Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Broken Record - Chapter 6 - "Downtown Girl"

          True to pattern, I woke up the next morning feeling completely normal.  Stiff, irritable, and slightly nauseous, but no longer drowsy.  While I filled a bottle from the tap, I tried once more to identify any other symptoms that might point to a disorder.

          I couldn’t think of anything I might have done on my vacation – taken, eaten, been exposed to – that might bring on such lethargy.  I wasn't feverish or achy, had no loose or discolored scales, and my eyes were clear.  I was pretty sure I hadn't been bitten, licked, or otherwise touched by any strange wildlife... or any strange sapients, for that matter.

          The main anomaly was how little I could remember about my beachside vacation.  Per my compad calendar, I had been away three weeks.  I remembered enjoying the time, certainly.  I’d had leisure to roam the warm sands and admire the other vacationers there, but few names, faces, or bodies came to mind.  I’d dined well, but I wasn’t sure precisely what I had or hadn’t eaten.  I could guess, and the guesses seemed right, but a troublesome haze hung between likelihood and certainty.

          The most solid memories I had were about the previous case itself.  The meeting with my employer was vivid.  The names of our prime suspects came easily to mind.  Their opportunities for the theft, their relations to the building where it occurred, and even their personal backgrounds were still familiar.  Why was the job so memorable but the background wasn't?  I may be a dedicated professional, but it was still odd that I was so keen on job-related data yet couldn’t recall any pretty faces that might have turned my head.

          I wasn’t having any such problems with further distant history.  For example, I could bring up Pkstzk’s past image to mind, just fine.  I wondered how much her appearance had changed between then and now.  Hold on… that might be an answerable question.

          I had already retrieved my compad from storage and started searching through social media sites before I realized I had changed subjects.  First I was probing my memory for soft spots, and next I’m stalking an old crush online?  Why was I avoiding the problem?

          The most obvious answer was: because it was a big problem.  It was too big to open up right away.  Thinking about Pkstkz was probably my subconscious reminder that I had more urgent troubles to resolve.  Digging into potential health issues – mental or physical or both – was more than I could deal with right then.  As long as I could manage in the short term, I’d have to prioritize my health below my reputation… or possibly my freedom, if this case threatened to unearth the unsavory history of Pack Vzrrk.

          Well, while I was already looking, why not see how time had treated Pkstzk?  She did have an account on the planet’s most popular social site, but it looked like the account of a busy middle-class functionary: bare-bones personal info, minimal updates, no controversial opinions, and profile pictures that were several years out of date.  She looked much the same, although more drab: no scale painting, less spikes on her armor, and definitely cheaper jewelry.

          By comparison, you won’t find any pictures of me on any site, unless you count accidental capture in the background of news photography.  Part of keeping a low profile is having a minimal public presence.  I had to advertise my services on business sites, but that didn’t require any pictures or biographical data… in fact, not posting my grimacing face was probably better for business.

          While I poked at my ‘pad, I plodded through my morning routine.  Nothing new came of my searches.  I didn’t have any new messages waiting, at least not any I wanted to see.  I tried Tskksk’s number again, with the same result as before: straight to messages.  I left a new voice recording this time, mentioning my concerns for her safety and apologizing if I was overdoing the calls.  I wondered if I should stop by her shop in Isstravil, in person, just to make sure she was safe.  It was possible she was avoiding me.  That would be strange, but I was just paranoid enough to wonder whether Vzktkk’s killer noticed me asking questions and stepped in to threaten anyone I visited.

          No, I didn’t think she was avoiding me out of discomfort.  Nothing in our conversation was that out of line, and she didn’t seem like the type to develop sudden misgivings after being so friendly earlier.

          Either way, her compad was off.  A user might forget to turn one back on after shutdown, but I hardly ever turned mine off.  Surely, she’d have a model with better battery life than my ancient brick.  Hers should be less likely to crash from failure, also.  There were several explanations why someone’s personal compad might overload and die, but few of them were innocent.  Since her personal number was also her business number – why not? – it was less likely she’d be tinkering with its hardware or installing questionable software.

          I had found another knot of inexplicable improbabilities.  These were the sorts of tangles that usually drove me to start gnawing, thinking that something valuable might be wrapped within.  Tskksk was unavailable.  So were my ‘fun’ vacation memories.  So were the records on the pet importer, along with several details about other buildings and residents in Isstravil.  Individually, any one of these gaps could be random, meaningless, or trivially explainable.  Likely, none of them were related to any of the others.  All together, they were making my jaws ache.

