Sunday, October 4, 2015

Broken Record - Chapter 3 - "Window Shopping"

           I staggered through my usual morning routine with my usual lack of grace.  Dust and polish the scales; heat up artificial broth and choke it down; check messages; brush beak; strap on armor.  The whole time, I kept checking myself for signs of illness.  These abrupt, long naps weren’t normal for me.  Should I see a doctor?

           I felt fatigued, but that was normal in the morning.  Eyes usual color, scales no yellower than last I checked, claw beds and beak clean, no unexpected aches.  For me, that's peak health.  I decided, again, to explain my sleep schedule anomalies as post-vacation adjustment.  Self-diagnosis was cheaper than a medical scan and less likely to turn up other nasty surprises.

           Avoiding the problem, I settled in to work on more immediate troubles.  Pkstzk.  I’d see her tomorrow.  What could I do today?  It was tempting to visit a constabulary office, but after some thought, I ruled out that idea.  I could get access to unclassified records using my private investigator badge.  The problem was, those records would get flagged and someone would start asking questions about what case I was working.

           Layafflr City had an officially ‘cooperative’ relationship between PIs and constabulary detectives.  Private investigators could take risks and pursue leads the constables legally couldn’t, since we lacked any power to abuse.  If our investigations panned out, the constables would overlook any illegal searches, break-ins, or other nonviolent offenses committed in the course of a case.  If a PI screwed up, well, they were still liable criminally and financially for any damages.  The constables could take credit for our successes and avoid blame for our mistakes; a perfect setup.  Suckers like me accepted this arrangement because, one, we still got paid if the client was satisfied, and two, a few of us actually wanted to see justice done.

           In return for being the disposable protective sheath of law enforcement, a licensed private investigator received a few privileges with the constabulary, beyond a (provisionally) blind eye.  We could read official criminal reports, up to a point.  Anything considered confidential could be blocked or redacted.  Ironically, the details most likely to be omitted were usually the secrets necessary to solve a case.  In practice, any PI worth their badge could probably deduce the missing info from context.  It just meant a little extra brain- or legwork.

           Technically, a PI could call for constabulary presence, including an arrest, provided they had sufficient cause.  Again, in practice, the speed of response tended to vary with the quality of that investigator’s past work and the number and rank of their friends among the city’s authorities.  I had been fortunate not to make many enemies among the rank and file, but I didn’t have many friends in power, either.  An influential pack would have helped there, go figure.  Barring that asset, I could have tried cozying up to the big crests in town, parlaying my past successes into private work and a reputation for quality.  I had the talent.

           Problem was, I didn’t want that much attention.  Getting too friendly with someone important meant that their handlers would start doing background checks.  I knew what they’d find in my past.  Better to remain a relatively unknown, struggling jobber than risk being outed as a criminal.  Worse than being retroactively arrested, I’d be blacklisted and lose my license.  After that, I’d be lucky to get work cleaning sonic wildlife repellers at the city borders.  Did you know, some of the smarter wildlife will endure the pain long enough to defecate on the emitters?

           The other privileges of an investigator mostly had to do with access: entry to crime scenes, permission to interrogate witnesses and suspects, and some opportunity to view evidence.  We couldn’t actually collect evidence, not legally, nor were the statements or confessions made to us legally admissible.  Any PI who botched a case by mishandling evidence or otherwise overstepping their rights would be prosecuted for obstruction of justice.  He or she would deserve it, too.  There were times I’d like to have more latitude to pursue a case, but if my zeal meant a thief or murderer went free on a technicality, all my work would be wasted.

           I wasn’t the type to shoot a suspect and cry “self-defense” later.  I knew a couple of those kinds.  They thought of themselves more as hunters than detectives.  They stalked their prey until it got spooked and ran… or fought.  I thought of them as killers with excuses, not much better than the crooks they ‘investigated’.

