I should have asked Melanie where Starling was, but I could fall back on the golden rule: when in doubt, ask the bartender. Also, after those last few minutes with the giant otter, I could definitely use a drink.
The stag nodded to me as I took a seat. “What’ll it be?”
“I’m not used to drinking in sunlight. What would you recommend?”
He laughed. “Your new friend Melanie’s a daiquiri girl.”
“Okay, I’ll give it a shot.”
When he slid the drink to me, I said, “I haven’t met Mr. Starling yet, only spoke with him over the phone. Someone inside said he’s out by the pool, but…” I gestured. “That didn’t help.”
He laughed again. “No, it wouldn’t. Bob’s a fox, and he’s usually lounging in a blue or green silk robe unless he’s swimming with someone. But I saw him heading out a few minutes ago to talk to the new mouse model before the shoot tomorrow.”
I hadn’t seen anyone in silk robes at all since I’d been here, but I might have just missed him. “He wasn’t in the boat that she was flinging around, was he?” I sipped the daiquiri. “This is pretty good.”
“Thanks. And I wasn’t watching, but he might have been. He suffers a lot for his art.” The stag was smirking so much it was a wonder he kept his voice level.
I waved my free hand around. “It looks like he more than makes up for it. I’m guessing he’s not just working with Goddess, because I can’t imagine they pay this well.”
He shook his head. “No, he does work for other magazines, private portraits, and…” He lifted his brows. “Very exclusive erotica.”
“I bet it is. How much do I owe you for the daiquiri?”
“It’s an open bar.”
“Oh. Well, thanks. And thanks to Mr. Starling.” I picked up the drink and headed back into the house, heading down the hall the mink had gone down. I didn’t find her, but the first door on the left, already open, led to a portrait studio, flashes and cameras set up in an array facing the back wall. So Bob had normal-sized clientele, too.
Walking inside, I slowed down, studying props against the side wall I hadn’t seen from the doorway. Backdrops of skies and mountains. Miniature cities and buildings and trees. I crouched down, studying the closest one. Realistic enough.
“Can I help you?”
I looked up at the voice. The mink stood in the doorway, a drink in her hand. “Are these for cover shots?”
“No.” The mink wasn’t looking at me, though, she was looking down the hallway, and stepped aside as someone else walked up: a gangly, grey-haired fox wearing only a retina-searing blue robe and matching trunks. The outfit highlighted his physique, a bold but unwise choice.
He walked in and held out a hand to me. “Bob Starling.”
I took his hand gingerly. If I’d met him instead of Melanie first, I’d have made up a name, but I couldn’t change stories now. “Nora.”
He shook my hand. “Why are you at the Studios, Nora?”
“For the photo shoot tomorrow.” I looked down at the models again. “So if these aren’t for the magazine covers…”
Starling snorted and laughed. “These are for people who can’t change size but want to pretend they can.” He waved to the mink. “Like Lori here.”
“Or,” Bob continued, “for people who can change size but want to pretend they’re monsters.”
“That doesn’t sound so different from the magazine covers.”
That earned me an even more wicked leer. “The covers are tailored for people who want to be monster victims, sweetie. People who’ll see a photo of Annie grabbing you and wish they were in your place.” He walked around the studio, keeping his eyes on me as if staging the shoot in his head. “Yeah. This could work. They almost always want guys to be the victims, but a light grey mouse threatening to eat a black cat? Great visual contrast, the thrill of role reversal, mix in that suggestion of girl on girl action. Genius.”
“I’ll do my best to look frightened of the mouse.”
He turned back to me with another grin. “It’ll be genuine. All my girls can scare the pants off anyone without breaking a sweat.”
“You know, I don’t doubt that.”
He clapped me on the shoulder. “Good girl.” Then he rubbed his chin. “I’m not sure about your look, though. I mean for the shoot. Objectively, it’s an interesting style—mannish, but you pull it off while still looking feminine. Hmm.” He held up a finger. “Maybe that’s good. We’ll talk later.”
He headed back toward the door, the mink in tow. “Help yourself to anything while you’re here. Your wish is my command. Within reason. Just remember Bob’s first rule: for the giant girls, their wish is your command.”
“Does that go for everyone including Bob?”
“No exceptions.” He grinned in a maybe-joking, maybe-not way.
As soon as they left, I headed to the other doors that led out of the studio/playroom here. The unlocked one was a supply closet. The locked one could be the darkroom, but the door looked too nice. Office, then.
Another swell thing about being a shifter: you almost never have to pick a lock. I shrank down to barely an inch and crawled under the door, straightened up, and looked around. Definitely an office, currently empty. I zapped back to normal height for a better view.
Photos filled one wall nearly edge to edge. A lot of the shots had to be either Goddess covers or might-as-well-be ones, with a few far more explicit than I bet the pinup mag would ever touch. Sprinkled throughout were shots of Starling himself, posing with various girls at various sizes—his arm around their shoulders, their much larger ones around his everything, sometimes just him leaning against a body part.
I crossed past a desk with a few more photos behind it, over to a file cabinet against one wall, opposite a second door into the room, and tried the drawers. The top one opened to reveal tax and financial records; the middle held invoices, neatly organized by name. The bottom one was locked. So it held something more important than finances.
Starling’s desk had a stack of large paper clips, a few of them already bent and one snapped in half. Guess he was a fidgeter. I grabbed one of the bent ones and slid it into the lock, wiggling it just so. The drawer slid open to reveal folders just like the middle one, alphabetized by name. They didn’t hold invoices this time, though. They held prints of photographs—photos of “very exclusive erotica.” Not all of it involved giants, but all of it would make great blackmail material.
The most eye-widening part, though, was the names I recognized. It might not be a who’s who of the city’s elites and politicos, but there were still some major whos here—and some formerly high-profile types who’d quietly left the scene over the last few years. Ones who’d gotten in Samuel Cross’s way, ones his firm had tried to get me to dig up dirt on. Enough of them to feel intentional, not coincidental.
Cross didn’t have a file himself, of course. Edgar Lambert did, though—with the photos I’d seen Joey flashing around.
I closed the drawer and stroked my chin. Had Lambert paid to have a photographic record made of his fantasy, or was it snapped on the sly? How about the others? Getting them to pay up front for their own potential future extortion would be one sweet racket.
Turning, I started to head back out of the room the way I’d come, preparing to shrink, but the photos behind the desk caught my eye. These weren’t so professional; they showed a younger, less slick version of Starling, arm in arm with less glamorous girls. All vixens. Former girlfriends, maybe.
And one of them, one of Bob Starling’s old flames, was Elsa Lambert.