Smoke

When Cyril had pitched this trip to Warby Gorge to National Geo’s editor, he’d expected to get at least one cover-worthy shot. The rabbit just hadn’t expected it to be a story about an earthquake.

His working title had been “Beauty’s Last Days,” the last shots of a valley many environmentalists, hikers, and yes, nature photographers considered a jewel of the western lands. Deep in a high desert national park, bounded on two sides by high cliff walls and until last year only accessible by foot or pack mule, Warby felt like the set of an old adventure movie about a lost world, an oasis fed by a web of trickling streams from the Great River about five miles east-northeast. Late spring blooms turned the meadows into a shockingly vivid impressionistic painting winding around stands of thick brush, seeping into evergreen forests. Botanists had identified a dozen kinds of flowers that didn’t exist anywhere else in the Southwest here, and God only knew how many reptiles and birds and insects called Warby their home.

The botanists had been busy collecting samples through the last year, though, for this would be the last spring that Warby Gorge would ever see. This time next yeareven this time next monththe meadows would be overrun with construction crews. In two years, where he stood would be the bottom of a reservoir, holding precious water for the cities in the far west.

At least, that’s the plan he’d come to document. What he’d found suggested an entirely different story: one of far greater risk. He’d been avoiding the construction road for most of his photography so far, but had planned to finish now, just before dusk, taking pictures of the worker’s huts and the nearly finished scaffolding for the dam. Instead, he’d been taking pictures of damage.

Not a single one of the dozen structures had survived the tremors. If part of the ground wasn’t visibly lower along a rough, curved line about fifty yards in front of him, he’d think a tornado had ripped them to pieces rather than an earthquake shaking them apart. They’d described scaffolding a good ten stories high at its peak already constructed; instead, he’d found a vast tumble of broken timber.

He’d expected to see workers, toomore than just the tiger marching up to him screaming, “Hey! Hey! Put that camera down!” He wore a yellow construction helmet and an orange safety vest.

Cyril lowered his Nikon, and had a business card in his hand held out before the man got out the predictable “What do you think you’re doing?” The tiger frowned at the card, but sounded less aggressive now. “Oh. Well, you shouldn’t be here.”

The rabbit waved around. “I haven’t crossed past your ‘no trespassing’ sign. I assure you I’m not here to harass anyone, just document, and as you can see I’m a nature photographer.” Strictly speaking, all true. “When did the quake hit?”

The tiger took a deep breath, then shook his head and let it out, turning away and waving his hands around. “Sometime during the night. And that’s why you shouldn’t be here. Aftershocks.”

“Was anyone hurt?”

“Nah. The crew had gone home and we don’t have a night watchman. But we got here this morning and it was like this. It’s the damnedest thing.”

Cyril stepped forward, looking around, hands in his pockets. For now. “What do you think the magnitude was?”

“No idea. The Geological Service said it was too low to measure, but that has to be bullshit. Look around.”

The rabbit tilted his head, brow furrowing. “I’m guessing their recording equipment isn’t working well, then. Eve if the epicenter was right here, this couldn’t have been that small.” He looked back the way he came, then ran a hand through the fur between his ears. “But I didn’t see any damage anywhere else in the valley.”

“Yeah.” The tiger crossed his arms, looking accusing. “Neither did I. Anyway, now I’m the night watchman.”

After walking just up to the line the “no trespassing” signs delineated, Cyril started walking slowly away, lifting up his camera again.

“Look, I told you, you can’t

“This is all public land, and you’re working on a public construction project. I assure you my photography’s legal, but you stopping me wouldn’t be.” Strictly speaking that was a half-truth: he couldn’t pass by those cursed signs, but he could photograph whatever he wanted from this side of them.

The tiger growled. “Look, I’m not sayin’ you can’t photograph, but I’m sayin’ I want to get word from the boss first.”

Cyril pointed the lens at one of the huts and sighted through the viewfinder. “Then call him.” Click. Click.

