When she pushed through the public house’s door, Deborah braced herself for The Looks. Hell, a woman stepping alone into a pub in the London would get The Looks. In a fishing village on a tiny island thirty-something miles off the coast of Cornwall…
Yessir, there it was. At least a half-dozen grizzled heads, male to a one, turned to give her a suspicious side-eye.
She’d learned how to ignore the stares without being pointed about it: a bland smile not directed anywhere in particular, no eye contact with anyone but the bartender. All right. Not so different from coastal bars she’d visited back home in New Jersey. (Former home.) Sure, it was more deeply weathered, and the light was uncomfortably dim, and the newest building in Dorgissey might have gone up a decade or two before the turn of the century. But she could get comfortable enough. She didn’t have to fit in like a native; she just had to get people to talk. Taking off her overcoat and hanging it up on the rack by the door, the cat made her way across the floor, ancient boards creaking with each step of her flat sandals.
By the time she took a seat, conversation had picked back up. Not that the loud sailor boys in the corner had stopped talking for a moment. They’d shared decidedly different looks—not “there’s a stranger in town” looks, but “there’s a young unaccompanied woman” looks. Their conversation had switched from the otter serving girl hovering around them to, at least for the moment, her. Well, she was used to that, too, even if these blokes were less subtle than most. Her pink blouse and grey skirt might be cut fairly conservatively against her white fur, but she did cut a nice figure, and they were hormonal young men. She hadn’t been above using that in chasing stories, either.
“A pint of bitters, please.”
The badger behind the bar nodded, bringing a glass over to the tap. The clothes had likely already given away her not-from-hereness, and her American accent sealed the deal. “What brings you out to the island, ma’am?”
“Exploring Cornwall. Haven’t been east of Exeter before.”
His brow furrowed deeply as he set the glass down in front of her.
She laughed. “Not counting America. I mean since I moved to London.”
“Ah.” The thick brows came back up and he nodded sagely. “So what brought you across the pond? Husband?”
“No, but that’s a good guess.” Deborah picked up the ale and took a sip. “Whirlwind love affair that ended badly. But I had a job at the Daily Lantern by then, and stayed.” All true, if eliding the salacious details. The love affair had been with another woman. When she’d met the heiress in New York, she’d promised the cat a future of carefree abandon on her huge estate, with a cursory need for discretion. The reality had been constant, stifling fear and guilt. She broke away with barely enough money for the deposit on a drab, drafty studio flat in the East End. Two years later and she was still there. But: at least she was still there.
A lion two stools down turned and squinted at her. If the badger was old enough to be her father, he was old enough to be her grandfather. “The Lantern. Reporter?”
“I am. Local interest. Travel.”
“So not a real reporter.” His tone remained so flat it was hard to tell if he understood he was being insulting.
She shrugged and flashed her most nonchalant smile. “It’s a lot more fun than sitting behind a desk rewriting wire stories.” She’d done that her first year. To this day she wasn’t sure how much she owed her new position to talent and how much she owed it to her editor just wanting to get her out of the office so she’d stop complaining. It had come with a raise, but the meager travel budget the Lantern offered left her paying just enough out of pocket that she was lucky to end each month a few shillings ahead. “But I’m on my way up. I’ll be doing front page stories one day.”
“Mmm.” He cleared his throat, shook out his mane, and stared at her levelly. “So what local interest brings you to Dorgissey? The beautiful beaches? The postcard-perfect harbour? Its past as a pirate stronghold?”
She sipped her beer. “Little of all three. I’ve heard there were pirates here as recently as, what, twenty years, though?”
“Maybe as recently as tonight!” one of the sailors called, to a round of laughter.
The lion frowned, turning back to his half-finished pint. “Some of us remember some very dark times. I’d stick to the stories about the beaches, if you have to write anything at all. Which, begging your pardon, you don’t. There’s not much in a backwater fishing village to interest city folks.”
“I’m a city girl who spent her summers in Cape May. I bet I can gut a mackerel as fast as you can.”
“Not in that dress,” a black dog called over, tail wagging.
“Just give me an apron,” she called back. More hoots ensued.
“Now, tell the truth, lass.” A walrus sauntered toward her, pint glass in hand, sloshing slightly as he walked. The late May day had a good two hours to go before sunset, she guessed he’d been enjoying the pub’s ale since lunch. “You want to know about the sea monster, don’t you?”
That caused a burst of laughter from the sailors. “Sinks a ship a year!” a rat yelled.
“Maybe it’s what did in the pirates.”
“No, it keeps everyone in terror.” The weasel used an exaggerated spooky voice, wiggling his fingers over his head. “Th’ pirates need to come back and do it in, I say.”
“Well, I heard it’s a mermaid, who takes sailors she likes captive!” That was the black dog, tail wagging more.
The otter girl walked past, expertly balancing a tray of glasses in one webbed paw. Deborah caught her muttering under her breath. “In your dreams, mate.”
The cat stifled a grin, then tilted her head at the walrus. “All right, I won’t lie. I’ve heard a rumor about something living around the Isles of Scilly. But it seems awfully preposterous, doesn’t it?”
As she’d hoped, the walrus drew himself up and looked offended. The other sailors let out theatric groans. “Oh, don’t wind the cap’n up or we’ll never hear the end of it!” The rat’s exclamation drew raucous laughter from his mates.
“Now, lads, I’ve never said there was a sea monster in these waters, just…something dangerous. Any reporter who did a bit o’ research must have come across stories of vanishing boats and shipwrecks nearby.”
Deborah’s ears swiveled. The rest of the room—the locals who’d given her The Look on her entrance—had fallen silent, their gazes now less suspicious than uncomfortable.
She hadn’t lied about writing travel and local interest stories, but the handful of “believe it or not” pieces she’d come up with had far and away been her most popular. The bridge of bones in the far north, the size-shifting maid who feather-dusted the Ritz-Carlton every so often. Even so, she’d expected she’d come back with a story about, well, beautiful beaches and a postcard-perfect harbour, with a little embellished “rumors say” and “maybe you’ll be lucky and see” for spice. But could there truly be a here here?
She sipped her beer, flashing her nonchalant smile again and flipping a lock of golden hair away from her eyes. “Read a few of those stories, yes. Guess it’s not so dangerous that you’re afraid to put into port here.”
“Sailing the high seas means a life of danger, lass.”
