Something Fishy | Audio
By W. R. Shaw
Fish. She'd never liked them much. Something about the cold unblinking eyes, and grotesque shapes. Take flounders - two misshapen eyes staring from one side of a bizarrely flattened body. What was that all about? And David, damn him, knew she hated fish, which was exactly why she found herself standing here surrounded by tanks of them, waiting on some brine-soaked Captain Nemo to give her the XYZ on the new species of squid the world was buzzing about. There was a reason office romances were considered unwise. The aftermath could be hell. A biscuit-shaped thing with a tangle of short tentacles regarded her with open curiosity from the nearest tank. She stared back at it. "What are you looking at?"
Renee spun to face the newcomer. "What?"
"It's lunchtime. She's hoping you've brought it." The young man lounging in the doorway had "grad student" written all over him - sandy hair a little too long for fashion and a little too short for rebellion, jeans and t-shirt intact but well faded, wire-rimmed glasses framing blue eyes that were trying way too hard not to laugh at her.
"Well, I didn't. I'm supposed to meet a Doctor Mac... Mackal...?"
The amusement spilled over from his eyes, and he grinned. "McAliskey?"
She glanced at her notes. How the hell did he get MackaLESky out of that? "I think so. Yes. Would you tell him I'm here, please?"
"You just did." He left the doorway and put out a hand. "Tim McAliskey. Sorry I'm late."
She accepted the handshake. His grip was warm and firm and just long enough for courtesy.
"Renee Devney, with the Herald. I'm sorry. I'm afraid you've caught me talking to your... What is that thing, anyway?"
"Stella's a cuttlefish. And don't worry about it. I talk to her all the time. What can I do for you?"
"My editor wants to do a piece on this new squid that's been discovered. I was hoping you could give me a little insight into what it is and why it's so important. I mean, I thought new species were being discovered all the time in the deep oceans."
"Not forty foot long ones." Her eyes widened at the figure, and he chuckled in response. "But I hate to burst your bubble. This one isn't a new species at all. It's the second largest of the known squid species, second only to Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni. We've known about them since the 19th century."
"Known about them. Dissected remains. Seen the scars they leave on whales. But until now, no one has ever seen one alive. An actual confirmed sighting, actual film of a living Architeuthis. It was the holy grail of Marine Biology." Behind his glasses, his blue eyes - rather attractive blue eyes, she had to admit - practically burned with passion. For a squid. God, what a waste.
"Ok. So this forty foot fish..."
"There's a difference?"
"A squid is a cephalopod, like an octopus or like Stella, there." He gestured toward the cuttlefish. The quick movement seemed to startle the creature, and to Renee's amazement, colors pulsed over its entire body like some kind of animated special effect.
"Whoa! What's it doing?"
McAliskey chuckled. "Telling me to back off. She doesn't like big movements. Come on. Walk with me."
He led her out of the alcove and across the room to another array of tanks. One was enormous and heavily landscaped with rocks and artificial coral. Renee shuddered at the expanse of it and was relieved to see that it appeared to be empty. Before she had a chance to speculate on what monstrosity it might have been used to contain, McAliskey was directing her attention to a smaller tank, containing a silvery torpedo shaped creature no more than six inches long, with writhing tentacles as long as its body. Apparently it wasn't lunchtime for this one. It darted to the far end of the tank.
"Cute, isn't he?" McAliskey said.
He spared her having to lie by forging ahead without waiting for a response. "But watch this."
He went to the minifridge on the nearby counter and returned with what looked like... oh god, it was a dead fish, which he skewered on a bit of wire and held under the water of the small tank. Faster than Renee's eyes could follow, the little squid's tentacles shot out and withdrew, and the fish was gone. McAliskey looked at her expectantly, transformed suddenly from a scientist to a kid looking for approval. Quite against her will, Renee found herself smiling back at him, and although she wasn't entirely sure what she was supposed to be impressed by, she felt the need to say something. Anything.
"Does it have teeth?" God, that sounded intelligent! She thought he'd laugh, but he only gave her a pleased smile, as if she'd said exactly the right thing.
"Not exactly. He has a beak, like a parrot. Now imagine him forty feet long, with suckers as big as saucers on his tentacles and a beak that could tear a human being in half in an instant, with the speed you just saw. You're diving in almost total darkness, and suddenly, there he is. Architeuthis."
"Oh. My. God." She stared at him, and he grinned back at her.
She turned back to the tank to study the comical little creature who was contentedly tearing the fish to shreds.
He chose that moment to make his move. She'd have sworn he'd shown no interest at all. He'd barely looked at her. And while she'd looked, she certainly hadn't given any signals. So it was entirely unexpected when his finger trailed lightly over her ass in an exploration that was tentative but far from innocent.
For a moment she was too shocked to move, but when it traveled lower and probed between her legs, instinct took over. She yelped and hit him as hard as she could.
She'd learned from three older brothers, and McAliskey wasn't braced for it. He landed on his backside in an awkward sprawl, and looked up at her in shock. Then he raised one hand to swipe at his bleeding lip. "What the hell?"
The pretense of boyish bewilderment was lost on her. "Don't look so shocked. Sooner or later someone wasn't going to be flattered. What is it about men, anyway? You all reach puberty and just stop there and call it good?"
"Oh, I think you heard me."
He adjusted his glasses as if getting a better view of her would explain her sudden insanity. And then he began to laugh. Hysterically. "Oh my god. Oh, Jesus. I'm sorry. This is so..."
His face had flushed to a deep crimson but he couldn't stop laughing long enough to speak coherently. It was apparently all he could do just to raise his arm to point at her. No. Not at her.
She looked over her shoulder and for the second time in one day, yelped in surprise. The big tank wasn't empty, after all. Something large and reddish and amorphous was plastered to the near side of it. Extended through a small space under the Plexiglas cover, one long, muscular tentacle slithered and probed its way along the outer surface of the tank.
Renee stared at it for a long time before she could bring herself to look at the man on the floor, but she couldn't hide forever. Finally she turned to face him.
"Pacific Giant Octopus."
"I'm afraid so."
Renee felt the heat rising to her cheeks. "God, this is embarrassing. I am so sorry. Are you okay? You're bleeding."
"I think I'll live."
She put out a hand to help him up, and he slid back a few inches.
"Oh no. You stay right where you are. My jaw couldn't take the repercussions if I lost my balance." He got to his feet and stared at her for a moment and then, without warning, he was laughing again. "I'm sorry! Really! I'm not laughing at you. It's just..."
"I know!" The absurdity of it overcame her, and she giggled helplessly. "I can't believe I hit you like that. And that damn octopus..."
"Man, what a pick-up line," he gasped, laughing even harder, "Is that an octopus or are you just..."
"Don't!" She wrapped her arms around her aching ribs. "Stop it. You're killing me here!"
It took assiduously avoiding eye contact, but they managed to regain some semblance of control. Renee moved to lean against the counter next to him. Still not looking at him, she said, "I feel like I owe you something for that battle-scar there. I don't suppose you ever date women with fewer than eight limbs?"
He didn't look at her either. "I've been known to the odd time."
"How about dinner? My treat, in lieu of the purple heart."
He folded his arms across his chest. "I don't know. You gonna slug me again?"
She looked up at him and grinned wickedly. "Not as long as your octopus stays where it belongs."