          The same could be said for the concentrate bar I gnawed through for breakfast.  At least it tasted better than nothing at all.  That’s what a few credits will buy you: “better than nothing”.

          To combat my agitation, I decided to allow myself a break.  If Tskksk called back, great.  If I thought of a clue I had missed – regarding this case or my own mental health  – also good.  If not, though, I wasn’t going to keep grinding my beak against a rock.  My meeting that night would hopefully highlight the right paths to pursue.  Until then, I needed to relax.

          I set aside a budget for the day, enough for some travel and a snack.  Since there was no rush, I walked back to the public transport stop and took a leisurely flight to one of my favorite spots: a public park a few miles away.  While there was plenty of nature all around Layafflr City, the parks featured much more controlled and friendly flora and fauna.  The same sonic technology that kept pests out of the city kept desirably attractive animals comfortably captive within the parks.  The plants were neatly organized and conveniently labeled.  If it wasn’t for their tendency to wander out of their designated beds, the park would resemble a garden more than a landscape.

          Even with all the artificial maintenance, I liked the soil underfoot and the flyers squeaking overhead.  I walked the designated path around the park’s perimeter three times, picking up a hot sausage from a familiar vendor on the second lap.  The taste and texture brought back happy memories.  In fact, it was almost a perfectly picturesque afternoon.

          Ever have one of those experiences you question because it seems too perfect?  Me neither, before then.  I shook off the feeling quickly, but for a few hectads, I got suspicious of how ideally my relaxation was going.  It was something about the sausage.  It tasted exactly like I remembered, for one thing.  Sausages don’t usually do that.  There was something else, though… some other memory linked to the sausage, pun unintended.  Trying to unravel that nagging thought bled poison into the rest of my happy afternoon.  I stopped worrying at the feeling, wanting to preserve what pleasure I could from the diversion.

          I felt good, and I looked good.  Anticipating the meeting with Pkstzk later that evening, I had gone out dressed in my best armor.  Mostly, that meant the outfit I wore least often, such that it was less faded and scratched than my ‘working’ gear.  It also had a hard leather cap that my usual armor lacked, a piece both stylish and functional.  I might not be able to justify buying actual formalwear, but I could at least avoid looking broke.

          Of course, there were also dried blood and tissue stuck to my other armor.  That fact had strongly influenced my choice as well.  I’d have to either pay for professional cleaning or buy the necessary cleaning materials myself.  At least I knew people who’d handle cleanup without asking any uncomfortable questions… aside from “cash or direct transfer”?

          Ugh, I really needed an actual vacation.  Not a working vacation, a complete break from all these nuisances.  I also needed a big, well-paying case.  Mutually opposing needs.  Then again, a big enough case could keep my mind thoroughly engrossed and pay well.  Money would reduce most of my problems.  There we go, a solution.  All I needed now was a major crime and a wealthy victim who somehow wasn’t already being adequately assisted by law enforcement.

          Anyone?  No?  I gave my compad a look of mock anticipation as I pulled it out of its carrying pouch.  It taunted me back with a blank message screen.  Sitting down on a park bench, I went through a few news articles, just to see if the city in general had quieted down.  It was actually a pretty slow news day.  No murders and no accidents, with only a minor political scandal; the biggest headline was the visit of an interstellar celebrity plus entourage and the problems their security was causing for local traffic.

          For the sake of further avoidance, I pulled up Tskksk’s EM recordings and played with them like a puzzle, sliding the time window back and forth, shading various frequency bands in and out, and looking for interesting patterns within the spectrum.  I highlighted the two radio signals she had already identified as compad calls.  According to Tskksk’s expertise, these were both placed from the same ‘pad, somewhere very near her store, possibly bracketing Vzktkk’s time of death.

          Looking backward in time, I didn’t find any matching calls from earlier the same day, nor any others later that night.  There were other compad calls, but I couldn’t tell if the differences came from different personal frequencies (and thus, different compads), or if those calls might come from the same compad at different locations.

