Sunday, October 5, 2014

Bad Egg - Chapter 6 - "Visiting Hours"

            To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was doing.  Like Grust, I couldn’t blame the drugs for my confusion.  The pain pills were making my thoughts a little fuzzy, but that impairment was minor compared to the potential distraction of the pain they were blocking.  Besides, neither my suffering nor its treatment was the problem.  The problem was that I had only a quarter of a plan about how to proceed. 

Once I got to the right place, I could probably get someone talking.  But what, exactly, was the right place?  My research hadn’t turned up the room number for the Hrotata victim, Tharrliki.  No surprise there.  Medical privacy was carefully guarded even when the patient wasn’t the victim in a globally televised assault case.  I was fortunate that the media had managed to scent out the name of the right hospital.  That name came as no surprise: any of Layafflr City’s affluent afflicted would be found at Vaktrri Medical.
So, say I got to the right floor… who would I find there?  If there was more than one member of Clan Takerrl present, which would be my preferred target?  What was my backup plan, if my initial tactic failed?
All this was presuming I didn’t get barred from entry, or thrown out after entry, or arrested…  The main blessing of being narcotized was that I wasn’t as worried about everything that could go wrong. 
Aside from that neural glazing, I also had confidence in my own abilities.  I could probably bluff or sneak my way in.  I could bypass any security that didn’t involve a biometric or voice ID.  If I rubbed one of the Hrotata relatives the wrong way, I could talk their fur back down.
Yet even if I successfully navigated to the right person at the right place, what would I learn?  Was all this effort even going to pay off?  What, exactly, was I looking for? 
I didn’t know.  That was the point.  This trip was another fishing expedition.  Ideally, it wouldn’t end with me losing more scales.  Even better, it might turn up a connection between the various, seemingly random pieces of this case.  I was hoping for a lucky bite somewhere among the less trawled reaches of the affair. 
My preferred prey would be the victim’s mate, Yavirrt.  At a minimum, she had a front seat perspective on the assault itself, plus the events preceding and following it.  I might shake something useful out of her memory.  She would also know the most about Tharrliki’s personal background, his associations, maybe his enemies.  If this attack had somehow been aimed at Tharrliki – like the second attack had been aimed at me – then figuring out why might lead me to the who.
The first steps were hard enough.  Literally, it required an act of will to step out of my apartment, descend the stairs, and exit to the street.  From there, I had a couple blocks’ walk to the nearest aircar shuttle depot.  The exertion helped itself by stretching my stiff, abused muscles.  By the time I got to the depot, I almost had my full range of motion back.  By ‘pampering’ myself with a ride to the hospital, I would tighten back up and have to stretch out all over again.  It figured.
The aircar was necessary, first, to prevent me from collapsing from exhaustion, which would happen if I tried to walk the whole way.  I also needed to travel fast and alone.  After last night’s escapade, there was a good chance that custodians would be watching for someone matching my description.  No reason to make their search any easier by popping up on mass public transit.  It was probably too soon for them to make an ID and track me by my credit expenditures… I hoped.  I’d find out soon enough if I was wrong; my aircar would be diverted to the nearest custodial station for collection.  Again, I was confident that I could argue my way out of charges for provocation and assault, but that would waste time, blow my cover on this case, and possibly require a court appearance to get everything cleared up.  I didn’t have any time to spare at the moment.
Custodial tardiness was on my side.  I had a quiet, direct ride to Vaktrri Medical.  The sculpted stone exterior of the ten-story monolith was a façade over a durable frame of Tsrrk-Tor steel and plastic, along with some fancier meta-materials.  The hospital had ductless homeostasis, meaning that it regulated its own temperature and ventilation without requiring contact with the external air.  It was near the city core and required very minimal sonics or charged fields to keep its surface clear.   Inside, the height of medical technology – or at least, the height of what could be imported to ChtkKttp – maintained the health of the city’s better insured citizens.  I had been inside before, but only on business.  My ‘health plan’ was the minimum protection legislated for the registered citizens of Layafflr City.  That meant my needs had to be administered through my local hospital, which was as proportionally shabby as the neighborhood it served. 
