Alec Galloway leaned back in his seat and shifted his gaze from Dr. Grace Mann, who stood onstage beside a podium, to the auditorium’s wide screen showcasing a photo of a shark. He’d been looking forward to this lecture all week.
“Since 2005, we have had five great white sharks in captivity at the California Marine Institute.” Dr. Mann adjusted her dark-rimmed glasses and clicked to a new slide picturing a shark inside a large tube. “The first was a young female found entangled in a fishing net off Huntington Beach. Initially, we kept her in a specialized ocean pen to assess her stress levels and to ensure that she would take food from us. One of our criteria was that she needed to eat three meals before transport; if she didn’t do that then we would release her. Luckily, she did eat fish that was lowered to her on lines, and the female great white was subsequently brought to CMI.
“To transport her, we designed a special vehicle we dubbed the ‘Fish Mobile.’ Made of fiberglass, it held 3200 gallons of sea water and circulated filtered water with an oxygen injection.”
Dr. Mann continued to click through photos of the captive shark as she spoke. A spotlight followed her as she stepped away from the elevated platform, the beam of light glinting off her blonde hair that was tucked into a loose bun at the base of her neck. Alec knew of Dr. Mann by reputation but seeing her in person had only increased his esteem. He hoped that she would agree to work with him.
“We were, of course, concerned about her well-being,” Dr. Mann continued. “Before this, the longest a great white had survived in captivity was only sixteen days, but to our extreme delight she settled right into our exhibit.”
A photo of a majestic female great white flashed onscreen, taken from an angle beneath the fish, showcasing its youth and vigor. A smile tugged at Alec’s mouth. It must have been exciting to be so close to such an extraordinary creature for an extended period. He’d had many close encounters with great whites in the wild, but there was never time to strike up a friendship.
Dr. Mann moved away from the screen and tilted her head back to gain a better view of her own presentation. Her lithe figure—draped by a gray pinstriped suit and ivory blouse—was further accentuated with black heels, the ensemble presenting a very business-like demeanor. Alec had followed her research over the past year, but photos of her in journal articles usually showed her wearing a ball cap and sunglasses. It was damn nice, seeing her in person at last.
“We were even more astounded,” she continued into the wireless microphone attached to her right ear, “when she lasted for 198 days in our care. We believe that she was born sometime in the twelve months prior to capture, and she initially measured four feet seven inches long and weighed 62 pounds. Upon release, she was six feet one inch and 162 pounds.
“Although she’d become quite popular in her exhibit at CMI, we remained committed to returning her to the wild. We chose the date of release based on two things—she’d become increasingly aggressive with other sharks in the exhibit, and her steady growth meant that if we waited much longer, we wouldn’t be able to transport her safely.
“We released her into the Pacific Ocean with an electronic tag that was programmed to pop free thirty days later. From that, we learned she had traveled 200 miles south on a journey that took her more than 100 miles offshore and to depths greater than 800 feet below the surface.”
Dr. Mann scanned the audience. Alec’s cursory glance showed the auditorium to be packed. People were fascinated with sharks, especially great whites.
“So what information did we compile from our time with her?” Dr. Mann clicked to a graphic with bullet points.
“We learned a great deal about how to care for a white shark. We collected the first ever data on the metabolic rate of great whites—from the amount of oxygen the sharks consumed during transport in the Fish Mobile to the correlation of their food intake while on exhibit in relation to their growth, giving us insight into how much energy they require for swimming and life support.
“Our shark showed a strong capacity to swim in the exhibit, and therefore thrive. She had an impressive ability to heal from injuries. She preferred eating salmon over mackerel, and vitamins that we administered to other shark species also worked well on her. We modified our feeding and handling techniques to keep her healthy, and as she grew, we observed behavioral changes.
“Now, I’ll share briefly what we learned from the four additional great white sharks that we were able to keep in captivity before also releasing them back into the wild.”
Alec had come to the lecture at the urging of Stewart Smith, Grant Administrator at the California Marine Institute. Smith was part of the team that had offered Alec the job of filming a documentary on Dr. Mann this fall during an expedition to Guadalupe Island, located off the coast of Baja California Sur. She and her team, which included Brad Michaels, an old surfing buddy of Alec’s, were developing a sonar array to track the movement and location of sharks within a specified grid area. They one day hoped to employ this at beaches around the world. However, it seemed Dr. Mann wasn’t keen on Alec’s participation and wanted to hire a different filmmaker. Smith thought if Grace met Alec, she might change her mind. There was a gala to attend the following night in Pebble Beach—a fundraiser for the Institute—and since Alec was in town for the event, Smith had nudged him to attend Grace’s talk.
Alec couldn’t deny that he’d been curious about Dr. Mann’s work. And about her.