“There’s no cell service out here! I’ll have to call him tomorrow.”

Click. “Well, better to ask forgiveness and such, right?” He focused on a different hut, one that looked positively flattened. Click.

The tiger marched at him, fist raised. “If you take one more picture I’m gonna break your camera.”

Rabbit or not, Cyril had never been known for timidity, and bluster made him dig in his heels. “‘Security guard threatens nature photographer.’ Good headline.”

“I’m a foreman!” the tiger snarled.

“Great. That’s a better headline.” Cyril took a shot of the tiger mid-growl.

“Why, you

The rabbit took off running toward one of the huts, the one that seemed the most intact. He’d already started composing a shot from inside it looking out through one broken wall.

“Stay on this side of the line!” the foreman yelled. “Come back here, now!”

“Or you’re going to call the police? Oh, right. No phone service.”

The tiger clenched his fists, but didn’t go after the photographer; maybe he’d thought better of the confrontation.

“Look,” Cyril called, “all I want to do is take a few pictures of what’s

Then the rumble started. A small shake, then a harder one.

Without thinking about it, he dropped to the ground inside the hut, ignoring the tiger’s yells of, “No! Get clear, you idiot! Get clear!”

Wait. The tiger was warning him, wasn’t he? In an earthquake, this might just be the last spot he’d want to take shelter in. Crap.

He’d just spun around to head back out when the hut collapsed. Something hit him on the head, then the back, then everywhere else. He curled around his camera protectively, as the world went black.

When the rumbling stopped Cyril tried to uncurl, but only made it about halfway. He couldn’t fully sit up, and something heavy lay across his leg. It hurt, but it didn’t feel like the falling debris had broken anything. He reached down and felt around, and his hand came away with blood. Terrific.

“Hello,” he called. “Are you all right?”

Silence.

“Hello!” he called more forcefully.

More silence.

Oh, this was not good. With a gruntand a little shot of fire through his leghe twisted around enough to start pushing at the collapsed timber and sheet metal over him. But he had no leverage. He couldn’t budge the timber pinning his leg, either.

“Help!” he yelled. “Help!”

Another rumble started, and he cringed. But it lasted just a moment, less a rumble than a shake, something heavy settling down near the hut. “Hold on,” a voice came from above. A woman’s voice, a soft alto with the resonance of a subwoofer.

It was a voice Cyril knew.

He’d only heard it before one day, one morning over six years ago, a morning he’d have sworn he dreamed if he hadn’t still had the photos. Lately he’d started doubting even those. God knows he’d looked more than once for evidence to back them upevidence of herwithout finding any.

But as he stared up stupidly, coyote claws bigger than his head dug through the rubble on top of him, giant fingers lifting fallen beams away as if they were twigs. In another few seconds, she looked down at him: a coyote woman, grey-tan fur shading to rich red from front to sides and back, black on the tips of the huge ears. She still had a beautiful figure. And she still stood ninety feet tallor would if she wasn’t crouching over the hut.

“Hello, Cyril,” she said.

His voice became hoarse from a fear that had nothing to do with the situation he’d thought he was in. “Uh…”

“Relax. And hold still.” She leaned down closer. “Are you hurt, or just pinned?”

“I’m bleeding, but I think it’s superficial.”

She cleared a space around him. “I’m going to pick you up. Tell me if I’m doing any more damage.” Her thumb and two fingers closed around his sides, squeezing hard enough to knock the breath out of him, and lifted him into the air slowly.

More pain lanced through his leg, but he was able to get a good look at it now. No bone showing, nothing twisted in unsettling ways. Just scratches. Good. That meant all he had to worry about was the giant carnivore woman holding him.

He swallowed, closing his eyes and counting to three under his breath. He opened them to find himself about a half-foot from her nose, both of her huge eyes focused directly on him. “Sorry about that,” she said.

“W… what? Sorry…” He trailed off. “It was you. You’re the earthquake.”

