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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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’
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
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.
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
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
“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
“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
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
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
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.