“Sorry I wasn’t able to make it last night, Rittenhouse. Something came up with the wife. You know how that is.”
No, not from direct experience, but he’d give Dean Kerkhoff the benefit of the doubt. “Nothing serious, I hope.”
The raccoon waved his hand dismissively. “No, it was some damned fight with her sister when they were at lunch. I think. It took me the better part of an hour to get that out of her. But enough of that. How did the reception go?”
“Oh, fine. Fine. Good drinks and better company than I’d expected.”
The dean nodded. “In my experience, most academics aren’t as good in social situations as they imagine they are. Myself included.” He grinned. “We’re good at holding the attention of our classes, but we sometimes forget everyone’s not a captive audience. Even so, socializing is important if you’re going to get ahead. Meet other people in your field. Work collaboratively.” He rapped his fist on the cougar’s desk for emphasis.
“Yes, quite so.” Another subtle signal that the cougar was on the inside track for a professorship? He could hope.
“Well.” The dean glanced at his watch. “I’ve got to be off. Department meeting at ten.” He paused as if a thought had just occurred to him. “You have a C.V. on file with Miss Winters, don’t you? Up to date?”
“I do, sir.” Russell thought he did an admirable job of keeping his voice casual.
“Good.” He rapped Russell’s desk again. “Do let me know when the Durants’ new volume comes in from the publisher.”
Kerkhoff nodded solemnly and headed on his way. The cougar waited until he’d rounded the corner, the reference desk no longer in his line of sight, then bounced in his seat, mouthing yes! silently.
A student standing nearby cleared his throat. Russell whirled around to face the young rat, immediately all business again. “Yes?”
“Um, hi. I’m looking for…” He looked down at a pocket notebook clutched in his right hand. “Advanced Organic Chemistry, by—”
Russell pointed. “547.”
“Glad to be of help.” He waved the student off, then pushed back from the desk to tend to his inbox, which had exactly two pieces delivered at the morning mail run: an agenda for the weekly staff meeting that would happen early tomorrow and a flyer for a bake sale organized by Alice’s church. He filed the agenda to the pending tray and the flyer to the trash can, then leaned back in the chair, twiddling his thumbs. At either the start or the beginning of the semester, the library would be bustling with panicked students, but a third of the way through the term things ran quiet.
A dozen or so more students approached with questions that day, only one of them mildly interesting—a rat girl asking for research material on size-shifters. “Biology or history class?”
“Professor Adamson’s history survey class?”
“For an overview, I’d go to 902 and look for Zandstra’s Giants Through History. Professor Adamson’s been on something of an Oriental kick the last few semesters, so if you want to exploit that you might also look for something in the 950–959 range. There are some fascinating stories from pre-Meiji Japan connecting giants in with their folk tales. But definitely check out the Zandstra.”
The rat beamed, her buck teeth making it extraordinarily cute. “Thank you. You know a lot about the subject!”
“I was rather fascinated by shifters growing up.”
She laughed. “I was hoping I was one, but no such luck. Thanks, sir.” She scampered off.
Sir? She had to be a freshman, but that meant he was only…six years older. He sighed, then did his best to suppress any thoughts about what she might look like if she had been a size-shifter. No fantasizing about students.
The afternoon brought two unusual messages, though, neither through university mail. He’d finished his lunch (Thursdays, ham and turkey on rye) and returned to his desk from the break room when a bellhop, of all things, ran up to the information desk. “I’m looking for a Mister…” The squirrel squinted at the envelope he held. “Write-ten-hoss.”
“Yes.” The bellhop nodded firmly, as if that’s what he’d said in the first place.
“That’s me. What is it?”
“A message from a guest at the Fairmont Hotel, sir.” He held out the envelope.
“Thank you.” Russell took it, looking bemused. The front read only “Mr. Rittenhouse,” in a flowing, textbook-perfect script. He turned it over. Nothing written there, either.
The squirrel remained standing there expectantly. Russell flipped him a dime in dismissal, then ran the letter opener under the sealed flap. The hotel stationery inside bore a short note penned in the same studied handwriting.
Mr. Rittenhouse —
I am here three more days, counting today, and have both tonight and tomorrow evening free. Would you be interested in showing me some of your town? I think you would make a most wonderful tour guide.
Please leave a message for me with the hotel front desk, or ask for me there. I await your response.
His mouth had fallen open by the second sentence, and it took a conscious effort to close it again. Tour guide? The princess wanted him as a tour guide?
Russell tucked the note back in its envelope and set it down. He supposed it was flattering, but what did he know about being a tour guide? Less than that stuffed shirt last night blathering to her about fine restaurants and top clubs. Not that he could afford to take her to a fine restaurant anyway.
