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The waters off Montauk, New York, surged, frothing white as waves crashed into one another, spraying mist through the air. Annja Creed stood on the stern of a boat she thought seemed far too small for the job at hand. She watched as a sleek dark shadow glided just beneath the waves, its torpedo body reflecting the four hundred million years of evolution that had landed it atop the food chain of the ocean.
Cole Williams scooped another ladle of chum into the water. Annja swallowed and tried to ignore the sickly stench of pureed herring and tuna chunks mixed with an assortment of other matter designed to lure great white sharks to the boat.
"You sure you need to put so much of that into the water?" Annja asked.
Cole glanced at her and grinned, his cropped brown hair lightened by the sun beaming down. "You're not nervous, are you? Not the bold adventurer Annja Creed," he said.
Annja pointed at the water. "There's already one down there."
Cole nodded. "I'd like to see if we can get a few in the area. This study is all about how great whites interact with one another. Conventional science likes to paint them as solitary creatures but new research is proving they have a hierarchy when they encounter one another."
"So, it's not enough to have one proven killer in the water. You want as many as possible."
"Yep." Cole threw another scoop overboard. "You want to help me do this?"
Annja held up her hands. "I'm good here, thanks." The journey out from Montauk had been anything but calm. Despite the sunshine, the ocean seemed angry today and the little boat that Cole had converted from a deep-sea fishing charter to his own personal research vessel bobbed relentlessly in the violent swells. Annja's stomach wasn't in a forgiving mood.
Cole pointed at the triangular fin slicing through the water. To Annja, it almost reminded her of a sword.
"Look at that one."
Cole's voice did little to soothe Annja's nerves. In keeping with Cole's twisted sense of humor, he'd insisted they watch the movie Jaws the previous night while they shared a bottle of wine. Recalling the giant great white devouring a bunch of people on film didn't do much for Annja's nerves just then.
She glanced at the steel shark cage strapped down on the deck. "Does that thing actually work?"
Cole smiled. "There's nothing to worry about. I've done this loads of times and never had a problem."
"I find the choice of location unsettling given what we watched last night," she said.
Cole's laughter at least made her smile. Then he shook his head. "They actually filmed that on Martha's Vineyard, but I get your point." He pointed at another shark that had silently cruised into the area. "Thing about this place is the Long Island Sound opens up into really deep water. The great whites out here are big. And that means we get a look at some healthy fish."
"They got that way by being hungry," Annja said. "I don't want to end up on the business end of those teeth." Cole had also insisted on showing her his shark tooth collection and Annja had marveled at how the great white's teeth looked exactly like steak knives, serrated along the edges and designed for cutting through the thick fat of their favorite meal, seals.
Looking at Cole in his wet suit, Annja could understand why great whites mistook divers for seals. They looked similar, especially underwater.
Cole finished tossing the chum over the side of the boat and hailed the deckhand. "Time to get the cage in the water."
They worked together. Annja unhooked the fastening cables and slowly they winched the cage over the side of the boat until the top of it sat at the waterline. The sea had calmed and the boat seemed to steady itself. Annja gave a silent prayer of thanks and felt her stomach stop lolling about.
Cole glanced at Annja. "Tom's going to heave a few tuna chunks out on lines and he'll drag them toward the cage."
"You want the sharks coming at the cage?"
Annja shook her head. "And this will help your research somehow?"
"We'll be able to see how the sharks separate themselves and who seems to be the ruling class. What researchers have observed is the deference certain sharks will have for another. But why they do that is something we don't know. Yet," he explained.
"Have fun," she said.
Cole smiled. "Time for you to get changed, Annja." "Excuse me?"
"There's an extra wet suit in the cabin. I've got tanks all set for you. And there's room for one more in the cage."
Annja looked out at the sea. The dark shapes slid past the boat and surfaced, showing rows of jagged teeth as they sampled the chum line. Annja's stomach heaved again. "I'm not sure about this."
"I know how you feel. The first time I dived with great whites, I puked over the side of the boat."