           What options did all this leave for me?  Legwork, actually, and lots of it.  First off, I could canvas the area where Pkstzk’s mate, Vzktkk, had been blasted.  The residents had already been questioned by the constabulary, so my investigation might seem redundant.  I’d have to deal with people asking why I couldn’t just read their previous statements.  Answer: I was looking for something the constables missed.  After all, if they could have caught the shooter based purely on the original investigation, he’d already be in prison, right?

           Just seeing the neighborhood would be useful later, to give context to other information.  Plus, I could really use the exercise.  At the least, I’d get a nice long walk.  If things got exciting, I might get to climb (into a window) or run (for my life).  There’s some optimism.  Even my worst cases improve my physical fitness.

           What I didn’t need right now was hand-to-hand combat practice.  I’d rather not waste time mending broken bones… again.  I strapped on Rtrtr’s holster and threw a rain jacket over the heater and my battered everyday armor.  Was it supposed to rain today?  Layafflr City had about a fifty-fifty chance of rain on any given day, so good odds.  I probably wouldn’t look too strange as long as the skies weren’t clear.

           As I stepped out of my nest, I went through a checklist of potential second stops.  Anyone who seemed too reluctant to answer my questions about Vzktkk could be worth further scrutiny.  I could talk to people who knew the dead guy: friends, family, work associates, etc.  If this wasn’t a random shooting, I might turn up ideas about who might want him dead.  If nothing else, his acquaintances might know if he seemed nervous before he died, possibly afraid for his life.  Had he done anything lately that seemed strange, outside of his usual routine?

           For that matter, I was assuming the place where he was found dead was on his usual travel route.  That might or might not be true.  I had to get some background on Vzktkk just to determine his baseline, before I started mining for deviancies.

           The murder scene was deep downtown, toward the central, wealthier districts of Layafflr City.  I decided to conserve my energy and rent an aircar.  Twice in three days… posh.  The smell of the not-recently-sanitized car reminded me that I could always have spent more.  The windows could have used a wipedown, too; I could see only about half of the details as the city sped by on every side.

           Apparently, I had done all my quality thinking on the stairs of my building.  The aircar ride passed without any new insights.  I needed some input before I could plan any further ahead.

           The ‘car deposited me at a quiet corner on the outskirts of Isstravil, the borough I had requested.  Traffic got tight further in; otherwise I would have opted for a destination closer to my target.  Aircars had lower priority than private vehicles, no surprise, but even mass public transit outranked the little one-seaters.  I’m no city planner; I’m sure the scheme makes sense at some level.  It’s just inconvenient when your nest is far outside the mass transit grid.

           So, I still had to walk a few blocks.  I spent the time getting reacquainted with Isstravil’s architecture and amenities.  It was an expensive neighborhood to live in, though not yet priced out of reach for middle-class workers.  Teachers, engineers, business managers, the people who did most of the intellectual work of Layafflr tended to like this area.  Some were just one promotion away from the cleaner, trendier hub... most were one dismissal away from my neighborhood in the overgrown rim.

           The shopping wasn’t bad, either.  If I could spare the transit cost, I might come here more often for groceries.  I thought briefly about looking for armor repairs, then chastised myself for already trying to spend my little bit of savings.  How about saving something for lunches?  Not to mention the cost of a drink when I went to see Pkstzk?  Ugh, there were just so many possible ways to drop credits.

           Finally I found the street I was looking for: Kzk Tsstkt, just off the 25th Ring Road.  There were no helpful signs to indicate the exact spot of Vzktkk’s death.  The crime scene tape had been removed.  Any scorch marks from the laser had already been scrubbed away.  There might or might not have been any blood; no way to tell, now.

           I chose a likely spot and turned in a circle, taking in the surroundings.  A snack shop was at the corner I had just turned down.  Next door, a compad showroom offered showings and comm contracts.  If either was open, the employees would have heard a shot.  Laser weapons could be absolutely silent when fired, but the pop of superheated blood and flesh was usually audible, not to mention cracking concrete or brick if the beam strayed off its target.

