him told him something else. Samples of water obtained from Apollo Bay showed an increase in salinity of 7% – up from the normal average of 35%. Not that they could very well use that as a reason to close the park, Kyle reflected ruefully. The increase in salinity would affect osmotic pressure, which would be increased by the presence of more saline in the water which may effect some marine organisms, but certainly should have little effect on the dolphins and the whale. It would also effect the electrical conductivity of the water. The more salt, the greater the conductivity. And the increased salinity would lower the temperature of initial freezing in the bay. In other words, the ocean outside of the gate would freeze before the waters in the bay.

Minor ecological changes. Worth monitoring, but certainly nothing to build a federal case on.

Kyle glanced up from his computer and through the glass partition of his office, across to where Leigh Carson was working at her desk and his thoughts took another direction. He’d found himself doing that a lot lately. Not just watching her as she worked but at other times, as she moved around the building, just getting up to get herself another cup of coffee, talking to Fran and Tomio. He told himself it was just professional curiosity, like he’d show for any other new member of the team. It was definitely not because he was attracted to her. After all, there was no way she resembled Connie.

He was taller than Leigh, but only just. She was tall where Connie had been under 5ft 4ins. He used to tower over Connie. She had been like a China doll. Petite. Porcelain fragile. How many times had he been afraid of crushing her? There was no chance of anyone crushing Leigh Carson, he concluded. In fact, quite the reverse. She was big boned and rangy. In meetings, and he sighed at the memory, Leigh was loud and argumentative. Since she’d settled into Freeseas she was determined to the point of stubbornness to get her ideas across, whereas Connie always made her point in a voice that while authoritative, seemed almost deferential in spite of its strength. In contrast to Connie’s sculptured elegance, Leigh always looked windswept and thrown together. Big, baggy workshirts, faded 501’s and scuffed hiking boots. He’d yet to see her come to work in a dress. He wondered what kind of body lurked beneath the unassuming wardrobe then shook himself silently. No, apart from the professionalism and dedication to her work, there was simply no comparison between Leigh and Connie. Not that he was prejudiced of course. She did have very nice eyes. And hair too. Not that he found her attractive. Not at all. Quite simply, she just wasn’t his type.

“You work too hard, you know that?”

Leigh looked up to see Kyle standing next to her then glanced at the time on the toolbar of her computer display. She’d carried on to a self-absorbed 9.37 p.m., completely unaware of the time and oblivious to the fact that everyone else had long since left for the night. Shades of Como, Scholfeldt and Kurtz. At least here she felt she was doing something worthwhile instead of peddling the next generation of disposable consumables to the mass market. “My grandmother would have had something to say about pots and kettles at this point,” she replied.

“I take it you like working here?”

Odd question, she thought. As if I’m going to sacrifice my non-existent social life for a job I hate. “I love it.” She stopped, not wanting to sound fulsome then plunged ahead anyway. “I feel I’m giving something back, instead of just taking out of the system. It’s satisfying. I’m finding out it’s a feeling that I like.”

He nodded. “So what exactly would your grandmother have said about pots and kettles?”

“That they’re not nearly as black as they’re painted.”

He leaned in closer. “She’d also have told you that all work and no play makes Leigh a very dull girl.”

Was it her imagination, or was he flirting with her? C’mon Carson, you’re a little old for a crush on your boss. And her grandmother would certainly have had something to say about not getting your meat where you make your bread, even if she wouldn’t have couched it in quite those terms.

“I can take a hint’. She clicked on Start and slid the cursor down to shutdown. Was she absolutely, positively sure she wanted to shut down her computer? She clicked on OK and waited while the system shut down.

“Actually, I was thinking more along the lines of a few days R & R – all in the line of duty, of course.”

She looked at him puzzled. Was he suggesting she took a vacation or something else entirely? “You’ve lost me,” she replied.

“There you go. Inability to follow a brief. Classic case of burn out. What you need Ms. Carson, is a couple of days whale watching in Johnstone Strait.”

“Whale watching?”

“I figure it’s high time you familiarized yourself with our end product, so to speak.”

“So, what are we going there to do, count them?”

“We’re looking for one particular whale.”

“And just how do you intend to find this whale, Captain Ahab?”

He held up a piece of paper. “He gave me his telephone number.” He smiled at her puzzled expression. “Pack enough outdoor clothing for at least three days, and oh yes, remember to bring some deck shoes. We leave first thing in the morning.”