“In conclusion,” Dr. Mann said, “sharks are over fifty million years old and protecting them is an urgent matter today. Millions of sharks are slaughtered each year for their fins, while many are killed as by-product when they’re caught in commercial fishing gear. It is imperative that we understand the biology of these fish, as well as where they go and why, so that we may better protect them. To this end, it is our aim at CMI, in partnership with other researchers and scientists, to document the migrations of adult and juvenile white sharks in the Eastern Pacific. Great white sharks are apex predators at the top of the ocean’s food chain. Without them, we simply won’t have a healthy ocean. Thank you.”
The lights came on, and a moderator, an older woman, walked onstage and fielded questions from the audience for the next thirty minutes. Dr. Mann answered each inquiry with a thoughtful and thorough answer. She clearly knew her stuff.
When the presentation finally ended, Alec was grateful to stand and stretch his long legs as the crowd began to disperse. He headed toward the stage, but was cut off by a student of the high school where the talk had taken place.
“Can I help you, sir?” the stout young man asked, his ruddy face sporting a smattering of acne.
“I was hoping to speak with Dr. Mann.”
“I think she’s already left.”
“Thanks,” Alec said, and quickly exited the auditorium out a side door and headed toward the parking lot. A quick search showed a throng of people, although it wasn’t as jammed as Alec had thought it might be. He caught a glimpse of Dr. Mann near a light-colored hatchback.
Alec jogged to catch her. “Dr. Mann.”
At the sound of her name, she turned, and Alec’s gaze locked on her face. She wasn’t wearing her glasses. The admiration he’d quietly nurtured for her these past months suddenly sprang loose, making him tongue-tied. He cleared his throat to shake it off.
“I’m glad I caught you.” He held out his hand. “I’m Alec Galloway.”
Her expression went from flat to a frown.
This isn’t going well.
She shook his hand, but the movement was as stiff and formal as her outfit. “Stewart didn’t tell me you were here.”
“I came for the fundraiser tomorrow. He mentioned your lecture this evening, so I thought I’d come by and introduce myself. Great talk, by the way.”
“Thanks.” She offered no crack in her armor.
“Listen, would you like to grab a drink?”
“It’s late, and I have work tomorrow.”
Alec smiled and rubbed a hand behind his neck. He was starting to sweat beneath his blazer, despite the chill in the air.
He took a breath. “Look, I’m trying to be considerate here. Stewart has offered the documentary job to me, and from what I gather, you’re not excited to have me along, but I’m trying to make peace. We’re both after the same thing—a film showcasing the sonar array so that more funding can be secured, and your message of saving sharks can be shared with the world. I’m not trying to be a stumbling block.”
She watched him, her cool gaze filled with shadows from the low lighting in the school parking lot. “Fine. I know a place. Follow me in your car.”
Without any further talk, she turned, unlocked her car, and was settled behind the wheel before Alec had moved. Snapping out of his daze, he walked quickly to his rental vehicle, two rows over, and jumped behind the wheel before Dr. Mann drove off and left him in her dust. He guided his vehicle behind hers, cutting off a carful of students in the process.
Stewart had told him she’d said no to Alec’s name on the filmmaker shortlist, not once but three times. Why did Dr. Mann dislike him so much? They’d never even met until today.
Alec followed her down to Cannery Row, stopping at a bar with a half-filled parking lot. He maneuvered into a spot and joined her at her car. She didn’t speak and instead walked around to the front of the establishment, clutching a big purse that hung from her right shoulder, her heels clicking in a steady rhythm on the asphalt.
She was fast, and Alec had to surge forward at the last minute to grab the entrance door, holding it open for her as she went inside. She acknowledged him with a curt nod.
The darkened room wasn’t busy.
A hostess appeared. “You can sit wherever you want.”
Alec was thinking a booth—it would be quieter—but Dr. Mann immediately settled on a barstool. Alec took a seat beside her.
The bartender approached, a young woman wearing a pink tank top.
“I’ll have a glass of Malbec,” Dr. Mann said.
“Give me whatever lager you have on tap.”
The woman nodded, quickly went to work, and then deposited the drinks before them.
“Where are you from, Mr. Galloway?” Dr. Mann kept her body faced forward as she took a sip of her wine, although she did glance in his direction, offering a glimpse of her very blue eyes.
Alec didn’t usually have to work so hard charming a woman. He was beginning to think this job might not work out. “The Bay area. I have a place there, near my parents, but I’m not home much of the time.”
He’d heard a few whispers about Dr. Grace Mann, and the nickname “Bulldog” had been bandied about. His eye landed on the restaurant menu—she’d brought him to a pub called The Bulldog. Perfect.
She was the daughter of famed shark researcher Eddie Mann and had apparently inherited his single-minded focus when it came to the creatures of her work. Alec was beginning to appreciate the uphill battle before him in trying to gain the biologist’s approval.
