Big Trouble

Episode 16

Arilin Thorferra

After my lunch date with Knives, I kept my word and got him—and Bobby, a cute mouse boy with a lovely smile and plainly regrettable taste in men—to a train station. They took off to San Francisco to visit some of Bobby’s family for a while. I didn’t know if they’d take the hint and stay, but it looked to me like Bobby loved San Fran and Knives genuinely loved Bobby.

I’d learned more from my visit with Edgar Lambert than I’d expected, but less from my chat with Meloni than I’d hoped. The higher muckity-mucks at both East-West and Starling Studios didn’t trust him with very many beans to spill. Wise, but it left me with little more idea what I was about to get into than what I’d started with. Smuggling would have already been my first guess. While I wouldn’t have pegged Samuel Cross for a drug lord—as far as I’d seen, he was a teetotaler—between his old firm’s client list and the connections he’d made as a politico, he was in the perfect position to make an operation like that virtually untouchable.

I’d danced around it long enough. It was time to pay another visit to East-West Global Imports, and get inside this time.

I parked by Pier 23, walking the block up to the warehouse and turning down the alley. By this point, my face was probably plastered on warning posters around the office, so talking my way in was out; I slunk past the office toward the warehouse’s loading docks. I could hear voices, but nobody stood guard. I ducked inside.

Yep, looked like a warehouse, all right. Stacks of wooden crates filled the floor closest to the door, while racks of metal shelving stretched out toward the back, lined with presumably imported arts and crafts bric-a-brac.

One of the voices sounded familiar. Don Woodley, in an argument with an older man. I shrank down and ducked under the interior door, keeping close to the walls and the shadows. Sure enough, Woodley stood about ten feet away from me, agitatedly yelling at an impatient-looking older coyote leaning against a wall sipping coffee.

“—gets the police involved?” he was saying.

The other coyote shrugged. “They’d need to get a warrant to search the place, and Mr. Cross can make sure that doesn’t happen without warning us. Besides, what do you think she possibly has on us?”

“From what Thorne said, much more than we should be comfortable with, father.”

“She has hunches!” The older coyote groaned. “Hunches and gut feelings. You don’t get a warrant for a gut feeling. Besides, after what she’s been through, she can’t possibly still be looking into this.”

“How do you know? She knows what happened to Waterman, and now Meloni is missing, too.”

“Since when? Miss Thorne didn’t say anything about Meloni.”

“Since this afternoon. What if he went to the police?”

“For God’s sake, Don, use your head. That pansy has a rap sheet a mile long. He wouldn’t go within a hundred miles of a police station by choice. And from…” He looked away with a pained expression. “From what we were told, there’s no evidence of what happened to Waterman. Even if your lady detective went to the police, she’d only have an accusation. Cross would sink that fast.”

Coming in on a conversation about me was both lucky and disquieting. The name I hadn’t expected them to drop, though, was Tawny Thorne’s. The link between East-West and Starling Studios went deeper than Waterman just happening to be an employee of the former and a patron of the latter.

Just as importantly, the Woodleys had also just confirmed that whatever was being smuggled was kept right here. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be talking about relying on Cross to stall any search warrants. So where would they put it, whatever “it” was?

I backed out under the door and darted behind a crate before changing back to normal size, then followed the wall, keeping my eye out for doors. The closest one, partially open, lead to a break room; I could see two wolves and a fox inside as I sidled past.

The next door lead to a grimy, desolate toilet and a soapless sink with a towel that would leave your hands wetter and dirtier after you used it. Charming. Door three, though, was locked. A small square window in the door looked down a dark hallway.

After another quick glance around, I pulled another fast shrink-scurry-grow move to get under the door. I loved this trick—I couldn’t forget to lock the door behind me, possibly giving myself away, because it stayed locked the whole time.

The hallway had more shelves on one side, and a couple more doors on the other, with a heavy door at the far end. The shelves held smaller wooden boxes, each with neat “East-West Global” labels affixed to them, but the labels just showed numbers. I picked up a couple and sniffed. Lower-quality heroin would give off a hint of vinegar, and cocaine usually had either a floral hit or the appetizing scent of burning tire. These had nothing apart from the scent of the wood itself.

I carefully pried one open to reveal figurines packed in straw. Hmm. Art smuggling? Or it could be something hidden inside the figurines. I pocketed the smaller one, a painted porcelain wolf girl in a red hooded cloak, to investigate later, and pressed the box lid back into place.

Nobody seemed to be coming this way yet, so I tried the doors. Both locked. Total silence behind one of them, but the other had…something. A fan? I couldn’t tell. No voices, at least.

All right. I shrank, started to dart under the door—then stopped. This door had a lip on the other side like a bank vault, blocking the path. I crawled forward, right under the door’s bottom edge, and looked up. I’d have to shrink to dust-mite size to try and get past it this way, something I’d learned from painful experience was tedious, strenuous, and risky—small air currents become hurricanes.

I stepped back and became normal size again, jiggling the lock, then fishing through my pockets to see if I had anything that could stand in for a lock-pick set. Nothing. I had an actual set back at the office, but a fat lot of good that’d do me here. I’d gotten so used to cheating with a size-shift I’d outsmarted myself.

I looked back at the door to the hallway, holding my breath and going perfectly still for a moment to listen. Nobody sounded like they were nearby, but if I made too much noise I’d have maybe a half a minute to hoof it out of the back entrance, likely with multiple goons on my tail. And against my better judgment, I was about to make noise.

Instead of shrinking, I grew, to the point I had to duck to fit under the eight-foot ceiling. Then I pulled my fist back and smashed it into the lock, holding the doorknob with my other hand to keep the door from slamming open with a tail-bottling crash. The crack echoed alarmingly as it was.

I hurried to step inside. I could see the fan, all right, keeping the room a few degrees cooler than the rest of the place. The room had a single table at its center, and a small trunk-like box on the table. Vents ran along the side, and while it had one of the East-West logo labels on it, it had more “Fragile” and “Handle With Care” warning stickers on it than a shipment to the Louvre. It had latches like a trunk, but they hadn’t left it locked; the padlocks, two of them, sat on the table nearby.

And I smelled food close by. Grains, cereal. And fruit. In the box?

My ear canted at a yell from the direction of the warehouse. Dammit, they were on to me, weren’t they? I had to at least take a fast look. I had to know.

I lifted both latches, lifted the lid—

The inside of the crate was a room. Almost a house, at first glance. At second glance, a prison. A prison full of people barely two inches high.

I saw nothing like furniture besides benches fastened to the walls, scraps of cloth serving as mattresses. A lower level had thin ropes going down to it, with a tiny room that looked like a privacy-free outhouse. A third room was heavily padded, with harnesses lining the walls. The lid had dim lights in it, powered by some unseen battery.

Two dozen tiny faces looked up at me, faces full of exhausted terror or just numbness. Wolves. Cats. Foxes. Mice. Mostly women, but a few men here and there, too.

I could hear the workers at the hallway door. I had to go. But if I left these people here, by the time I could get to the police—

“That’s for travel, right?” I pointed at the padded room. “Get in there and hang on. Sorry, this will be rough.”

They kept staring at me uncertainly.

“I’m rescuing you, but you’ve got to fucking move. Count of three.”

They started to scramble. I closed and latched the lid. “Three. Two. One. Hang on!” I grabbed the trunk and ran.