Big Trouble

Episode 3

Arilin Thorferra

I’d figured Joey Knives’s photos would be racy, but this one broke a few speed records. A caramel-colored rabbit doe with a starlet pinup body was giving the “little” fox a lick—a full-body lick. If she’d been standing instead of stretched out by a lake, she’d have topped ninety feet. The shot captured Edgar’s head thrown back, tongue flopped out, expression equal parts primal terror and newfound religion.

“Of course,” Joey said blithely, “this is just the warm-up.” He slid the photo back into the envelope. “When she really gets going with you…” He lifted two fingers and moved them up and down, making a little “mmph!” noise on each downward thrust. “Man, how’d you only get a fractured rib?” He put that hand to his chest. “I’m shocked every time I see those two pictures.” He looked into the envelope. “Three.”

Eddie looked like he wanted to sink right through the floorboards. He turned away, speaking through clenched fangs. “My wife’s asked if I’ve been making any big purchases lately. She’s getting suspicious. What do you expect me to tell her?”

“You’re the high society layabout, genius. Tell her you need your allowance raised.” The weasel waggled the envelope. “Or we tell her how much you paid to be used as the goddess of spring’s chick stick. Your choice.”

Glowering, Edgar reached into his jacket’s inner pocket, glancing around—fortunately, not up—before sliding a stack of five crisp C-notes across the table.

Joey picked them up, making a show of counting them. “You’re short by one.”

The fox’s ears went flat again. “That’s the price we agreed on.”

“That’s the price before you tried to wiggle out of the deal. This is the new price. But I’m such a nice guy, I’ll let it slide this time.” He slipped the money into the envelope, stood up, and patted Eddie’s shoulder. “Catch ya in a fortnight, chick stick.”

As Joey walked away, Edgar trembled, then closed his eyes and knocked back the rest of his drink in one swig.

As of this moment, I could wrap this all up. I could tell Elsa that yes, Edgar had been with another woman, but no, he wasn’t stealing from his wife to spend on his mistress. She might not have any interest in finding out just who was blackmailing him over it. But I did, because God help me, I felt sorry for him. I don’t judge people on what boils their cabbage; any shifter who tells you they’ve never daydreamed about what they could do with someone at a convenient relative size is a flat-out liar, and more people than you probably imagine get their cranks turned wishing they were being used. Almost nobody, big or small, gets their wild fantasy turned into reality. Edgar did, only to have it used against him.

Joey wasn’t stupid, but he was a natural-born henchman. This was somebody else’s plan. I needed to get out of the club to follow him up the food chain, and needed to do it fast. Time to trade stealth for speed. I dashed to the far end of the shelf I was on and took a flying leap, growing back to my normal size mid-fall.

You ever hear that cats always land silently on their feet? It’s feline propaganda. I didn’t make much noise, but a few people looked over as I straightened up. Including Edgar. He blinked dumbly, looking confused.

“Just doing some floor cleaning there, sir,” I said, pointing at a table as if I’d just crawled out from under it.

He grunted, then resumed staring dolefully at his empty glass, as if trying to refill it through the power of angst. I slipped my flats back on, walked out of the room, and bolted toward the front entrance.

The maître d’, who’d been giving me the up-and-down every day I came in wearing the apron, held up a hand. “Staff at the Regency Club do not run through the premises! When were you hired? I don’t remember—”

I put on my best panicked dame voice. “Sir, sir, please. Did a weasel just leave here?”

The raccoon lowered his hand, brow furrowing in suspicion. “Why?”

“He left his wallet, and if he’s not too far ahead, I can catch up!”

He grimaced, then rolled his eyes. “Yes. Just now.” He waved imperiously. “Hurry, girl. But we’ll have words when you get back.”

I’d liked to have had a few words with him, all right, but I just nodded and sprinted out through the big double doors.

A Desoto sedan was just pulling out toward the driveway, and while I couldn’t get a clear look at the driver, he had Joey’s spindly build. I dove into my Pontiac, jammed it into gear, and took off as fast as I could without looking like I was trying for ramming speed. As soon as I got close enough to see it was Joey, I dropped back. I didn’t like tailing someone from that far away, but since I remembered him, if he got a good look through his rear window, he might remember me. This was the only route to get from the club back to the city, anyway.

If you’d ask me to bet on where we’d end up, I’d have put money down on the rough-and-tumble south side, and I’d have won. He turned down an alley between two warehouses a block up from Pier 23. I parked on the street and jogged over, peeking around the corner.

Joey had already gotten out of the car and walked up to the warehouse’s office door, exchanging words with a burly silver-haired wolf who’d just opened it. Both of them walked inside.

I waited a few seconds, then slunk down the alley myself. The door’s weathered sign read “East-West Global Imports.” That couldn’t sound more like a front without putting WE DO CRIMES in the name.

But it rang a faint bell. Maybe from one of Bud’s old court cases, although damned if I remembered which. Importing was the obvious cover for smuggling operations, but pretty solid for money laundering, too. Smugglers and money launderers usually avoided extortion rackets that didn’t connect to the business, though. Too much risk of attention.

And that was the whole thing here. The more I saw, the less run-of-the-mill this scam got. Eddie wasn’t an ordinary fish, because he wasn’t hooked with ordinary bait. Somebody knew about his giant fetish, and that somebody ratted him out to somebody behind this door. So I needed to know more about Edgar’s friends—and false friends—and learn just what East-West had their paws in.