          Similarly, I could tag the laser discharge between the two calls, but no similar patterns showed anywhere else in the recording.  At least I was getting better with highlighting portions of the signal and searching for matches.  Unfortunately, I had no reference to analyze the recording and answer other questions: What type of laser was it?  What size, frequency, or maybe even manufacturer?  What sort of compad placed those calls?  Could we tell whose it was or match it to a sample?  Had any vehicles passed nearby, before, during, or after the attack?

          When the recording got to a crime lab, they would dig into all these questions and more, with the tools to get answers fast.  I wished them luck.  However, I needed to keep pace as best I could, making up the gap with any advantages I could steal.

          You might have gathered that I’m fairly fluent in criminal forensics.  It’s an expertise born of necessity, from both sides of the law.  Once, I worked hard to minimize the traces I and my pack mates left when we 'worked'.  Later, I translated that vocational training into more legal (though less profitable) employment.  Most of my talents work on the low-tech side, though.  I might not be as thorough and precise as a specialized criminal analysis team, but I’m much cheaper and sometimes faster.  Expert software negates that speed advantage, but identifying a clue isn’t the same as knowing its relevance.  Until the Great Family, this planet, and this city embrace A.I., a good P.I. is still the most effective investigator in town.

          I was overloaded with information without context.  Finding relevance was literally my next step.  I was starting to anticipate my conversation with Pkstzk for multiple reasons.

          I looked up from my compad to find dusk already stretching the shadows.  Reverie and review had kept me busy for quite a long time.  My appetite must have declined, too, since I wasn’t distracted by hunger.  Even a vendor cart sausage wasn’t usually that heavy.

          I had my wish, though.  I had waited long enough.  It was time to find transport to Kzztkrt Tk, the restaurant where Pkstzk worked on 'rest days'.

          Giving up on the public transport schedule, I went over budget and rented a personal aircar.  At least I wouldn’t show up at the restaurant on foot.  I couldn’t remember how exclusive Kzztkrt Tk was, but hopefully, my armor would pass the dress code.  At least I was just going to the lounge; I didn’t have to worry about reserving a table.

          On the flight, I busied myself by looking up the restaurant’s information.  It had an enviable location between the city’s shuttle port and the government center, easily able to capture traffic between the two.  At the same time, it was outside of the primary transit routes and closer to the port than the seats of power.  That suggested cheaper real estate, if not a certain intentional exclusivity.  It claimed to be ‘fine dining’, meaning that an actual meal there would blow the rest of my savings.  Its reviews didn’t uphold that status, though, with few critics agreeing that it belonged in the upper ranks of Layafflr’s culinary scene.

          It had no listed dress code, at least.  Nothing else on its public site seemed relevant.  Nothing would tell me why Pkstzk was working there, for instance, nor whether she was happy at the job.  I imagined it was just what work she could get and hold.  I wondered if she was tending bar – she used to enjoy drinking, at least – or just delivering the trays.

          I was about to find out.  The aircar drifted down, waiting for a spot on the curb to open up before puffing open to release me.  I stepped out onto a cleaner, better-lit street than I had seen since my return to the City.  A glowing projection sign made Kzztkrt Tk unmissable.  Just in case, though, the building was sandstone textured brick, wrapped in three bands of different colored metals: blue, green, and yellow. Three other restaurants announced themselves along the same row in other varying styles, spaced between a live theater, an upscale Thunder Bar, a casino, and six little boutique stores.  The latter were all closed by now, but the entertainment venues were packed.

          I hadn’t been in this neighborhood in far too long.  For one thing, I hadn’t been able to afford such pleasures in years.  I also hadn’t traveled here for any cases.  Sadly, the kinds of cases I most often work don’t involve such affluent businesses.  Otherwise, they might pay more.

          Well, all that had changed tonight… sort of.  I was here on a case, but it wasn’t the paying kind.  And I still couldn’t afford this area.  It was probably too much to expect that Pkstzk would cover her own.  I should actually offer to buy her a drink.  She’d get to sip something expensively priced yet secretly non-intoxicating, while she sat with a ‘customer’ for politeness’ sake.

          I swallowed the expense, again.  That, plus my own drink, would have to suffice for dinner.  Squaring my shoulders and putting on my best “I belong here” expression, I walked up to Kzztkrt Tk.