A startled chirp from across the room distracted her from trying to steer the conversation away from maritime cliché. The weasel with the wiggly fingers had his hand on the otter girl’s rump. Had he slid it under her dress? “Just one little kiss.” His voice carried clearly, amplified by the power of a few too many pints.
The otter tried to pull away. “I don’t—”
He kissed her mid-sentence, muzzle to muzzle. The rest of the sailors cheered, banging their mugs on the table, beer spilling everywhere.
The serving girl stood an inch or two taller than he did. She shoved him back, hard, with both webbed paws, to his surprise and more laughter from the crew. “I said I don’t want to kiss you! Now, stop!” With her voice raised, her Irish accent—County Cork, Deborah guessed—rang clear.
“What about me, then?” The dog put his arms around her from behind, one hand spreading over her left breast. “I promise I’m a better kisser.”
The otter’s eyes widened. Then she twisted out of his grasp, with the boneless, all-muscle fluidity of her species, whirled around and kneed him between his legs. He choked, doubling over. “Last warning for all of you,” she growled.
The laughter from the sailors died down, and their expressions turned ugly. Three of them walked around the table toward the otter; she started backing toward the bar. The locals started looking nervous again. Weren’t any of them going to do something?
Well, dammit, she would, then. Deborah stared at the walrus. “Tell your men to back off.”
The rat and ferret both grabbed the otter, one to each side.
“They’re just having fun.” The captain looked down at Deborah. “You stay out at sea long enough, you get a touch pushy for a fine woman’s company. And there’s only two in this pub.”
Some of the sailors who weren’t advancing on the otter looked in her direction. She willed her ears not to go back.
A loud bang! sounded from the bar. The badger held a heavy croquet mallet in his hands, and had just smacked it against the oak counter.
“That’ll be about enough of that,” he rumbled. “This isn’t that kind of establishment, and I assure you Miss Tallulah’s not that kind of woman.”
“She’s not wearing a ring,” a ferret sailor protested. “Neither of ’em are.” He looked over at the walrus.
The lion cleared his throat. “When Miss Tallulah says stop, you’d best listen.”
“Really now,” the captain said, readjusting his hat. “Well then. She might be up for more fun later tonight, when she’s off work. Maybe she’ll come find us.” He ambled toward the door, nodding to his men.
They grumbled, shooting the badger—and both Tallulah and Deborah—glares as they followed the captain out. “Or maybe we’ll find her,” the dog growled.
“Or both of you,” the rat added. “We’ll have a great time.”
The otter huffed, retreating to the bar, standing behind Deborah as if as a shield.
Deborah spun in her seat. “Are you all right?” This was the first time she’d gotten a truly good, close look at the barmaid, and she hoped she hadn’t sucked in her breath involuntarily. The otter was bloody gorgeous: dark red hair cascaded over her shoulders and halfway down her back, wisps falling into ample cleavage displayed in a low-cut blouse, perfectly curved hips, strong, sleek legs. And she had to stand a full six feet tall, a good half a foot over the cat. If Deborah had been asked to describe her fantasy date at the Gates, a clandestine lesbian club, she’d have pretty much painted this image. She suddenly felt like a self-conscious wallflower at a sixth-grade dance.
“I’m fine,” the otter growled. “Angry, but fine.” Her expression softened as she looked down at the cat. “Thank you for asking.”
The badger had put the mallet away. “I told you we probably shouldn’t have served them, ma’am.”
Tallulah’s gaze lingered on Deborah long enough to make the cat feel self-conscious. Then she looked away, shaking her head. “They’re pirates, Rufus. If you hadn’t, they’d be back with pistols. They might still. I’ve heard stories about them already.”
“Pirates,” Deborah repeated. “Actual pirates?”
“Actual pirates. And I don’t like pirates. At all.” She raised one of her hands, black pads facing up, and curled her fingers into a tight fist.
The lion swallowed, visibly nervous. “Hopefully they’ll be on their way with no trouble, ma’am.” Several of the other locals nodded in agreement.
Deborah tried not to visibly furrow her brow. Just what was going on here?
“No trouble at all.” Tallulah touched her tongue tip to her nose briefly, a gesture Deborah hadn’t thought of as sexy until just that very moment. Then the otter focused back on Deborah. “What’s your name?”
“Deborah. Deborah Harding.” She held out a hand. “Or Debbie to friends.”
Tallulah clasped her hand with both of hers, the pillowy soft pads not hiding their strength, and locked her eyes on the cat’s. “Deborah, I don’t want it to sound like we’re unfriendly here, or that we don’t like visitors. But too many of them need to be…cleaned up after.” She nodded toward the mess the sailors had left behind. “The truth is, I’d be ever so much happier if you went back up to Cornwall’s south coast, Falmouth or Roseland, and wrote a lovely travelogue piece that didn’t direct people here.”
She kept her voice light. “Sounds a little threatening, Tallulah.” The lion visibly winced when she used the otter’s name without the Miss honorific.
The otter let go of Deborah’s hands and put her broad webbed paws on the cat’s shoulders, voice light. “It’s only a friendly suggestion. You’d rather I be calling you Debbie if you’re ever back in town, hmm? I know I would.” She smiled coyly and squeezed the cat’s shoulders, then glanced to the badger. “Rufus, why don’t we cover Miss Harding’s tab tonight.” Her tone made it more command than question.
He nodded, and the otter headed off to the table to start cleaning.
Deborah watched her go, trying unsuccessfully not to watch the sway of her…everything. How was she supposed to read that smile? “Quite the firebrand, isn’t she?” she murmured.
The lion looked away hurriedly. The badger gave her a wry grin. “That’s a way to put it, ma’am. Can I get you another pint?”
“No thanks. I might come back after dinner, but it’s still early enough a few of the harbour shops might be open.”
He shook his head. “Too close to sunset. You’d best be off just staying here, getting dinner at the chip shop or the tavern up over the hill. They do a mean fish pie.”
“If they’re not open, then I’ll still see the sunset over water. That’s important for lovely travelogue pieces, you know.”
He frowned. “You’re still writing about us? Miss Tallulah—”
“—is not my editor.” She stood up, putting down two sixpence coins in the same motion, and smiled. “Thank you for the company.” She made a point of not looking in the otter’s direction as she left.
As it turned out, the shops by the harbour weren’t closed yet, at least not all of them. A pair of portly foxes stood behind a grocer’s counter, clearly mother and son. The elder vixen gave her a slight, somber nod when she entered, but the son stepped out to greet her, beaming. “Good afternoon, ma’am.”