           There were some side alleys: one near the compad store, one further down on the opposite side.  Those hidey-holes are the classic choice of muggers, so I checked them out.  Both were shallow, barely three meters back, giving access to a side door and trash bins.  High steel fences cut this side off from the roads opposite.  At the least, a shooter would have to climb those fences or go down to the corners to leave the street.  I didn’t see any obvious claw marks on the metal or in the alley walls.

           There were apartments on the upper levels, all up and down this stretch.  I could try the residents and see what they knew.  That presumed they were present at the time of the shooting, still at home right now, and willing to talk.  The odds of hitting all three were low, but better than null.

           I also noticed a closed storefront on the opposite side of the street from the open businesses.  The sign indicated it had once been an importer/exporter of ‘exotic pets’.  No wonder it went bust.  The fauna of Spore would be tricky to domesticate and about half were toxic to the majority of carbon-based sapients.  Even keeping one as a curiosity would be dangerous and expensive.  By a similar token, anything you wanted to import would be costly to keep fed and would have to be kept strictly indoors, or risk being poisoned or eaten by the local wildlife.  Stupid, but there was a market for stupid if someone considered it fashionable.

           The closed store struck me as a likely spot for a shooter.  Its sealed windows and door made it like a hunter’s blind.  All you needed was a few centimeters’ gap to sight and fire a laser.  If the glass was clear enough, you could even fire through it without much loss of beam coherence.

           I walked over to the pet store and examined it more closely.  The window shutters looked tight, reinforced plastic with no gaps.  The door was only locked, not shuttered, and it did have glass panes high up, forming a design on the upper lintel.  It did look like one of the panels was cleaner than the others.  That would be an awkward shooting position even if the shooter was a Taratumm… maybe someone standing on a chair?  It made some sense.  A high shot was advantageous for several reasons.  A firing angle above eye level would hide the laser from the target before it was too late.  Onlookers wouldn’t see the light easily, either.  If this was the origin, the constables might have overlooked it, especially if they were still focused on the ‘random criminal act’ angle.

           Why was I focused on the ‘non-random’ angle, myself?  I had defaulted to thinking of this as a planned murder from the beginning.  Was I just inclined to see every death as intentional, every crime as part of a deeper, more sinister scheme?  I knew better.  Most crimes across time and space were based on simple opportunity, not extensive plotting, and here and now, in Layafflr City, was no different.

           I'm not paranoid, in general terms.  However, regarding this specific crime, I was definitely looking for a plot.  Because of the connection to my old pack, I couldn’t help poking around for some hidden thread tying back to them.  If this death was just a mugging gone bad... great, nothing further to worry about.  But if it did have some significance that the second mate of my former packmate’s former mate had been killed, I needed to know what that meant.

           I was either going to thank Pkstzk for warning me about this case or scream at her for getting me involved, depending on how it turned out.

           Just for the sake of trying, I checked the door of the closed shop and confirmed that it was locked.  If the constables had checked it out, they had locked up afterwards.  More likely, it had gone untouched since Vzktkk’s death.  Was there another way in?  I surveyed the building and noticed that the apartment above the store was dark and had a ‘for sale’ sign in one window.  Probably connected.  Trying the next door down, I found it also locked.  I could call the owner and ask for access, I supposed.

           I could also unlock either door myself.  The apartment door’s lock was simpler than the store’s, which required a magnetic swipe card.  I’d have to go home for better tools to override that type of security.  The apartment had only a mechanical bolt lock on its outer entry.  Those were easy.

           My only problem was finding a few minutes unobserved to pick the lock.  There was too much foot traffic in the area.  I had been observed examining the building already.  If I set off an alarm or was seen breaking in, the constables would have no problem linking me to the illegal entry.  Since the place was closed and empty, I wouldn’t be charged with much, but the arrest would lead to those uncomfortable questions I was trying to avoid.

           When you can’t avoid attention, one solution is to draw more attention.  Specifically, make yourself so obvious and obnoxious that people have to react or else ignore you.