          The door guard, a stereotypical Taratumm, rolled a yellow eyeball over me as I neared.  I must have passed scrutiny, because he opened the door before I walked into it.  I didn’t merit a greeting, though; he just watched as I walked inside.  I thanked him anyway.

          The restaurant's interior was more subdued than its exterior.  The colors were darker, the floor was tiled with tasteful hardwood squares, and the lights were low.  The smells of fresh meat and crisped skin were already making me drool.  This was going to be a cruel, hard evening of temptations.

          The sounds of conversation drifted from the main floor, but the lounge outside, where I had entered, was almost empty.  The bartender was definitely not Pkstzk.  Instead, a grizzled, older Hrotata male stood on a raised platform behind the Vislin-height bar.  The white streaks in his fur contrasted with a black background.  His face looked pushed-in, possibly from a broken nose, and was almost entirely grey.  Despite his obvious age, he looked solidly built, with feminine muscle mass and a broad jaw.

          Like most restaurants in Layafflr City, Kzztkrt Tk served all three Great Family species, but its name and décor favored Vislin, likely reflecting its owner’s species.  As such, one might expect entirely Vislin waitstaff, cooks, and bartender, but nothing required such.

          I decided to satisfy my curiosity along with my other objectives.  Ignoring the seater standing guard between the lounge and the restaurant entrance, I crossed directly to the bar and took an empty seat.

          “Sssss, greytip, what’s on tap?” I asked, like someone who didn’t mind being noticed.

          The bartender rolled his head around to look at me and answered without moving otherwise, “Local, I have Thrap Green, Zchkt, and Old Shell.  Imports are Terran Tgfsh 90, Prime’s Best, and Ktkzk Cht Pkz.”

          I was surprised, both by the small number of options and the wide range within them.  A local fermented fruit juice, a faddish Terran grain ‘beer’, and a Vislin Cht Pkz?  They really were trying to appeal to all types.  I ordered a glass of the Ktkzk Cht Pkz, a reimagined version of a traditional Vislin brew, still made from the sugary secretions of insects, but now with the shell pieces strained out and the psychoactive toxins denatured… mostly.  Its texture was also greatly improved by nitrogenation.

          As the bartender poured, I tried to engage him in further conversation: “No screens in here, I see.  Customers must talk rather than watch the games.”

          The Hrotata gave me another lazy glance and half a smile.  “Anyone who wants that noise can go to the bar down the street.  Talk all you want, but you might find me a boring companion.  Usually better to bring your own partner… no slight meant to your social life.”

          I was starting to like this curmudgeon.  I decided to do my best to not be irritating.  “None taken.  I’m on my own tonight.  The pack’s all busy, you know how it goes.”

          “Generally so.”  The bartender put down my bubbling, milky drink, garnished with an impaled beetle.  “That’s seven and a quarter.”

          I handed him ten in scrip and managed to squeeze out the words, “Keep the change.”  I would have liked to keep it, myself, but I wanted to stay friendly with my new acquaintance.

          He nodded in appreciation, a little nod for a little tip.  “Anything else you need?” he asked, also looking like he’d rather not say the words.

          I resisted about five different sarcastic replies, plus the temptation to just ask where I could find Pkstzk, and instead kept making small talk: “This will be fine, thank you.  Do you serve any small plates in the lounge?”

          “No, food is just in the restaurant.  Waiting on a table?”

          “No, still a little early for me.  Just the drink then, I suppose.  Ttttt, actually, do you have any recommendations for a show?  Anything you hear is good?”

          The bartender actually looked pained, but answered, “The place down the street is showing Fifty Days Alone, but I hear it’s terrible.  Other than that warning, sorry, can’t help you.”  He panned up and down the bar, pointedly searching for some other, nonexistent customer as an excuse to escape. 

          I had pity on his curdled soul and let him go with a, “Thanks, anyway.” 

          So where was Pkstzk?  I realized she might need some time to notice my presence, but if the roles were reversed, I would have checked the lounge every few minutes looking for her.  I bent my beak into my drink and turned a slow circle in my seat, surveying the room as surreptitiously as I could.

          There she was, peeking out of the dining area.  Our eyes met, and I managed to avoid staring.  I turned back to the bar and carefully set down my drink.  Just her face was enough to jostle my nerves.  What was I going to do if and when her entire body came close?