She leaned to the side, reaching for something with her other hand. “No, I’m a giant coyote. Maybe I could fake an earthquake by stomping around, but that would leave a lot of suspiciously big coyote prints everywhere, wouldn’t it?”

“Yes,” he admitted. “But that’s not a direct denial.”

“Never interrogate a woman who’s holding you in her hand.” Her hand came up, holding a wet cloth the size of a sail. Maybe it was a sail. God knew where she got anything. “Hold still.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I apologized for the earthquake just now. That was me. I didn’t know you’d run into an unstable building, though.” She started cleaning his wound carefully, the cloth over a finger.

He sucked in his breath, squeezing his eyes shut at the pain. “It wasn’t one of my best moments, no. Uh, where’s the guard?”

She shifted back into a sitting position and set him down on her knee, then dropped the cloth. “He’s gone.”

He stared up at her. When he’d first met the giantess, she’d been clad only in all too memorable lingerie, but today she wore a ragged, primal-looking tan skirt whose longest strips didn’t reach her knee, along with a matching halter. The look seemed no less provocative despite the extra bolt or two of cloth.

She pointed with her free hand toward the road. “Gone that way, not gone that way.” She tapped her stomach on the second that. “I’d think you’d trust me by now. Or at least trust me to be forthright. If I’d eaten him, I wouldn’t say ‘he’s gone,’ I’d say ‘he was delicious.’”

“I’ve only seen you once before and you scared the piss out of me.” He looked at the wound post-cleaning; it still hurt, but it looked much better. “And your last words to me, I recall, suggested you were going to go off and eat a hiker for breakfast.”

“So do you trust me?”

“I… don’t have any idea.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Trusting you might almost be worse, since you told me that when we met again I’d end up either a snack or a sex toy.”

She nodded. “I did. It’s possible tonight’s either your lucky night or your last night. And my lucky night either way.” She licked her lips slowly, making it entirely unclear which use for him she was thinking of. “But going after injured prey isn’t sporting.”

He let out a ragged whimper. “I went looking for you, you know. I did. Even witheven with that warning.”

She grinned. “I knew you’d be too curious about me not to.”

“But you weren’t there!” he burst out. “You weren’t anywhere!”

Her grin faded to a slight smile. “You sound angry with me.”

“God.” He rubbed his face. “You don’t know the dreams I’ve had. In your mouth, under one of your paws. I wake up three-quarters terrified and one-quarter in panting lust from a single…” His voice cracked slightly, but it was too late to pull back on the confession. “A single toe.”

She brushed a clawtip along his side. “I’m peculiarly flattered, but you make it sound like I’m driving you literally crazy. Aren’t you more successful than you used to be? You’re out here on a cover assignment for National Geographic.

He stared up again, mouth open, hands clutching his camera reflexively. “How could you possibly know that?” His eyes widened. “And I didn’t tell you my name last time. I know I didn’t. How do you know my name?”

She grinned, showing off her huge, gleaming teethanother star ingredient of those dreams. “Just because you haven’t seen me doesn’t mean I haven’t seen you. It just wasn’t time for you to find me again before now.”

He swallowed. “So you’re saying now it is time.”

“How’s your leg doing?”

“I think it’s fine. I mean, I’m not going to run any marathons for a week or two, but nothing serious.”

“Good.” She closed her hand around him and set him down on her shoulder, a narrower expanse of warm grey fur, hair cascading down behind him like a curtain. “Hang on.”

Alarm rose in his voice. “Hang on to what?”

“Me.” She started to stand up, and he found himself gripping the giantess’s hair to keep his balance. “Let’s go for a walk.”

“All right.” As if her new bunny-shaped hair clip had any say in the matter.

She began to walk at a measured, casual pace. He felt the force of her steps conducted up through her bones, but she left surprisingly little in the way of printsand indeed there were no older giant coyote prints visible from this better vantage point, even around the ruins of the dam’s scaffolding. He could see from here that they’d managed to lay some stones for the dam already, huge blocks now smashed to scattered gravel. “I’ve always liked this valley. Warby Gorge, you call it?”