           I started pounding on the apartment door, shouting, “Open up!  I know you’re in there, deadbeat!  You’re five cycles behind, so you either hand me credits today or I’m starting eviction right now!  I continued with more hammering and a stream of well-seasoned curses.

           As I had hoped, people started giving the block a wide berth.  Some looked more closely for a moment, but as my simulated fury grew, they moved on.  Thank goodness no lawyers – real or amateur – decided to intervene on the ‘tenant’s’ behalf.  Like I suspected, nobody in this kind of neighborhood wanted to get involved.

           Once my cover was established, I went to work.  Muttering threats the whole time, I worked the lock as fast as I could.  I did my best to look like a disgruntled building owner forced to break into his own property.  If anyone thought about it more carefully, they would have asked why the owner didn’t have his own key, but nobody was confronting me right now.

           Finally, the lock gave up and let me in.  I hurried into the inner hallway.  To my relief, the entryway did have a second door opening onto the side of the pet store.  A staircase curved up and away to the upstairs apartment.  It had looked like a combined unit from the outside; I was glad to be right.

           The inner door to the pet store also had a magnetic card lock.  I skipped the niceties and melted that off with my heater.  Hopefully, the damage wouldn’t cause problems with any future criminal proceedings related to this case.  Once the door and frame had cooled enough, I pulled open the door and stepped into the store’s showroom.

           It stank worse than I had expected.  The smell of dung from various species still hung heavy in the air.  Old rotted meat – an all-too-familiar stink – mingled with some kind of decaying vegetation, probably a neglected bag of herbivore feed.  Over top were odors from two different eras: the medieval aromas of fur, feathers, and straw and the modern reeks of ozone and oil.

           This place had been abandoned with little preparation and left untouched for cycles, maybe years afterward.  No wonder it couldn’t find a buyer.

           After my offended nostrils had stopped spasming, I made my way to the front of the room.  Enough light came in through the windowed door frame to light up that half of the store.  It was a big room, flanked by wide plastic and metal shelves that had once held animal cages.  Pegboards along the upper half of the walls still had metal hangars attached, with price tags for treats, leashes, and the other miscellany of pet ownership.  I could just make out a door in the back, which probably led to a storeroom or possibly an office space.

           At the front was a cashier’s stand, with sockets for a secure network connection.  This place was old.  Wireless network security in Layafflr City was now close to Collective standards, but at one point, the infrastructure hadn’t yet been established.  Some old-timers still liked to see the direct, physical links in use.

           The stand was just high enough that someone could stand atop it and get a line through the lintel window to the street.  I looked closely, hoping to see foot- or handprints in the dust.  There was no dust on the counter.  There was plenty of debris on the floor and dust on the side tables.  The counter had been wiped clean.  Now I knew I was on the right track, even if the shooter had been careful not to leave any evidence.

           The crud on the floor didn’t show any footprints, either.  That debris could have been swept around, or the shooter could have just been careful where he stepped.  I wondered about pad prints.  Pulling out my compad, I did a high-magnification sweep of the counter.  There were a few lines of body oil along the edge, but nothing patterned.  I swabbed up as much as I could get.  It would be too much to hope for genetic material – and I didn’t have the funds or friends necessary for a full workup anyway – but I could at least identify the origin species from secretions.

           Given the need for a boost up, I could reasonably rule out Taratumm.  Probably not Hrotata, either, as they would have to stretch uncomfortably to shoot even from that height.  It was best to be certain, though.  I couldn’t just assume Vislin.  There were other sapients of the right height in the City, including not a few Humans and maybe one or two Zig deviant enough to contract for assassination.

           Which was still a stupid thought.  Why would someone pay to kill a nobody like Vzktkk?  It didn’t look like that kind of professional job…

           I froze and shifted my attention as a sound intruded into my thoughts.  A scratching noise was coming from the back of the store.  I realized I had been hearing it earlier, more quietly, and dismissed it as the usual sounds of neighboring tenants or muffled traffic noise.  Now I could tell it was definitely inside this building.  It was getting louder and closer.

