Monday, October 19, 2015

Broken Record - Chapter 4 - "Neighborhood Watch"

          I left the pet store still fuming but lacking a target for my anger.  I wanted to start asking questions around the neighborhood, but my terrible mood might interfere with a friendly, casual approach.  My other problem was the lingering stench of rotting and burnt meat.  Nobody was going to welcome a furious, reeking Vislin into their home or business.

          Then again… they might want to answer his questions quickly and get him to leave faster.  I could work the outrage angle.  People tend to sympathize more with dead animals than they do with dead sapients.  I could work with what I had or else waste time cleaning up and calming down.

          I decided to start across the street with the two neighboring businesses.  They didn’t have an ideal view of the street where Vzktkk had been shot, but they might know a lot about the neighborhood.

           I was perversely hungry, even after dealing with the putrescent hell inside the pet store.  Old predatory instincts: I had killed, therefore it was time to eat.  That made the snack store a desirable first stop.  Besides, if I stank as badly as I suspected, a food shop would have extra incentive to get rid of me.

           A digital chime announced my entrance to the little store.  Like the pet store, the space was a throwback to early colonial times.  It had the same hard-wired register stand, for one thing.  It also had open shelves holding a variety of dry edible items, just aging away in the sun.  No coolers, no sealed bins, no hydrators, none of the amenities of a modern grocery or convenience store.  There was a refrigerator in the back, behind the counter, which was probably for any fresh foods.  There was also a compressed-gas pump for carbonated or nitrogenized beverages; a faded menu card above the dispenser offered various brews.  Everything was to-go, judging by the lack of tables or chairs in the room.  All the available space was taken up by displays.

           Most of the goods available were protein-based.  Dried insects would appeal to Hrotata clients, but there were plenty of Vislin who appreciated the texture.  Six kinds of jerked meat, plus processed cubes and sticks with a variety of spices, took up one entire wall.  Dried seaweed, fruits, and sugared grain squares were on the opposite side - segregated for the herbivores, I supposed – while dried nuts filled the middle of the space.  Candies, puffed grains, and roasted grubs, plus a few oddities I couldn’t identify, filled the odd spaces in-between.

           The proprietor was a middle-aged male Hrotata with dark fur just starting to lighten at the roots.  He popped up from behind the counter at the sound of my arrival.  He ran a sleeved paw across his eyes, giving away his drowsiness from sleep.  Quiet day in a quiet neighborhood.  I almost felt bad disturbing his peace.  I wondered if he had slept through my racket across the street; maybe he had slept through Vzktkk’s murder, too.

           “Good day!  How may I help you…” he began, on script, before his eyes informed his brain exactly who he was greeting.  I nodded, trying to at least look non-threatening.  My stained rain slicker and well-worn armor probably set me apart from his usual customers.  His nose caught up shortly afterward, informing him that I had been recently working with blood and burnt meat.  I wondered what conclusion he would reach after totaling up his senses.

           “I just came from across the street,” I started, conveying pure business with my words and expression.  “The pet trader?”

           The Hrotata looked puzzled for a moment.  I waited for him to work it out.

           “Um… the closed store?” he finally guessed.  “Are you renovating it?”

           I blinked and cocked my head.  “No, I was investigating it.  Did you know there were still live animals inside?”

           His eyes widened in alarm, finally sensing real trouble.  “No, no, of course not.  I didn’t know anyone was still using the place.  Were… were they all right?”  He knew better.  The question was pure formality.

           I answered with the derision he deserved.  “No, they were not all right.  Some starved to death.  The survivor was so hungry it attacked me.  That’s animal abuse, at the least.  You sure you didn’t know, didn’t hear anything?”

           He raised a paw, swearing on an imaginary holy book.  “No, I didn’t know.  I never heard, never saw… then again, I never paid it much attention.  I just work here, odd days.”

           “Not the owner?  You think she… or he… might know something?  Might have ignored some sign of trouble?”