I could have stopped off in the emergency room back there for injections that would relieve my pain, stimulate the healing of my torn tissues, and even ensure the proper regrowth of my lost scales.  The billing could be deferred until I had enough credit to seize.  The problem was, I didn’t have all day to wait for diagnosis… and I couldn’t risk the inevitable questions about how I had received those injuries.  I was pretty obviously an assault case and the med-techs would probably identify the assailant as Taratumm in short order.  Even my cleanup wouldn’t have removed every trace of genetic material, and the size and type of the injuries pointed to a heavy blunt object about the size of a stomper’s fist.  They couldn’t legally hold me at the hospital, but they’d have the custodians asking uncomfortable questions much faster.
I caught the irony of entering a hospital, wounded, for reasons other than my own care.  I caught that irony and forced it to work for me.  When I sprawled out of the aircar at the doors of Vaktrri, I played myself off as a wounded patient coming in for attention.  I waved off the attentions of a pair of Vislin and Taratumm attendants that offered a supporting arm each.  I gave them my best act as a grumpy, insistently self-sufficient old loner.  They backed off, as intended.  They weren’t going to go out of their way to help a rude, snappish patient who could walk under his own power. 
My next challenge was to find where Tharrliki was being treated, without being caught out as unauthorized.  I wasn’t cleared to have that information and I certainly wasn’t cleared to enter a treatment floor, much less the patient’s room.  Those were guidelines meant to protect the patient’s safety and privacy, so I didn’t feel bad about breaking the rules.  I wasn’t doing him any harm.  Frost, I might just be helping him avoid an as-yet-unspecified threat.  Self-justifications firmly in claw, I stalked the lower halls of the medical center, looking for an unguarded compad or terminal.
There are a few tricks you learn in the course of a career in investigations.  At the hospital, I made use of a tidbit scavenged from a more senior colleague while helping him out on a fraud case.  I’m not concerned about sharing this with you; even if you warned the medical establishment for some reason, sapient nature would ensure that this particular security hole would resurface. 
Basically, any big institution that uses shared electronic records will create multiple accounts for secure log-in.  Inevitably, a few accounts will get created as dummies, for testing or by duplication while making the real employee accounts.  If you know the software used for that system, you might have some idea what default values are used for the dummy accounts.  Not all of them are useful, mind you: most such accounts have minimal security clearance.  But if you stumble onto a testing account, or a dummy for an administrator, you can sometimes work backwards into useful access. 
Finding those unguarded accounts is a matter of background knowledge plus access plus time.  I had the knowledge, provided Vaktrri hadn’t changed info-tech providers in the last couple of years.  It pays to swap war stories with my compatriots in electronic snooping.  Still, those default codes were only useful if I was inside the hospital itself.  A remote login would have required defeating an extra layer of security.  I wasn’t savvy enough to accomplish that kind of hack.  Now that I was inside, I just needed to find an entry point that wasn’t being watched.
I was spared the trouble of creating a distraction.  The favorable winds blew one up for me.  A pair of injured Vislin were wheeled into the emergency room, struggling and hissing.  I guessed that there had been a transport accident or possibly a firefight, judging from the number of staff needed to tend to their injuries.  When one of the attendants turned away to help restrain the maddened patients, I scrambled with my best possible speed to borrow his terminal.
I had to try three different default codes before gaining access, but my first search for ‘Tharrliki’ was immediately successful.  Even so, I barely had time to locate and memorize his room number before someone looked up and spotted me tapping at the keys. 
“Hey, that’s a private system.  What are you doing?” shouted a Hrotata female, in the register of a matriarch used to being obeyed.  I guessed she was probably a head nurse or some such petty authority.
“Tttt, sorry.  Left my compad at the hotel.  Wanted to check the scores,” I shouted in my best off-worlder accent.  Between my overly formal armor and the implication that I was a clueless colonist, she seemed to accept that I was just dumb and not conniving. 
“Use the public terminals in the lobby,” she chided, gesturing with her free hand.  The other held a coil of intravenous tubing.  I hated to take advantage of her haste, but couldn’t waste the opportunity. 
