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