           “I’m sure Mistress Iyallette would have reported any worrisome sounds or activity to the authorities, right away.”  His loyalty was touching, but unhelpful.

           “Could I get her contact number, please?  I’d like to follow up on this.  Actually, have you seen anyone else near that building recently, going in or coming out or just checking it out?”

           See, I had a plan.  It just takes time to get around to the point, sometimes.

           “No, not myself… there was that Vislin killed nearby, recently… do you think he might have been involved?  Maybe he saw something…”

           I did my best to seem surprised.  “Actually, I think I heard about that.  Hadn’t considered it.  Now that I know the state of that building, it might be relevant.  Thanks.  I don’t suppose you know anything else about that attack… or the victim?”

           “Not really.  I was working at the time, but I didn’t notice anything wrong until people started to gather outside.  They were looking at the body.”

           I fixed him with a skeptical stare, “You were here, but you didn’t hear anything when he got shot."

           “It was a laser,” he stressed, defensively.  “They don’t make much noise.”

           Well, he was half right.  The beam doesn’t make any noise, but your boiling, popping flesh does.  Your screams make a bit of noise, too, if the shot isn’t immediately fatal.  To be fair, the media reports indicated that Vzktkk had died quietly.  If he had been far enough away – like at the opposite end of the street – the clerk might not have heard much, even if he was awake at the time.

           I had to keep playing ignorant, though.  “I see.  Well, I’ll have to read up on that case, then, see where it leads me.  Tttt, mind telling me what time it happened?”

           “Uh, around nine and a half.  We close at ten on work days.  He might have been shot a decad before that.  Nobody I’ve talked to said they saw the actual attack.  Nobody’s been arrested yet, either.”

           I shook my head, conveying a general disappointment with the failings of law enforcement.  “Without a witness or a lead… well, I’ve got to report to the constables, myself.  Maybe if my mess is connected, it might help with their case.  Thanks for your help.  Ttttt, hey, if you or your Mistress…”

           “Iyallette,” he supplied brightly.

           “Right, Iyallette.  If either of you remembers or hears something, could you give me a call?  What they did to those animals…” I finished with a beak grind to give Hrotata atavistic shudders.

           He obliged with a wide-eyed flinch.  “Uh, okay.  What’s your contact?”

           I supplied him with my actual name and number, but a false cover story: I was working for an interested real estate buyer, appraising abandoned properties.  He didn’t ask about my non-traditional outfit.  Too bad, since I was all ready to regale him with stories about even worse cases where I had to pull out the biohazard suit.  Of course I’d be in my old working armor for protection and armed against squatters… even in a ‘nice neighborhood’ like this one.

           As I walked back outside, I reflected on just how nice the neighborhood really wasn’t.  There was a slow decay at work.  Property owners were still banking on historical charm to draw in middle-class residents, but the aging buildings hid a variety of flaws.  Besides rust and dry-rot, there were old attitudes and old habits lurking beneath the skin here, like those registers, for example.  Like abandoned properties hiding unknown cruelties.  Like an old-timey snack shop just waiting to be shut down for health violations.

           Hungry as I was, I wasn’t buying something there and risking mold poisoning.  It was probably safe, if they rotated stock regularly, but I didn’t have much faith in that Hrotata’s diligence.

           I realized I had never gotten his name.  I could find it later, I supposed, or contact his Mistress if I wanted to discuss anything officially.  That was the problem with playing out an act; I couldn’t be as thorough as I ought to be.  If I had started pushing like a homicide detective should, the clerk might have gotten nervous, suspicious and even forgetful.

           Frosted tradeoffs.  I’d have to play the same game next door, at the compad store.  I wondered if it would have the same aura of decline as the other businesses.

           It actually did not.  The façade was old-time, but once you got through the door, the interior was all modern.  Slick white plastic panels divided by silvery metal supports covered the walls, likely hiding the rougher brick beneath.  The floor was a spongy polymer you could probably stand on all day without fatigue.  Brushed steel tables held a variety of compads and accessories, all current to the present year, some even up to the best Collective standards.  Several models were capable of housing a Terran A.I., a feature they proudly advertised.

