“Welcome back,” he said brightly, with little trace of sarcasm, “You’ve had a rough night.”
I cleared my throat, not wanting the obvious straight line to go to waste, but my tongue was so dry and thick I couldn’t talk back.
“You left some blood behind,” the Hrotata continued, “plus the painkiller is probably drying you out. Wait a while until we get fluids into you. Just rest for now. You’re all stitched up, at least. We’ve got the lead collection from your back all bagged up and waiting for you, along with some ventilated armor. The armor helped, but you really might want to invest in something thicker.”
Great, a comedian. Plus, he was stealing all my jokes. I groaned, and not in appreciation.
“Sorry about the feeling coming back. You’re not due for another dose of the good stuff.” He grimaced, which was just visible in my peripheral vision. “Officially not due.”
I got it. Technically, torturing a suspect was illegal, but constables could delay administration of painkillers for quite a while, in the interest of “obtaining a lucid statement.” I hoped my beak would get lubricated well enough to satisfy them before the aches became unbearable.
Anticipating my concern, the nurse pulled over a drinking hose and inserted the nozzle at the corner of my beak. The flexible tip would open and dispense small amounts of water whenever I bit down hard enough. I sipped a little without choking and he looked pleased.
“Other than that detail, there’s a signal box by your right hand; push the button if you need anything else. You’ve been spared a catheter, but I have to get someone to release you if you need the bathroom. Surprised you didn’t mess yourself when the shooting started… must be a tough lizard?”
His use of the common slur surprised me, but his tone was hardly dismissive. I wondered how much of his patter was his normal persona and how much was an act tailored to each patient. I was a suspect from a gun battle, so I got tough banter and slang. A little old Hrotata matron with a heart condition would probably get a different routine.
Hey, his patient, his show. I was just happy he wasn’t rude... or terrified of me.
I tried speaking again and managed: “Where am I?”
“Vaktrri Medical,” he answered without further jokes, “Room 1221. Post-surgical recovery.”
Vaktrri? I’d been there not too long ago… why? I didn’t remember being admitted recently, and my regular doctor was closer to home… not that I saw him very often, either. The exact circumstance eluded me, but I was sure I’d been to Vaktrri Medical for something recent. A case? To see a wounded client? The hint of a memory, along with the other oddities I’d noticed over the last few days, was aggravating.
Another anomaly: Vaktrri was in an entirely separate neighborhood from Taburket’s. In fact, it was half the city away from the shuttle port. It wasn’t even closer to where I lived. It was close to a major constabulary office, so maybe that was their reasoning in hauling me so far away. Even if there was a reason, it was still irresponsible. No matter how minor my injuries, I should have been taken to the nearest emergency room. Maybe my injuries had been worse than I thought; Vaktrri did have excellent surgeons. I couldn’t remember much about the hospitals around the port. Maybe this hospital had been a logical choice for reasons I couldn’t figure.
The nurse slipped out of the room while I thought this over. I chewed a few more swallows out of the drinking tube and tried to relax. Twinges from my arm, leg, and back kept nudging me awake. Those aches, coupled with the strange events of the previous few days, sent my mind racing. Working on the case might make my head hurt, but it distracted me from other pains.
What had happened? Three well-funded but amateurish Vislin street soldiers had jumped out of hiding and tried to kill me. Why? Was this somehow related to the case I was working, the murder of Vzktkk? Was I missing some past grudge someone would want to kill me over?
Wait, wait, wait. Why was I assuming they were lying in wait for me? What an ego. I hadn’t reserved the room at Taburket’s… Pkstzk did. It was far more likely they were waiting for her. To kill her? It was possible they only started firing after I did. They might have been there to kidnap Pkstzk or maybe just threaten her.
Whatever the reason, there was clearly something deeper involved in Vzktkk’s death. Pkstzk hadn’t warned me to be careful. It was possible she honestly didn’t know about a threat. I suspected she did at least know the general outlines of what was going on with her mate. So did she not know about the possibility of assassins? Or had she avoided warning me to also avoid scaring me off the case?
Worse chance, maybe Vzktkk had died as a consequence of whatever Pkstzk was involved in. I might have narrowly avoided being the second casualty of her actions.
I still needed that conversation with her, present delays notwithstanding. Now I had four additional interviews to look forward to: a constable detective and perhaps the three attackers… presuming they hadn’t died at the hotel. Once again, I fervently hoped no civilians had died, in a crossfire or as hostages. Trapped idiots with guns and without scruples tended to cause collateral casualties.
