Sunday, August 16, 2015

Broken Record - Chapter 1 - "Wish I Weren't Here"

                I was coming to the end of a spectacular warm season.  The beaches had been clean and the perfect warmth, the skies were clear, and I was more fit and rested than I had been in years.  It seemed a shame that I had to return home to Layafflr City.  Still, a rented waterfront nest was expensive.  Now that my latest client was no longer footing my bills, it wasn’t feasible to stick around.

                I had only two major regrets from the last job.  The more important one was that I hadn’t met any potential mates on my ‘vacation’, not even any play-partners.  I think I’m a pretty impressive Vislin male, physically: good scales, clean beak, all my claws, plenty of youthful muscle still hanging in there.  I might not be the best bet for stability – self-employed in a dangerous field, still packless after several years, and considered a rogue element by my local constabulary – but old Stchvk ought to be good enough for a warm season romance, right?  I was out among the resorts, wealthy enough (at least, while the pay lasted), well-dressed (I splurged a bit on rented formal armor)… eh, those coastal females know a poser when they see one.

                The other problem I had was that I hadn’t actually finished the job.  I was hired to look into a theft.  The client never actually said what was stolen; he just described its container.  I was supposed to track down the whatever-it-was and tell him who took it.  “Him”, in this case, was Jevvettr, a Hrotata hotel magnate, hence the swanky beachfront property.  I got to pretend to be a well-heeled guest while I examined the building, Jevvettr’s penthouse suite (from which the whatever disappeared), the surrounding neighborhood, and whatever other lead I thought worthwhile.  I wasn’t even trying to stretch out my free stay; the trail was just too thin to make much progress, but thick enough to keep me searching and my patron paying.
                I ended up narrowing down the field of culprits, but never pointed the claw at any single suspect.  After two weeks, Jevvettr got tired of waiting and cut me loose.  At this point, on the maglev ride home, the names of the suspects were already getting fuzzy.  I hadn’t been too personally invested in the case, anyway.  Stealing a whatever wasn’t the same as murder or cheating on a mate.  It was a crime, sure, but a rich furball like Jevvettr can buy a new whatever.  Frost, he hadn’t even been too excited about losing the thing.  It was more like he was funding my search as a formality, maybe as a show to convince his insurer that he hadn’t broken or lost the thing.
                If that was the case, it must have been worth quite a few credits.  In addition to the lost income from my suite, my host allowed me a free meal each day (had to eat in the restaurant to impress the other high rollers) and an allowance for clothing.  The total cost in expenses was way more than my retainer.  Jevvettr was spared my full fee, since I hadn’t closed the case.
                I really wish I cared more.  Maybe the luxury had dulled my usual instincts.  Usually, I get pretty uptight about lawbreaking, even little nonviolent stuff.  I also, typically, have more professional pride.  This job wouldn’t go in the ‘lose’ column – for one thing, I was alive and not even wounded - but it wasn’t a win, either.
                Eh, call it a much-deserved vacation.  My moral meter apparently considered me not on the job.  I could get uptight about the next murder, assault or whatever case I was hired to solve next.  Come to think of it, I hadn’t really closed my other previous case, had I…?
                I drifted off in the midst of my self-recriminations.  By the time I roused from sleep, the maglev was minutes away from Layafflr City.  Home again, to the aggressive flora and equally aggressive fauna - mostly the sapients - of my chosen territory.
                I disembarked at Kchzzkt Station, the main maglev depot for Layafflr City.  Since my home-slash-office is located in deepest downtown Layafflr, where the maglev lines don’t penetrate, I was obliged to take an aircar for the last few kilometers.  I might have walked it, but my ankles were acting up from an old work injury.  Besides, I still had some credits banked from Jevvettr’s retainer.  I didn’t need my usual desperate thrift.
               Not that I had much luggage to haul.  One small case held everything I needed to take on vacation: my best armor, a cheap grooming kit, my only slightly less cheap compad, and my best friend, Rtrtr the heat projector.  Sapients on most worlds would be horrified that I brought a weapon on public transport, much less a weapon without proper registration.  Frost that, I’m a Vislin on a Great Family world.  Moreover, this is ChtkKttp, and only the poor, stupid, young or powerful travel here unarmed.  I’m a decently intelligent adult.  I’m not wealthy or important enough to have guards.  As I mentioned, I don’t have a pack for protection.  I am pretty poor, but I was better off when I bought Rtrtr.
                Well, I was better off financially.  I suppose I also had the advantages of a pack back then.  No one would mess with me when pack Vzrrk was around.  When they weren’t around, I still needed Rtrtr.  We weren’t known well enough to intimidate anyone with just our pack name... not like pack Tktkrrf or herd Torbur.  Those are names to back away from, apologizing profusely.  Nope, Vzrrk was small-time, vicious but unestablished.
                We wanted respect, of course, even if that meant notoriety and infamy rather than reverence.  We were criminals, thieves and smugglers and hackers and confidence tricksters.  Pack Vzrrk really wanted to be a mercenary outfit, but none of us were trained enough (or threatening enough) to manage as guards or a strike team.  Maybe Tklth, I suppose, but she balanced talent with crazy.  Instead, we mostly handled undercover stuff: breaking and entering, transportation, illegal credit transfers, rigged lotteries, and so forth.  Jobs with a low probability of violent contact.
               I’d like to think we were smart.  Most of what we did took finesse and cleverness.  I’m a natural sneak and good at finding ways in and out of secure facilities, talents that come in handy in my current profession.  Tklth was a great driver and a good urban scout, the best for flying a getaway aircar.  Rsspkz was our beak, good at thinking like a mark and persuading them out of their keys or credit codes.  I learned a lot from them both.  There were two others in the pack, Fzpktk and Vztrrp, each with their knacks, each with reasons to be approached by the pack, each with reasons to accept our bond.
               As I rode the public aircar, I wondered why I was reminiscing so hard.  Sure, I was passing some of our old hangouts, but our actual territory had been several kilometers further south.  A little more industrial compared to my current neighborhood, a little further from the wild border forest surrounding Layafflr.  Just seeing the sights shouldn’t have me rewinding my whole sordid past.  I had flown past this region dozens of times between then and now.  It never triggered so many memories before.
               I was pretty sure I wasn’t dying, so my life wasn’t uploading before process termination.  Maybe my thoughts had something to do with my recent travel.  I hadn’t had a vacation like that in a long time.  I rarely ever left Layafflr City, to tell the truth.  It was possible that the change of scenery, followed by this trip home, was enough to draw out the years I’d prefer to forget.