           I wondered if they saw enough clientele here from outside the Great Family to make that boast relevant, or if it was just a sales tactic.  Didn’t really matter, unless it was somehow relevant to my case.

           My entry hadn’t set off any alarms, at least none I could hear.  There was already a clerk at the ready, though, an attentive Vislin female who greeted me as I entered.  She waited for me to browse the wares before approaching.  She was cute, if not as sleek as I liked.  Big eyes, heavy tail.  Dressed in simple pale red polymer plates, pseudo-armor to keep up appearances but still look non-threatening.

           When I finally made eye contact again, she asked, “Is there anything I can help you find, sir?”

           I resisted my instinct to make an easy joke.  I really wanted to say: your nest.  Or: a job that pays enough to afford this tech.  Instead, I stuck with my pissed-off, beat-up investigator role.  Normally, it wasn’t a hard act to maintain, but I wasn’t quite as angry as I had been before.  At some point, I must have lost some of my rage. 

           “I’m actually not shopping.  Just wanted to get a better idea what’s here.  I was across the street earlier, at the pet store…” I let the statement hang, again letting her jump to whatever conclusion she preferred.

           There was no way she couldn’t see and smell the gore on me.  If the Hrotata had, a Vislin surely would.  She was more blithe than the furball had been, though.

           She answered, “The pet trader?  Long closed, I thought.”

           “It was, but not empty.  I was checking out the building.  Turns out someone left live animals inside.  Some of them hadn’t quite starved to death yet.”

           “Tttt, so that was the noise,” she replied, still intriguingly non-plussed.  “I thought I heard an energy discharge.  It’s a little different than the usual noise around here… I still thought I might be biased, though.  You know, after the shooting.”

           Was she baiting me?  I couldn’t resist.

           “Shooting?  Tttt, right, the guy who got burned a week ago.  I read about that.  Neighbor of yours?”  I could play it warm, too.

           “No, total stranger.  First murder we’ve had around here in years – since I moved into the neighborhood, anyway.  Did you just make it two?”

           Her eyes bounced around my body in a way I’d normally appreciate.  I realized that she was looking for my weapon.  Rtrtr, I meant.

           I clacked and rolled my eyes.  “Depends on how sensitive you are to animal rights.  It was self-defense, anyway.  There was one surviving rktpk, nearly dead of starvation.  I can’t blame it for going after me.  I’m a big chunk of meat.”

           Now she was the one to look unamused.  “Yeah, to a hungry rktpk, you probably look tasty.  Too bad you couldn’t catch it alive.  Sounds like a terrible shame.”

           I got serious, finally.  “It was.  It was tortured, that one and at least two others.  Who knows what other animals they had already eaten to survive.  That’s why I’m here.  I assume you didn’t have any knowledge about their presence?  Didn’t hear any other ‘noises’?”

           “Not like that,” she answered, somber as well.  “Nothing ‘animal’.  I saw lights in the building a couple times over the last cycle, so somebody was inside.  There could have been visitors during the day, too, but I didn’t see them actually enter or leave.  Sorry.”

           “In case it’s relevant… what times?  How recently?”  I produced my own compad to take notes.  The sight of the outdated model made her click, either from disgust or possibly pity.

           “Kkk… four nights back, last time?  I think.  I was shutting down.  I usually don’t stay open past dusk.  Then maybe a half-cycle earlier, before that.  Nothing the night of the shooting, if you’re thinking what I’m thinking.”

           “I had wondered if they might be connected.  Judging from the state of the store, I assume the constables hadn’t thought to ask about it?”

           She tilted her head to look me over again before answering.  “No, they didn’t.  Asked about the victim, about what I had seen and heard – nothing, by the way – about whether there had been any previous trouble in the area.  There hasn’t, not anything like that.  A murder or two, sure, but always indoors, between acquaintances.  Crimes of passion, you know?  Nothing random or for money.”

