The goon crew—the wolves and two foxes—opened their door just before I opened mine. The sight of me at nine feet tall with the transport box under one arm threw them for just enough of a loop that I made it through the back door before somebody thought to take a shot. The bullet didn’t hit, but it flew close enough I could feel it zing by. This time I wasn’t careful about the door, but it didn’t break, at least not until I whirled around and kicked it hard enough to wedge it into its frame. Maybe that’d buy me a few seconds.
The door opened onto an alleyway between warehouses, almost facing another back entrance. I tried that door. Open. Ducking through it as quickly and quietly as I could, I took off between racks of massive barrels. Apparently I’d just broken into a distillery; the whole place smelled of whiskey mash.
I heard commotion outside, but they hadn’t thought to break in here yet. That still left a big problem, though. I was running away from my car, not toward it. Worse, I had a trunk full of little problems, assuming I hadn’t already shaken them to death.
I knelt, set the trunk down and opened it, peering inside. Tiny frightened faces stared back. “You okay?”
One of them had the nerve to yell back, although the little coyote didn’t answer my question. “Where are you taking us?”
“I need to find help.” I kept my tone matter-of-fact. “Truth is, I didn’t expect today to turn into a rescue operation. I—”
“Hey!” A burly tiger was running toward me from the front side of the warehouse. “What do you think—holy shit!” He came to an abrupt halt, staring at me. “Look, we don’t want any trouble.”
“I never do, either, but I have a trunk full of shrunken trafficking victims and guys with guns chasing me.”
He gave me an incredulous look, stared in the trunk, and his mouth fell open. “What—what do we—should I call the police?”
I’d give uncomfortably high odds that the suits on the force would all be in Samuel Cross’s pocket, but I didn’t see any better options at the moment. “Ask for Norwich and Waters. Tell them my name is Nora Mallory.”
The tiger nodded, and scurried back to the office. I closed the trunk and headed after him.
He was already on the phone when we heard the first smash. “I don’t know what that was,” he snapped into the phone. “Let me—”
“No, let me check.” I set the trunk down on his desk. “Finish your call and get them—”
“He wants to talk to you.” He held out the phone.
Sighing, I grabbed the handset. The tiger ran back into the warehouse before I could stop him. “Mallory?” Waters, the rhino. “What the hell are you up to?”
“East-West Global Imports is shrinking people and smuggling them, some kind of trafficking ring. I’ve rescued about twenty of them and I can tell you the story when you get here, but gunmen are coming after me right now.”
“That’s the craziest story I’ve—” A loud bang, less gunshot than crash, and a scream came from the warehouse. “What was that?”
“Worse than gunmen. Send people here to either stop them or arrest me, Waters, but either way, make it fast.” I hung up and barreled back into the warehouse.
I didn’t see the tiger, not at first. But I did see Tawny, her ears just shy of the warehouse’s two-story-high ceiling height, looking down and yelling. “I said where—” She looked over, and down, at me. “—never mind.” She took off toward me, all her weight coming down on the paw she’d been pinning the tiger with as she broke into a run. The noise his body made was very ugly and very final.
My first instinct was to dive to the side and make a break for it, but that would mean leaving the box of shrunken victims. No choice but to distract her until the cops got here and hope against hope they did their job. I grew up to meet her size and charged forward. She had just enough time to look startled before we met in a resounding smash. All the momentum was hers, though, so the smash mostly came from me being driven back into the closest wall of kegs.
I tried to shove her off me; she grabbed one of the kegs and tried to bean me with it. I had just enough room to roll to the side. Bourbon so fresh it was just this side of moonshine gushed out. Tawny flinched, wrinkling her nose, and I kicked her. She staggered.
“Smuggling people?” I got to my feet. “You really want to work for someone doing that?”
“You’re more of a fucking idiot than I already thought, Mallory. Where are they?”
“Where are who?”
She snarled, swinging her fist at me. Fortunately, as much of a monster as she might be, she still punched like a pinup model. I ducked and swung back in the same motion, walloping her right in the jaw. Her eyes widened and she stumbled to the side, shook herself, and started heading unsteadily toward the office.
I leapt forward, grabbing her around the waist. We both went down, sliding into another rack of kegs that toppled down on us. Tawny snarled again, getting both of her paws under me and kicking me up and off her. While I landed in a painful sprawl, she’d inadvertently given me a boost: she’d kicked me past her. I heard other people running, other voices yelling, and they didn’t sound like cops. Dammit.
Tawny had almost caught up with me by the time I rolled back to all fours. I ran ahead of her, shifting down barely in time to get through the office door and back to the box before she did.
She made a grab for it, but I set a hand on top of it first. Footsteps were getting closer, though. “In here!” she shouted. She knew I couldn’t hold off her and the goons from East-West at the same time.
At least, not at this size.
I lifted the box, gritted my teeth, and shifted.
You ever saw a movie that shows a shifter bursting out of a building by outgrowing it? It’s a great effect, right? What they don’t show you, though, is that even when they’re using real shifters for the stunt, they’re rarely using real buildings. Sure, there are walls and a roof, but they’re sets, life-sized props made to be easy to break. A brick and steel warehouse is built to be hard to break, to stand up as well as it can to storms and fires and earthquakes.
I don’t think I screamed as my body ripped off the roof, but I couldn’t swear to it.
Bricks and twisted metal cascaded off me in all directions, and I could feel dozens of scrapes across my body from girders. I hoped I hadn’t torn my clothes to hell. Meanwhile, a few hundred barrels of whiskey had been sent into abrupt flight, rolling down the streets, smashing into cars and walls and each other, quickly turning the floor and pavement around my sandals into a tidal pool of high-proof alcohol.
Truth be told, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been this big, and I’d never dared it in the city. I must have stood over twenty stories high. It’d have been nice if I’d been able to appreciate the view, but I was far too conscious of standing in the ruins of somebody’s business, of the panicked bystanders. I could pick out the goons, and Tawny, too, reeling in the wreckage. I wouldn’t have been heartbroken if she’d ended up under a paw, but it was just as well I wouldn’t have to explain that to the cops on top of everything else. So far, I’d only spotted one car with a rotating light on its top, probably Norwich or Waters or both. I expected more sirens in, oh, maybe a minute tops.
Most of what was left of the warehouse exploded as Tawny grew to my size, too. Despite the expected snarl, she looked dazed, swaying unsteadily, like the damage from my growth had done a number on her.
“Not a great move, Tawny. The whole city’s literally watching us.”
“Unless you give me that box, it’ll be a hell of a show.” She made a grab for it. I stepped back, quickly but carefully, managing not to destroy anything else.
“And you don’t think the cops’ll be going straight to you, asking what’s in the box?”
“If you’re not alive to share your opinion, I can say whatever I want. I’m going to be the hero that stopped you.”
It wasn’t a good plan on her part, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t work. I was trying to think of a response when an overwhelming roar came from behind me—not the roar of a predator, but the roar of the surf, the thunder of a tidal wave.
I turned as much as I could without losing sight of Tawny, although she’d turned, too. We both gaped at what we saw, but I’m pretty sure I gaped more.
Melanie, the otter, had just pulled herself out of the water, destroying most of Pier 23 in the process. The streets around her paws were flooding as water cascaded off her body—her very nude body. And as huge as Tawny and I both were, we were both barely at her chest level.
She started walking toward us, slowly but purposefully, parked cars crumpling like tin cans under her paws. “Give her the box, Nora.”