“Afternoon.” She smiled. “Looks like you’ve got a beautiful crop.”
“Best produce on the Isles, and our dairy makes the best clotted cream in all of England, if I say so myself. You’re new in town?”
“Just in today, here two nights. So far I’ve just strolled along the Strand and visited the public house.”
“Ah, old Rufus’s place. Go there most evenings myself. He’s usually behind the bar.”
“We met, then. He seemed like a fine fellow. And I met the barmaid there, too. Tallulah?”
His ears colored, but he grinned. “Yes, Miss Tallulah. Quite the…” He rubbed behind his ear. “She’s quite pretty.”
“Quite.” The mother had visibly stiffened as the conversation turned to the barmaid, but the son didn’t seem so reticent. Time for a little fishing of her own. “Surprised she’s not married, or at least engaged. It does look like Dorgissey has a few eligible bachelors.”
The color in his ears deepened. “Ah, well. I don’t think she’s the marrying type. If she were, she could have her pick of any man by snapping her fingers.”
“Snap her fingers? Makes it sound like she could just command someone to her boudoir and they’d have no choice in the matter.” She kept her voice light.
He shuffled his paws awkwardly. “Well…”
“Miss Tallulah,” the vixen cut in, “has done a great deal for our village. Let’s not give poor impressions of her, Thomas.”
“Of course not,” he said hastily.
Deborah held up her hands, smiling as reassuringly as she could muster. “No bad impressions here. What’s she done?”
The vixen gave her a confused, suspicious look.
“For the village.”
“I mean, she…” The two foxes exchanged glances. “This town truly wouldn’t be what it is today without her.”
“She helps out everyone,” Thomas said, nodding earnestly.
“She does. An amazing woman.”
“I don’t doubt it.” Deborah picked up an apple from a nearby basket and sniffed it. “Nobility? Rich family?”
That got her another suspicious look from the vixen, and a confused one from Thomas.
She flashed another smile. “Not that keeping bar isn’t a fine profession, but serving girls don’t usually have everyone in their town deferring to them like they’re the queen.”
The fox cleared his throat, looking away.
“So you’ll be wanting that apple, ma’am?” the vixen said curtly.
She couldn’t help but look smug. This had to be it! Some wayward daughter of a Lord, perhaps, playing the part of the peasant but drawing on daddy’s money to be the village’s patron. This was the story she was here to write: the tale of a picturesque, backwater town run by an all-powerful barmaid. “Sure, I’d—”
“I’ll buy it for the lady,” a voice cut in. She recognized it before she turned: the weasel sailor. The dog was with him, too. “She’s our date tonight.”
Her ears went back, but she stood her ground, hands on her hips. “Didn’t they teach you boys what ‘no’ means in sailor school?”
“No school for us. We’re all self-taught.” The dog grinned, not kindly. “And I’ve learnt that from a pretty lady, it usually means ‘yes.’”
“No apple tonight, no cat tonight. Go on, give yourselves the heave ho back shipboard.”
The weasel narrowed his narrow eyes even farther. “I said I’m gonna buy you an apple.” He darted forward, grabbing the apple with one hand and her wrist with the other.
“Back off, you—”
The dog moved behind her. “C’mon, doll, stop being like that.”
Thomas’s ears had gone back, too, but he marched forward, a fierceness in his eyes she wouldn’t have guessed he could muster. “She said let her go. Don’t think the townsfolk don’t know about what you lot have been up to.”
“Stay outta this, shop boy.” The weasel yanked Deborah toward him, twisting her wrist in the process. She squealed in pain, then brought her other hand up to slap him—claws out. His squeal was louder than hers, but he didn’t lose his grip.
“You let her go now!” Thomas grabbed the weasel, bodily pulling him away with both hands.
The dog growled, stepping forward and punching the fox hard in the gut. Thomas doubled over, wheezing, then staggered backward into the counter, sliding down it.
“Thomas!” his mother shrieked, hurrying to his side. He was still gasping for breath.
“Weak fat fuck.” The weasel gave the fox a half-hearted kick, but backed away. “C’mon.” He motioned the dog to follow.
The weasel didn’t wait. After a second, the dog glared down at Deborah and ran after his friend.
“Lord,” Thomas wheezed. “I’m… f-fine…” He struggled to sit up, wincing in clear pain.
Deborah crouched down and ran her fingers over his chest, earning her a confused glance from both foxes, and a slight blush in Thomas’s ears again. “Hmm.” She pressed down in one spot. Thomas yelped.
“Hey, now!” his mother scolded. “Don’t you be—”
“He’s got a fractured rib. Thomas, take a deep breath.”
He sucked in air, then went into a coughing fit. His mother’s ears went back.
“That’s good,” Deborah said. “No collapsed lung. We need ice, and we need a doctor. Please tell me your island does have a doctor.”
“We do, we do.” The mother got to her feet, disappearing, then quickly came back with a cloth bag filled with ice chips. “I’ll go get him. It’ll be right quick.”
“Good. Tell a constable, too.”
Her ears set back as she hurried out, scowling. “Oh, I’ll tell someone, all right.”
Holding the ice to Thomas’s side, Deborah furrowed her brow, looking after the woman.
He flinched. “Ugh, that’s cold.”
“It’ll feel better.”
“It…does already, I think.” He smiled up awkwardly. “How’d you learn about fractured ribs, ma’am?”
“By having one.”
“It sounds like you have an adventurous life for a lady.”
She grinned. “I’ve tried my best.”
The doctor, a brusque bespectacled skunk, arrived a few minutes later, taking the ice from her and informing her she should let a professional do his work. Other than using a stethoscope when he asked the fox to take a few deep breaths, he did exactly what Deborah had done, down to holding the ice to the exact same spot on Thomas she had.
“That was very brave of you, Thomas.” She smiled, standing up.
“They were up to no good, and they’d have done no good with you, either.” He took another deep breath, wincing again. “Thank you for helping me, too. Take as many apples as you want.”
“Wouldn’t dream of taking advantage of you.” She picked up the apple she’d been holding, and set down a few pennies for it.
The skunk looked up. “I’ll take you back to your inn, Miss…”
“Harding. Deborah Harding. I’d wanted to see just a bit more of the harbour shops—”
“It’s not safe for you with those cads running about, and the shops’ll be closed. You’re staying at the Seagrave? Up over the hill?”