Not that she’d expect that on a tour, he supposed. It wasn’t as if it were a—
No. Women didn’t ask men out on—
He pushed back from the desk and stared up at the ceiling, hands to his forehead. What could she possibly be thinking? He wouldn’t ever see her again after Saturday. Marvin might see that as an advantage, but he had no interest in starting anything that had no chance of leading to marriage, and he didn’t have time to even start thinking about that yet.
And he didn’t really even like otters.
All right. Focus on work. Three more hours in the library meant three more hours to decide how to gracefully decline the princess’s invitation.
He spent the next forty minutes re-shelving books, a relatively mindless task he thought would give him the opportunity to brainstorm a plan of attack. When he returned to his desk, though, his mind remained stubbornly free of solutions. The afternoon mail drop had come and gone, leaving nothing new in his inbox. He sorted some papers, then sorted his pens, then sighed, leaning forward and resting his hands on the desk, waiting for anyone to come by and ask something.
Russell heard the cane striking the library’s thin carpet before he placed the sound. Thok. Thok. Thok. Cornelius Bennett rounded the corner, heading right for the reference desk. As he drew to a stop, he looked down at the cougar with a face so impassive he looked more like a poker champion than a rail baron. “Rittenhouse.”
“Mr. Bennett, sir.”
“Walk with me.”
Russell rose, but his expression must have betrayed his uncertainty. The rabbit waved at the desk impatiently. “The books will stay put for a few minutes. Let’s chat.”
“Of course.” Clearing his throat, he walked around the desk to follow him back out of the library, giving Alice the receptionist’s raised brow a near-imperceptible shrug in response.
Bennett remained silent until they were outside. He produced a pipe from his jacket pocket and gestured at a round concrete table in front of the adjacent café. By the time they’d taken their seats, he’d filled it with tobacco and struck a match. “Do you smoke, Rittenhouse?”
“I don’t, sir.”
Bennett grunted in a way that seemed disapproving, and took a drag on the pipe, puffing a smoke ring off to the side. It smelled like leather dipped in tar. “Did you enjoy the reception last night?”
“Yes. I don’t get the opportunity to go to events like that very often, sir. I’d never been in the Redwood Room.”
“Mmm.” Another drag on the pipe, this time with no smoke ring. “You’re not the least whit interested in socializing—you spent half the night with your nose stuck in a book. You weren’t there to meet the natives, and you weren’t there to meet me, either.” He stabbed the air with the pipe. “Dean Kerkhoff gave you an invitation ticket. You were there because you wanted an edge on any upcoming openings in his department. Always accept favors from the boss.”
Russell smiled awkwardly. What could he possibly say to that? “The dean and I seem to have a good working relationship.”
The rabbit let the silence grow for what had to be the longest fifteen seconds since the invention of time. When he started to speak again, he set the pipe down on the edge of the table. “Maude, my wife, grew up in Florida. Miami. I made my own fortune, but she was born into money. Not as much as she has now, but her family was high society.
“Over on the East Coast there’s a man named Flagler. Made his money in the railroad, too. Have you heard of him?”
Russell nodded. “I know the name, sir.”
“When Maude was a young girl, Flagler opened a hotel, a grand hotel, on Miami Beach. The Royal Palm. Flagler’s railway turned Miami from a handful of cracker cabins into a town, and the Royal Palm turned it from a town into a destination. It wasn’t the biggest hotel Flagler built, not even the fanciest, but it might have been the best. Do you know why?” He didn’t wait for Russell to offer an answer. “Location. That made it magical. Just magical.”
The cougar nodded slowly.
“Most of my wife’s childhood revolved around that hotel. Her sweet sixteen birthday party, there. Her high school prom, there. Her brother’s wedding reception, there. Her father’s wake, there.” He picked up the pipe again, but instead of taking another puff he just held it in both hands, eyes distant. “The location is what did the damn thing in, too, of course. A hurricane swept half of it away and ruined everything that had been left standing.”
The rabbit sighed, and looked up, but still not at Russell. “I know Maude loves it here, loves the lifestyle. She loves me. But she also loves the beach, the ocean. I’ve got no use for Florida, but I’ve grown fond of Polynesia, of Hawaii, the Pacific Islands. But it’s not me. It’s the first damn place she’s loved as much as Miami. I want her to have a place like the Royal Palm, a place we can visit, a place she can return to even after I’m gone. A place she’ll own after I’m gone. You can never go back, but sometimes you can go better.”
“So…the Palekaiko Hotel is a present. I saw the way her eyes lit up when you unveiled the model.”
“So did I, Rittenhouse. So did I.” He finally turned to look Russell square in the eyes. “That’s why I want your help.”
