Big Trouble

Episode 19

Arilin Thorferra

When I knocked on the front door of Starling Studios, Lori the mink answered again. Her eyes widened when she saw me, then narrowed. “You! You got a lot of…nerve…” She trailed off as she saw Norwich and Waters standing behind me.

“You need to take us to Bob, Lori.”

“I…” She bit her lip. “I’ll go get him.”

She started to turn, but Waters stepped forward, quicker than I’d thought he could move, and took her arm. “Take us there, ma’am.”

She swallowed, leading us out toward the pool area. “Don’t blow your cool when we get outside,” I murmured to the cops.

“What makes you think we would…” Norwich stopped just outside and stared. Annie, the mouse, was walking by—a good fifty feet away, and a good hundred feet tall.

Norwich’s voice got higher-pitched than I’d ever heard it. “Holy shit, they’re all over!” The cheetah and the vixens I’d seen before were both there, too. Starling sat at the bar, in his customary silk robe, chattering at the stag bartender.

“Come on.” I stepped ahead of the gaping flatfoots, keeping pace with the mink.

Starling turned as we approached, giving Lori a smile. Then he saw me and the cops; his face fell.

“Cheer up, Starling. I’m not going to swallow you alive, like your silent partner would have. The one you were willing to kill to get away from.”

He looked down.

Norwich crossed his arms. “You ready to explain this, Mallory?”

“Blackmailing Lambert was Bob’s idea, but it wasn’t the usual side gig. He wanted this money for himself. His name’s on the studio, but she’d started running the show.”

“But she’s just a model,” Waters protested.

Starling shook his head. “She’s got more of a head for numbers than I do. I thought I was just letting her help. But I was letting her take over.” He looked back at me. “How’d you know?”

“You weren’t sharing the blackmail money you were collecting with Tawny. And after seeing her in action, I realized ‘Bob’s first rule’ wasn’t the joke you made it out to be.” I spread my hands. “When you found out Lambert was married to your ex, you saw an escape.

“But you didn’t expect Elsa to show up here, at your studio, trying to track down just which giantess Edgar had been with. I don’t know what you told her or what she told you, but you must have figured she wouldn’t let it go.”

He lifted his brows, trying to gin up a shocked face. “You think I killed her.”

“I know you did, Bob. It was the paperclips.”

His brow furrowed. Norwich gave me a quizzical look.

“The bent ones, on the desk in your office. I thought you might have a nervous habit, but you’re just bad at picking locks, and didn’t realize those were evidence. The clip that was snapped in half broke off in the Lambert’s front door.”

Starling closed his eyes, nodding slightly.

Shaking his head, Norwich pulled out a pair of handcuffs, walking behind the fox.

Waters squinted. “How did you know that?”

“Detective work. You two should try it sometime. It’s fun.”

Norwich gave me a sullen glare, starting to march Starling away, Waters right behind.

“You’re welcome,” I called after them.

The cops gave me a month’s worth of browbeating in just three days. What did I know, when did I know it, how did I know it, and oh yes, who was going to pay for damages. I don’t think either Norwich or Waters put in a good word for me, but the anti-trafficking group at the FBI did. One day, they’ll ask me to return the favor. Apparently, they’d already had Cross in their sights, but even after all this, there wasn’t enough hard evidence to bring him down. They told me they got the trafficking victims back home, though. I hope they weren’t lying.

Tawny Thorne went to a holding center for size-shifters a few hundreds of miles away, charged with trafficking, extortion, first-degree murder for Freddy Waterman, and third-degree for the guy she stepped on at the warehouse. They didn’t know if the charge for Waterman would stick due to the lack of evidence, but she hung herself before her trial started. At least that was the official story.

They charged Bob Starling with Elsa’s murder and multiple counts of extortion. If he’d gotten another judge, he might have faced the chair, but they went soft on him, only thirty years. I wasn’t certain I’d seen the judge in Starling’s file cabinet, but I had my suspicions.

It took nearly a week for a judge to order Edgar Lambert’s release. I didn’t hear a peep from him, so I just went about what business I had, which wasn’t much. Getting photographed knocking over buildings in a giant brawl gets you a lot of creepy lookie-loos, but not many real cases.

Next spring, though, Lambert called out of the blue—and asked me to meet him at Starling Studios. When I asked why, he got suspiciously coy.