“Good.” He looked visibly relieved.
She barely kept the frown off her face. Rufus the badger had tried to dissuade her from poking around the harbour by telling her the shops were already closed, hadn’t he? And while Doc Stinker here was right that “those cads” would be trouble for her if they caught her, he seemed most concerned that she didn’t have a clear view of the harbour like she would have if she’d been able to afford the Mermaid Inn just down the Strand. Just what was that they—or more likely than not, Her Royal Otterness—didn’t want her to see?
She summoned an insincere smile. “Of course.”
The walk up the hill took a good ten minutes, during which she managed to extract maybe a half-dozen words from the doctor, mostly one at a time. Highlights included his name (“Ellingham”), where he was from (“Cornwall”), and his opinion of Miss Tallulah (“healthy”). He exchanged a few more words with the matronly innkeep, informing her Deborah was retiring for the evening, as the harbour might not be safe tonight. They nodded earnestly to one another.
As soon as she shut the door to her room, Deborah pulled off her outfit. She’d seen a few white-furred villagers; she wouldn’t blend in, but if she left the coat and handbag behind she might not be recognizable at first glance. Fishing her camera out of her purse, she swapped to her longer lens and slung the strap around her neck. The Leica had DIN 27/10 film loaded, so as long as there was some light left she should be able to get a few good shots.
While she doubted her hostess would put up a fight if she saw her guest marching right back out, it’d be better if she just didn’t know. That way she couldn’t go tell someone. The villagers had crossed the line from solicitous to creepy, and whatever passed for a constabulary in Dorgissey would be no less deferential to Tallulah than everyone else. So sneaking out it was. She closed and locked her room door as quietly as possible, then headed down the back stair bare-pawed. Once outside, she hurried back downhill, taking narrow alleys rather than open streets.
By the time she reached the harbour, she dearly missed her coat; the ocean breeze cut right through her blouse. The sun hadn’t set yet, though. She stopped by the edge of the nearest building—a flower shop, and yes, closed for the evening—and surveyed the beach and water.
The town didn’t seem to have much in the way of docks. A quay ran along the west side of the cove up along a thin spit of land, with a few fishing boats tied up to it; the ferry she’d come in on docked at the northernmost point, not too far from the Mermaid Inn. Earlier today, there’d been at least a dozen small boats moored out in the quiet water. Only one remained: a brown and blue painted wooden schooner, she guessed still a hundred feet from bow to stern. A dinghy bobbed by its side, two figures—she suspected the dog and weasel—climbing from it to the bigger ship’s deck. Was Thomas right when he called them “pirates,” or just using poetic license? The boat flew the Merchant Navy flag, but it wasn’t as if real pirates would be helpfully flying the Jolly Roger. And the town did have a history.
Stepping out, she made her way westward, keeping close to the buildings, looking between them and the water. It’d help if she had any idea what she was looking for beyond “thing the crazy villagers didn’t want the outsider to see.”
By the time she’d made it nearly to the Mermaid—as far as she could tell, without raising any alarms from either the occasional passerby or the sailors—sat down on a bench facing the water—in plain sight of the merchant ship, but if she had to, she could just run inside the inn—and dusted off her foot pads, tail flicking in thoughtful irritation. Yes, they were trying to keep her from something, but what? Maybe it wasn’t a place, it was a person. The Mysterious Miss Tallulah? Maybe, although if she was trying to avoid strangers, she wouldn’t have taken a sham job as a barmaid.
Maybe it was an event. It might be her imagination running away with her, but Tallulah’s “last warning” had the air of a not-so-veiled threat. Thomas’s mother had surely gone off to tell Miss T. that the sailors-possibly-pirates had made still more trouble. So she might be about to see…what, exactly?
She sat up straight. Where the stories about the sea monster came from, that’s what.
If she was right, should she try and warn them? Evil was good people looking on and doing nothing, or however the saying went. Of course, that saying wasn’t about looking on bad things happening to drunken, vicious thugs. Even if she found a way to get over to that ship, what would happen? She’d tell them she had an unprovable hunch they were about to be in big trouble, they’d laugh, and her tail was getting fear-floof just from thinking about what might come next. She had her good Samaritan side, but it had its limits.
“I am an awful person,” she said aloud, standing up and snapping a few pictures of the ship, walking back along the shore to find different angles. What could be coming? Torpedos? Mines? Surely they didn’t have military weaponry in this cozy little town, but they might have makeshift bombs that someone who could hold her breath under water for ten minutes could position unseen.
The minutes passed by. Five. Ten. Twenty. She’d returned to the bench, first poised alertly, then increasingly slumped. Maybe there was no believe-it-or-not story here beyond the one she’d been spinning in her head. Maybe they hadn’t been trying to keep her away from the harbour after all. Nobody, villager or sailor, had come out to harass her. She should just slink back to her hotel room and start some puff piece about beautiful beaches and, yes, a postcard-perfect harbour. Sighing, she pushed herself up to her feet, glancing back at the merchant ship. She could see some of the carousing sailors on deck now; one of them hooted something, probably at her. Terrific. Maybe she should hurry. At least nobody’d gone for the dinghy yet—
Deborah paused, squinting. There was a shadow in the water, moving into the cove from around the spit. A huge shadow.
Biting her lip, she raised her camera. She got it in position just as the shadow glided under the ship—and stopped moving. The sailors had noticed it, too, leaning over the deck, pointing, staring.
Then the water fountained around the boat’s bow.
Through the spray of water, she could see something—huge claws? Dear lord, huge claws!—grab and latch onto the sides, pulling down hard enough to lift the ship’s stern out of the water, the wood cracking with enough force to be heard over the splashes. The sailors started screaming, hanging onto the railing, sliding toward the thing that had grabbed hold of them, tumbling over the side into the churning water.
Deborah snapped two shots, then paused, finger on the shutter button. The huge, fierce claws capped distinctly webbed paws. And now she saw flashes of sleek leg, of a huge muzzle in front of the ship.
“Bloody hell,” she breathed. “Tallulah is the sea monster.” Why hadn’t she guessed this as a possibility? She’d met a size-shifter or two. Granted, she’d never seen one in person bigger than about twelve feet high.
The boat rocked violently as the giantess let it go, then listed to its port side. Tallulah surfaced with another huge splash, rising out of the water to her chest. Deborah’s mouth went dry. Good lord, was she attractive, even though she was far taller than twelve feet. Maybe closer to a hundred.