Nothing like giving a girl plenty of notice, Leigh thought as she headed for the elevator. She just hoped she could find someone to take care of Mister Gonads.

Kyle watched her depart. She paused at the elevator to give him a brief wave before leaving. Now why the hell did I do that? he thought. He’d had no intentions of asking her or anyone else to go with him, yet somehow as he’d stood next to her the words had seemed to come out of their own violition. He hadn’t even phrased it as an invitation, more like an order, not even giving her the opportunity to decline. Now he wondered why he’d asked her to accompany him. It wasn’t as if he was so enamoured of her company he had a burning desire to spend more time with her. Especially in the close proximity that a forty foot yacht would afford. And it wasn’t like she reminded him of Connie. No, it wasn’t like that at all.

“I do hope he’s neutered, dear. You see, we don’t take them unless they are.”

“Absolutely,” Leigh beamed.

Mr. Gonads was not pleased. Spitting protests as Leigh roused him from a deep sleep upon her favorite sweater which turned to howls of rage as she bundled him into his carry box and drove him across town to the one cattery she’d been able to persuade to take him on such short notice. Tufts of ginger fur stuck out from between the wire mesh of the cage like angry exclamation points and so far he had kept up a constant caterwauling as if in anticipation of his impending abandonment.

“And his name?”

Leigh stared blankly at the middle-aged, middleweight Englishwoman who ran the Contented Kitty Inn as if she’d just been asked to translate the collected works of Jean Paul Satre into Swahili. The woman wore a tired looking tweed outfit inlaid with cat hair and carried with her the faint aroma of kitty litter. “Pardon?” Leigh replied after a lengthy pause.

“His name, dear,” the woman reiterated with a sigh. “The cat.”

“Ah. Right. His name, yes of course. I forgot about that. It’s Mister Go~ “ She caught herself in time, pursued a lie about her frontal lobes and finally caught up with it. “Mister Go-Cat. It’s his favorite food,” she added in desperation.

The woman nodded and took Mister Gonads’ box from Leigh. “Then we’ll just have to make sure he gets his favorite, won’t we kitty?” she said to the glowering ball of fur inside. Mister Gonads swore softly, threw Leigh a vicious look and then in what little space his carry box afforded, regally turned his back on her and making it perfectly obvious she had been summarily dismissed.

Leigh promptly left feeling as if she had abandoned a child.

 

Moored at her berth in the marina at Telegraph Cove on northern Vancouver Island, the Queen Mab had appeared quite an imposing vessel. Forty feet from stem to stern, large enough to invoke thoughts of cruising luxury, small enough for one to pilot. The ideal size as Leigh’s sailing experience to date amounted to little more than a few adventurous forays she and the Cherokee had undertaken on the Washington ferry system. Below deck, Queen Mab sported a tiny galley, four berths and a miniscule head cum shower which made attending to the more intimate ablutions next to impossible as the cubicle was minus a door. After two days plying the waters of Johnstone Strait, the boat that seemed so stalwart upon boarding had now been reduced to the dimensions of a cramped tug.

The ship appeared to be shrinking, an optical illusion that seemed fuelled by her growing frustration, Leigh concluded. It certainly had little to do with the lack of privacy the boat afforded but owed more to the fact that she felt curiously piqued that she could spend so much time in such intimate proximity to a man and him not make so much as a single suggestion that could be misconstrued, let alone anything that could be remotely interpreted as an advance.

Get real Carson, she thought, as she rifled through her backpack for a pair of clean shorts, one look at you in your one-piece and he’s going to think he’s landed a beluga.

Their days were spent plying Johnstone Strait, a narrow, fiord-like channel between Vancouver Island and the British Columbia mainland. Here, every summer, thousands of salmon school before entering the rivers of their birth to spawn and here also orca whales gathered to feed upon the salmon.

For all his apparent eagerness to have her along, Kyle remained close-mouthed about the purpose of their trip, spending the daylight hours at the wheel and watching blips on the screen of some kind of tracking device as avidly as if he was tuned into the World Series. At night, they would moor off some densely wooded cove, on the first night eating one-pan macaroni, on the second, a salmon Kyle had caught, talking and drinking brandy until the small hours before retiring below to bunks that were separated by a mere two feet of companionway.