The house hadn’t changed much, but the gate sign had. Starling’s name and signature had been replaced by brush script reading EMPYREAN STUDIOS. I pushed inside and rang the doorbell.

Once again, Lori the mink answered. This time, though, Lambert stood behind her. “Miss Mallory!” He beamed at me. Lori didn’t.

“Mr. Lambert.”

“Please, call me Edgar.” He waved me in.

The room past the foyer still had the wet bar, but the spartan modern furniture was gone, replaced by more comfortable, turn of the century pieces. A lot like the sitting room at the Lambert mansion. The sofas were different, but I’m sure I recognized several tables and at least one chair.

“What do you think?”

I looked back at the fox. “You bought the place.”

“I did.” He smiled, self-conscious. “The place I had with Elsa just… I couldn’t stay there. While I can’t say I love all of Mr. Starling’s, ah, particular style, it’s not only a nice home in a nice neighborhood…” He ran a hand through his hair. “Without this business running, some of the ladies would have lost all their income.”

“I’m sure they’re all deeply grateful to you.”

He cleared his throat, looking away.

“The business is photography, isn’t it? As far as I know, you’re not a pro-level shutterbug.”

“No.” He gestured to the mink. “But Miss Lori, it turns out, is.”

“I was Bob’s assistant for years. He called me his secretary, but I did a lot more than secretarial work.”

“Yeah, I know how that goes, trust me.”

She finally afforded me a slight smile.

Edgar motioned me to follow him toward the office. “As far as I know, you weren’t paid for anything after Elsa’s passing, for the work you did to find who really killed her. To free me.”

I lifted my brows again. “Are you offering to hire me retroactively?”

He headed behind the desk, pulling out a ledger and scribbling on a check. “You can think of it that way if you like. I just consider it to be well-earned gratitude.” He handed me the check.

I looked at it and blinked rapidly. “Two thousand? Mr. Lambert, I can’t—”

“Edgar. And you can. Please.”

I swallowed, tucking the check into my inner vest pocket. That was considerably more than I’d ever made in a year. “Thank you.”

He shook my hand warmly. “You have the run of the mansion here, any time you want to visit.”

I half-smiled. “At any size?”

Edgar’s ears colored again. “Of course.”

“I’d like to go out to the pool, maybe have a drink.”

He and Lori escorted me there, then went back into the house. As I expected, a few giantesses lounged around, some I’d seen before, some I hadn’t. I didn’t see Melanie—until I looked to the bar. She waved me over. First time I’d seen her with clothes on, although the two-piece blue bikini barely qualified.

“You put in a good word for me with the cops, didn’t you?” she said as I sat down by her.

“I tried. They don’t put a lot of weight on what I say.”

“You said something right. I got off with a suspended sentence and community service after smashing a dozen cars and a building or two.”

When the bartender looked at me, I pointed at Melanie’s daiquiri. The stag nodded with a grin. “Well, you didn’t just save my life, you helped break up a trafficking ring. And you kept our favorite detectives, Tweedledum and Tweedledummer, from ending up in a paw print.”

She smirked and sipped her drink. “So two out of three.” Then she frowned. “You think Tawny really hung herself?”

“Do you?” The bartender slid my drink over to me. I flashed him a smile.

She shook her head. “No. But I don’t know if I think it’s a cover story for a murder or for a jailbreak.”

I took a sip of the drink. “That’ll help me sleep better at night.” I frowned, looking into the glass. “She said my old boss Bud Millings trusted me and it got him killed. I never got a chance to ask what she meant by that.”

“She just wanted to rattle you.”

“Maybe.” I took another sip, then set the glass down. “So what do you do now?”

“I don’t know. ‘Sexy monster’ doesn’t get you many job offers, and Edgar hasn’t said he’s going to keep giving us allowances the way Bob did.” She smiled wanly. “We kept Bob kind of scared of us, but he liked it that way.”

“Smart money says Edgar does, too.”

“Hopefully.” She grinned, showing off her fangs. “I try to keep him from ever being sure if I’m kidding about eating him.”

“I wasn’t sure if you were kidding about eating me.”

She leaned close. “The offer’s still open,” she murmured.

I didn’t draw away. It was as easy to get lost in her eyes now as it was when they dwarfed my body. “You’re big trouble, aren’t you, Melanie.”

“I absolutely am, Nora.”

I brought my arms up around her, and pressed my lips to hers.