The cougar couldn’t think of a single response that wouldn’t betray his utter dumbfoundedness, so he just tilted his head in a go on gesture.
“It’s Aremana. The king. He’s not going to go along with it. He says he’s still thinking about it. But he isn’t. I can tell he’s already made up his mind. He’s worried it’ll bring too many outsiders to his island, too much disruption. He’s afraid it’ll destroy his people’s way of life.”
“It’s one of a chain of islands, isn’t it? I’d imagine there are other sites, maybe ones without existing villages already there.”
The rabbit shook his head. “The more developed islands already have claims. The less developed ones will be too expensive to build on. We’ll have to bring in the building material with a damn barge convoy as it is. And I want to employ the villagers! The ones who speak English could be managers and desk clerks. Tour guides. The others could be maids, cooks, dancers.”
“I see. I see.” Russell rubbed his chin. “I suppose you’d need to convince them that that could all happen without materially affecting their traditions. That it won’t destroy their way of life.”
Bennett snorted. “They see what’s happening on other islands. In a few years they’ll have built new modern homes, be watching American television shows, and be selling their ‘traditions’ at souvenir stands and working them into the floor show at Trader Vic’s.”
“Realistic, for God’s sake.” He leaned forward. “Land like theirs will be developed, Rittenhouse. It’s too beautiful. Too valuable. If it’s not me this year, it’ll be Conrad Hilton the next, or someone else the year after. The king either doesn’t understand that or doesn’t want to believe it. Or maybe he’s smarter than he’s letting on and knows the longer he holds out, the more valuable his land gets. I don’t want to get into a damned bidding war.”
He shifted position. “What is it you think I can help you with, though, sir?”
“The daughter. She likes you. And you like her. Don’t you?”
A small lead weight slid into Russell’s stomach. “We had a pleasant enough conversation.” A fishing line sinker, tiny and heavy and uncomfortable.
“You’re going to see her again.” The rabbit’s brows lifted to make it almost a question. Almost, but not quite.
“I…” Little prickles ran through him. “Truthfully, I hadn’t thought about that, sir.” The sinker, he realized, was still attached to its fishing hook.
Bennett’s gaze sharpened like it had last night, his eyes locked onto the cougar’s. “Then start thinking. And if you see her again, work an endorsement of the hotel into your conversation. Explain how it’s going to make them wealthier, more modern. Let them get ahead of the curve.”
Russell looked away. “I’m not sure I can—can just drop that in without it seeming rather forced.”
“I’ve looked into you. You’re a smart man. Good school. Bright future. You’ll find some way.”
“There’s no guarantee she’ll listen, or that her father will listen to her.”
“There’s no guarantee of any damn thing in life. I’m not expecting you to singlehandedly seal the deal for me, just to put in a good word. If you can do that for me, some point down the road—maybe very soon—I could do the same for you.” He put his hand on the cougar’s shoulder, gripping hard. “Can you do that for me, Rittenhouse? A good word?”
Russell swallowed, looking back up but coming just short of meeting the rabbit’s eyes. “Yes.”
“Excellent.” His grip got even tighter for a moment, then he stood up, walking off briskly despite the cane. Thok. Thok. Thok.
Russell closed his eyes. The hook would stop hurting any minute now, he was sure of it.
Russell’s little apartment lay an easy walk from the university, nestled in a set of row houses on the edge of a neighborhood informally dubbed Professorville. Every work evening had a routine: check the mailbox, unlock the door, step through, turn on the hall light, lock the door behind him, hang up his coat and hat, set down the mail on the end table beside his sofa, head to the kitchen, put on a kettle of water for a small cup of evening coffee.
As he put on the kettle tonight, he recalled explaining to Marvin once that these weren’t “habits.” They were all conscious choices. The fox had been utterly mystified. They’d known one other since college, when they both attended a smaller state university to the south, and Marvin never understood the value of plans, of following steps, of not letting life simply happen on an ad hoc basis. He’d only ended up working in an office position for the University because he’d come to visit Russell after graduation—Russell, who’d moved to Palo Morado specifically to work at Bennett, to continue in academia, to prepare for a move into a teaching role—and decided he’d liked the area.
As if it were just that simple. Yes, it had worked for the fox so far, but it wouldn’t forever. Russell knew what happened when it didn’t work, when his father just took leaps of faith into new investments, new jobs, new cities. He’d had one success from sheer luck and spent thirty years in a downward spiral trying to duplicate it. Mother had remained a rock-solid pillar, but if she hadn’t come from a sternly stoic Catholic family she’d have divorced him years ago, damn the talk it would cause.
The kettle’s whistle came to snap him out of his increasingly maudlin brooding. Taking it off the heat and scooping the coffee grounds into the press pot, he added water and set the kitchen timer, then busied himself with a bit of dusting until it went off.