“Sorry, sorry,” I groveled, acknowledging my grievous misstep.  A couple more claw-taps logged me out of the system, drawing a stern glare from the matron.  Still, when I backed away from the terminal, she had more pressing issues to deal with, and returned to her work. 
I would have liked to read Tharrliki’s records more thoroughly, but had to be satisfied with the necessary minimum.  My target was in Room 1018, top floor, private room.  Easy enough.  I just had to get to a lift and up to a private floor without being challenged. 
Who can travel within a hospital unopposed?  Medical staff, of course, but I wasn’t going to be able to pass as a doctor or attendant... not even by stealing a lab coat.  Patients, but for that I’d need an admissions tag, you know, the little radio tracking chip that reminds the hospital who you are.  I’d have to take the third option: pose as a cleared visitor.  A little sleight of hand gained me a ‘guest’ tag from the nurses’ station.  Hopefully, I’d get to the 10th floor before anyone noticed that no registration had been created for my borrowed pass.  I looped the cord of the guest tag over my head and became a legitimate visitor… at least to the casual observer.
The chip inside, swiped over the lift panel, earned me access to the 10th floor.  That would never have worked if I was trying to get to a patient under custodial guard.  Tharrliki's floor must have minimal security.
And why would Tharrliki be under protection?  As far as the official accounts read, he was an unlucky bystander, a victim of happenstance.  There was no reason to think he might be attacked again.  I had to wonder if that were true.  If Grust had been aimed at Tharrliki, how was he set off?  How was he targeted?  Was he actually in on the plot?  The ‘drunk and frenzying’ excuse could be a smokescreen aimed at… what, exactly?  It didn’t really help an assassin to use a cover story that would still get him convicted anyway.  If Grust had hoped to escape blame using the ‘drugged’ defense, that obviously wasn’t well planned either. 
These thoughts occupied my ride up.  Nine floors later, the lift doors opened onto a pleasant if tediously beige corridor.  Unlike the temperate lobby, the atmospherically sealed patient floor was slightly chilly and smelled unnervingly neutral.  The environment might be conducive to physical health but it might eventually erode patients’ mental health.  If there’s anything the sapients of the Great Family truly have in common, it’s our love of strong and varied sensation... and warmth. 
There was no reason to waste my time surveying the bland scenery.  I loped purposefully into the hall, aimed toward the room number I had discovered for Tharrliki.  Left turn out of the lift, left turn again to block 15-20, then three rooms down…
I was stopped two doors short of my goal.  I wasn’t caught by staff, though.  Instead, a Hrotata stepped out of the wing’s guest lounge.  It was a red-gold female with darker auburn streaks, head down as she slid a miniature compad into her leather shoulder bag.  She wore a simple pale blue jumpsuit that could have either been budget cheap or fashionably expensive, depending on the actual fabric.  Silver rings with sapphires dangled from her ear-flaps.  I didn’t recognize her until she looked up.  The shape and pattern of her face matched a memory from my survey of Herd Torbur’s case notes: Yavirrt, Tharrliki’s mate.  She must have come back to his bedside immediately after testifying in court that day.
Perfect!  This was one of the best witnesses I could hope to talk to, better than questioning Tharrliki himself.  I just had to convince her to talk to me.  I’d finally get the chance to test the brilliant approach I’d been cooking up all day.  Hopefully, it would play better than my act at Trrptet Thunder Bar.
“Madame Yavirrt,” I began, rushing forward to catch her before she could move far from the lounge, “may I have a word?  My name is Stchvk.”
She looked bewildered.  It was evident that she hadn’t had much sleep in the last few days.  Her topaz eyes took a moment to focus on me, lids too heavy to open fully even if she perceived me as a threat. 
“Who…?” she began.
“Stchvk Investigations.  I’m looking into the attack on your mate,” I continued, intentionally pressing forward both physically and verbally.  I wanted her off-balance, before any preconceptions set in.  I hated using her distressed condition to my advantage but couldn’t afford to be considerate.
“Oh?  I’ve already talked to the detective and our Clan representive, not to mention testified publicly.  What else is there?  Who…?” she tried to ask again.