          I’d have an answer before much longer.  I heard the dividing door open and footsteps clack across the tile floor.  Warm, warm, I was totally warm.  I looked up and saw Pkstzk walking up to the bar.

          She paid me no attention, but instead addressed the bartender: “Vulletine, two Tgfsh, then I’m on break for five."

          The Hrotata poured two glasses of foaming brown brew and laid them out on a tray.  He made no further comment as he slid the tray across for her reach.

          I recognized a setup when I heard one.  I managed to look up just at the right moment to catch Pkstzk’s ‘accidental’ glance in my direction.  I gave her my best appraising look, which wasn’t difficult, and she returned the compliment, which I hoped was just as effortless.  She walked away with the loaded tray and a gratuitous saunter.  I watched her retreating tail with genuine interest.

          Time hadn’t been too harsh with her.  Like me, her scales had suffered a little yellowing and flaking, but no Vislin avoided that consequence… at least not without dying young.  She was either avoiding restorative treatments or cover-ups or more likely couldn’t afford either, which I could respect either way.  She was still strong, healthy, and judging by her expression, aware of her advantages.  A workplace like this could grind down some sapients, but she didn’t look fatigued or sullen.  She wore a simple cloth uniform, brown tunic and skirt, with a pouched cinching belt.  She’d look good in anything or nothing… particularly nothing.

          Once she disappeared again into the restaurant, I turned back to the bartender, Vulletine, and wasted no time starting Act Two.

          “The night has improved,” I crowed with a pleased click.  “Any chance I could have her favorite drink waiting for the lady when she gets free?”

          “Water?” the Hrotata shot back with weaponized sarcasm.  “That’s what she usually has.  You’d have to guess what she’d like when someone else is paying.”

          “I see.  Well, let’s take the safe bet and line up another of what I’m having."

          “It’s your credit, lonely.  I should let you know, to be fair, that your chances are poor.  She’s lost her mate just recently… dead… so she might want company, but nothing else.  I’m telling you for her benefit, not yours.  You try and take advantage of her, your next drink here will have an unpleasant mixer.”

          In contrast to his previous phlegm, the grizzled bartender was suddenly, intensely involved.  Why was he so protective of Pkstzk?  Just courtesy between long-time coworkers?  Some effect of her enchanting personality?  He was pretty talkative regardless of the reason.  He could have ignored us and let Pkstzk ‘let me down’ herself.  My respect for the elder grew, even if I didn’t fully understand his motivations.

          I splayed out my claws on the bar in a display of peaceful intent.  “Slow down, greytip, I just wanted to meet her.  You know it doesn’t work like that for Vislin… I’m sure she’ll be clear about what she wants and doesn’t want."

          If the Hrotata Goddess of Truth was listening, I’m sure I’d have her retching by now.  Pkstzk and I were already manufacturing a ‘first meeting’ for public benefit.  As it was, the ‘public’ was one old Hrotata bartender.  So I was already lying to him about what I was doing there, then defending myself with a known truth… which wasn’t actually true in my case… but was true in this case, despite appearances, because Pkstzk and I already, secretly, knew each other.  Just sorting it out made me feel a little queasy.

          Vulletine just looked skeptical, but rolled his back and neck, dismissing all non-Hrotata mating nonsense.  “Just a fair warning.  However it ‘works’, you mind your behavior.”

          I was spared the need for further protestations by Pkstzk’s return.  She tapped back up to the bar and set down the empty tray.

          The bartender accepted it and told her, “The fellow there has a Cht Pkz lined up for you… you want the drink?”

          Pkstzk gave me another calculated look, then answered, “Sure.”  To me, she added, “Thanks…”

          “Stchvk,” I supplied on cue.  “I’m out alone tonight, in an area I don’t know.  Trade me some time for the drink?  I promise I won’t waste your break.”

          Vulletine watched us with one eye, looking nonplussed with the oddities of Vislin interaction.  Maybe I was playing a little stiff, but I also didn’t want to overdo the come-on and make Pkstzk’s acceptance seem less likely.

          “I’ll hold you to that,” she agreed, taking the filled glass from the bartender.  “Join me at a table… clear up some bar space?”

          I made a show of looking down the nearly-empty bar, but didn’t raise any objections.  “Wonderful.”