When she spoke, her words carried clear over the water, not much lower-pitched than the voice she’d had at her normal size but with a subsonic timbre the cat felt in her bones. “You little boys’ve been nothing but trouble since you got here. Vandalism, robbery, assault, even attempted rape of both me and that ravishing little reporter.”
Deborah felt her ears burn, but kept taking pictures.
“So now,” Tallulah continued, “you lads know one of my secrets.” She clapped her webbed paws together over their heads. “And here’s the very last secret all of you are going to hear.” She put both her hands on the ship’s far side, and lowered her voice to a husky, faux apologetic whisper. “I play with my food.”
Deborah would have dropped the camera in shock if it weren’t for the strap. Surely she didn’t—wasn’t—
With a loud yell somewhere between chirp, grunt and roar, Tallulah lifted the ship’s side out of the water, capsizing it. The masts and sails crashed into the water, splintering and ripping as the force drove them under. But the otter wasn’t finished sinking the boat. She wrapped an arm and a leg around the vessel, and, with another grunt, forced it all the way upside down. The giantess stretched out on top of the hull, legs clamping around the sides tightly enough that the structure started to cave in. Then she squealed in pure delight, hands pressing down against the bow as she lifted herself up by straightening her arms, back arching almost bonelessly, chest thrust out, muzzle pointed to the sky.
Swallowing hard, Deborah snapped another photo. The newspaper couldn’t possibly run something that risqué, but she might keep it herself.
The ship sank rapidly under the otter’s immense weight, water rolling and frothing around it like a hot spring. Sailors swam in blind panic, trying to clear the undertow. At least four had made it to the dinghy and cut free from the doomed ship, but the little boat rocked too violently for them to make any headway in escape.
As Tallulah sank with the boat, she looked back over her shoulder. “Ah ah, row faster! Show the girl what big strong men you are!” Grinning wickedly, the otter raised her tail, then slammed it down, its end just catching the lifeboat. Water and wood sprayed up like an explosion, carrying the sailors with it.
The otter laughed, letting go of the ship, then slid into the water, hundreds of tons of apex aquatic predator disappearing with disquieting ease.
Everything was still for a good ten seconds, sailors treading water or swimming desperately for land. Then huge open jaws came up to either side of the weasel. He had just enough time to shriek before they snapped shut.
“Mother of God.” Deborah put her hand to her mouth. Size-shifters didn’t—didn’t—obviously they could, and yes, at the newsroom they’d hear rumors once in a blue moon. But they were as ludicrous as stories about little green mice from Mars. And yet there she was. Eating people.
The panic among the rest of the sailors didn’t fully hit until the next one went down, with barely enough time to yell. The otter didn’t even surface that time.
Deborah raced along the shoreline, trying to find a better angle. She might have no chance of stopping the otter, but she could damn well document this. Maybe.
The rat abruptly shot up into the air. Deborah stared as Tallulah leapt out of the water after him. He went up thirty, nearly forty feet, arms and legs flailing, before his arc started to come back down. The giantess caught him in her mouth and swallowed visibly as she gracefully arced back into the water. Good lord, he must have gone down whole. The cat wasn’t sure if the way Tallulah somehow made it look damnably sexy made it better or worse.
A horse became the subject of a quick, cruelly casual chase, the otter swimming on the surface behind his furiously paddling form, just opening her mouth wide a moment before she overtook him. By now, though, the few survivors—the dog, the walrus, and a wolf she hadn’t seen before—had almost made land.
Deborah backed up hurriedly. She was way too out in the open for the action to move near her. Dammit. After a quick search, she crouched behind a bench. It wasn’t great cover, especially from someone who could get a vantage point of eight or nine stories just by standing up, but it would have to do.
With another dive and stretch, Tallulah’s left hand closed around the dog and the right around the walrus, lifting them both up, then twisting around to float on her back, holding them in the air over her head. “Well, now. The dog so eager to rape the two women in the pub, and the captain so willing to encourage it.”
“We just wanted a little fun!” the dog yowled. “Please—we heard—we heard—”
“Heard what?” She shook him lightly.
Deborah peeked out more from behind the bench, transfixed by the scene.
His voice sounded brokenly desperate. “Heard this was a fun town for freebooters again! We heard that’s where the legend of the sea monster came from! Pirates spread stories like that as—as signs!”
The otter’s grin grew wicked again. “I know, lad. Pirates do love a good story. You just never considered this one might have been spread by the sea monster.” She shifted her grip to let him dangle by a leg. “Now, any last words to your captain?”
“Sweet Mary and Joseph, please don’t eat me!”
“So that’s a ‘no,’ then.” She dropped him into her open mouth. This time Deborah heard a distinct, tail-curling crunch before the swallow.
“Now, captain. Lucky you, you don’t get eaten!” Tallulah shook the walrus. “You see, pirates just never remember that the captain’s supposed to go down with their ship.” She beamed widely. “So why don’t I just dive down there and tuck you back in your cabin?”
“Please, lass, I’ll—”
“Don’t beg,” she chided. “It’s not becoming of you. Also,” she lowered her voice to her mock whisper again, “it just makes me laugh.” Without waiting for a response, she dove under the water.
Taking a long, shaky breath, Deborah stood up and looked at her camera. She’d gotten a few shots during those last few moments, but she didn’t know how good they were. And, as she glanced around the shore, she didn’t know if she’d been spotted. More lights were on in buildings now; she could see people standing in doorways and on porches. Well, she’d figured out the townspeople knew about Tallulah. They didn’t defer to her because she was royalty, they deferred to her so they didn’t get eaten. In any case, it was high time for her to head back—
She whirled at the voice to find the bedraggled wolf, the only survivor of the “shipwreck,” lurching toward her.
“Hey, now.” She raised her hands, backing up, then turned tail and ran.
He tackled her, grappling her against him, his front to her back. She shrieked, fighting until he got an arm around her throat. “Stop struggling or you’re dead.”
“Are you crazy? We’re here when she surfaces in a few seconds, we’re both dead,” she hissed.
He grinned wildly. “I’ve got a hostage.”
“Mother of God, she’s not going to—”
He braced his other hand on her skull. “Shut up or I’ll break your neck.”
She went quiet, ears folding back.
