When I came to, I could hear voices in the distance, but couldn’t focus on them thanks to the pain in my ribs. I lay in a heap on a bare wooden floor. I didn’t think anything was broken, but I’d have to drag myself to a doctor after I got out. Assuming I got out.
I started to push myself to a sitting position, then stopped. Was I locked in metal gloves? My arms weren’t locked together, but they were definitely shackled to something, my hands encased. Something thicker than handcuffs. Crap. These weren’t gloves, they were a special kind of manacle, meant for restraining size-shifters. They were heavy and thick enough that trying to break them by growing would rip my hands off. More deviously, they had internal hinges and weights, set up to make it hard to shrink without getting fingers and wrists snapped. Normally I could at least grow them with me, but these had been welded to links on a chain piled up on the floor by my side. Heavy links. I could lift my arms, but I doubted I was strong enough to drag the chain anywhere. The crazy magic that let shifters do their thing came with a lot of fine print, and a well-known exception for those of us with the ability to change the size of things we wore or hold was that we couldn’t do it to things that weighed more than we did currently. Like this damned anchor chain.
A groan off to my left drew my attention to another bound prisoner—the wolf. He wasn’t looking in my direction, just keening. A muffled keening, since he was gagged. He didn’t have the same kind of shifter-proof binding I had, either; he’d just been tied up with rope. The rope looked funny, though, more like—like—
I narrowed my eyes, and whipped my gaze around the rest of the “floor” we were on. It wasn’t a floor at all. It was Starling’s desk. We were both just a few inches high. The rope binding the wolf was only twine; I was being held down by jewelry chain. Tawny must have been holding me—and him—when she returned to her normal size, shrinking both of us. Terrific.
The distant voices got clearer. “—do a lot for us.” Starling, sounding nervous.
“When it benefits him.” That scornful voice was definitely Tawny’s. They were walking this way. With some effort, I pivoted to face them.
It wasn’t just Tawny and Bob, though. Samuel Cross was with them. My eyes widened.
“Come now, Miss Thorne. Our arrangement is mutually beneficial for both you and Mr. Starling. And much of the work I do benefits all of your kind.”
“You do a lot to make my work possible.” Starling sounded simperingly eager.
“Well.” Cross looked down at me as he approached. “You do get yourself into the most unusual of situations, don’t you, Miss Mallory.”
“I told you I had trouble letting go of a case with unanswered questions.”
“You did indeed.” He sighed, then gestured at the bound wolf. “My understanding is that Mr. Starling and Miss Thorne have now answered one of your questions for you. This wolf, a Freddy Waterman, is the one who used Mr. Starling’s photos of Edgar Lambert and Miss Thorne, ah, frolicking with one another as blackmail material.”
Starling nodded. “Freddy is—was—a regular who knew some of our…” He waved a hand. “Our traditions. But not the ‘what happens at the studio stays at the studio’ one, it seems.”
“How’d you find that out?” I asked.
“We found out.” Tawny crossed her arms under her chest again, emphasizing breasts that looked bigger than wrecking balls from my vantage point. “And we’ll take care of it.”
Waterman shook his head frantically. “Mmmph! Mmmph!”
I canted an ear, but couldn’t make out what he was saying. “And you know who he’s working with?”
He looked at me. “Mmph!”
Bob snorted. “He’ll give anybody a story that takes the heat off him, shamus. Don’t listen to any of it.”
“I don’t need to listen to him to know he wasn’t the one Lambert was handing the cash to.”
“I don’t care about his flunky.” Tawny uncrossed her arms and clenched her fists, slamming one down on the desk right in front of him. Both of us bounced from the impact. Waterman screamed. The rabbit leaned over. “I care about who betrayed me.”
“Mmmph!” We were lucky that Waterman hadn’t peed himself. Yet.
“Nora, it might put Miss Thorne’s mind at ease if you assured all of us that your questions about this case, the ones that have apparently kept you pursuing your leads even without pay, have now been sufficiently answered that you could see your way toward focusing on other work.”
“It’d put my mind at ease if I wasn’t tied up like somebody’s going to wear me as a necklace.”
Cross turned to Tawny and lifted his brows. “It’s a fair request.”
She shook her head. “I haven’t decided what to do with them yet.” She leaned toward me. “But sure, please put my mind at ease. Who knows what I might do if I get all…hysterical.”
“I’ve got one big question left.” I decided to keep the gaggle of medium-to-large questions to myself. “I’m betting Waterman here got the skinny on Edgar Lambert’s giantess obsession from Don Woodley, since he works at the import business Woodley’s father runs.”
“He’s an accountant there,” Starling piped up.
“And the flunky you don’t care about met with Waterman at East-West, too.”
Tawny was visibly losing patience. “Is there a question here?”
“Yeah, there is. See, everything about this whole affair says East-West is unrelated, inconsequential, just where these mooks happened to cook up this scheme. But every time I so much as mention the name to somebody, I get warned away. Or threatened. Now, squeezed half to death and shrunk to tin soldier size, just after I mentioned the name to Thorne here. So my question is why. Tell me what it is about East-West.”
Cross frowned down at me. “I think your imagination has the best of you, Nora. As I’m sure you know, Don Woodley doesn’t have any connection to East-West besides family, and he’s made friends with some of their executives, including Freddy. I’m given to understand him and the wolf were out drinking and Don let personal details about Edgar Lambert slip, and Freddy introduced Mr. Lambert to the Studios here. Perhaps he and his associate planned extortion even before that introduction, or perhaps he saw the opportunity after Miss Thorne and Mr. Starling set up Mr. Lambert’s…fascinating fantasy. In either case, neither Bob nor Tawny were involved in the actual crime, and East-West Global Imports is only involved by circumstance.”
“If that’s true, then I’ll stop looking.” I caught movement out of the corner of my eye as I spoke. Waterman was shaking his head frantically again.
Tawny growled, leaning down to Waterman and me. “If you stop looking, I won’t do to you what I’m about to do to him.”
The wolf’s eyes bugged out.
The rat focused a rapier gaze on me. “Assuming Mr. Starling and Miss Thorne are satisfied, Nora, you can be on your way, and I’ll be on mine.” He didn’t wait before walking away from the table.
I raised my voice. “I can’t be on my way until I’m out of these chains, Cross, and they’re not giving Waterman a chance to defend himself.”
He didn’t look at me as he picked up his hat and opened the door. “With all respect, Miss Mallory, this isn’t a court of law, and as much as I admire your sense of justice, at this moment you should strongly consider giving your sense of self-preservation top priority. I do hope I see you again soon.”
As soon as he left, Tawny picked Waterman up by one paw, hauling him into the air upside down, and fixed her beautiful, merciless eyes on his little flailing form. “His stupid little blackmail scheme could have ruined everything we’ve set up here. There’s no defense for that.” She opened her mouth wide. He got out another terrified Mmmmph! before she dropped him between her jaws, closed her lips around his kicking legs, sucked him in, and swallowed him whole.
I stared, mouth open. Starling studiously gazed in another direction, ears back.
She wiped her lips with the back of her hand and looked down at me. “If it was up to me, you’d be bunny food, too, kitty. And I know you change size, so I’d chew.” She grabbed the other end of my chain, lifting me up into the air. “But lucky you, I want to stay on Cross’s good side. So here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to set you down outside, and you’ll drive out of stomping range and keep going.” She walked out of the room, letting me swing back and forth. My arms were already starting to hurt.
When she unhooked me and let me grow back to normal size, she grew, too, and started slowly thumping paws bigger than my car as I got behind the wheel. I floored it.