“I’m representing Herd Torbur,” I admitted, pausing to let her jump into my trap.
As expected, her expression hardened and she showed teeth as her lip lifted in a snarl.  “I have nothing to say to them.  Direct all inquiries to our Clan…” she started to bark.  
I cut her off with a low bow of abasement, curling my claws under, and saying, “I beg your indulgence.  I am not here to defend Grust nor ask your Clan’s forgiveness.  I am actually not a publicly declared asset.  My purpose is to determine if Grust will remain Herd or should be banished from Torbur.”
As I had intended, she stilled to listen and then looked troubled as I finished my explanation.  Banishment was a terrible punishment, even if Grust had killed Tharrliki.  It essentially meant that the Herd wished to end all association with the former member; it was an implicit acknowledgement not only of guilt, but an accusation of deep flaws that made the individual unsuitable for family membership. 
You have to do some really heinous, anti-social things to get banished.  Among other things, it means very little likelihood of reproduction, probable poverty, minimal social support, and permanent stigma.  It’s very rare for a banished member of any Great Family group to be accepted again into any new group, with the exception of renegade families. 
The latter aren’t a great alternative.  Most of their members are obviously already considered unfit by one group and usually have only that abandonment in common.  At best, members get some social interaction but are still branded undesirable.  At worst, members probably will be involved in some criminal enterprise, willingly or not.  After all, these are sapients with low public acceptance and little else to lose in terms of their reputations.  A packless Vislin like me is considered less unsavory than a member of a renegade family.  At least I had left my pack willingly.  My pack mates had also disqualified themselves from banishing me, by being notoriously unpleasant.  I looked like the noble abstainer, by comparison. 
Banishment is hardest on a Taratumm.  Isolated, they tend to develop mental problems that typically culminate in suicide or self-destructive behavior amounting to the same thing.  That is, presuming they weren’t already on a bad path to begin with. 
Most Herds, finding a member guilty of a crime, will at least stand by them, continuing to plead innocence or at least trying to explain the indiscretion.  In severe cases, they might admit guilt but then ‘encourage’ the wayward member to seek help, in the form of psychiatric care, expiation, or whatever is necessary to avert future problems.  In theory, it’s a great force for social correction.  In reality, most Herds just ignore whatever misdeeds don’t tarnish their reputation too badly or hurt those within the same Herd.  Not coincidentally, betraying members of your own Herd is probably the number one way to get banished.  As I've said, that's great for enforcing loyalty but really lousy for an objective legal system.
For Herd Torbur to be considering banishing Grust, he would have to be suspected of something particularly nasty and incurable (or not worth the trouble to cure).  They weren’t, of course.  I was lying outright.  But the suggestion that a worse fate than imprisonment might await her lover’s attacker gave Yavirrt reason to stop, think, and talk to me.  I had hoped she would either be vindictive enough to share lurid details of the attack and ensure Grust’s damnation… or else minimally compassionate enough to offer moderating evidence to prevent Grust’s condemnation.
It seemed to be the latter.  She continued to look stunned and took a blessed step backwards. 
I prompted, “If I could just have a word, in private, I have only a few questions that would help the Herd make their decision.”
She nodded and stepped further back into the lounge, “I understand.  I’ll answer what I can.  What he did… it was terrible.  Inexcusable.  But I hate to think he couldn’t be helped.”
“That’s what I need to find out.  I’ve already reviewed your testimony, both to the custodians and to the court,” I lied again.  “What I’m looking for is something further, most likely something you didn’t know was important.”
She continued to look perplexed, “Like what?  I’m certain I mentioned everything I could remember.” 
I sat down on one of the low couches which worked as compromise seating for the three morphologies of Great Family sapients.  She took my social cue and sat as well, although staying perched on the edge of her couch on the opposite side of the room.
“First,” I ticked off, “he might have been encouraged by others.  Or perhaps others knew what he intended and failed to restrain him.  Did anyone exit the Thunder Bar not long before or shortly after Grust?”
She twitched her tail in negation.  “No, his Herd mates didn’t come out until after the… attack.  I said so.”