Tallulah rose to the surface seconds later, then waded onto the beach, water cascading off her nude form. God, I wish I was taking pictures of this, Deborah thought, followed by Good God, Debbie, pick less literally predatory women to lust after.
The otter’s eyes scanned the area for just a moment. Then she crouched, feet still in the water, in front of the wolf and cat. “And there’s the last survivor. With the nosy travel writer, who instead of being safe in her room came out here…with a camera.” She sighed.
“Stay back!” he yelled up. “If you come any closer she’s dead!”
The giantess leaned over. “So, little pirate boy, how about if I just eat both of you?”
The pirate’s ears folded back. “I—you—”
“Great plan, asshole,” Deborah hissed at him.
Abruptly fingers closed around both of them. Deborah squeaked as the pads that had clasped her hand a couple hours ago now surrounded her entire body. They were wet, almost rubbery, simultaneously luxuriously soft and slightly grippy. What she could see of the outside world became a blur of ocean and approaching otter face, lips and tongue and teeth.
Then all at once, the water-wet warmth of Tallulah’s hand became the saliva-wet heat of her mouth. The dim outside light briefly created long shadows of teeth across the tongue the cat slid along. Then, with an audible snap, everything became pitch black.
The sounds became wet, too: drips and splashes inside the mouth as both wolf and cat flailed and squirmed, more ominous gurgles from beyond the throat. The tongue undulated and pulsed against Deborah, pushing her up against the roof of the otter’s mouth, then sliding her helpless form to the back of the fearsome front teeth, knocking her breath out. As she gasped, spluttering, the tongue moved to pin her, its tip firmly between her legs.
She could feel every twitch of that tongue now, the faint pulses of the otter’s pulse. Oh, lord. She pushed with both hands against the tongue, first firmly, then weakly. The sensations! Remembered images of the otter’s playful bliss as she’d eaten the sailors didn’t help matters at all. Deborah wasn’t just about to die in a way she’d never have possibly imagined, she was—she was going to die dreadfully turned on. She didn’t think Tallulah was trying to be provocative, but this took “playing with your food” to an unexpected level.
A hard swallow pulled her sharply against the tongue, and a shudder rippled hard down her body. The sound of splashes and gurgles became the brief sound of a rushing river, and the wolf’s yowling became a terrified, quickly muffled scream.
Deborah closed her eyes, waiting breathlessly for the swallow that would take her. But she felt the teeth move behind her, saw light slip in—then the tongue thrust hard against her again, tumbling her into the otter’s waiting paw.
It took a few seconds of hyperventilating before she managed to push herself up into a sitting position. Her clothes and fur were soaked and sticky.
“Are you all right?” The otter’s voice came softly from right overhead.
“Y…yes.” She wiped off her muzzle, taking another deep breath, and stared up. “I mean…am I?”
“I don’t know, little Deborah. You and I have a serious problem. I can’t very well have you go off and turn me into a news story.”
“But you—I can’t see all this and—Mother of God, you ate all of them!”
“They were all bad,” the otter replied matter-of-factly. Then she flashed her wicked grin again. “Well, they were delicious. But they were terrible people.”
“You don’t get to just—just play judge, jury and—”
The otter sighed, curling her hand into a loose fist. “I don’t think this conversation ends well, little one.”
“No! Wait!” the cat yelped, finding herself curled up painfully.
“Wait.” The otter sounded irritated now. “Fine. You have another, oh, five seconds to convince me not to have you as an after-dinner mint, shall we? Five.”
Oh, God. “By ‘don’t,’ I mean you shouldn’t, a-and—”
“You don’t want to kill me!”
“If you did, you’d have already swallowed me!”
Another second passed without a count, and then the otter opened her hand, sighing again.
Deborah gasped for breath, closing her eyes, then glared up. “You already have an excuse to eat me! You’re looking for an excuse not to!”
The otter snorted. “So why don’t you try giving me one?”
“Tell me why I shouldn’t write the story about you, and I won’t.”
“What?” Tallulah looked incredulous, then narrowed her eyes. “Because you don’t want me to eat you alive!”
“That’s a threat. Not a reason.” The cat crossed her soaked arms, looking up defiantly.
“Saints preserve me.” Tallulah sighed heavily, looking off to the side a moment. “Because the ships I’ve sank and the people I’ve eaten deserved it, and you know it.”
“You’re sure? All of them? Each and every one?”
Tallulah bared her teeth. Deborah reflexively shrank back against the otter’s fingers. “You’re on the thinnest part of the ice, lass.”
Deborah plunged ahead before she gave herself any time to think about the insanity of challenging a giantess while sitting in her hand. “Look. What I mean is, if you’re so confident you’re only eating ‘bad people’ then why don’t you want it to get out?”
“You know full well why. It’s not civilized.” She said the word in a mocking sing-song, rolling her eyes. “And it’s not. I’m not. But neither are pirates. They’re nothing like the fun children’s stories and the musicals and the ‘yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.’ They’re thieves and rapists and slavers, and the ones who are still plying their trade in modern times are the worst of the worst. You’d damn well be better off taking your chances with a giant otter woman.”
Deborah shifted uneasily. “And they used to be here in Dorgissey more. Now they’re not, but the stories never say why they left, not really. Did one of the townsfolk learn she could play sea monster?”
“No.” Tallulah’s voice grew softer. “The pirates took girls off ships they sank and towns they raided, and pressed them into…service. Those girls lost their parents, their brothers and sisters. Everything.” She focused her eyes more intently on the cat. “It was one of them, one of those little girls, who learned she could play sea monster.”
“Oh.” Deborah swallowed, biting her lip. Her survival plan hadn’t gotten much farther than get her to talk. She hadn’t planned for find yourself sympathetic. “I’m sorry. And I’m glad you got away, and glad you drove them out.” She sighed, leaning forward and up, eyes still on the otter’s. “But you can’t make things right by taking over the town yourself.”
The otter looked startled, then affronted. “Hold on now. I didn’t—”
“For Lord’s sake,” an exasperated voice called from below. “Both of you, stand down.” Both otter and cat looked down, startled.
A group of villagers had assembled nearby. Rufus, the bartender. The lion who’d been at the bar. Others she didn’t recognize. At least a dozen. The one who’d spoken was Thomas’s mother.
“We know how this all looks to outsiders, and that’s why we don’t like outsiders looking. We like things the way they are here now.”
