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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
came from across the street,” I started, conveying pure business with my words
and expression. “The pet trader?”
Hrotata looked puzzled for a moment. I
waited for him to work it out.
the closed store?” he finally guessed. “Are
you renovating it?”
blinked and cocked my head. “No, I was
investigating it. Did you know there
were still live animals inside?”
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.
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
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.”
the owner? You think she… or he… might
know something? Might have ignored some
sign of trouble?”
sure Mistress Iyallette would have reported any worrisome sounds or activity to
the authorities, right away.” His
loyalty was touching, but unhelpful.
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?”
had a plan. It just takes time to get
around to the point, sometimes.
not myself… there was that Vislin killed nearby, recently… do you think he
might have been involved? Maybe he saw
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?”
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.”
him with a skeptical stare, “You were here, but you didn’t hear anything when
he got shot."
a laser,” he stressed,
defensively. “They don’t make much
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
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
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
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
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
“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.
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.
answered, “The pet trader? Long closed, I
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.”
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.
total stranger. First murder we’ve had
around here in years – since I moved into the neighborhood, anyway. Did you just make it two?”
eyes bounced around my body in a way I’d normally appreciate. I realized that she was looking for my
weapon. Rtrtr, I meant.
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.”
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.”
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’?”
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.”
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.
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.”
wondered if they might be connected.
Judging from the state of the store, I assume the constables hadn’t thought to ask about it?”
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.”
robberies, stick-ups or break-ins?” I asked.
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.”
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?”
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.
even fool myself. I decided not to
bother trying with her.
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
“Chchch. I suppose you thought being clever
would get more out of me than just flashing your badge and being officious?”
stopped and held an uncomfortable silence until I opened my beak to reply, then
interrupted to answer herself: “You’re probably right.”
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?”
true. I’d offer to show you, but I
suspect you don’t want a tour… or want to leave your store unattended.”
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.”
but whatever’s on you is a few days past fresh.
Plus, I think we used to prefer meat raw back then, not charred.”
enough. My odor aside, I’ve obviously
found something the constables missed.
Any thoughts about a connection?
Anything you didn’t think of previously?”
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.”
there’s the name I was missing.
Hrusslitl the Hrotata. Easy to
did. He didn’t have much to add. What’s your name, by the way?”
“Stchvk. Investigator for hire.”
that have a sound effect? Or a few notes
of theme music?”
afford it yet. Maybe if I crack this
case I can get a sharp twang or something.”
luck, then, Stchvk. Want to leave your
number? You know, in case I remember
know, nobody ever does call, even when they do ‘remember something’.” I wondered if I sounded witty or just
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.”
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.
any of these on at the time? Eight days
ago, about nine and two decads?” I
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.”
just barely following her explanation.
It sounded reasonable, although the specific technology she was
referencing was beyond my knowledge.
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?
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.”
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.”
you’d pick up the laser firing?” I ventured.
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.”
the precision is nice, but I’m not sure it gains me much…”
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…”
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.”
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.”
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.”
should call them,” she realized, bounding over to her work station to pick up
her personal compad.
do. But could you make a copy of that
data in case I come up with a lead?”
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."
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.”
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.”
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.
I hope it turns out your case isn’t connected to anything local. Even considering the pet store.”
agree, although I’ve got to check out any possible links. Thanks for your help. Anything else I should know?”
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
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.