           “No robberies, stick-ups or break-ins?” I asked.

           “Well, shoplifting.  That’s just a fact of life in my business.  I usually recover the product, though.  A good compad can call for help if it’s used by an unauthorized user.”

           “But accessories don’t have that protection,” I prompted.

           “Exactly.”  She fixed me again with a full stare.  “You said you were checking out the closed building across the street.  Checking it out for who?”

           Tttttt, challenge time!  I had to decide: double down on the lie or see if I could get more out of telling the truth.  My interest in impressing a cute, well employed female had nothing to do with that choice.  Absolutely nothing at all.

           I can’t even fool myself.  I decided not to bother trying with her.

           “For the family of the deceased, actually.  I’m investigating the murder.  Sorry I didn’t say before… though you didn’t ask until now.”  Very warm, Stchvk.  Practically sunny.

           “Chchch.  I suppose you thought being clever would get more out of me than just flashing your badge and being officious?”

           She stopped and held an uncomfortable silence until I opened my beak to reply, then interrupted to answer herself: “You’re probably right.”

           As I laughed quietly in appreciation, she continued: “Not that I’m hiding anything, from the constables or from you.  I just don’t like being treated like a suspect right away.  Was the animal abuse thing for real?”

           “Absolutely true.  I’d offer to show you, but I suspect you don’t want a tour… or want to leave your store unattended.”

           “I’ll take your word for it.  It’s not exactly busy over here, but you never know, and you’re right about not needing to see it myself.  I can see enough on you.  Smell it, too, now that I know that stink isn’t just your natural scent.”

           “Thanks.  It wasn’t too long ago that the smell of a fresh kill was considered arousing, you know.”

           “Sorry, but whatever’s on you is a few days past fresh.  Plus, I think we used to prefer meat raw back then, not charred.”

           “Fair enough.  My odor aside, I’ve obviously found something the constables missed.  Any thoughts about a connection?  Anything you didn’t think of previously?”

           “No… sorry, no.  Unless the victim was a pet trader or an animal rights activist… seriously.  I’m sure you’ll spot any connections like that yourself.  I wasn’t around when he died.  Did you check next door?  I think Hrusslitl was working that night.”

           Well, there’s the name I was missing.  Hrusslitl the Hrotata.  Easy to remember.

           “I did.  He didn’t have much to add.  What’s your name, by the way?”

           “Tskksk.  You?”

           “Stchvk.  Investigator for hire.”

           “Shouldn’t that have a sound effect?  Or a few notes of theme music?”

           “I can’t afford it yet.  Maybe if I crack this case I can get a sharp twang or something.”

           “Good luck, then, Stchvk.  Want to leave your number?  You know, in case I remember anything later?”

           “You know, nobody ever does call, even when they do ‘remember something’.”  I wondered if I sounded witty or just whiny.
           "Well, I’ve got no excuse not to.”  Her gesture took in the ranks of compads mounted all over the store.  She stopped, looking thoughtful.  “Wait a second.  I may or may not be an idiot.”

           I realized she wasn’t talking about her obvious flirting.  She walked around the room, looking alternately at the compads and then out the front windows.  At a few of the front tables, she stopped and poked at the screen of the foremost compads.  I eventually realized what she was doing.

           “Were any of these on at the time?  Eight days ago, about nine and two decads?”  I asked.

           “Exactly what I’m checking… although having the exact time makes it easier.  Usually I put all the ‘pads on a shutdown mode except one, which runs the Kpst Six security system.  No reason not to use the stock I already have, rather than install a separate dedicated system.  Plus, I can rotate through systems, making it harder to find and hack.”

           I was just barely following her explanation.  It sounded reasonable, although the specific technology she was referencing was beyond my knowledge.