Deborah twisted around in the otter’s hand, leaning over to address the vixen more directly. “I can’t help but notice how nervous everyone got when I called her ‘Tallulah’ without that ‘Miss.’”
The vixen put her hands on her hips. “So you assume we’re all running around here frightened any of us might end up as otter food.”
“It’s…” She glanced back at Tallulah’s looming muzzle. “No offense to anyone, but it’s a pretty high concern in my mind right now.”
“Yes, we’re pretty respectful of Miss Tallulah, and of course we all know she could have the town under her paw. Maybe literally. We don’t know how big she can get. But we love her because she’s not like that. Getting rid of the pirates let us have our town back.” She waved a finger at Deborah. “I know you think she’s a monster. Maybe she is. But she’s our monster.” The gathered townsfolk rumbled assent.
Tallulah smiled down. “Thank you, Mrs. Gresham. All of you.”
The vixen turned her wagging finger on the giantess. “And Miss Tallulah, I’ll have you know that woman stood up for me today and helped Thomas after one of those louts attacked him. At least as helpful as Doc Ellingham was, let me tell you. And Mrs. Patterson up at the Seagrave said she’s been a delight. I’d like more visitors like her, let me tell you.”
Deborah sat up straight, beaming. “Very kind.”
The otter pursed her lips. “I didn’t ask for a character witness, but thank you.” She turned back to Deborah. “You’ve heard enough reasons that you shouldn’t write that story, now, haven’t you? Pirates aren’t nice people, and I’m stopping the ones the Navy can’t or won’t. And people here like things the way they are. Telling my story would destroy the town, not to mention see me jailed. Or harpooned.”
The cat ran a hand through her still-soaked hair. It was beginning to stick together from the saliva. Lovely. “All right. All right. I won’t pretend I’m comfortable with this. But it sounds like you’re good for this town.” She cleared her throat. “I’m still going to have to say something about the sea monster. My editor knows that’s the story I’d want. But…” She smiled a little nervously. “You know how stories like this go. Never any proof. Barely worth more than a paragraph, when all’s said and done.”
“Excellent.” Tallulah’s huge gaze drifted down to the cat’s chest. “I am afraid, though, you’re going to have to lose the camera.”
She clutched it protectively. “It’s a Leica, owned by the paper! I can’t just—”
“Five.” The otter pointed at the water with her free hand. “Four.”
Deborah hurriedly took the camera off and hurled it into the ocean.
“Good girl.” She looked down at the onlookers and waved her hand. “Go on home, now. Show’s over.” They dispersed hurriedly.
The cat watched them go, then back up at the otter. “Don’t tell me you don’t run this whole island.”
“Oh, lass, I know when I so much as snap my fingers, everyone jumps.” She laughed. “So I truly do my best not to snap them too often.”
“From what I’ve heard, the boys around the town wish you’d snap them more.”
Tallulah raised her brows, then gave another one of those wicked grins. “They’re nice lads, but…I don’t think any of them are who I’d be wanting to snap my fingers at.”
She grinned back, lopsidedly. “So are you looking for someone who can stand up to you, or someone who’ll be a pet?”
“Maybe I’m looking for someone who’ll be a bit of both.” Tallulah’s grin softened into a more teasing smile for a moment. Then she leaned down and set Deborah down on the beach. “You go shower and rest, little cat. And not to say I don’t trust you, but do remember that we get the Daily Lantern on the island here, and I will read your story.”
“So if you don’t like it, you’ll come to London and eat me?”
The giantess clasped her hands together. “Ah, I feel like we understand each other so well now!”
Deborah laughed weakly. “Right. Well. Thank you.” She turned and started back up the beach.
“Debbie,” the otter called after a few seconds.
Her eyes widened, and she turned back.
“Have you ever been in another giant’s mouth before?”
Her ears skewed. “No, of course not.”
“Hmm.” Tallulah studied Deborah intently for several seconds, then licked her lips and blew the cat a kiss. She turned and dove back into the water before Deborah could respond.
The cat looked out to sea, mouth open, for nearly half a minute. Then she shook her head, hurrying up the hill. “Lord help me,” she muttered.
The day was colder and cloudier than the last time she’d walked down the Strand, but the wind was less biting. She decided to take that as a promise.
This time, entering the public house didn’t get her The Look. At least, it wasn’t the same look. The regulars who recognized her looked genuinely startled. Also, there were no loud sailors in the corner. Good. She didn’t want to have to deal with the otter having…a dinner show.
Rufus stood behind the bar, as expected. Beyond a lifted brow, he didn’t register a hint of surprise. “Didn’t expect to see you back, ma’am. Business or pleasure?”
“Both, or neither. It’s complicated.” She laughed, self-consciously. “Is she here?”
He turned to face the swinging doors to the kitchen. “Miss Tallulah,” he called.
Nearly a half a minute passed before Tallulah stepped out. When she caught sight of Deborah, her eyes widened. Then she crossed her arms. “Back for a followup story?”
“Not in the way you mean. Can we talk?”
The otter looked at her searchingly, then nodded, motioning Deborah to follow her outside. “Rufus, I’ll be back when I’m back.”
“Of course, ma’am.”
The otter led her down the street toward the harbour. “So. In what way are you here for a story, little cat?”
“You only have six inches on me right now.”
“I can fix that easy if I need to.”
“Right.” She cleared her throat. “I’m not here for a story, singular. I’ve asked the Lantern if I could become their Isles of Scilly correspondent.”
“Meaning me moving to one of the islands and sending in stories occasionally. I could move to Tresco or St. Martin’s, but I want to move here. But I feel like I’d need your permission.”
Tallulah looked shocked, then incredulous. “You want to move here. To keep writing stories about us.”
Her expression slipped into anger. “Well, you’re damn right you’d need my permission, and you damn well don’t have it!” The otter put her hands on her hips. “I asked you not to write about the town—”
“Threatening to eat me is not technically ‘asking.’”
“—and now you’re back telling me you want to make a bloody career out of writing about it!”
“I know you must have read my story. You know I can write. You know I can be circumspect. I won’t tell your story unless you ask me to, but there are so many other stories worth telling around the islands.”
Tallulah snorted, dropping heavily onto a bench facing the cove. “I did, and you can. But for Lord’s sake, Debbie, you live in London. You can stand on any street corner there and smell a dozen stories without trying. I heard you talking about your ambitions with Rufus on your last visit, and they’re sure not leading you here. What in the world is?”
