I had a list of reasons to drop the Lambert case, but number one with a bullet was that as far as my cashbook was concerned, there was no Lambert case. Nobody would pay me a dime more to keep going.
I had three counter-arguments against my inner accountant, though. First, it didn’t look like anybody but me cared if Edgar was innocent, not even his lawyers. Second, something was happening at East-West they didn’t want a spotlight shined on. Third, I’m a contrary black cat bitch, and I couldn’t help digging in my heels after Sydney’s warning. Anyway, nobody was paying me to look into anything else yet this week. Maybe I could do something more noble than nursing whiskey sours.
I still didn’t know enough about just who’d been blackmailing Edgar. Joey Knives, obviously. That young fop Don Woodley was involved, too. The big question marks were the wolf Joey had met at East-West…and the rabbit model.
I didn’t want to get too close to the import company yet. If they really had Elsa killed to throw me off the trail, the only reason they didn’t go after me first was because they were worried Elsa had the resources and tenacity to keep digging with or without me. The minute they realized I was still digging without her, I’d have a giant target on my back.
So maybe I should follow up on the rabbit. I had nothing to go on besides her being a gorgeous size-shifter who was perfectly willing to use strangers as living sex toys—and my suspicion she was in on the blackmail. Pretty sweet deal, if you had the scruples of a septic tank.
What was it Joey had called her? I dug out my notes from the stakeout a few weeks ago and flipped through them. The “goddess of spring.” Hmm. Knives wasn’t the poetic type. That nickname came from somewhere.
I downed my coffee, locked up the office with a BACK SOON sign, and drove down toward a particular magazine shop, the kind that specialized in titles the one in my neighborhood would keep locked up if they sold them at all. With any luck, this shop would keep back issues, too.
The light inside was dim, and the smells were lonely and desperate. Squinting as my eyes readjusted, I approached the clerk, a portly chinchilla giving me a dumbfounded stare. Women weren’t his usual clientele. “You carry Goddess magazine?”
He blinked rapidly several times. “Uh. Yeah, we do.”
“Is it a quarterly?”
“You have any back issues?”
He puffed up with pride. “Of course, little lady.” That dissolved into a half-leer. “Little lady looking for big ladies, I guess. But hey, we get all types of weirdos. We’re as discreet as you can get.” He pointed. “Second aisle, toward the back.”
I headed over and paged through the issues. Each one was in a plain envelope, with tiny type giving the magazine name and date. Glancing to make sure the clerk wasn’t watching—cheerful messages like YOU OPEN IT, YOU BUY IT plastered the walls—I pulled out the most recent spring issue and flipped to the centerfold. Bingo: they called their centerfolds “goddesses.” This particular goddess was a dark-furred otter sprawled out on fishing docks, catching fishermen in a net. The staging was phonier than a friendly flatfoot, but if I was a fisherman, I might not be trying too hard not to get caught.
The spring issue before that had a wolf woman stalking in a forest. The year before that featured a tan rabbit woman, wreaking staged havoc in a meadow camp site. She looked even sexier than she did in the other photo I’d seen of her, and more convincingly menacing than either of the carnivores had.
“Hey hey!” The clerk was hurrying over. “Can’t you read the signs, little lady? If—”
“Keep your pants on. I’m buying it.” I slipped the magazine back in its wrapper, paid the grumpy chinchilla far too much, and headed back to the office.
Refilling my coffee, I flipped back to the centerfold and skimmed what passed for a bio. Tawny Thorne, aspiring actress with past work as a bouncer. It didn’t name the “small town” she lived in, but it named the region. Sure enough, she was a local. If the wannabe actress part was true, though, she’d want to be close to the studios, so not too far out of the city. And bouncer, not waitress, huh? I guess I’d already established she wasn’t shy about showing off her shifting. Or her anything else. Point was, a bouncer like that would be one people’d remember.
Maybe there was a faster way to find her than asking at gin joint after gin joint, though. I flipped back through the magazine looking for the photographer. Ah, there it was: Robert Starling.
I picked up the phone and dialed the operator. “Hi. I’m trying to find a photo studio in the area run by a Robert Starling.”
“I have a Starling Photography Studios,” she said after a moment. “Would you like me to put you through to them?”
“No, I just need the street address.” I got out my notebook and started scribbling. “Thanks.”
The address took me out of the city limits up into the foothills, the kind of neighborhood where the streets might as well be paved with newly minted money. I pulled up in front of a sleek art deco house, all glass and monochrome shades of stone, almost as big as the Lambert’s. A sign on the open gate read STARLING STUDIOS, with a painted “Bob Starling” signature under it. I wondered if I’d be half as impressed with Bob as he clearly was with himself. I parked on the side of the road and walked up the driveway to rap on the front door.
It took nearly a minute for a pretty young mink to answer. She was even more monochrome than the house, black négligée against white fur, outfit carelessly tied. She swept her gaze up and down my slacks and vest. “Are you supposed to be a bartender?”
“Give me a Boston shaker and I could be.”
She arched her brows, clearly unsure if that was a joke or not, then shrugged, waving me in. The living room past the entranceway was empty except for a few sofas that looked expensive and uncomfortable, matching tables, and a wet bar by the fireplace. “Help yourself to a drink, bartender.”
“Is Bob around?”
“He might be out by the pool with some of the other girls and a few guests.” The mink pointed again, toward a hallway on the far side. “You know the shoot’s not until tomorrow.”
“I heard it’s good to show up early.” If “some of the other girls” were already here, that seemed like a good bet.
She grinned, now like she thought I was in on some other joke I hadn’t heard yet. “He does like that.” She headed down a different hallway.
I headed through the opening she’d pointed to, through an already-open sliding glass door and past a curving wall of square glass bricks. The floor changed from tile to concrete, the curving wall ended at another curve, and I walked out onto the patio. And stopped dead, staring up. The “other girls” were giants.