“Yes.”

“Have you been here before?”

He considered asking whether she already knew. “Yes, but not since… ah, since before you and I met.”

She nodded. “I’ve been here a lot over the years. I’ve lived here a few times.”

“This is a hundred seventy miles away from where we first met.”

“I get around.”

“And you’ve spent a lot of time here, yet somehow no one else has noticed a giant coyote woman?”

“It’s a secluded area, you know. Maybe anyone who found me didn’t tell, just like you didn’t.” She grinned. “Or maybe I ate them.”

“Or you only eat the ones who you think might tell?”

“See, we’re already clicking again like it was just yesterday.” She stopped walking, facing the dam. “Do you think you can get some shots from here of the damage that won’t look like you’re perched on a giantess?”

“The editors will wonder about the altitude, but I can make sure your muzzle’s not in the shots. You’ll have to hold as still as you can, though. The light’s getting rather low, and image stabilization only does so much.”

“Fine.”

He lifted his camera up, switching it on and adjusting settings, then took a few shots. “Step to the left about twenty feet?”

She did so. Yes, this was a terrific angle. You could see the crack in the earth running through where the dam would have been. He leaned over, getting a dozen different shots at different exposures and field depths.

The coyote pointed. “You can see why they shouldn’t

“Hold still.”

She dropped her hand. “Yes, sir.” Despite the mocking edge in her tone, she fell silent again.

He zoomed in on the edges of the collapsed scaffolding and took another three shots. “Why they shouldn’t…?”

“Why they shouldn’t turn this magnificent valley into a lake.”

“Ah. Unfortunately, I think that argument’s already been made and lost.” He swung his camera around and took another couple of photos straight down.

“Did you just take a shot of my cleavage?”

“I took two. I can’t be in any more trouble than I already am, can I?”

He could feel her stiffen for just a moment. Then she burst out laughing. “Well played, Cyril.” She gestured outward again. “But that argument has to win. Justlook. Look around. Look at everything the world will lose.”

“The cities say they need the water.”

She snorted. “They have water, they just want more of it. Thousands of birds and mammals and lizards and insects need a home, and a lot of them won’t survive the flooding. And the trees, the plantsthere are flowers here that don’t grow anywhere else.”

He’d heard her sound amused, foreboding and genuinely threatening, but he hadn’t heard her get that passionate before. “Yes. I know, although I’m guessing you know I know. Could you set me down on the ground? I can get some good shots from right in the destruction.”

She crouched, placing him down by her huge, digitigrade paws. “I want all your readers to know, too. I couldn’t wish for a better person to document both reasons for them to stop the project.”

“Both reasons?” He kept taking photos, waiting to see if she’d deign to be less enigmatic.

“The ecological disruption is the first, and by far the most important. But if they have to be pragmatic, there’s the second: how seismically unstable the area is.”

He moved closer to the broken scaffolding, shooting up at an angle. “It’s not unstable at all. I’ve talked to surveyors and geologists. That’s what makes the earthquake such an interesting new aspect.”

“Your photographs prove it’s dangerously unstable, no matter what geology reports say. If they keep trying to build a dam here, it will keep falling down. Eventually people are going to get hurt.”

Cyril lowered the camera. “You sound certain of that.”

“There are some things giant coyotes just know.”

He took a deep breath. “Maybe so.” He made a slow circle around the area, pausing to take close-up shots of fracture lines. They didn’t look like what he’d seen in other earthquake zones; it looked more like part of the land had just sunk down well over a foot. Or been compressed down. But as she’d pointed out, he hadn’t seen even partial prints from coyote feet the size of hers anywhere. After a couple more photos, he stopped, looking up at her with his arms crossed.