“Weren’t you just in South Africa?”
She was keeping tabs on him. He suppressed a grin by taking a swallow of beer. Maybe she was more interested than she let on. About the job, of course. If he wanted to get laid, the boss lady was the worst possible choice.
“Yes. I was filming at Seal Island. We got the usual footage of great whites breaching for seals, but I was working with two scientists who wanted to monitor the pinniped population as well.”
“How did that go?”
“Good. It was a pretty intense shoot with the whites always on the hunt. We only did cage diving.”
Grace took another sip of wine and pursed her lips together. “You’re referring, of course, to my photo.”
Alec laughed as he set his glass down, trying to shake off the nerves that were drumming a tune in his chest. He was like a boy meeting his favorite leading lady. “It’s a hell of a shot. Mind sharing how you got it?”
Earlier this year, a photo had gone viral on social media outlets along with several news sources of Grace freediving with a great white shark. Alec had been both envious of the photographer and stunned by the image. Grace had been holding onto the shark’s dorsal fin, the massive fish dwarfing her petite frame, triggering a deep-rooted survival instinct in Alec. His reaction still rang in his ears: Holy fuck, this woman is nuts.
Grace’s shoulders became less rigid, and if the beaming look on her face was any indication, a link in her armor had dissolved. “In January, I went to Oahu to visit some friends. We went diving off the North Shore to see Galapagos and sandbar sharks, and maybe a few tigers, but it got even better when a lone male white showed up. Of course, as soon as he appeared, all the other sharks fled, but he wasn’t aggressive, just curious.” A smile flitted across her face. “It took a while, but he eventually let me get close. My friend Sam had his camera along, and he shot incredible footage of the interaction. And the rest, as they say, is history.”
“You certainly gained a bit of fame.”
She shook her head, releasing a combination grunt and sigh. “It wasn’t my goal. There was certainly some backlash from those who thought I was nuts.”
Alec flinched, thinking of his own reaction.
“People condemned me for being reckless,” she continued. “But if you’d been in the water with him, it was anything but. Have you ever been to Guadalupe Island?”
The abrupt change in the conversation jerked his attention back to the present. “No.”
“There are a lot of sharks there.”
“I guessed as much,” he said cautiously, wondering if he was walking into a trap, unable to tell if she was being humorous or not.
But her tone made him think she was speaking not only of the fish but him as well. He racked his brain. Had he slept with her in a drunken stupor and completely forgotten? Maybe back in his college days something like that could have happened but not lately. He was nearly thirty and liked to think he’d matured since those days of occasional recklessness.
Besides, if he’d been with a woman like Grace Mann, he never would have forgotten it.
Did I hook up with one of her friends?
Shit, he hoped not. He had to believe that he hadn’t scorned the wrong woman at some point in his past. Despite his enjoyment of the opposite sex, however, he was no player, so the odds were in his favor.
“Can I ask you something, Grace?”
She squinted at him, clearly annoyed he’d used her first name.
He didn’t wait for an answer. “How hard have you worked to get where you are?”
She arched an eyebrow and pinned him with those blue eyes. “And your point is?”
“I can help you. I’m good at what I do.”
“Why, exactly, are you so determined to be on this expedition?”
Accusation simmered in her voice. He really couldn’t tell her the truth—that he was a Grace Mann fanboy; that while her work was exemplary, it was her persona that had snagged his attention, whether through a paper she co-authored or a post on her social media accounts. The picture of her with a great white shark may have flooded him with bone-deep terror, but it also had intrigued the hell out of him. She was in a category of daredevil reserved for a very few. Grace didn’t just appreciate the creatures she studied; she blended herself with them. He had a hell of a lot of respect for that. He had a lot of respect for her.
But, damn. He hadn’t expected her to be so wary of his company, so absolutely closed-off to him. He was an easygoing guy, and it pricked his pride that she hadn’t succumbed to at least a sliver of his charm.
“I respect your work,” he said, opting for a partial truth, “and I’ve known Stewart for a long time. He cares about you and your research. I’d like to be a part of that.”
She took another drink of her Malbec. “All right. I’ll think about it.” She reached for her purse, retrieved her wallet, and dropped a twenty-dollar bill beside her half-finished glass of wine. “I really need to be going.”
He stood as she did.
She waved him back to his seat. “No, stay. Finish your beer. My treat.” She shook his hand. “I’m guessing I’ll see you tomorrow at the fundraiser.”
He nodded, and she walked away before he could utter a response.
He settled back on the stool.
“Would you like another?” the bartender asked.
“No.” He needed to keep a clear head.
Dr. Grace Mann was as sleek and sharp as the sharks she studied. If Alec expected to go head to head with her, nothing short of his A-game would do.
Copyright © 2018 K. McCaffrey LLC