           Something bumped against the room’s back door.  The door moved.  It wasn’t locked, as I had supposed, not even closed tightly.

           I pulled out Rtrtr again.  The heater was still slightly warm from its recent use.  I called out, “Hey, someone in there?  Come out quietly, I’m armed.”

           In response, I heard a low hiss.  Okay, not sapient.  Probably not even intelligent.  Had something living been left behind with this store’s stock?  If so, how had it survived?

           As if to answer my question, the door banged open and a snarling, drooling mass of scaled muscle shot out.  The creature bolted toward me, fanged mouth forward.  I barely had time to fire before it reached me.

           Fortunately, I did fire and took out most of that dangerous mouth in my first shot.  Perhaps the beast had intended to leap for my throat, but was impeded by shock.  Its body skidded forward on momentum and collided with my legs.  The remaining sharp teeth bounced off my leather greaves, their jaws lacking any strength to puncture.

          I kicked the flailing body aside and put a second shot into its hindquarters, backpedaling toward the side door at the same time.  If it could still chase me after those injuries, I wanted a barrier between us.

          Two heater shots seemed to have taken the fight out of it.  The quadrupedal reptilian, about a third of my size, dropped to its flank on the floor, heaving and whining in pain.  Besides my blasts to its head and rear leg, it had other visible injuries: bites around its front shoulders and belly, plus scales missing in several places, as if from claw wounds.  It was also thin, emaciated from hunger rather than naturally lean.  All these damages made it hard to identify at first.  After a while, I realized that it was a rktpk, a sometimes-prey sometimes-pet animal from the home world, Hrotata Prime.  Totally ordinary there, at least in the countryside, but ‘exotic’ here on an outer colony world.

          Rktpk could be aggressive, but only if trained… or very hungry.  They were usually a little round around the belly.  This one had been starving.  It actually ought to be dead.  What had it been eating before now?  I dreaded checking the back rooms, but now I had no choice.

          I decided that the kinder option was to end its suffering.  I finished off the rktpk with a final heater blast to its head.  Maybe it knew I was helping; it didn’t struggle away when I stepped close.

          Afterward, I stalked back to the open rear door.  With growing anger, I recognized that a creature that big was never going to be left behind by accident.  Someone had, at the least, deliberately left the poor beast locked inside.  Maybe they intended to come back but were unavoidably delayed.  Maybe they had died first.  If they just forgot or didn’t care… that was another crusade for another time, but I’d make sure it stayed on my list.

          There was another possibility, one that started to look more likely as I searched the back of the store.  There were bags of kibble in a back storeroom, long since chewed apart and emptied.  There were bones from leftover meat, eaten and gnawed for the marrow.  There were also two carcasses of what I suspected were other rktpkk, mostly eaten but more recently slain.  That was the source of the rotten meat smell.  After the food ran out, the creatures had probably turned on one another.

          Someone had been feeding them, then stopped.  Why would you leave three animals alone in a building like this, hungry and isolated?  If you couldn’t sell them, why not release them to the wild?  Spore wasn’t an ideal world for Hrotata Prime wildlife, but they might manage.

          The other possibility was exactly what had just happened.  You kept starving animals locked in a building if you wanted them to attack anyone who came inside.  If you were setting a trap, you put them behind a closed but unlocked door.

          Was the trap for me, personally?  Or was it intended for anyone who entered this building?  Maybe if all three rktpkk had still been alive, I might have been overwhelmed.  That suggested that I had arrived later than the miscreant intended.  Maybe they had expected the constables to check the place out first.  Then again, it was possible they misjudged how much food would be needed to keep three animals satisfied up to the right date.

          None of the possibilities were pleasant.  I really hoped that this attack was related to Vzktkk’s shooter, so that I could punish both culprits at once.  It was too bad the legal punishment wouldn’t involve locking them in this foul place without food.  It was too bad I wasn’t cruel enough to give them that justice, myself.

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