She inclined her head, watching him, then moved into a sitting position, impossible amounts of muscle and fur moving impossibly smoothly. One time he’d tried to work out how much a coyote her size would weigh if she obeyed the square cube law, and came up with a figure around two hundred tons. But she couldn’t possibly obey the square cube law, could she? He’d hypothesized she might be unnaturally light. Finally standing before her again, though, mere yards from graceful footpaws bigger than his whole body, “unnaturally light” was the last phrase that fit.

“So now what, Cyril?”

“Surely that’s up to you.”

“How’s your leg?”

“It’s good. Still hurts a little, but I’ve dealt with worse.” He cleared his throat. “You’ve spared my life once after I brashly started taking photographs of you asleep, and now you’ve rescued me after I brashly ran into that collapsible hut.”

“Are you asking me why, or just acknowledging how in debt you are?”

“Both.”

“If you get a story published about Warby Gorge that blocks the dam project, we’ll be more than even.”

“‘More than?’” He laughed. “So you’ll be in my debt?”

“Yes.” She didn’t crack a smile in return.

“I…oh.” He swallowed. That made him more nervous than merely standing by her did.

When she didn’t say anything more, he walked to a large rock and set his camera bag down on top of it, then took a seat by her closest paw. That made it positively tower overhead. She watched, head tilted, slight grin across her muzzle. Half-remembered dreams of her resolved to three-quarter-remembered. She curled her toes as he looked up, as if to accent the size difference.

Resting a hand on the fur on one huge toe, he looked back up at that grin. “What’s your name?”

“Finally thinking to ask that?”

“Are you going to tell me?”

“Maybe. Which toe was it?”

He blinked. “Wh…what?”

The coyote leaned over, green eyes fixed on him. “In your dreams of my paws. Which toe?”

The blood rushed to his ears, and it took him several seconds to stammer out a reply. “I-I thought, uh, I mean…th-that would be using you as a sex toy, in a way.”

“How many people would be able to say they’d done that?”

Who in the world could he possibly talk about any of this to? “I…” He found himself staring right at the middle toe on the closest huge coyote paw. The blood rushed to more than his ears.

“Ah, that one.” The paw lifted off the ground, moving over him.

Cyril stared up at the pebbled grey pads, breath catching. If he’d stayed standing, he could sensibly dart away. Even now he could at least crawl out.

She lowered the paw, achingly slowly, giving him ample time to slide backward. But he just kept staring. God, was he an utter idiot? “This is insane,” he squeaked out.

The paw had lowered to a point where he could see little else. “Mmm hmm,” came her voice. “But you’re still there.”

He lifted his hands up to touch the pad’s surface. Dusty, but he wouldn’t call them dirty. The heat they gave off made him think of a sun-warmed rock. If he let the huge paw drop to cover his whole body, it’d be almost as hot as being in her mouth. Let. As if he could stop it.

When the toe claw touched the fur between his ears he flinched, and dropped back to lie fully on the desert floor. Now he could see stars again, past the fringe of fur and that claw, terrifying when he looked almost straight up at it from directly beneath. He could scramble back, he could tell her no. She’d probably listen.

But he didn’t move. As the space between his body and hers shrank, the warmth grew. He pressed his hands harder against the pad, with enough force that someone his size would stumble back.

“Are you trying to push me away?” She sounded amused. The paw lowered at the same steady, slow pace; he knew he could push with all his strength and it still would, unless he came to his senses and spoke up. She kept giving him opportunities to change his mind. But this was the last chancehe had only a second or two before his “sex toy” would have him helplessly pinned under her foot.

Go on, you idiot. Say yes. Beg her to stop. Slide out. Don’t just stare stupidly as she literally steps on you. Whatever you do, don’t say…

“No.”

The coyote laughed, and her foot settled over his body, immense weight overhead shifting. That single toe pad covered him from his head down the whole length of his torso, forcing his legs apart so his knees pressed against its sides. Or had he shifted his legs himself? God, he had, hadn’t he?