“All right, I wasn’t sure the detective had been that thorough.  Still, someone could have stayed inside after setting him off.  Can I borrow your compad?  I’d like to go through some of the witnesses and see if you recognize anyone.  There were a few bystanders that weren’t called by the court, after all.”
She hesitated but eventually gave in.  I may not be a social scientist, but I’m a student of the mind by necessity.  By involving her personally in my questioning, by asking her for small favors, I was encouraging her to think of me favorably.  We were on the same side now, despite my employment by the ‘other side’. 
I kept the compad angled toward her as I logged in to my remote storage and brought up the files from Herd Torbur.  The fact that I had access to their case notes helped to validate my cover story.  I flipped through the obvious roster, first with all the Taratumm that had been at the scene of the crime.  She recognized Grust’s Herd mates, Veruth and Ktuck, both from their belated efforts to stop Grust and from their appearances in court.  The others were mysteries to her.  I described the bartender, making up the name, ‘Kmeth’, to make it sound as if I had researched her background, also.  Yavirrt had no familiarity with her.  The bartender had never stepped outside, after all. 
I went through the small number of Vislin who had been present, with the same results.  Other than her own Clan-assigned bodyguards, Yavirrt had never seen any of the Vislin before or during the assault, only long afterward, in court. 
I was actually impressed with Clan Takerrl’s integrity.  They could have briefed Yavirrt thoroughly about the case before her court appearance, ensuring that her testimony caused maximum damage to Grust’s case.  Certainly, her Clan could manage almost as thorough an investigation as Herd Torbur was financing.  Granted, they already might have done so… in which case Madame Yavirrt was a brilliant actor.  She would have to be expertly faking both extreme fatigue and extensive ignorance of the case.  I doubted I could be fooled so completely otherwise.
Now, I might sound like I’m promoting myself as a smooth talking master of urban espionage here, with all sorts of tools to dig data out of unlikely cracks.  That’s only partially true.  I do have some useful skills, gleaned through simple necessity, hard experience, a few generous tutors, a decent childhood education, and some self-study.  Some of my success comes from luck.  I have botched a number of cases.  In this case, I was doing things quick and dirty, sacrificing stealth and secrecy in favor of a higher likelihood and faster rate of success. 
For example, I imagine you picked up on my trail at the hospital.  Maybe the throwaway login I used to find Tharrliki flagged some search for suspicious activity.  Maybe Yavirrt talked to someone afterward who raised the alarm.  Frost, maybe the custodians’ report on my mess at the Thunder Bar tipped you off.  Whatever it was, I couldn’t worry about being noticed working, as long as the trackers didn’t catch me until after I had exonerated Grust and earned my payday.  If I did my job well, Herd Torbur might even defend me against any criminal charges racked up along the way.  I hated the thought, but not so much as to refuse their help.
One of the lucky leaps that kept me ahead of you came when I finished the list of witnesses.  The last entries were about the Hrotata present.  Yavirrt knew the shopkeeper she had met before but verified that she hadn't seen him again after leaving his store.  She didn’t recognize the various passers-by who had fled Grust’s rampage later.  But rrrr, did she bristle when I showed her a picture of Krrutoki: the gawker who had watched me getting bludgeoned last night.  He had also been present at Trrptet Thunder Bar the night Grust blew a fuse.
Apparently, he was also a familiar face to Yavirrt.  She explained, “I know Krrutoki.  He lives in that neighborhood… where I used to live until Mother was elected district Councilor.  We grew up together.  I didn’t realize he was there that night.  I suppose it makes sense.  He likes that block.  I just didn’t know he’d be interested in the Thunder Bar.”
My nostrils were quivering with a growing scent.  “You know him from childhood?  That definitely was not in any of the official reports.  Krrutoki didn’t mention it.”
“I didn’t realize he was a witness.  I’m surprised he didn’t say he knew me.  Or maybe I’m not surprised.  He might still be angry.”
I restrained the urge to shake the already traumatized Hrotata female.  “Angry?  About what?”
She shook herself out of reverie and unconsciously licked her paw to start grooming.  More Hrotata spit.  I avoided pointing out her stress reaction and tried to keep her focused on the questions. 