For two consecutive nights, Leigh had lain awake, listening to the slap of water against the hull and watching the face of the man opposite her, illuminated by the moonlight flooding down through the open hatch slowly relax, sleep erasing the lines of tension around his eyes and mouth. With them the years fell away and he looked as unblemished as a child, the horror of his eye hidden behind the closed lids. She wondered what kind of boy he had been, what his parents were like and realized that she knew next to nothing about him. Recalling their conversations of the past forty-eight hours she realized that he had not once volunteered a single piece of personal information. Despite their close quarters, he remained as enigmatic and mysterious as one of his press releases.

Leigh awoke next morning to the feeling of a ship underway. Guilty that Kyle had left her to sleep in, she shot bolt upright, cracking her head on the cabin roof. Seeing stars she rolled out of her berth and finally getting to her feet, stumbled towards the head clutching her carelessly cast aside jeans and T-shirt that she’d discarded the previous evening. She felt heavy and vaguely hung over. Her stomach griped a warning. She fervently prayed it was an omen of over-indulgence and not a portent that her period had decided to put in an appearance ten days early. She hardly thought Kyle would relish the idea of putting into port just because she had forgotten to pack any Tampax.

Seated on the head, her bowels heaving along with the bow, Leigh wondered exactly why she had been invited along on this voyage other than to provide extra ballast. At least three pounds lighter by her reckoning she got up and discarded the rumpled T-shirt she’d slept in and stepped into the shower. Water dribbled out, cold and unenthusiastic. Reconciled to a temporary truce with her b.o. and hastened by guilt, she pulled on her clothes without bothering to towel herself off and dragging a comb through her hair which currently sported more knots than the ship’s rigging, hastily made her way up on deck.

Next to Kyle the range finder was ticking away like the countdown on 60 Minutes. He turned and smiled as she came up on deck, the wind whipping his long, dark hair free. It occurred to her that she had never seen him more relaxed or for that matter, happier. Out on the open water, at the wheel of a vessel, was obviously the place where he truly belonged.

“You should have woken me,” she said.

He shrugged, as if to dispel her guilt. “Why? I figured you’ve earned the right to sleep in. This was supposed to be recreational as well as business, remember? Besides, there wasn’t anything worth getting up to see, until now.”

She followed the direction he was pointing. It took her a few moments to register the convoy of orca whales cruising fifty feet or so to starboard.

She’d edged her way along the gunwales enough times all ready. Maybe it was her eagerness to make up for sleeping in that made her careless. She felt her feet slip, grappled for something to hold on to but clutched at thin air instead, had a second remaining in which to register Kyle’s shocked expression before she toppled overboard and the fathomless emerald green water rushed up to meet her.

All she could think of as the water closed in over her head was that she needn’t have bothered with the shower earlier. And that the water of the strait was even colder than that in the shower. The hull of the Queen Mab reared up next to her. She felt the engine vibrato cease, saw her screw stop turning as Kyle cut the motor. Instinctively, she followed the paperchase of her own expressed air up towards the sunlight. Gasping, she broke the surface, air rushing into her grateful lungs.

Disorientated she cast about her. Queen Mab now lay some thirty feet from where Leigh stoically trod water, idly drifting with the current. She could see Kyle leaning over her side, his expression concerned. He said something to her but the wind flung away his words. Great Carson, nothing like impressing the boss. “I’m fine,” she yelled back, striking out for the boat which had now drifted even further away. He gestured somewhat urgently then cupped his hands around his mouth. She paused mid-stroke. She probably had water trapped in her ear because she couldn’t make out a word he was saying. “I’m fine, really,” she reiterated, adopting a slow, but effective breast stroke which unlike the crawl at least allowed her to carry on a conversation. The water was freezing. She hoped she was going to able to reach the boat before cramp set in and she had to suffer the final indignity of Kyle having to dive in and rescue her. Images of him administering the kiss of life made her suddenly realize this might not be such a humiliation after all. She looked up. The boat was twenty feet away and Kyle was still yelling and pointing wildly at something behind her. Comprehension finally dawned as she spun around in the water just as she felt something powerful brush past her leg. Something moving fast. Something dark. Something massive.

She let out a shriek of terror, flailing about in the water like an extra on Baywatch. She sank, water filling her lungs, then she shot back to the surface spluttering. Below her black shadows circled, then came closer.

“Leigh! Leigh!”

She turned to see Kyle, twelve feet away but as distant as Minnesota, leaning over the side of the boat, stretching out a hand towards her. “Don’t panic. They’re not going to hurt you.”