          I followed her, glass in hand, to a round wooden table near the entry doors, but a good five meters from the bar.  Nobody else sat at any adjacent tables.  If we kept our voices down, no one should be in earshot.  At least, I had to assume no one was trying to listen in on us, much less aiming any amplifying microphones our way.  That really would be paranoid.

          We sat down together and assumed postures of cautious interest.  She stayed quiet at first.  I waited until I decided I would have to say something first.  While I was deciding how to start, she beat me to the shot: “Stchvk… thank you for coming.”

          “Hhhh, you’re welcome?” I managed, stupidly.  Getting my balance, I shifted to bravado, “Why wouldn’t I?  You let me know you’re in trouble, of course I’ll come help.”

          “I wasn’t sure about that.  You stayed distant… and I respected that… but I couldn’t tell why you stayed away.  Were you angry?  Afraid?  Being threatened?  Just didn’t care?”  She kept her voice neutral and calm and her expressions flat, out of the necessity to make our conversation look like a polite social meeting.  Unfortunately, I was missing the cues that would tell me whether her words were accusations or expressions of sympathy.  I leaned toward the latter out of hope.

          “Some fear.  Some practical reasons.  If I got caught up and joined the pack in jail, I couldn’t do them or myself any good.  I still don’t see how I can help any of them… but you, you stayed clear, too.  I figured we were all better off separate, silent, and safe.”

          “Practical?  That’s the Stchvk I remember.  Always looking at the balances.  Taking the safe bets.  I wasn’t into ‘safe’ back then, but I guess yours was the winning position.”  Her façade slipped, and I heard traces of both resentment and respect.  Funny, being thought of as a stodgy old accountant.  To the wider society of Layafflr City, I was a barely tolerated rogue.  To pack Vzrrk, I was a conservative.

          “Compared to prison, yes, you could say that.  I haven’t felt like a winner, though.  It’s lonely.  From where I’m sitting, you’ve done better… a job, a regular paycheck, a mate… sorry, but at least that was true until recently.  I haven’t built even that much.”

          “Let me make you feel better, then.  You’re free.  It may not seem like much, if you’re starving, but a job like this is a prison sentence.  It’s the best I can do.  I only did this well because Vzktkk made me look good.  I needed him, Stchvk, but not like I needed Rsspkz… I needed Vzktkk to survive, to get out of trouble.  I needed Rsspkz to feel alive.  I’ve been dead for nine years.  Seeing you… well, it’s bad circumstances, but it reminds me of how I used to feel back then.”

          I did not like where this was heading.  Sure, if I understood her implication, it was nice to feel needed, especially if she needed me like she had needed her first mate.  But her apparent nostalgia for the ‘old days’ was not a sentiment I shared.  Between then and now, I was much happier now… or was I?  I’d choose now over then, having experienced both, but I suppose I did have a grand time back then, before things went bad.  She still remembered the happy times, but hadn't found anything better, since then, to contrast against the past.  What a tragedy.

          “I appreciate the encouragement… but Pkstzk, our good times used to come at the expense of others’ misery.  That’s a big part of why I stayed away.  I can feel pack bond without wanting to repeat past mistakes.  Helping them means more than just getting them free or being an accomplice.  It means doing the right things, setting an example, and being available to help them… the right way.  That’s why I can be here to help you, now.  It sounds like Vzktkk did that for you.  He helped you build something solid… something real.  It might not be exciting, but it won’t crumble like the pack did.”

          I was surprised at my own speech, but then again, I’d been rehearsing it informally for years.  Pkstzk was surprised, too; her mask cracked entirely and she fixed me with a hostile glare.  Her voice remained calm, however, if a bit colder: “I don’t know about ‘right’.  It seems like misery comes no matter what we do.  You’re not happy, I’m not happy, Rsspkz sure isn’t happy, and Vzktkk… well, only the priests would claim he’s happy.  Sorry if I’m not worrying about other sapients’ happiness; I don’t share your faith in any reward for virtue.”

          I let slip an exasperated buzz.  “Look, I’m not here to offer explanations.  I don’t claim any moral superiority.  I just know what works for me.  I’m in a position to help you.  That’s why you came to me, right?  I had hoped it was more than simple opportunity…”

          She interrupted, full of contrition, “Ttttt, Stchvk, I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to accuse you of anything.  I’m just miserable.  I do need you…”  She left the pause open to interpretation, then continued, “I have to know what happened to Vzktkk, for my own sanity.  He was all I had.  Someone took him from me.  I want them punished.  Even if you weren’t licensed, you’re the cleverest sapient I ever knew… you could figure it out.  The constables… even if they figure it out, they won’t do more than put the killer in prison.  I want to make sure they suffer.”

