Monday, September 29, 2014

Bad Egg - Chapter 5 - "Quiet Morning"

               As predicted, I woke up miserable.  My shoulder and neck ached so badly that I squeaked like a hatchling as I tried to climb out of my nest bedding.  A few scales flaked off from that area, damaged so badly that they had died.  The skin underneath was bruised black.  I had similar bruises and tears along my back and tail, but none quite as severe.  I had to sacrifice my last few hoarded pain pills just to get moving.  Antibiotic, styptic salve ensured that my scrapes would heal cleanly.

                Another foray into the urban jungle was not advisable in this condition.  Unfortunately, I had already squandered a full day with little to show for it.  I had only two days left before a verdict was expected.  I decided to split the day between self-pity and self-abuse. 
For the first part, I would stay home and study up on the case.  Hopefully my brain wasn’t too badly damaged.  I needed to find something that would stick a couple of puzzle pieces together and show a pattern.  I didn’t have much time, so I needed a direction that would pay off immediately.  In my favor, there wasn’t any further need to go to court.  Much of the day there would be occupied by routine statements, mostly from witnesses establishing their various versions of events.  If I really needed to know more than could be gleaned from Shllokwa’s notes, I could tune in the proceedings on my compad. 
At some point, though, I couldn’t afford to continue sitting on my comfortable stump, nursing my wounds.  I’d have to venture out and do something.  Investigators only solve crimes while sitting at home, nibbling cakes, in intellectual fiction.  If this case could be cracked by compad, the custodians would already have swapped Grust for the real villain.  The second part of my day would involve the masochism of stalking the streets. 
The problem was: what should I do?  Starting another bar fight was off the list.  Once those drugs wore off, I’d be an easy mark for a Hrotata yearling.  I could do some interviewing, maybe scare up some new witnesses to stretch out the trial.  At best, though, the defense could only hope to drag out proceedings through the end of the third day, and that far only if the witnesses had something relevant to say. 
Nothing said that my interviews wouldn’t turn into physical confrontations, either.  If I stumbled onto the sapient responsible for Grust’s very bad night, I might rouse them to action.  I probably already had.  Hopefully, the second time around, I’d know who I was looking for and they wouldn’t have pawns around to throw at me.
                I noticed one discrepancy right away.  Neither side, defense or prosecution, had listed the bartender as a witness.  On my first read-through of the witness list, I had overlooked that omission.  After visiting the Thunder Bar, I was more attuned to the setting, plus now I had a description to match to the bare-bones docket.  Did I think she was my culprit?  Not really, but I knew better than to let instinct guide my hunt.  I popped off a message to Shllokwa to relay to the defense counsel, Ktlrsh.  I didn’t elaborate much on where I had gained my insight; she would undoubtedly figure that out soon enough.
                Immediately afterward, I reconsidered my ‘insight’.  Surely both sides had considered the bartender, at least as a present witness.  She owned the frosted scene of the crime!  Yet if that was the case, why exclude her?  Maybe they thought she would contribute little not otherwise known.  Technically speaking, the ‘crimes’ Grust was accused of happened outside, in the street.  Unless he had said, “Hey, I think I’m going to go outside and assault a Hrotata,” she couldn’t attest to much more than his liquid intake. 
Maybe she was too risky for one side or the other.  The prosecution might think she would bolster the defense’s position by describing all the opportunities someone had to dose Grust.  She might be sympathetic to one of her regulars, too.  The defense might consider her ability to describe the accused’s drinking habits as a negative.  She might also dredge up past fights and make their victim sound like a brawler.
Other on-scene witnesses were more exclusive to that specific night and less likely to be personally connected to Grust, with the exception of his Herd-mates.  Leafing through that list, I made another discovery: there had been a Hrotata present at the Thunder Bar.  The witness list gave only a name - Krrutoki - and contact information.  That was still enough to turn up a profile through the networks, including a picture.  I couldn’t be precisely sure, but he looked familiar enough.  He could have been the same spectator who watched my one-against-three death match the previous night.