Easy for you to say, she thought. Up close they were bigger than they appeared from the boat. Twenty, twenty-five feet long. Cruising like submarines. Powerful. Silent except for the blow which alerted her to their proximity.

“Okay Leigh, just swim slowly towards me. No big movements, you don’t want to startle them.”

Startle them? What about her? She fought the urge to panic and returned to her breaststroke. With any luck the whales would be on a cholesterol-free diet and would not want to snack on anything that contained cellulite. Then, just as the Mab was tantalizingly within reach, a whale appeared directly in front of her, cutting her off from the boat.

She trod water. The orca was no more than a couple of feet away. If she had wanted to she could have reached out and touched it. Then it raised its head halfway out of the water and looked straight at her with an eye of piercing blue. So that’s what you are, it seemed to say. One of those clumsy, two-legged things that can’t hold their breath. As she looked into the china blue eye of the whale she was hit by something she could only later describe as utter benevolence. Then all of a sudden it was gone, leaving her with a sense of profound regret as Kyle reached forward to grasp her hand and haul her back on board.

She was shivering so much her teeth chattered, whether from cold, shock or a combination of both she didn’t know and was otherwise unable to articulate. She stood docilely while Kyle subjected her to a vigorous rub-down at the same time delivering a lecture about infringing the Marine Mammal Protection Act before thrusting a large glass of brandy into her numb hands and draping his jacket over her shoulders. She felt afflicted with a combination of pathetic gratitude and overwhelming embarrassment. When he’d told her to go below and get out of her wet things she’d burst into tears.

He’d tried damn hard to be businesslike as he toweled her off, but her drenched clothes clung to her body like paint to Demi Moore. Now he knew what she had been hiding under the casual, baggy wardrobe he found his ministrations becoming less and less impersonal. In contrast to the chill he could feel seeping from her skin, his own hands felt hot and heavy. He accidentally brushed against one breast, the nipple straining against the sodden fabric of her T-shirt and fought off the desire to place his mouth there and suck the cold from her being. He shook himself, disgusted by his train of thought. The poor girl was half-drowned, had been scared witless and all he could think about was coming on to her. To add to his guilt, when he suggested she go below and get out of her wet things, she’d started to cry.

He closed the hatch after her, as much to afford her some privacy as to silence the clamoring tide of lust that was rising from his groin and poured himself an even larger brandy than the one he’d given her. They’d better find McHugh’s damn whale and get back to Seattle before he gave her the perfect excuse to file a sexual harassment suit against him. Whichever way he looked at it, inviting Leigh Carson to come with him had been an unqualified error of judgement.

She worked hard at staying out of trouble for the rest of the voyage. Not that it should have been difficult. Small boat, calm seas, taciturn boss who limited his conversation to monosyllables and kept his attention on the range finder.

The intimacy she’d sensed growing between them seemed to have evaporated like so much orca blow. Hardly surprising considering he’d been treated to a first-hand demonstration of what a klutz I am, Leigh concluded. Every time she thought back to her impromptu swim, she found her cheeks burning at the memory of him hauling her back on board like a drowned rat.

Afterwards he’d tried to make light of it. “People pay hundreds of dollars to go on orca encounters. I should deduct the money from your pay,” he’d joked.

Although she guessed he was trying to make her feel better, somehow he failed. And since then he’d been too busy concentrating on the range finder to raise the subject again. She hoped finding the whale would displace the incident in his mind. The last thing she wanted was for the episode to become inscribed in office legend and used as a shining example about what not to do around whales in perpetuity. Probably even the orcas were still laughing over the fact that she was carrying more blubber than they were, she thought as she stirred the tinned chili she was currently heating up. They hadn’t seen any more orcas for a couple of days and were now heading back into US territorial waters, she suspected towards the San Juans although Captain Queeg at the helm had neglected to make her privy to his exact plans. At least if she fell overboard again she wouldn’t have to endure another lecture on the Marine Mammal Protection Act. She turned off the burner and ladled the chili into two cups and headed above.

“It’s good,” Kyle commented dismissively, discarding the cup after a couple of mouthfuls, his concentration still fixed upon the range finder as if determined to ignore her.

Like something out of a spy novel, the range finder clicked away. The faster the pulses, Kyle explained, the closer they were. The further apart, the farther away. Right now they were somewhere between luke-warm and cold judging by the lapse between the tones.

Unable to bear it any longer she broke the silence. “So where’s the whale?”

“Good question,” he replied in between mouthfuls of chilli. “There’s no sign of him. Just that trawler I’ve been following for the past four hours.”

