Authors: Pamela Aares
Tags: #Romance, #woman's fiction, #baseball, #contemporary, #sports
“But it explains the diatom bloom,” Jackie said. “It’s rare to find domoic acid poisoning in harbor seals, especially in that part of the bay.”
“These levels could easily cause a bloom. And it’s different from the bloom down in Monterey. Same effect though.” He paused. “But we found something else in your samples that is very, very strange. Thompson, my lab manager, discovered it by accident. The guy’s a nut for Geiger counters, antique ones. He was tinkering with an old one, over lunch, and the water samples you sent set it off.”
“No way. Who ever heard of radioactivity showing up in a fertilizer?”
“Way. It’s there. All the samples from where the Susul River meets the bay showed traces of radioactivity, radon to be precise. Nothing showed up in the Monterey Bay samples.”
She jotted the word
into her notebook and stared at it.
“The fertilizer could’ve been manufactured somewhere near an old mine site that’s still contaminated ” he said, breaking the silence. “Or in an area near some sort of incident, like Chernobyl. It could’ve come in from the Ukraine; fertilizers are a major export in that region. It’d have to be a radiostrontium or a radionuclide, something with a longer half-life that turns into radon.”
He paused. She was still taking in what he said. Her work often uncovered unusual findings, but this was absurd.
“This means the molecule of the fertilizer has a
fingerprint,” he went on. “So it’s not far-fetched to think that you could trace its source. At least you could narrow down the area it’s coming from, maybe even track it to a particular vineyard.”
His voice had quickened with the eager sound of the chase.
“What about the samples I sent from upriver?”
“I don’t have those results back yet. But if I were to guess, I’d say it’s coming from a source upstream.”
“You never guess, Bradley.”
“I make exceptions for you.”
a good idea,” she said with a forced laugh. “What about the harbor seal tissue samples I sent?”
“You were right. Pseudo-nitzschia is your culprit for the domoic acid. I’ll need to run more enzyme assays to see which strain, but any of them would cause the symptoms you’re seeing in the seals. I’m sending the water samples over to my buddy at Livermore. He’ll know exactly what radioactivity the Geiger counter picked up; it’s his specialty.”
“I’m grateful you’re doing this, Bradley. Very grateful.”
“I’m coming down to the headlands next week. How about setting aside time for lunch?”
She really couldn’t say no.
But she didn’t smile as she hung up the phone.
Before she headed home, she typed out an email to Michael Albright. He was the chairman of the board for the Center, and he had a right to know what Bradley had told her. It wouldn’t be welcome news. Cheery seal faces were much better PR than radioactive contaminants in the bay.
Discovering radon kicked the whole venture into another realm, a realm she wasn’t sure the Center could handle. It was the worst possible time for scrutiny. The Center needed critical upgrades and they didn’t have enough funds to tackle all of them. This discovery could bring the licensing authorities down on them and trigger inspections, inspections they might not pass. If the Center got shut down, even for a few months, hundreds of seals and sea lions from all along the coast and bay wouldn’t be rescued, wouldn’t get treatment and would die.
was an unacceptable outcome.
But so was letting whoever was dumping chemicals keep on doing it.
She stared at her computer screen, her mind searching the facts.
. The word kept rising, blocking her thoughts. Why would anyone dispose of something as expensive as high-grade fertilizer and in such quantities? What could possibly be worth the risk of getting caught? Normally she loved chasing down a good puzzle, fitting facts together, finding the story below the surface, but a quiet voice whispered inside her, telling her there were forces at work with darker motivations than she could imagine.
She shook off the unsettled feeling and pulled out her notebook. Her list of critical improvements and repairs covered two single-spaced pages. She starred the items that were most likely to get them shut down. The kitchen where the volunteers prepped the seal food had to be rewired; there was no way around that. And plumbing in the new sea lion feeding tank really couldn’t wait. The others she’d think about in the morning. She snapped the notebook shut and finished off the email to Michael, reminding him to keep the findings under wraps until they had better data. She could only hope he would temper his lord-of-the-universe personality and take her warning seriously.
The next afternoon, Jackie stepped out of the hospital and into the press conference that Michael had insisted they hold. The Center’s board of directors was determined to leverage the increased number of animal rescues into payoff media attention for the Center.
Michael was brusque, and without trying succeeded in pushing most of her buttons. But she needed him, they all did. He knew how to charm funds out of people and how to develop the relationships that guaranteed the future of the Center. On days like this, she wished they’d hired an Executive Director—someone else to put on the public face—but like so many things, that too would have to wait.
“Nice outfit,” Michael said. “Yellow’s such a becoming color.”
She brushed her hands down her slickers. Normally she changed out of them, but there’d been an emergency surgery and she hadn’t had time.
“My favorite,” she said. “Right up there with puce.”
Michael brushed a speck of lint off of his perfectly tailored suit. “I meant to tell you—the board approved Bertelli as a board member last night. He runs a shipping line. He’s got deep pockets and deeper connections.”
“Sounds like an extra from the Godfather,” Jackie said. “Does he have any idea what we do?”
“I had breakfast with him,” Michael said as they walked over to the makeshift press podium. “He likes seals.”
One of the reporters zeroed in on her. “Dr. Brandon, what’s the prognosis on Othello?”
“And what would make an animal do such a nutty thing?” the reporter beside him asked.
Othello had made the morning news. The big sea lion had crawled up out of the bay and across the freeway. When the highway patrol showed up, he’d crawled onto the hood of their cruiser. It’d taken two rescue crews to subdue him and bring him in.