The prosecution had summoned Krrutoki.  As a Hrotata, they probably assumed he could give an impartial retelling of earlier events at the Thunder Bar.  Maybe he was just an innocent bystander.  Or maybe he was a voyeur.  Maybe he liked to watch the dumb saurians mix it up for his entertainment.  I vaguely remembered him perking up when I got clobbered.  That impression wasn’t really worth a note to the defense.  This guy was already a problem for them, on the list for the other side, and there wasn’t much they could do about him.  Plus, I’d have to explain where my misgivings came from… again, not so proud of my earlier work.
The coincidence was worth a note to myself, though: another potential connection to trace.  I was doing great at finding overlooked elements in this case, but failing at turning them into usable proof.  At this point, something to create reasonable doubt would be valuable.  I wouldn’t manufacture false leads, but I didn’t mind some temporary confusion to slow down the trial until I could find the real solution. 
I went back and reviewed the timeline of the case.  Nothing new popped up there.  The order and timing of events matched what had been presented already.  What were missing were the events preceding Grust’s departure: the unrecorded events that caused his odd behavior.  I started a new notebook and listed my ideas again.
Drugs were still the top candidate.  Hallucinogens or maybe a really potent aphrodisiac?  Mental conditioning?  Conditioning required that the responsible party have access to Grust for some extended period prior to the event.  Again, the bar was the likely point of contact there.  That assumption was the only way I could reconcile the second incident at the same locale.  Then again, there could be multiple causes.  I might not be the only one working to obscure this case.
I could come up with all sorts of complicated conspiracies to explain the events as known.  Before I wandered off into some twisted mental maze, I needed to consider ‘simpler’, singular explanations.  Genetic manipulation?  Parasitic infestation?  Money? Grust might have been hired to threaten the victim and took the deal too far.  One or more of my assailants at the Thunder Bar could have been paid off to start a fight or else covering for the responsible party.  It wasn’t impossible for a Taratumm to frenzy at will, just very unlikely.  “Violently unstable stomper for hire,” wasn’t a job you could advertise publicly, but there were private buyers. 
Frost and a malfunctioning heat suit!  I couldn’t even consider means without tangling it up with motive.  Why would someone mess with Grust, or Herd Torbur, or Trrptet Thunder Bar, or whoever this crime was meant to harm? 
Wait.  I was still assuming that the victim was my client.  The victim might be the victim: the Hrotata still prone in intensive care.  What if he was the target all along?  That still left the second incident to explain, but it remained possible that I was the target in that case.  The Taratumm were just the assault weapon. 
I looked up what I had on the victim, Tharrliki.  According to his mate, Yavirrt, Tharrliki had no connection to Grust prior to the challenge.  Their Clan, Takerrl, had some remote links to Herd Torbur, but no notable business dealings.  Clan Takerrl was moderately prosperous, though a newcomer to ChtkKttp, having made their money among the newer Great Family colony worlds.  Tharrliki was first-generation local, both to the planet and to Layafflr City; his matron was an immigrant.  His mate was an ‘acquisition’ favored by the Clan matriarchy, a female with closer ties to the City’s political establishment.  Nothing exactly suspicious there, just the usual entrenchment of wealth into power.  I made a note to myself to research the mate’s background, but that seemed a less meaty trail than others.  I returned to focus on Tharrliki.
The victim’s proximity to Trrptet also appeared to be a matter of chance.  The couple, along with their Vislin bodyguards, had been shopping on the adjacent street.  One of the wrecked storefronts had apparently belonged to a moderately successful silversmith.  If I strained, I could call up a fuzzy memory of the place. 
After browsing the shiny trinkets there, the couple had decided to sample the local atmosphere, strolling toward the ornamental parks.  They bought some candied insects… strolled through the hedges… boring… boring… then were ready to leave when Grust approached.  The mate, Yavirrt, said they thought he was just drunk, maybe sick.  They felt sorry for what they assumed was a Herd-less, luckless sot, possibly reduced to beggary for train fare home.  Unlike a properly cautious resident, they let him get close enough to talk without allowing their bodyguards to block the way.  Even when Grust voiced his challenge, they were more confused than alarmed. 