               Frost, the nature of the crime – a sneak theft of a valuable but probably unsellable bauble – smelled like something pack Vzrrk would pull.  I could have schemed a handful of ways to manage the same heist.  Which method the actual thief had used remained a mystery.  If I had worked that out, I might have clawed the culprit.
              Sadly, Jevvettr never trusted me enough to give me full access to his security systems, just its output: audiovisual recordings and access records.  Without key information about how the system worked and how it could be – how it was – circumvented, I was hunting without my tail.  I never saw the penthouse suite without a guard present, and those guards blocked any disassembly of the suite.  I couldn’t interrogate the automated systems, take apart the locks, pry up the carpet or even open the windows.  Jevvettr apparently expected me to scent out the doer using only surface scrutiny, social investigation and pure logic.
             Yeah, that happens… in detective fiction.  Real investigation means taking things apart.  Sometimes those things are evidence.  Sometimes those things are people.  I don’t just mean assault, although that happens from time to time.  I mean getting inside heads, checking stories, making people uncomfortable, and generally pushing hard to see what shakes loose or reveals a misalignment.  What I had learned since my gangster days were the lessons they teach constabulary detectives: how to interrogate both witnesses and suspects, how to rattle them, and how to avoid either provoking them to violence or having to apologize for your behavior.
             Those skills are useful, but they’re only half the package.  I’m better than a constabulary detective because I can do things they can’t and won’t do.  I can enter without a search warrant (ideally, when the resident isn’t home).  I can short-circuit an alarm system and make it spit out its logs or identify me as a friend.  If I wanted, I could have overridden my aircar and sent it flying through the window of my obnoxious upstairs neighbor.  Just because modern Vislin can stay awake all night doesn’t mean we should, and even if we do, it should involve sitting quietly, not stomping across the floor like a thorn-faced Taratumm!
              I was home.  Just seeing the place again was bringing up more memories.  At least now they were recent, petty thoughts, not the weighty dungpiles of the distant past.  I dismounted the aircar at my building's front door.  The 'car lifted away to rejoin its own kind at the neighborhood docking station.  I stood still a moment, looking around.
              Not much had changed after a season away.  The same kind of garbage still cluttered the corners and alleys, refreshed daily despite the best efforts of automated cleaners.  The same overgrowth still threatened to strangle the nearby buildings, although the fact that it hadn’t was a credit to the automated brush cutters.  None of my neighbors appeared, coming or going, so I couldn’t tell if anyone old had changed or anyone new had arrived.  It wasn’t exactly a neighborhood where you wanted to stand around outdoors, anyway.
             I decided to take my own subconscious advice and get inside.  That was a shame.  The weather was actually nice, and I hated to get out of the direct sunlight.  I couldn’t help comparing the climate between here and the coast.  It actually is cooler out there, with the ocean breeze, but the sun seems bigger and brighter.  You can bathe in it, covered fully in light during any daytime hour.  In the City, you only get indirect light except at certain hours of midday, when the sun is highest.  It might be hotter here, between the latitude and the pollution and the insulation, but it feels like artificial heat even when you’re actually outside.  So, yeah, I suppose I wasn’t missing much by retreating into my nest.
             The weight of urban life settled on my shoulders as I climbed the stairs to my apartment.  I hoped I wasn’t going to end up feeling more drained than rejuvenated by my time away.  I’d have to focus on the vacation as a bright memory – and a future reward, an incentive to work hard – to avoid being dragged down by the contrast between then and now.  Hey, maybe I should consider moving, opening up a practice on the coast?  Stchvk, beach detective.  I liked the sound, even if I was a little short for the first month’s rent on a trash bin down there.
             Speaking of trash bins, I opened the door to my spacious nest-slash-office-slash-shipping crate.  I stepped through and was just about to drop my travel case when I spotted an anomaly.  My keen detective senses picked up the big brown envelope sitting on a bare grey plasticrete floor.  Somebody must have slid the old-fashioned thing under my old-fashioned door.  How quaint.  Also, how suspicious.
             Anyone who wanted to get in touch with me could find the public listing for my compad.  I usually answered voice calls and read most of my text mail, particularly if they promised money coming to me rather than demanding money from me.  If people wanted to talk business without calling, they could stop by in person.  I had hours listed on my business profile.  Sometimes I even updated them to reflect my actual presence at home/office.  My place was reasonably secure, at least more secure than a physical letter.  There were cameras downstairs, but dropping off a letter would get you recorded just the same as visiting to talk.
             I could think of some alternate possibilities.  Maybe the mysterious scribe hid their identity by sending a courier.  Maybe the visitor didn’t know I was out of town (I didn’t advertise that fact), didn’t have my number, and then decided to go buy an envelope and paper and leave me a note rather than stop by at another time.  Or, maybe they had the stationary already on hand.  Or maybe a Ningyo dropped it off through folded space.  Lots of things were possible, many of them stupid.
            I was being stupid, theorizing before I had any information.  I doubted that the envelope was dangerous.  Nobody I knew of hated me enough to go shopping for biological weapons or deadly nanotech.  A cursory lift and pat-down convinced me that no spring-loaded monofilament blades would shoot out when I opened the letter.
           It was just a brown paper envelope with a yellow sheet of paper inside.  There was a brief message, signed at the bottom.
           Yeah, the only thing dangerous about this message was the message itself and its consequences.  I read:
"Stchvk- I know we parted on bad terms, but I hope some attachment remains.  After Rsspkz went to prison, I tried to stay out of trouble.  I found a good mate, trained for a real job, even started thinking about laying eggs.  Seems like trouble follows me.  My mate is dead.  The constables don't know who did it, but they're starting to suspect me.  I don't know who to ask for help.  If I'm seen talking to you, they'll connect us to the old pack, and I really won't get a fair hearing.  I might never find out who really killed Vzktkk.  Worse, I might go to prison.  You know he's waiting for me there.  Please help.  You're all I have left, but I know you're also good.  I'll be at the lounge at Tk Kzztkrt every rest day, working.  Come in for a drink and we can talk without raising suspicion.  I'm sure we'll recognize one another.  I remember you well.  I hope you have some good memories of me, still.  -Pkstzk"                                                                               
           Kktkrz’ oversized ovipositor, of course I remembered Pkstzk!  If she hadn’t been Rsspkz’ intended mate, I would have been courting her myself.  She knew it, too.  Now she was playing on that attraction to beg for help.

