Elsa and Starling had been together years ago, from the picture. Long before she married Lambert, and judging from the other pictures, before Starling had made it big with his photographer-to-the-giants trick. And, it now seemed, with a blackmailer-of-the-elites side gig. Could she have been a shifter herself? I could check if she was on the county registry, but my gut said she wasn’t. Legally speaking, it’d have been just as hard to keep it a secret from Edgar as it would have been to keep his paws off her bank accounts—and if she’d been a shifter, he’d probably never have gotten caught up in this. Besides, given how angry she was the last time I spoke with her, whoever she went after would have been facing off with a giant angry vixen. That would’ve become a story I’d have heard.
Sounds from the studio snapped me back to attention. Maybe I’d better not go back the way I came after all. I headed to the office’s other door, listened there for a moment, reached for the doorknob—
And it opened on its own. Starling stood there, a gorgeous bunny girl taller than he was standing behind him in a bikini. A very familiar gorgeous bunny girl.
He spoke conversationally, but didn’t smile. “Tawny, my girl Friday here, said you sounded like a private detective she’s heard of, so I thought I’d come back to the studio and ask. Give me a good reason not to have her pin you under a paw while I call the cops.”
“For a start, I don’t think you want me talking to the cops any more than I want to be talking to them. You’re who Elsa Lambert came to on the day she died, aren’t you?”
“She didn’t know who was in the photos with her husband, but she did know the other woman was a shifter. So she wouldn’t go pick a fight with her. But she didn’t go pick a fight with her husband, either, even if he deserved it.” I turned just enough to gesture at the photos behind his desk. “Instead, she went to her old ex-lover, the one famous for sexy pinups of giants. Maybe she thought you took the photos, maybe she just thought you’d know who the giantess was.”
He let out a melodramatic sigh, holding up his hands. “Fine, fine. Yeah, she gave me an earful about her husband being blackmailed over photos with a giantess. And yeah, I took the photos, but I didn’t do anything with them.”
“Then why’d you take them? It’s not like Lambert would want pictures of him and Miss Tawny here as a souvenir to hang over the mantelpiece.”
Starling’s ears had gone back. “Because it’s what I do! It’s all above board, I swear. Look. Edgar’s a friend of a friend of a regular, and I guess he talks a lot when he has too much brandy or something. He came here to meet some of the girls, and he and Tawny hit it off. She’s very personable.”
I looked back at Tawny. She returned a stare so stone cold it’d make a mob hatchet man flinch. “Yeah, I can see she’s a charmer.”
“I don’t like cops,” she said, tone flat.
“Neither do I. We’ll get along famously.” I turned back to the fox. “So how do we get from ‘meet the girls’ to ‘get photos of being used as a sex toy’?”
“Guests pay for a more…intimate photo shoot, and we often keep the prints here at the studio so they can come back and…view them privately.”
I doubted that shell game would save him if coppers wanted to charge him with being a high-class pimp, but I couldn’t help wonder if he had a real good lawyer-turned-politician I knew on his side. “And if they don’t pay enough, you blackmail them.”
“You had to have targeted Lambert because of who his wife is. Was it because she’s rich, or because she’s your ex?”
He spluttered, clenching his fists. “I didn’t know they were married until she stormed in here yelling at me.”
I raised my voice sharply. “And a few hours after that she was dead.”
“My god, do you think—”
“Stop it!” Tawny snapped. Then, abruptly, she flipped to all concerned doe-in-distress. “Look, whatever you think of Bob’s business, he’s not a blackmailer, let alone a murderer. Someone else must have stolen copies of those photos.”
“Who?” I gestured at Starling. “You’ve got to keep photos like that under lock and key, right? You wouldn’t be stupid enough to keep them in something easy to break into like a file cabinet.”
Starling squinted at me.
“He tries to keep them safe, but guests are walking through the studios all the time, and some of them might not be trustworthy. You broke in here, Miss Mallory, so anyone else could have, too.” She clasped her hands together, liquid eyes pleading. It almost worked on me. If nothing else, between Tawny, Melanie and Elsa, this case was starting to raise some uncomfortable questions about my own attractions.
“Why’s this your business, anyway?” Starling pointed an accusatory finger at me. “Who hired you?”
“I want to clear Lambert’s name. He didn’t kill his wife.”
He didn’t notice I hadn’t answered his question. “That’s not what I heard.”
“She found out about Edgar and me because of you,” Tawny added, hands on her hips. “It’s obvious what happened. She threatened to divorce him and he panicked because she was his meal ticket.”
“That’s what the cops think. You and I don’t like them, remember?” I waved at Starling. “After I talked to her, she didn’t go see her husband. She went to Bob here, photographer to the giant stars. Who else knew she was here?”
Starling looked like I was giving him a migraine. After a couple seconds of silence, he turned away from me. “Tawny, please show Nora the way out.”
The rabbit moved to put a hand on my shoulder. I pushed it off. “I can find my own way.”
Abruptly Tawny was tall enough her ears hit the ceiling. She put her hand back on my shoulder and steered me forward, ducking to fit through the door. So she was another shifter who could keep her clothes on when she changed.
As we reached the front entrance, I looked up at her. “You knew Elsa was here. You know that wolf who’s here, too, don’t you? The one who works at East-West imports. With Edgar Lambert’s friend, Don Woodley.”
She didn’t say anything until we got outside. Then she made another abrupt shift—this time to the size the pool beauties had been lounging around at. Before I could react, a fuzzy hand wrapped around me tight, hauling me up way too high into the air. “Here’s what I know, Mallory,” she snarled. “I know people warned you to let go of this before it got you in trouble. Now you’re in trouble.”
“Don’t…threaten me,” I wheezed, trying to squirm into a position where it didn’t feel like she was about to crumple my rib cage like tinfoil. You’d think I could just suddenly become giant myself. I could, but even if that got me out of this jam, one or both of us would probably fall on the house. My insurance wouldn’t cover that. Not that it would cover being crushed by a giant pinup model, either.
She grinned a grin that’d make sharks swim fast in the other direction. “Aw, little kitty’s trying to be tough.” She closed her fist around me—and kept closing it. “Let’s see how tough she is.”
I struggled, gasping for breath, hoping the feeling of bones cracking was only lurid imagination. I’d made up my mind to grow anyway, damage be damned, when I blacked out.