Though it wasn’t in the testimony, I suspected that the well-off Hrotata couple were amused.  Maybe they had a laugh at the poor, dumb, pickled Taratumm.  Maybe not.  That could have been my prejudices talking, but really, why did they misread the situation so badly?  What happened was weird, true, but they should still have anticipated the possibility of getting robbed, not to mention plain old assault. 
Civilization doesn’t preclude occasional savagery; modern medicine doesn’t always spot mental illness.  Plenty of unpredictable, dangerous people can jump out at you through cracks in the urban façade.  In a place like Layafflr City, rapid growth and economic divides spread those cracks plenty wide.  I know this from first-claw experience.  Pile that up together along with organized crime, theft at every level, and the daily sins of those striving for dominance… let’s just say there’s plenty of work for the custodians.
Precious little of that workload comes to your noble narrating investigator, mind you.  Usually, the victims are dead or poor and the survivors are just happy to stay alive and avoid provoking their tormentors further.  It takes a rare combination of events to create clients with credit to spare, something to gain from spending it on my services, and the courage to seek help... along with a case not already solved by custodial detectives.  The corruption among the custodial forces is the main reason I can eke out a living doing what I do.  If the wronged party can’t outbid the bribes of their enemies, they can perhaps spend that budget on me, and buy a chance at justice.
Other types of cases that came to me were like this one: weird.  Cases where the custodians couldn’t or wouldn’t look deep enough to find the real causes.  “Grust of Herd Torbur is a violent degenerate” was a much easier explanation than, say, the experimentation of a mad social scientist in a slum neighborhood.  Yes, I wrote that one down.  Stranger events had already come to pass in Collective history.
Where was I?  Right, the flash point itself, the moment of violence.  Grust issued a slurred, formal challenge in a language neither Hrotata spoke.  When he got no satisfactory response, he bent double at the waist and smacked his bony, crested head into Tharrliki's forehead.  The medical examiner's report noted a fractured skull, intracranial bleeding, some minor neural damage, and spraining between the neck vertebrae.  Tharrliki was knocked out into a coma that took him three days to recover from.  He was still having trouble speaking as of that date.
The Hrotata mate’s account didn’t have much more to add after Tharrliki was attacked.  Grust struck, Tharrliki fell, Yavirrt dove to protect her mate, and her Vislin guards slashed at Grust to drive him back and sounded a general alarm.  They took some whacks for their trouble.  I could directly empathize with them.  From there, Grust was driven away, pursued by bystanders struggling to bring him under control.  The female’s perspective from then on was focused on protecting and escorting her mate back to safety and eventual medical care.  
Tharrliki, of course, would not be able to witness on his own behalf.  There was such a thing as too much efficiency.  In all likelihood, the two sides of the trial had probably agreed that they didn’t need Tharrliki’s account to make either of their cases.  He wasn’t likely to add anything to his mate’s testimony.  The guards weren’t being put on the stand, either.  They had submitted sworn statements which – no surprise – conformed to their employer’s account with perfect precision.  Kkkk, they’d swear an AI attacked Tharrliki, if his Clan paid their Pack enough and said Pack ordered them to corroborate the story.  I know my own species all too well.
So where did this leave me?   The remaining witnesses broke down into three groups: those who had been in the Thunder Bar earlier, those who were out in the street later, and those who were character witnesses for and against Grust.  I looked more closely at the latter category.  The defense’s notes indicated that both negative character witnesses were Taratumm with grudges against Herd Torbur.  Hopefully, they would be easily dismissed as biased. 
Reaffirming my suspicions of an outside agency, Grust had no prior criminal record, no previous assaults, and therefore no ‘prior victims’.  That didn’t mean he was a paragon of virtue.  He could have had minor charges dropped or expunged, particularly given Herd Torbur’s influence.  At the least, though, he shouldn’t be considered unstable.  The only real assets the prosecution had on their side were the flagrant and public nature of the crime, plus the lack of a competing explanation.
I couldn’t do much to debunk the known facts.  The testimonies were largely in agreement.  What I needed, apart from a comprehensive proof of causation, was a strong alternate theory.  It had to be stronger than the current defense, namely “drugs”. 