"And then what?"
"I got the hell in the cage and did my job." He heaved the air tanks onto his back and checked his regulator. "You won't regret it, Annja. I promise."
Annja sighed and wandered back to the cabin. Cole had left the wet suit hanging on a door hook. She fingered the material and wondered what the sharks would see when she entered the water.
Dinner, most likely.
She took a deep breath. This was what she'd come out here for, she thought. When Cole had called and asked for her help, she'd had nothing pressing to do. And she'd always had a thing for sharks, even if they did scare the crap out of her.
This was her chance to try to put some of those fears to rest.
She took some calming breaths and stripped down, quickly climbing into the wet suit. The material clung to her skin and she noticed how much warmer she was inside of it. That was a good thing. The water temperature was fairly warm at this time of year, but it could still cause hypothermia if she was in it for too long.
She padded back out onto the deck and saw Cole sliding his mask over his face. He smiled when he saw her. "Glad you decided to come along."
"If I get eaten, I'm coming back to haunt you."
"I don't doubt it."
Annja pointed at the cage. "You sure those bars are strong enough to ward off any attacks."
Cole nodded. "Relax, Annja. Cages these days are much stronger than they used to be. You've got nothing to worry about. Besides, I'll be right there with you. Anything goes wrong, just follow my lead."
Tom helped her get the air tanks on and she tightened her waist belt, and then checked her regulator. She took a couple of breaths and tried to consciously slow her pounding heart. Adrenaline pumped through her veins and she knew that her nerves would take over unless she stilled them.
"Give me a second," she said.
Tom stepped away. While Annja busied herself with relaxing, Tom heaved a tuna carcass out into the water.
The surf exploded as a shark surged up from below and took the bait firmly in its mouth, ripping from side to side as chunks of flesh tore off in its mouth. Annja watched the grim spectacle and felt a strong desire to grow wings and fly home.
"Thanks for the help, Tom," she muttered.
He glanced back at her. "You okay?"
"Fine. Just fine."
"Let's go, Annja," Cole called. Annja watched him slide over the side of the boat and into the cage. She saw the splash and moved to make sure he'd made it into the cage.
Cole stuck his hand out and waved her on.
Annja took another deep breath and slid the regulator into her mouth. Tom handed her a mask and she settled it on over her hair. She tightened the straps and then nodded.
Tom helped her move to the side of the boat. The water seemed to be alive with sharks. Annja looked at Tom. He smiled. "There are only four of them down there."
Only four, she thought. Great.
She braced herself. The opening of the cage was directly in front of her, but for some reason, it looked a lot farther away. One misstep would plunge Annja into the ocean, unprotected against the massive predators gliding through its depths.
Annja wanted to run. She wanted to puke like Cole had. But she steeled herself, took a breath and then stepped toward the cage opening, falling in through the open part with a splash.
White water bubbled up around her as she adjusted to the sudden change in her environment. She felt the reassurance of Cole's body next to hers. She took a few breaths and settled herself down.
The water felt warmer than she expected. And she was almost calm when a giant mouth suddenly loomed open in front of her. Annja blinked, saw rows of jagged teeth and fell back against the bars of the cage.
The great white in front of her bit the bars separating them and then slid off into the deep.
Cole patted her on the shoulder and gave her the hand signal to make sure she was okay. Annja nodded and gave him the thumbs-up. She blew out a long line of bubbles and again tried to calm herself.
On the floor of the cage, her balance felt sure enough. But the ocean floor was at least thirty feet below them.
She heard a splash and turned to see that Tom had tossed another bait hook over the side of the boat. Annja saw it tracking through the water toward the top of the cage.
Like a missile being shot out of a submarine far below the surface, Annja saw a flashing streak arc right past the cage as a huge shark shot up from below them, lancing into the tuna chunk. Incredibly, Annja thought she could hear the rending tears of the mighty jaws clamping and sawing through the fresh meat.