She flexed her toe. It pressed him down into the ground, squeezing the yielding but firm pad against him, molding it to his form. He squeaked, turning his head to the side. He could feel the toes to either side crush against the dirt, feel just how many tons of coyote woman rested above him even just from toes up to knee, feel just how incredibly stupid being in this position was. Those half-remembered fantasies of her crumbled at the reality. This was terrifying. A slight misjudgment on her part and he’d literally begin to crack.

The toe relaxed, then flexed again. He did the opposite: he tensed, then shuddered, clenching his legs around the toe in reflex. As if in response, the whole of the huge paw began to shift back and forth. Surely just a wiggle from her standpoint, perhaps an inch in scalebut more than a foot on his, dragging him through the sand. Even though the pressure increased enough to hurt, he couldn’t stop himself from bucking against the rough pad.

“Oh God.” He scrambled frantically to try and undo his belt as the toe pulled him under the pad again, to slide down his pants; she didn’t make it easy for him, continuing the same slow, rolling movement, building that incredible, casual pressure. Down at least to the hipsnnggh

The toe pushed down against his face and chest, and his hips bucked up against it once more. As the pressure rolled down his slim body, her pad itself dragged his briefs down, the rough, hot surface rubbing directly against his erection. The rabbit’s eyes flew open wide. “Ohoh

Her voice came from far above, a teasing command. “Wrap your arms around me and kiss.”

He couldn’t even question the madness now. Cyril wrapped his arms around the toe, head just below the clawtip. Then he pressed himself up against her hard, trying to get his knees around the back of the toe, and gave her pad a trembling kiss.

She tilted her foot up on the heel pad just enough to let her curl the toe, bending him backward, meeting his full-body embrace and deepening it that much more.

He spasmed, hard. And again. And again. It felt like his hips were barely his own. Surely that staccato, breathy treble oh! oh! oh! screamed against her pad wasn’t his. He’d never done that having sex with anyone. But he’d never felt anything like this.

Except maybe once, six years ago, inside a giant coyote woman’s mouth. The only place he could be as ridiculously death-defying as entirely under the same woman’s foot.

The huge foot shifted, relaxing, resting on the ground once more. When he let go, still breathing hard, she moved it away, just to his left side, and leaned over. “Are you all right?”

“Iguh” He nodded weakly.

“You and that toe must be very much in love, Cyril. My tongue’s a little jealous now. I didn’t know you had a paw fetish.”

“I didn’t, either.” Cyril pushed himself into a sitting position, looking at his clothes. He was a mess: dusty, dirty, his belly fur matted. He shouldn’t be grinning like an idiot, but he was.

“Don’t be coy. You took a few shots of my paws in that first encounter. Is the light too low for you to take any new ones before I go?”

“It is a full moon.” He took a deep breath, trying to compose himself, and looked up at her. “And is it already time for you to mysteriously disappear?”

“It’s time for you to disappear, too. You’ve got your shots of the earthquake damage, and you don’t want the foreman to come back and find you like this. I’ll bring you to a stream you can clean up in, and give you a head start.” She leaned over and held out her hand. “From the construction crew, not me, of course.”

“Of course.” He shuffled into her hand, sitting uneasily. A new round of aches had sprung up in the last minute or two (why, almost as if he’d been stepped on by a giantess), and he felt sure his ears burned more brightly than the evening star. “But…I haven’t…”

“Haven’t what?” She lifted him up to her belly level and began to walk.

“Both times we’ve met, you’vewith meand I haven’twith youI mean…”

“I’ve gotten you off twice and you haven’t gotten me off once yet.”

If his ears hadn’t been burning before, now they were about to catch fire. “That. Yes.”

“True, and I know I said our second meeting would be about me.” She began to climb up the gorge wall, taking a steeper path than he’d be comfortable with at his much smaller size, using her free hand to steady herself against the cliff walls. “But I’m expecting you to do me a great favor with your photography work, Cyril. I can hardly risk crushing you in a careless moment of ecstasy.”