“We think a diatom bloom along the coast is causing the strandings in Monterey. The diatom becomes concentrated in the seals’ bodies as they feed on infected anchovies and sardines and causes lesions in the hippocampal region of their brains.” She watched the reporter’s eyes glaze over. “You’d act nutty too if it happened to you.”
She shouldn’t have added that last bit, but her tolerance for the press was low; science didn’t mesh well with twenty-second sound bites.
She took a breath and calmed herself, then fielded questions from the reporters about the hospital. Emergency rescues and surgeries made for better press than scientific facts and the intricacies of ecosystems.
As she turned to leave, a perky blonde shoved a microphone at her.
“Heard you had Tavonesi out here,” the reporter said, tossing her mane of hair and locking gazes with Jackie. “What’s he like?”
Jackie took a step back and stared blankly.
“Alex Tavonesi,” Michael whispered in her ear. “You know, of Trovare Vineyards.”
She hadn’t known. Being a vineyard scion explained Alex’s privileged manner, his style of dress and maybe the reason he’d been up at the river. But it didn’t explain him showing up at the Center.
“I mentioned that he helped you with that whale,” Michael added.
The reporter had the triumphant look of one waiting for a public-pleasing bit of gossip. Jackie swallowed down a lump of distaste and cleared her throat.
out here,” she said, holding a steady gaze into the camera, “are sick and emaciated sea lions from Monterey Bay. We’ve sent tissue samples to UC Davis and are investigating with the Academy of Sciences.”
She didn’t mention the harbor seal deaths in the North Bay or the radon they’d found in the water. Those announcements would have to wait until she had more evidence.
“What about the harbor seals you’ve admitted from the North Bay?” The reporter gave a knowing smile to Michael, flicked her hair again and shoved the microphone closer. “Mr. Albright told me you’d discovered some radioactive substance in the water samples from up there.”
Jackie glared at Michael and pressed her lips into a firm line. No matter how she coached him, he never seemed to get that research took time and that facts were important. He also didn’t seem to get that leaching chemicals was bad enough, but radioactivity shot them into a whole new game. If the second round of samples tested positive for radon, they’d need a very carefully planned press strategy, not wild headlines that alarmed people before they had the facts. But now it’d be all over the nightly news.
The reporter waited, holding her microphone in one hand and with the other smoothing her dress that clung like skin. The elegant garment was a stark contrast to Jackie’s yellow slickers and hoodie.
Jackie leaned over to Michael. “I think I’ll leave this one to you,” she whispered. “You’re well-matched.” She patted him on the arm. “And no more discussion of the North Bay situation, not yet.”
Disregarding Michael’s groan, she slipped away and walked toward her truck, ignoring the cameramen shooting B-roll in the pens.
Some of them meant well, but most were looking for blood. Well, they’d get plenty of that. She’d arranged for Gage to take them on a tour of the labs and hospital, with a last stop in necropsy. That usually sobered them up.
In her mind’s eye she saw the perky blonde teetering in her stilettos across the pitted floor of the necropsy lab, but the image didn’t make her smile.
She considered driving home but when she reached the top of the hill, she decided to head down to the beach.
The only cars in the lot were those of a few hearty surfers enjoying the waves still rolling in after yesterday’s storm. She leaned against her truck and watched one catch a near-shore break. He crouched, adeptly pumping his board and turning a tight 180 degrees. He skimmed the face of the wave and then slid skillfully down the backside and paddled out to wait for the next one.
Cory would’ve approved. Her brother was a world champion surfer, but even he took the waves at Rodeo seriously. Northern California surfing was for the skilled or the foolish, and the foolish did not last long. She liked a longer break, preferred to have the odds in her favor if the waves had the force of three thousand miles of open water rolling in behind.
She toed off her shoes and walked to the secluded cove at the far end of the beach. Inhaling deeply, she pulled the crisp scent of the salty breeze into her lungs.
Here she could breathe.
Here she could think.
She laughed at herself. Recover was more like it. Facing the press always drained her. She was a private person, maybe too private, and the work at the Center required lots of interface with the public. The limelight was useful for showcasing the mission and raising funds, but standing in it wasn’t one of her strengths. It exhausted her, and afterwards she always needed downtime. Gage thrived on the limelight; he never took it too seriously. She’d rather be peering into a microscope, performing a surgery or left to the quiet solitude of her research.
She knelt to examine a sea star clinging to a ball of kelp that had washed in with the tide. The star would die on the beach, blanched by the hot afternoon sun. She scooped it up, rolled up her trouser legs and waded into the surf.
The water that surged around her calves wasn’t nearly as cold as it usually was at this time of year. Not as cold as it should be. Not cold enough. Normally this stretch of California coast boasted one of the finest cold-water upwellings on the planet. Cold water meant nutrients and lots of them. Cold water meant deep-water fish and plankton and life.
But nothing was normal this year. Already they’d had more than a dozen animals admitted from the woefully inadequate satellite center up the coast in Albion Bay. Add to that the unusually high number of sick harbor seals coming in from the North Bay and the animals still coming in from Monterey—the Center would be swamped. Was already. All they needed was radioactive seals. That’d top off the season just great.
She pulled the long tail of the kelp along the beach and looked out over the surging waves, scanning her memory for contractors she knew who might help build emergency pens and plumb them in for free. For the first time in her life, she dreaded the work ahead.
She buried her nose in the kelp before tossing it and the sea star back into the waves. The receding tide would carry them both out to the offshore rocks. The sea star would find its own new home.
She scanned the cove.