I also needed to make sure Tskksk was all right. I might have been paranoid, worrying about her before, but with this new twist, my fears weren’t so unfounded. I’d warn the constables to look in on her. Hopefully they already had her evidence and knew her value as a witness. If not, I could provide her recording and explain its significance.
The waiting started to wear on me. I hoped the nurse was notifying a detective that I was awake, waiting, and in genuine need of medication.
More water, more time, and more stray thoughts: one of the thugs had been packing a laser weapon. Vzktkk was shot with a laser. Was that significant? Given the weapon and Tskksk’s recording, could we verify a match? It was probably coincidence; there were lots of weapon-grade lasers in Layafflr City.
When the potential leads and connections between them began to run out, my thoughts turned to my own personal mysteries. I was forgetting some events and remembering others without context. I had suffered a lot of injuries over the years, but not that many were blows to the head. Well, here I was in the hospital. I could always ask the doctors to scan and test everything. I’d be in permanent debt and have all my vitals on permanent record, but maybe it would be worth it to salvage my mental and possibly physical health.
I almost became aggravated enough to signal the nurse and ask him how much longer I’d have to wait. His peace was preserved by the arrival of a stranger. A fairly large female Hrotata eased into the room, opening the door no wider than necessary to shift inside. She shut it again behind her, while I craned my neck to try and see my guest more clearly.
She was pale cream almost all over, with darker markings on her nose and around her ears. Her large size was partly length and partly weight. I wasn’t the best judge, but she looked a little rotund for a Hrotata. Any markings on her body were hidden by a formal robe, a heavy grey garment usually worn by important matriarchal leaders but sometimes adopted by other authority figures. This female was someone who wanted to make it clear she was In Charge.
She gestured that I should lie back, saying, “Investigator Stchvk? I’m Detective Nrissilli, Layafflr Constabulatory.” She stepped closer to the bed, within my comfortable field of vision. “I’m going to need to ask you a few questions. Answer to the best of your ability, and we’ll be done sooner…"
“…and you can be home before dinner,” I mumbled in interruption. I started to spit out the drinking tube. She reached forward to help, and I tensed, anticipating the contact with her fur that would transfer the Hrotata’s narcotic saliva. To my surprise, she was careful not to touch my mouth or scales, but only picked up the tube by its base and lifted it away.
“Right,” she answered with a smile, “You’ve played this part before. I’m familiar with some of your past work. You want to sit up?” she asked, gesturing toward the bed controls.
“Please,” I agreed, “Save my neck some strain.”
She adjusted the bed until I was halfway upright. The elevation let me unbend my crest as well as look at her without turning my head. Unfortunately, it brought blood rushing out of my head and into my arms.
I must have looked uncomfortable, since Detective Nrissilli winced sympathetically and said, “Sorry I can’t unbind you just yet. We need to make sure you won’t run off anywhere, first.”
“I do have places to be,” I muttered sullenly, “Some rotted eggs interrupted my plans for the night.”
“Let’s start with that, then.” She produced a compad from a holster beneath her robes and tapped it awake. “What happened last night?”
“I was going to a room in Taburket’s – Room 818 – to wait for a friend. A female friend, named Pkstzk. We were going to meet at her room, see how the evening went. She reserved the room. Have you checked on her? Is she safe?”
Nrissilli nodded, scrunching up her nose in an expression I could never reliably interpret: either irritation or amusement or both. “We’re sending a unit to look for her at home. She left work as usual, took a public ‘car toward the shuttle port, then nothing. She wasn’t at the hotel, if that’s your concern. Any thoughts where she might have gone, otherwise?”
We were trading information. It wasn’t a fair transaction, but it was nice not to just be answering questions into a vacuum. I supposed senior officers were allowed some latitude to act less like rabid rktpk.
“No, don’t even know where she lives. I think she chose the hotel partly to keep it that way.” Talking so much was drying my mouth out again, but I didn’t want to ask for the drinking tube and chance contact with the Hrotata again.
“Okay, so you went into the hotel. Any sign something might be wrong? Any forewarning this could happen? Looks like you were armed: an old-model heater?”
“I always carry that. I have a permit, under file along with my PI license.”
“I know. So you’re a throwback that way, too. Not everyone with a weapon and a license feels the need to carry all the time.”
“I do. Never know when you might be jumped."
“Sure. That’s a no, you didn’t suspect anything?"
“No. Far as I knew, I was going to an empty room to wait, maybe clean up, nap, see what I could afford from room service.”
“All right, then what?"
