What the mink called a “pool” was a small lake. A patio as big as a private beach ran along the closest side, sporting a full complement of chaise lounges, sun chairs and picnic tables, merging with a real sand beach along the left-hand shore. A thatched hut covered a small outdoor bar complete with bartender, a lean, handsome stag dressed far more casually than I was. A few small sailboats bobbed tied up at a dock. At least two dozen people lounged around the patio, a couple others sitting at the bar. None of that had left me with my muzzle open wide enough to catch flies, though.
The sandy beach had its own lounges and chairs—all at least twenty times normal scale. A cheetah woman lay across one of the lounges, dozing. Two vixens sat together under a vast umbrella. A russet-colored otter woman in the water, arms resting on the concrete lip of the patio, chatted with two “little” men. She looked familiar. Off in the distance, I could see another giantess, a mouse, swimming, kicking up waves that threatened to capsize one of the boats. The vixens both wore skimpy-in-scale bikini swimsuits; the cheetah woman and the otter were entirely in the fur.
“First time around giants?” A buff wolf, fruity-looking drink in hand, sauntered up just behind me—a wolf I’d seen before, and hadn’t expected to see here: Knives’s silver-haired friend from the imports company.
“Never around this many at this scale.” It wasn’t a lie. I’d been to the Two-Story Club a couple of times, a now-shuttered dive for shifters only, but you weren’t allowed to get taller than the club’s name. I’d rarely gotten bigger than that myself.
“I’ve seen…hmm. At least eight here before at once. Maybe ten. Terrifying.” The way he said terrifying made it mean something else entirely.
I played dumb. “Yeah, I bet. Is that…even legal?” Shifters had had to carry licenses in public and show them on demand since I was a teenager, and a few years back, some reactionary clown in the state senate rammed through a bill barring businesses from letting in more than three shifters per hundred customers on site. While it was still on the books, it’d been tied up five ways to Sunday in lawsuits, both from shifter rights groups and from businesses. Everyone knew it was both unenforceable and cruelly arbitrary. That was never the point, though. We just made great boogeymen. To his partial credit, Samuel Cross was one of the few bigwigs pushing back.
The wolf smirked. “Oh, everything’s legal if the right people are on your side, sweetie.” He took a swig of his drink. “So. What’s your story?”
“Here for the photo shoot, and a little in the dark about it all. What’s yours?”
He laughed. “Oh, so you’re one of the paid victims, not one of us regulars.”
“Regular victims? Nobody’s exactly screaming in fear.”
“True enough.” He finished his drink. “See you later, as long as nobody eats you.” He slapped me on the shoulder, winked, and sauntered off.
The people on the patio either talked among themselves or gawked at the giant models. The ones daring to flirt were getting themselves in trouble, which I suspected was the whole point. A group who’d approached the vixens found themselves trapped under one of the girls’ paws. The cheetah, now smirking in a way that belied her drowsy look, had rolled over and pinned someone under a breast. The mouse was playing with the sailboat like a bath toy. And the two guys talking to the otter ran away yelping when she leaned down and snapped her enormous fangs at them. She undercut the monster act by dissolving into giggles, though, and that’s when I realized where I’d seen that dazzling cavern of a smile before.
As I walked up to her, immense fiery amber eyes locked on. Being a shifter myself didn’t shut off the little voice in the back of my head screaming don’t walk toward enormous apex predators with each step. When I stopped and smiled up, I didn’t have to fake the nervousness. “You’re this year’s goddess of spring, aren’t you?”
Her laugh was as bright as a love song, but I still felt it in my bones like an avalanche. “I am.” She winked, brushing back roughly an acre of long, wet black hair. “I don’t get many female fans.”
“Would you believe I just read it for the articles?”
“No.” True, as far as it went, since I’d only seen one issue before today.
“Good.” She held out a hand bigger than my car, index finger ending in a javelin of a claw extended toward me. “I’m Melanie.”
Touching a hand to the claw’s tip, I tried not to stare too dumbly. “Nora.” She’d thrown me off-balance enough that I didn’t stop to make up a pseudonym; hopefully giving my real name wouldn’t come back to bite me. With any luck, by the time anyone could put two and two together I’d be long gone, though.
“So what makes you want to visit with the goddesses, Nora?” She stretched her arms out along the pool’s side, lowering her muzzle toward me. “Don’t be shy.”
“The wolf there says I’m a paid victim.”
Melanie arched a brow. “Oh, for Annie’s photo shoot tomorrow. I’m disappointed.”
“Don’t be. Annie?”
She turned to look out over the lake and pointed. “The mouse. Don’t worry, Bob’s good at reigning the wilder ones in when it comes to paid staff.” She snorted, still looking toward Annie. “You’d think people wanting their sailboat attacked would pick an otter.” She smashed her lithe tail against the water with a hip twist.
“I’ll think of you every time I’m on a boat now. So they were literally asking for it?”
“And probably got more than they bargained for, but that’s part of the fun. At least our fun.”
“I heard you get regulars, so they must be having some fun, too.”
“They must, yes.” She shrugged. “I just think it’s nice to have a place we’re not only allowed but encouraged to get a little naughty.”
“That wolf was joking about me possibly being eaten, right?”
One of those tree-sized arms moved, a hand dropping behind me like a padded wall while her muzzle moved in to within an arm’s length of me. Warm breath ruffled my fur as she murmured, “Maybe if we get to know each other and you ask real nice.” She parted her lips, running her tongue across the edge of her glistening upper teeth.
“Oh.” I tried to keep my voice from cracking. It didn’t work.
Melanie let me go, backing away and rising into the air with a wink and grin promising incalculable trouble. “I think I like you, Nora. I’ll catch you later.” The emphasis on catch was unmistakable. I watched her pivot and rocket away in the water.
Pieces were coming together, though. Don Woodley knew the wolf through East-West Imports, and the wolf was a regular here. If Woodley blabbed to the wolf about Lambert’s size-shifting fantasies, he could have arranged for the fox to visit. The photos with Tawny the bunny were by this lake. Who better to snap photos of a giant getting “a little naughty” than someone who did it for a living?
One thing I was sure of now: I needed to find Bob Starling.