She forgot her terror and was instead awed by the mastery of evolution sailing through the waters before her. The sharks slid through the depths with complete ease. Their bodies had long evolved into almost perfectly aerodynamic shapes that met minimal resistance as they swam.
As they bit into the bait hooks, Annja could see the protective membranes slide up over their eyes, shielding them from any danger that might lurk as they attacked. She noticed the incredible flexion as the viselike mandibles sank into the flesh, exerting almost two tons of pressure per square inch.
But even as the sharks fed seemingly without regard, Annja could discern something else about them. She knew they were incredibly intelligent. She could see there was a rhyme to their reason. Annja realized that they seemed to almost feel with their teeth, making sure that what they attacked was suitable food for them.
She marveled at how they operated. And she knew why great white shark attacks were usually so deadly. It wasn't necessarily that the sharks sought out human beings to eat, but that they had no real way of probing something without committing to it fully. Their bites would naturally cause grievous wounds in anything, humans included. Blood loss and tissue damage would often cause death, even when the shark realized that the human victim wasn't the seal it was supposed to be and broke off the attack.
There was a great deal of misunderstanding about the creatures, Annja thought. She spent the next half hour entranced as Tom brought the big fish in close to the cage. She looked into their eyes; she tried to fathom their souls.
When Cole finally tapped her on the shoulder and motioned for her to get back on to the boat, Annja was almost upset. Maybe Cole wasn't crazy, after all. Maybe he just loved studying these fish so much that they took over his life.
Annja made her way back to the boat and spit out her mouthpiece. Tom beamed at her. "How'd you make out?"
He nodded. "Cole's done some great research. Might even win himself some awards."
"I was terrified before, but now "
Tom nodded. "I know. You get to the point where you see them as something more."
"I used to think Cole was crazy," Annja said. Tom frowned. "Oh, he's definitely crazy," he said.
"What do you mean?"
"Didn't he tell you?"
"Tell me what?"
Tom pointed off the boat's port side. "See?" Annja looked and felt dizzy.
Cole was out of the cage, in the open water with the sharks.
"He'll be killed!" Annja shrieked.
But Tom held up his hand and shook his head. "I know it certainly looks like that, but wait and see."
Annja could hardly breathe. She watched as Cole, who must have left his oxygen tank in the cage, swam with just a mask and snorkel within feet of the cruising predators. And while the ocean still held streaks of red and bits of tuna, curiously the great whites seemed to be almost nonchalant about Cole's presence.
After ten minutes of free swimming, Cole climbed over the side of the boat, his flippers touching the deck while a huge smile blossomed across his face. "That was an adrenaline rush."
Annja watched him lean back, the smile growing wider by the second. "You really didn't have to do that," she said.
He shrugged. "Free diving with them is an important part of the research for me. Along with their hierarchy, I also need to know how they behave when there's a human in the water with more than one of them."
"Yes, but you had no speargun, no backup. If they had turned on you at any moment"
As if underscoring that fact, one of the big fish suddenly slammed into the side of the boat, splashing the water with its tail. Cole caught a shower of spray and wiped his face. "I think that was Martha," he said.
"You named them?"
"You get to know the distinctive shapes of their dorsal fins," Cole said. "And for me, it helps to establish that bond so I don't view them as mindless killing machines. Surely you noticed that, too?"
Annja grinned. "It was exhilarating, but I wouldn't ever recommend doing what you just did to anyone."
"Neither would I. But I have to control my own life. My destiny is always in my hands, not in the hands of someone else. That's what I love about my life so much. I make my own decisions. I know you understand that."
I used to, Annja thought. She watched one of the sharks break away from the boat suddenly and disappear into the depths.
Cole noticed, too. "They're bored now that there's nothing in the water."
"No more food?"
Cole sighed. "Sometimes I think it's not just about the food with them. I think they realize that we're curious and want to know more about them. They're active in the research as much as I am."
"I don't know," Annja said. "I think that sounds sort of insane, but then again, I didn't just swim naked with them like you did."
Cole laughed. "Annja, if you swim naked with anything, you'll get eaten right away."