Deborah stomped her foot. “For God’s sake, you, you idiot!”
The otter stiffened, staring up in shock.
“I…” The cat ran her claws through her hair. “One of those pirates said the sea monster was really a giant mermaid who took sailors she liked captive. You remember what you said to him?”
She shook her head mutely.
“‘In your dreams.’ That’s what you said. And I don’t know about his dreams, but mine? Since then, every dream.” Her voice cracked. “Every night.”
Tallulah opened her mouth, then closed it again, still staring.
Deborah took a deep breath and looked down at the cobblestones. “You don’t know how much nerve it took for me to get here, and here I am just—God, I don’t really even know if you like women, not in that way, and frankly, you still kind of scare the pants off me. Why, in half those dreams, not that I should—”
She was cut off by a muzzle-to-muzzle kiss, the otter back on her feet and pulling her close. Deborah’s breath caught, then returned in a shaky purr as she held the kiss.
Tallulah pulled away after a few seconds, smiling down. “I remember what you said, too,” she murmured. “You weren’t sure if I was looking for someone who could stand up to me, or someone who’d be my pet. I’ve thought about that—and you—many nights.”
The cat slipped her arms around the otter, looking up into her eyes. “I think,” she whispered, “I could be a bit of both, Miss Tallulah.”
The otter’s hands slid down around her back, and she kissed her again, first firmly, then deeply, hungrily. When she finally released the cat—still holding her close—they both gasped for breath.
Deborah rested her head on Tallulah’s chest, purring softly, then looked up with an impish grin. “Just think, that was only the second deepest kiss you’ve given me.”
“Mmm. Yes.” The larger woman licked her lips. “Tell me the truth, now. You enjoyed that first one, didn’t you?”
A shiver ran down Deborah’s tail. “Let’s just say you should ask me about a few of those dreams sometime.” She took another deep breath, then poked the otter in the stomach. “We’re going to have to work on your habit of eating people who get on your bad side, though.”
“Why does it need any work, lass? I’m excellent at it.” She flashed the wicked grin that had been in more than a few of those dreams.
“You know damn well that’s not—”
Laughing, Tallulah stepped back, taking the cat’s hand in hers and starting to walk up the hill. “Here, I want to show you where you might stay. If you want it.”
She shook her head. “Moving in would be…awfully fast. I’ve got a place to rent a place in—”
“No, no.” The otter raised her hands. “I’m not asking that. We’d have whole separate houses. I’m just asking you to look at the guest cottage.”
“Guest cottage? You live on an estate?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. The main house doesn’t have many rooms, but it has a high roof. I like that.” She grinned. “And there’s enough land for a part-time giantess to stretch out in.”
“I’m guessing you didn’t buy it on your public house salary.”
“I took possession of it, with the town’s blessing. Seems the pirate captain who owned it took a bad fall down a throat.” She motioned them down a side road, heading toward an iron gate set in a high brick wall, both covered with ivy.
“Lord.” Deborah laughed in spite of herself. “Well. If it’s a separate place that’s still close by, that does sound independent enough.”
“Excellent.” She held the gate open for the cat.
The grounds past the wall looked almost nothing like the London estate that her first impetuous love affair had run aground in. The paths were broken cobblestone and dirt rather than neat brick, Instead of fussy flower gardens and perfectly squared-off hedges, small stands of trees punctuated a gloriously unkempt wildflower meadow. The main house stood at least three stories high. She could hear a creek—if not a river—running somewhere out of sight. Could it be wide and deep enough for a giant otter woman to swim in?
Tallulah turned down another side path, and past another clump of trees, the cottage appeared, a small, nearly square building with a high, angled roof and dormer windows. “There we are.” She waved ahead. “It’s unlocked. The furnishings might be bare until you can send for your own, but there’s enough to make do.”
Deborah couldn’t suppress a gasp as she ran up, opening the door, walking on in. Tallulah stayed outside. Stone and wood walls enclosed a living room with a huge fireplace, rustic furniture with plush cushions, throw rugs scattered across the hardwood floor with abandon. It had only two full rooms, bedroom and living-dining-kitchen all together, but they were big rooms. The bed was enormous. Estate agents would call the place “cozy,” but her whole crummy London flat wasn’t much bigger than just the bedroom. “It’s like it’s from a storybook!” she called.
“I always thought it looked a bit like a dollhouse.” Tallulah’s voice came from outside, still, but it echoed. A bit louder than she’d expect. A bit deeper.
Oh, no, she didn’t. She walked back toward the exit, marching outside—right into the otter’s foot. She stumbled and stared up.
The giantess grinned, kneeling down. “I’ll confess it looks more like a dollhouse now.”
Deborah backed up, and recovered enough to put her hands on her hips. “If you tell me the roof lifts off, I’m going back to the village.”
“No, no.” The otter laughed. “But that’s a lovely thought. Hmm. We could get a carpenter to cut along there, put a few latches in…” She traced a claw just under the roof line.
Deborah shook her finger upward. “Don’t even think about it!”
“Ah, too late for that now…doll.” She gently scooped the cat up in a hand, grinning her wicked grin.
She tumbled, but regained her balance and did her best to fix the giantess with a stare. “I mean it.”
Tallulah laughed. “You really will stand up to me, even when you have to stand in my hand to do it.” She smiled again, this time almost bashfully, and brought Deborah close enough for a kiss. “I still haven’t decided if you’re the bravest woman I’ve ever met or the foolhardiest.”
“If I figure it out, I’ll let you know.” Deborah blushed, leaning against the otter’s nose and looking across her muzzle into those huge, beautiful eyes. “Luckiest’s also in the running.”
“I think I’m most lucky, too.” She blew across the cat’s torso, making her fall back against the otter’s pads with a delighted squeal. “All right, now. Clothes off.”
The cat put her hands on her hips, her purr belying her faux cross expression. “Don’t think just because you’re giant you can snap your fingers—”
“I’m about to suck you into my mouth, and I don’t want to taste your skirt this time. Just lovely little you.” Tallulah brought up her other hand and snapped her thumb and forefinger over Deborah’s head. “Five.”
The cat gaped up, feeling her blush bloom across her whole body.
“Yes, Miss Tallulah,” she sang, snapping into frenzied, giggling action.
Deborah managed to peel off her blouse and bra without ripping them, but her panties were still stuck around her paws when she was tipped into her wonderful, terrifying girlfriend’s mouth with a delighted shriek.