           She finally stopped at one station, scrolling through files on the compad.  “This was the host system that night.  Let’s see… I have internal and external cameras.  The video won’t show anything.  I already gave the security output to the constables and looked at it myself.  Both the shooter and the victim must have approached and left the street from the same end, up toward 26th.  Audio isn’t very helpful, either; just an ambiguous noise around the time you’ve already established.”

           Now, this kind of talk was my kind of flirting.  I was tempted to offer her a job, if she wasn’t already doing better in business than I was.  Maybe she would hire me?

           She continued: “But that’s just from the remotes, which are concerned with my security.  This particular compad was also recording on its own, everything its pickups could reach.  That includes microphone and camera, which are even more useless than the outside cameras… but it also gets wide-spectrum EM.  That’s mostly to monitor the network bands for intrusion, but I also get public comms, unsecured private calls, and with a little filtering, a magnetospheric traffic report.”

           My expression must have been transparently boggled, because she elaborated: “It picks up on electromagnetic noise.  It’s only illegal to decode private calls, but you can record whatever you want.  I collect everything just in case.  You never know who might discover a new way to hijack a compad or skim data.”

           “So… you’d pick up the laser firing?” I ventured.

           “Tttt, yes, now that I know what I’m looking for, it’s right there.  You’d never be able to do it near, say, a major power line, or isolate one shot from a firefight, but by itself in this dead zone, the discharge stands out.  Exact time, nine plus one-point-three decads, forty-nine hectads.”

           “Well, the precision is nice, but I’m not sure it gains me much…”

           She interrupted to scold me, “That’s not what’s interesting.  You just asked.  What else we have is comm activity around that time.  I’ve got one distinct signal, very close, at one decad before nine and then again immediately after the shooting.  If it’s the killer’s compad…”

           “Then it looks like calling in to report,” I finished for her.  “That’s a stretch, though.  I didn’t see anything so far to indicate that this was a contract killing.”

           “Okay, then maybe it was the victim’s system.  Maybe it’s unrelated, sure.  But the data is there.  If it’s matched up with a suspect’s compad, that’s evidence.  I can’t believe I didn’t think of it before.”

           “I wouldn’t have thought of it at all,” I admitted, inadvertently flattering Tskksk.  Her head bobbed slightly before she stiffened again.  I continued, “The constable detective didn’t think of it either.  You should take some credit.”

           “I should call them,” she realized, bounding over to her work station to pick up her personal compad.

           “Yeah, do.  But could you make a copy of that data in case I come up with a lead?”

           She tilted her chin up in amusement.  “I’d do that anyway, but thanks for asking.  Despite your obvious professional rivalry, I’ve never had constables demand every copy of evidence."

           “You’ve also never dealt with a homicide investigation… though this victim seems like a pretty minor player.  Trust me, if he was anyone important, they might confiscate every computer in this store.”

           She took my warning as seriously as I had meant it.  “You’re right.  I’ve been lucky, only dealing with theft, and that indirectly.  This neighborhood is – was – pretty safe.  I imagine you’ve seen worse.”

           “Of course.  This is Layafflr City, after all.  And you’re right, this is one of the nicer areas.”  I didn’t add that it was sliding downhill, in my estimation.  No need to make the nice female unhappy about her home.  She was probably one of the pillars still holding up the community.

           “Well, I hope it turns out your case isn’t connected to anything local.  Even considering the pet store.”

           “I agree, although I’ve got to check out any possible links.  Thanks for your help.  Anything else I should know?”

           She looked up, her compad still in hand.  “No… nothing I can think of.  I’ll call if I think of something, of course.”

           Damn.  I had been hoping she’d say, I close up at nine.  But she hadn’t blown me off, either.

           “All right.  Have a good afternoon, Tskksk.  Hope your next visitor actually buys something.”

           “I hope they smell better, too.”

           Tttt, I was definitely calling her later, even if it wasn’t related to the case.  Especially if the meeting with Pkstzk went badly the next day.  I needed some new, better acquaintances.

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