Right then, the biggest question I had was: Why that particular act?  Why challenge and attack anyone for a mate Grust had never met, much less a Hrotata?  Grust’s account was very specific about being aroused, albeit toward a hallucinatory Taratumm female.  Tharrliki’s mate agreed that Grust seemed very intent on her and very aggressive toward her partner.  That could be a side effect of something chemical, I supposed, but it might also be the intentional purpose of the influence.  ‘Aphrodisiac’ was rising on my list of causation.  Maybe the bartender had the ruts for Grust and tried to get him to reciprocate… then she somehow mistargeted his arousal?   Other patrons could have been triggered to come to her defense in the same way when I became a problem.   Looking back now, this all sounds dumb, but right then it gathered up more facts than any of my other knotty nets.
The main problem with that plot was that I didn’t believe it.  Besides the extent to which it stretched logic, the aphrodisiac scenario didn’t match with my impressions of the bartender.  Not that I thought she was innocent, necessarily, but she did exert herself in my defense, sort of.  Plus, I hadn’t gotten any sense that she was grieving for Grust’s plight.  She defended him, but in a general way, like any other patron.  So, she was either a villain and a great actor or else innocent in this case.
All this deduction was great, but I was deducting myself out of ideas.  So far, the one gap that really gaped was the specificity of the victim.  There were lots of better, more ‘threatening’ targets for Grust to attack, either in the bar or on the street.  There were better reasons to attack a couple of well-off Hrotata slumming in his neighborhood… but if you were going to do that, why not take down their guards first?  The consensus of testimony said that Grust left the bar, walked half a block over, and went on a direct approach to Tharrliki.  What was the attraction?
I came to a decision.  I needed to find out more about the injured party.  The case notes, corroborated by several media reports, said that Yavirrt and the rest of Clan Takerrl were maintaining a vigil at Tharrliki’s hospital bed.  That hospital was where I needed to be.  I might learn something from the Clan, given the right approach.  Maybe there was some link even his family didn’t know; they might be willing to explore the matter with me.  I had some ideas about how to gain their cooperation… better ideas than I had tried before.
My traumatized, screaming flesh gave me incentive to be more clever this time.  I stood back up with some difficulty and risked a second dose of pain pills.  I was even getting low on those.  I might have considered picking up another bottle, except that I was going to have to wager my remaining savings on transportation.  There was no way I could walk to the hospital and back, not in this condition.  Today's gamble had to pay off or else I’d be broke and still no closer to cracking this case.
While looking up the hospital’s information and checking my credit balance on my compad, I put the court proceedings on in a separate window.  The summary said that Yavirrt had already testified, along with Grust’s Herdmates, Ktuck and Veruth, and most of the random patrons of the Thunder Bar.  I left that feed running while I prepared to venture out, holstering Rtrtr and applying a bandage to my shoulder.  My stiff, slightly too small, second-hand suit of formal armor was actually helpful in that it limited my range of motion.  I'd have some problems moving quickly - or breathing deeply - but it might reduce the agony from my torn shoulder.
The next witness caught my attention: an expert witness for the prosecution, the custodial forensic scientist reporting on evidence collected from the scene and from Grust.  I watched with a sinking stomach as the simple questions were ticked off.  Was there any evidence of psychoactive chemicals in the defendant?  No.  Any evidence of said chemicals or residues in the containers seized from Trrptet Thunder Bar?  No.  Anything related found on the furnishings, in the garbage bins, or anywhere on the premises?  No, the Bar was apparently the cleanest recreational facility within kilometers.  It contained not a trace of anything more mind-altering than good old alcohol, vinegar, and the usual trace narcotics found in exotic liquors both local and imported. 
The defense’s “drugs made him do it” argument was pretty well sunk.  It was still a possibility, sure.  It wasn’t impossible to introduce a chemical that did its dirty work, then metabolized into something untraceable.  It also wasn’t impossible to bribe a custodial functionary.  Either explanation suggested a level of expert manipulation well beyond anything the court would believe… without reason.
I needed to get out there and find that reason.  Maybe that reason would lead me backwards into the cause of Grust's behavior.  The way things stood at that moment, Grust was going to rot in the cages, and I was going to starve to death.  Both tragedies taken together outweighed my desire to stay home and sleep off my aches. 
I have to admit, either one separately might not have been enough.

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