In another few minutes he took a seat on the couch—not as fancy as the ones in the Redwood Room, covered with cloth rather than leather, but at least as comfortable and nearly as attractive—and picked up the mail. First up, the electric bill. He got up and took that one to the corner writing desk, sliding it into the slot he’d assigned to outgoing payments. He’d take care of it on the weekend.
Returning to his seat, the next letter came from his brother. He opened it and scanned it. More wedding preparations, very little of which had anything to do with him. Samuel was nearly two years younger and hadn’t settled into a proper career, so he had no business marrying yet. School, career, house, then marriage and family. But unlike dear old Dad, Sam wouldn’t end up a salesman at a furniture store he should have owned. He had a solid head on his shoulders, if little ambition. He’d stay in their hometown, save up enough to buy an ugly two-room block house of his very own, and raise two children who’d go on to do precisely the same thing.
The last item wasn’t a folded letter; it was a brown manila envelope calculated to look as button-down boring as could be, the return address only a post office box. The contents, though, would be anything but boring. Biting his lip, Russell opened the envelope’s flap and slipped the magazine free.
Goddess, the title simply read, wide type across the cover’s top. A busty husky lass barely wearing enough lingerie to cover herself sat against the side of a building, looking down with a smile mixing equal parts seduction and threat. The pose had become stock for the magazine—Russell guessed at least a third of the covers featured variants—but given none of the models stood shorter than fifty feet tall, it was an easy way to emphasize what distinguished a “goddess” from other pin-up girls. Judging by the way her ears met the fourth-story windows when sitting, the husky would reach close to eighty feet standing. The magazine rarely showed anyone at larger sizes, he assumed for insurance reasons.
Setting the envelope aside, he paged through the issue slowly. They were thin—only twenty-four pages quarterly—and subscriptions were frightfully expensive, but for photography of size-shifters they simply had no serious competition. He couldn’t explain his attraction to them—God knows he’d tried, although only to himself. (Barring one drunken evening with a tall vixen years ago, which hadn’t gone well at all.) But damn it, his interest wasn’t entirely prurient. Size-shifters represented an element of genuine magic in the world: exceedingly rare and, despite the advance of modern science, still utterly unexplainable. That alone called for respect.
The interior photography veered noticeably more risqué than the covers. Each issue included several nudes, including the foldout, although they shot the models in positions that barely hid their sex. This month kept to that approach: a feline woman, a strawberry blonde with plush egg cream fur and a top-heavy build, sat in a split-legged pose, legs far to each side, leaning over so her hands were flat on the ground. While they’d shot the image close enough to sunset to deepen the shadows, the only thing that allowed her mysteries to remain hidden was a small wooden shed centered right between her legs. Trees taller than she was stretched out in the background; this might have been shot in the redwood forests not too far north of here.
After staring at her for long seconds—she was quite attractive, wasn’t she?—he re-folded the image and flipped past it to the accompanying article and a few clumsily staged shots of the same giantess “threatening” male models. One in a car with her foot resting on it, toes curled, the roof starting to bend; another one being held in her hand borne toward her wide open mouth. Not for the first time, he wondered what they were paid, and suspected it wouldn’t be enough for him to trade places with them, no matter how careful the gargantuan feline might be. The shots were also a touch preposterous; there were very few cases outside of wartime of size-shifters going around flattening anything, let alone eating people.
When he scanned the text, the model’s name rang a bell. Surely not someone he’d met? No. She was the daughter—grand-daughter? Daughter—of a decorated soldier from the Great War, one of the few shifters on the front line. It was extraordinarily dangerous work: giants had very limited equipment available, and while shots that would kill a normal-sized man might be barely bee stings, when you were a hundred feet high the bees gunned for you and only you. And the bees might have anti-tank rifles. But because a giant was both soldier and weapon, they could do more directed damage than bombs—and be far more effective in rescue operations than bringing in bulldozers. Also, the psychological effect of a snarling giant bearing down on your position couldn’t be underestimated.
Shifting tended to run in families, but it was rare for it to appear in successive generations. What did her father think of his daughter’s photographic spread? No, don’t start musing on that. Talk about a mood-killer.
Russell turned a few more pages, then flipped back to the centerfold, unfolding it again, then set it down fully spread out on the coffee table. Leaning forward, he studied the woman, eyeing the cues—the trees, the shed—that demonstrated her height. Like the cover model, around eighty feet.
He took a deep breath and let it back out unsteadily, tail swatting behind him against the couch. Picking up his coffee, he looked away, taking a sip, then another, letting his mind wander. It never wandered very far.
At length, he set the cup back down, sank into the cushions and closed his eyes, hand drifting to his belt.