          She really hadn’t changed inside, and that wasn’t a compliment.  A streak of bitter, vengeful selfishness showed through, a flaw I had glossed over in my memories of Pkstzk.  She thought she deserved everything; if she was denied, blood was due.

          I put up a hand and took my turn being cold: “If I find the sapient responsible, before the constables do, I’ll turn them over for trial.  I’m an independent detective, not a bounty hunter.  If they threaten me… or you… I’ll do what’s necessary to remove the threat, but that’s it.  Are we clear on that much, first?”

          She left claw dents on the tabletop, but eventually fluffed her crest in agreement, “Fine.  I hoped you would be more… flexible… but I have to accept that.  I suppose it’s too much to ask that you tell me first, before sending in the law?”

          “Since you asked, no.  But I won’t let a killer go free, either, no matter what they threaten or how much they offer, so you get that in trade.  A P.I. with ‘flexible’ standards might sell out a client if the criminals have more to offer… I won’t.  And for old times’ sake, you don’t even have to pay me.  As long as you’ll let me investigate properly, consider me hired and on your side, no matter what.”

          Her expression softened.  Pkstzk reached out and laid her hand over mine.  I noticed neither of us had touched our drinks… a bit of a slip if we were playing at newly-met romance.

          She answered, “All right, good guy.  I’ll accept your terms.  And thank you, for that much.  I just have to hope you find out enough to sign the nest-defecator’s death warrant.”

          “I can’t disagree.  To be honest, I’ve been working the case already, ever since I got your note.  It definitely looks premeditated.”

          I caught her surprise easily.  “All week?  Do you have any suspects?”

          “I’ve only been back in town for two days, actually.  You stopped by while I was out on assignment.  No suspects, but some information about where and how it happened… more than you probably have time for.  Isn’t your five decads over already?”

          She looked at the clock behind the bar and cursed theatrically.  “You’re right.  I should have realized we’d need more time.  Wait…”  She reached into a pouch on her belt and pulled out a keycard.  “This is for a room at Taburket’s, near the shuttle port.  I rented it in case we needed somewhere to meet without raising suspicion.”

          Well, a pricy hotel room in the center of the city would keep us away from the eyes of our neighbors, but meeting at a prearranged room might seem odd for a ‘first date’.  It would draw attention if anyone was already watching Pkstzk closely.  The proposition certainly seemed presumptuous to me, even knowing it wasn’t really our first meeting.  Not that I was complaining, though.  We might not be ethically compatible, but between my libido and my long isolation, I could overlook that dilemma for a few nights together.

          With my luck, she really did intend the room for practical purposes.

          I accepted the keycard, putting on a show of radiating pleased, stunned gratitude at my good fortune.  Quietly, I asked, “What time?”

          “I’m off at twelve, so maybe one?”

          A late night, then?  I hoped I was up for it.  Concerns about my recent bouts of narcolepsy started to bubble up, but I kept them to myself.  If I had to, I’d pick up some stimulants on the way.  Sure, stimulants, birth control, and maybe a snack, just so I didn’t look too obvious.

          “See you there,” I agreed.

          We both got up.  We briefly clasped hands and then she hurried back into the dining room.  I hoped she wouldn’t get into trouble for the long break.  She left her drink at the table with me, obliging me to toss back my Cht Pkz and take both glasses to the bar.

          Vulletine was scrupulously looking away as I approached.  I set the glasses down and held out another ten-credit scrip to pay for the second, untouched drink.  He looked at the plastic chit, took it, and went back to his thoughts without comment.

          Only when I clicked quietly, starting to deliver my parting lines, did he speak: “Don’t even start.  She likes you.  You got something in common.  Great.  Have fun.  Just don’t bother me with the details.”  He didn’t sound so much dismissive as disappointed.  I had to wonder, again, what stake he had in Pkstzk’s welfare.

          One mystery at a time.  For now, I had the key to a beautiful female’s hotel room.  Almost as exciting, I would finally get the chance to put together some pieces of this frosted case.

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