           She had only avoided prison time the same way I had: by ditching the pack when the temperature dropped.  I didn’t blame her for the same reason I didn’t count her among pack Vzrrk.  She wasn’t part of the operation.  She never actually participated in any of our criminal activities.  She was Rsspkz’ mate, but otherwise she just hung around, looked good, and spent his money.  She knew what was happening and was an accessory, legally, but her claws were clean otherwise.

            Maybe she wasn’t playing any angle.  It was possible she’d found an honest mate and just ran into bad luck this time.  Maybe she did think of me fondly, and her pretty words weren’t just calculated flirtation.  Frost, I wished I could believe that.  I hated having to be cynical about every sapient I met.

            Unfortunately, that cynicism was too often justified.  I had to allow for all possibilities, virtue and villainy included.  While I didn’t want to be played for a sucker, I also didn’t want to push away a genuinely innocent client.  At least I could hope she was a paying client.  I’d need one of those again, too soon.

            But should I take this job?  She was right about one thing: us being seen together would not help her criminal case.  Chill and scale rot, my public standing might be in trouble if we were connected through pack Vzrrk.  Even if I kept dodging criminal charges for my past actions, my detective license could get pulled if enough evidence piled up.  She had conveniently ignored that concern.

            Whether I owed her anything from our past… that was another question.  I suppose I owed Rsspkz something for staying quiet about his packmates.  He’d never opened his beak, that I knew of.  If he had, the constables had never linked me to any past crimes.  Then again, Rsspkz might want Pkstzk to go down for a murder.  He might blame her for abandoning him.  He might want her close by in prison, like she feared.  I could help him best - not to mention myself - by staying away from his ex-mate.

           World-blighting frost, for all I knew, Rsspkz might have arranged a hit on Pkstzk’s new mate!  Empty eggs!  Rot in the shell!  I should run far away from this case, but I couldn’t.  I had to find out more, precisely because it was so close to my scales.  At the least, I needed to know enough to protect myself.

           Solving a frosted murder would just be extra entrails on top of the meat.  Maybe I might even get paid.  Maybe I'd earn a little pre-mate play with Pkstzk…?

           NO!  Stupid gonads.  Freeze and crack.  I take you to the beach and you just go insane.

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