“I don’t think you’d do that even if you didn’t have an ulterior motive.” He looked up at her faceno, directly at the underside of her breasts and her muzzle. “I think you’re too nice.”

“That’s not a request for me to stop being nice, is it?”

He raised his hands. “No, no, definitely not.” Then he took a deep breath, looking down at how far they’d already come and then back up toward her head. “It’s a request to let me be nice to you.”

“You’d really like to see if you can make a giantess orgasm, hmm?” She took a big, stomach-churning step, and they reached the edge of the canyon wall.

“Not just any giantess who comes along. Only one.” He tried to keep his voice light, but that came out as dreadfully earnest.

She fell silent, and he wondered if he’d crossed a line. Well, she wasn’t just closing her hand into a fist and letting rabbit jelly leak out between her fingers, so that was something. He swallowed and fell silent, too.

After another minute had passed, she knelt down, setting him on the ground. They’d reached the edge of the stream she’d mentionedwide enough to form a little pool here. “You’re remarkably sweet, Cyril. I’m glad I didn’t eat you.” She smiled, more affectionately than he’d seen her do before. That made his heart race even faster than being under her paw had.

“So…next time.” He rested a hand on her knee. “There’s going to be a next time, right?”

“I told you I’d be in your debt, so there has to be a next time, doesn’t there? You’ll be wandering somewhere and see me when you least expect it.”

“I doubt that. I’d least expect to see you downtown in a major city.”

That earned him another grin. She leaned down, putting her hands to either side of him, her muzzle now directly overhead. “And if you truly can’t wait, you can call me.”

He could what? His eyes widened. “But

She lowered her muzzle down to give him a kiss that enveloped his whole head. As she drew away, she murmured, “Smoke.”

Cyril managed to suppress a longing moan during the kiss. “Smoke? That’sthat’s your name? Call you how, just by shouting it?”

“That’s one way.” She sat up.

“How would you hear that? How would you know I’m not just talking about a fire?”

“Give me some credit.”

“I am, but…” He trailed off, watching her stand. No, it didn’t make any sense, but exactly what about her existencelet alone his attraction to herdid?

“I’m trusting you not to call me frivolously. As much as you might want to see me strolling along that downtown city street, it could become rather awkward for both of us.”

The sight might be worth it, but he just nodded. “Yes.”

She turned around, huge tail swishing, then took a half-step, pausing with one footpad lifted almost completely off the ground, and looked back over her shoulder. “Good pose for a paw picture?”

He swallowed, picking up his camera and taking a burst of shots.

She laughed and began walking away, slowly. “Take care, Cyril.”

“Goodbye…Smoke.”

As she walked off, he snapped a few shots of her backside, lit by the bright moonlight. Prurient, perhaps, but dazzlingly beautiful. Then he set down the camera and stripped, dusting off his clothes as best he could and washing himself off in the icy water. Without the body heat of a giant coyote nearby, the desert night air felt like a freezer, but the humidity was so low he should still dry off quickly.

Like their last meeting, she’d somehow disappeared with no trace once more. He walked to the edge of the gorge, letting his gaze sweep from the pristine natural beauty he’d do his damnedest to save for her over to the ruins of the dam. He could see fracture lines from here, nearly all surrounding the work site, none in the prettiest parts of the valley. Oddly localized damage. Could it be a sinkhole? He’d never heard of such a thing in the desert, thoughnot the right geology.

Cyril frowned thoughtfully, letting his eyes trace back over the lines. It was easy to see shapes where they didn’t exist, to impose artificial order on natural chaos, like seeing the rabbit in the moon. Even so, when he traced the lines a third time, he moved his finger through the air, defining an area that, on the ground, had to be well over a hundred feet across.

“I don’t see a lot of giant coyote prints,” he murmured aloud. “I think I see just one.”

July 2015