She followed the direction he indicated. About a quarter of a mile off their port bow idled a small fishing vessel. “Maybe he’s following it too. Maybe he’s hiding underneath it or something. Trying to get the fish from their nets. Maybe he’s finding it hard to fend for himself after being in captivity and wants to continue getting a free lunch.” There. That should prove to him she had at least done her homework. Before setting out she’d availed herself of every orca fact and statistic stored on Freebase. She was determined to get him to treat her as more than just ballast on this trip.

He shook his head. “Then why hasn’t he come up for air? No whale can hold it’s breath for hours. They’re mammals just like us, remember?”

Of course she knew that. What she didn’t know was why every time she opened her mouth around this man something dumb seemed to fall out of it. “I just thought that maybe, you had been too busy to notice it’s . . . it’s . . .”

“Blow,” he finished helpfully. “Believe me, I’dve noticed.”

That’s it, Carson. When are you going to learn to keep your big mouth shut? The tones from the range finder did little to fill the silence as ahead, the trawler picked up speed, heading for port.

‘I’ve an idea. Let’s eat on shore tonight,’ Kyle suggested as he made to follow in her wake.

She was called the Aurore, Leigh noted as they berthed next to the ship they’d dogged all the way to Friday Harbor. The tones from the range finder had risen to an almost constant flatline as they’d approached her. Kyle had finally switched it off. She was happy to be free of the persistent tonal ticking she’d endured for the past four days. However, there was no sign of Panda. An omission that did not unduly perturb Kyle. In fact, it was as if he had expected nothing less.

They made the Mab fast then watched as Aurore’s crew disembarked. Local men, many of them met by wives and girlfriends, home safe from the sea.

The taillights of the vehicles that came to meet them dwindled away in the dusk as others came on in the town. Leigh wondered what was taking Kyle so long. He’d gone below to change. She thought it was normally the guy who was kept waiting. As it was, her only concession to the proposed excursion (she could hardly think of it as a date), had been to change into a fresh pair of jeans and apply a slick of lipstick. She deemed any further concessions to the occasion unnecessary considering he’d already spent the past three days seeing her at her absolute worst. She hoped Kyle wouldn’t be too much longer. She hadn’t eaten anything since her cup of chilli several hours ago.

As if her thoughts had summoned him forth, Kyle came up from below. But he wasn’t dressed for dinner. He was wearing SCUBA gear.

“I thought we were going out?”

He shot her a look. She realized she’d sounded just like a disgruntled date who has just been told her significant other wants to stay in and watch the game. “We are. I just have to check something out first. You must be starving so why don’t you go on ahead? There’s a place just up the road – the Duck Soup Inn. Go order an appetizer, have a cocktail. I’ll be with you in half an hour.” He turned to check the pressure gauge on his tanks.

She hesitated, wondering whether she should obey his somewhat curt dismissal or wait on the boat, following the trail of bubbles with a harpoon gun. Her stomach growled. Seeing as there was clearly nothing she could accomplish by remaining on board she picked up her purse and stepped onto the dock. If Kyle even noticed her departure, he certainly didn’t acknowledge it.

Unfathomable, she thought as she sipped an excellent Napa Chardonnay and munched on breadsticks to ward off the worst of the hunger pangs. They spend four days chasing a whale only to end up following a boat. It would be nice if he’d trusted her enough to let her in on what was really going on instead of just expecting her to work it out from his enigmatic behavior. Maybe this was some kind of test. If it was she’d got no doubt she’d failed it miserably along with Marine Mammal Interaction 101. Come to think of it, she wasn’t too sure why he’d invited her along in the first place.

Half an hour he’d said. The hands on her watch told her she’d been sitting here for at least ten minutes longer than that. Five more and she’d go ahead and order. It was plain from the sympathetic glances being transmitted in her direction that the waitress thought she’d been stood up. She reached for the bottle in the cooler next to her and topped up her glass. Just then the door to the restaurant opened and she saw him. He headed towards her table. His hair was still damp but he was smiling and there was even a spring in his step. He plucked the $40 bottle from the cooler, glanced at the label without comment and filled his own glass which he raised in a silent toast.

“So, I take it you found what you were looking for?” Leigh hazarded as she touched his glass with her own. He nodded and withdrew something from his pocket which he slid across the table towards her. It looked like a float off a fishing line. “What is it?” she asked.

“A whale.”

He grinned. “Let’s celebrate.”

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