After a moment’s pause to slick down her cheek fur, she answered, “About Tharrliki.  About Clan Takerrl.  He had thought we might be mated and courted me.  My birth Clan had other ideas and introduced me to Tharrliki.  We’re a good match and not just for practical reasons; we really complement each other well.  It is true that becoming a matron of a rising Clan like his benefits us both and my birth Clan by association.  I am blessed that I also found love.” 
She continued, the words spilling out now: “Krrutoki pressed the issue.  He wanted me to reject Tharrliki’s proposal and return to him.  I was young and indecisive.  Our Clans put pressure on him to leave me alone.  Clan Takerrl, especially, warned him off.  Tharrliki and I were mated, I moved into Clan Takerrl’s housing, and I lost touch with Krrutoki.  I thought it was best.  I had hoped he would find someone else, move on, and forget me as well.”
“But he didn’t,” I ventured, risking interruption to test a theory.
“No,” she admitted, “but he seemed to have given up trying to win me back, at least.  We talked again about a cycle ago.  Little things, casual things, like our work routine and dining preferences.  I heard from him last about six days ago.  He was telling me about a new silversmith’s shop that had opened in our old neighborhood.”
“How did he sound then?” I prompted.
She caught my meaning and began to look sharper, more alert.  Her tone when she answered was defensive, “Exactly the same: pleasant, calm, and open, like he just wanted to be friends again.  Let me be clear: Krrutoki has never since brought up his suit, never threatened me or Tharrliki, and is not associated with your Grust in any way.”
I lowered my head in agreeable submission, “I understand.  It seems unlikely to me as well.  You understand, though, that I must investigate every possibility.  Are you certain Krrutoki has no further connection to Grust?”
“Yes,” she spat back, automatically, but then reconsidered.  “Actually, I don’t know for certain.  I suppose they could know one another, if they went to the same bar.  It might be worth talking to Krrutoki in case he does know Grust as an acquaintance.”
She sighed, deflated again, “If I know him, Krrutoki will try to defend even a Taratumm if he considers him a friend.  He might be upset he couldn’t stop the stomper.”  Her use of the Vislin epithet for Taratumm was an odd slip for a Hrotata, probably reflecting her internal anger at her mate’s attacker. 
“Well, I can’t think of any other questions right now.  I really appreciate your time, Madame.”  I spoke quickly, ready to hurry away.  I had been fortunate to have this much time undetected at the hospital and was anxious to leave.  I likely could not obtain anything further from Tharrliki, given the nature of his injuries, and especially with his mate present.  I was also particularly anxious to talk to Krrutoki himself, given these new revelations.  Despite Yavirrt’s defense, I was growing increasingly convinced that a certain lovesick Hrotata had a key role in Grust’s actions… not to mention the bruises on my poor body. 
Also, my pain pills were wearing off.  I rose to my feet with considerable effort.  A twinge made me stagger forward, gasping.  Yavirrt rose hastily and steadied me.  Her wet paw made contact with my scales.  I had a few seconds to realize that we were soon going to be slightly better friends than earlier.  Or at least, I would be more her friend than I was before.  I had to get going before I started feeling bad about exploiting her.
“Thank you again, Madame Yavirrt.  Hazard of my job, I’m afraid.  Some people get offended when you ask certain questions and demonstrate their displeasure with over-enthusiastic ejections.”  I tried to sound wryly humorous.  To my own ears, I sounded pathetic and nervous.
“You’re welcome… Stchvk.  If you do talk to Krrutoki, please don’t mention that I told you about our history.  I’d like to keep him as a friend.”  Her words were diplomatic, but her gaze still had a sharpened edge that made me wary.  She was starting to suspect something. 
“Of course.  Very discreet.  Well, good day,” I concluded, turning and striding from the room.  I must have looked like I had something to run away from.  Again, haste left an obvious trail behind me. 
Don’t think I’m putting down your own investigative skills.  I’m sure finding me took some work, especially in this city, on this planet.  I could have made it much harder if I had been trying, that’s all.
At the time, though, I had a Hrotata to catch quick and grill on high heat.  Figuratively, of course.

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