“I opened the door and went to the window… the curtains were open. I heard one of the shooters inside the closet and drew. He came out and I shot him… left hand. Vislin. Darker scales, short, maybe 1.7 meters. Had a small automatic ballistic, squarish, no idea what model. There were two others that came out of the bathroom, also Vislin, both taller and lighter. Didn’t get a good look at them. All three had black tactical armor, catalog-order stuff but good enough. I didn’t get a chance for a second shot. One had the shotgun, missed me the first time when I dropped. Number three had a laser, but I didn’t find that out until later. I managed to run into the closet, which they shot up for a while.”
I paused for a breath and to moisten my tongue. The detective took advantage of the pause to observe, “I got that much; I’ve seen video of the scene.”
“Good,” I started again. “You’ll know everything matches up. My heater didn’t touch anything else. I found the grav lift inside the closet… rewired it… used it as a shield and then as a cushion after going out the window."
“About that,” she interrupted again, “I wondered how the lift was involved. So you shorted it, yourself, in a couple of seconds? Then trusted that work with your life?”
I clacked my beak in rueful laughter. “I did. Good thing I did the job right."
“As unlikely as that sounds, it does fit the evidence. Your survival was pretty unlikely, too, if everything happened like you say. I can see where your history supports some pretty narrow escapes, but it also suggests some dangerous skills, too."
At first, I tensed up, thinking she was referring to my youthful past. Unless the old pack had talked, though, there shouldn’t be any official record linking me to our past crimes.
I had to assume she just meant my prior official cases. It was true, there were some dark marks on my record. Most of the felony charges had been dropped out of discretionary gratitude for services rendered to the City; I had beaten the one complaint that a city attorney decided to pursue. A few misdemeanors – breaking and entering, evidence tampering, witness intimidation – had been left in place and served with fines in order to make a point.
I was surprised the official records mentioned any of my more impressive feats. I figured the constables who witnessed my survival or took down the statements afterward would have glossed over my role. Maybe I had a fan or two on the force. Then again, they did have to keep verbatim records of my statements, and I wouldn’t have spared any self-praise.
“At the risk of seeming conceited, that’s the truth. I had a secret rendezvous; three unknown thugs tried to kill me; I got away by flying on a jury-rigged lift."
She continued taking notes, betraying only a slight smirk. “Let’s go back. It sounds like you didn’t recognize any of these sapients.”
“Was there any reason to think they were there to ‘kill you’? You fired first. Did you initiate aggression?”
“They had deadly weapons, up and ready to use. I wasn’t going to wait and see if they wanted to talk. It’s possible they were there to kidnap me… or Pkstzk. She could have been the target. That’s why you should find her right away.”
Again, she reassured, “We’re doing everything we can think of on that account. Is there anything else you can add that might help there?”
She was offering me a chance to spill everything. I gave her a few drops to see how much she already knew. “I know her husband was killed recently. Shot. I was looking into it for her. We were going to talk about my progress on the case.”
“So Pkstzk was employing you? As a PI? To investigate her husband’s death... nothing else? You said she was a ‘friend’…”
It had been too long since I danced to this tune. I misstepped earlier. It was a shame, since I really enjoyed the rhythm and found I missed it.
“You know how it happens sometimes… a grieving widow, a handsome male offering assistance, bonding over shared danger…"
She fixed me with a stare like she was the one suffering in pain. “You’re saying the relationship turned non-professional.”
“Well, I had hopes. I’m not proud."
“And here I had you labeled as purely professional. I guess that changes when romance gets involved… except it doesn’t. Not for Vislin. Not in such a short time. Her mate’s been dead barely a week. You don’t show up on the case until two days ago. So try again.”
I clacked again, as best I could around my thickening tongue, “I’m… a fast mover. Guess she is, too.”
“I don’t buy it, Stchvk. Someone tried to kill someone else last night. You’re involved, and your ‘client’ is involved. Odds are good it’s related to the death of her mate. I want to know how. I think you’re hiding something… and you’re usually good about sharing knowledge. I’m not letting you go until I know everything you know."
The setup was too tempting, “We could be here a long time, then. I could starve.”
“You can eat me, if you keep stalling like this.”
Why was I just now meeting such interesting sapients, when all I got were stiffs and crooks back when I was nothing but honest? I really wanted to fill her in, but a lingering fear of facing my past prevented me from adding the last piece.
I tried a diversionary tactic: “There is something else I can share. I have a recording of all the EM disturbances from the street where Vzktkk was killed, including the time of his death and the entire evening before and after.”
“I have that,” she replied, “from the compad store owner…” She checked her ‘pad, scrolling through her notes. “…Tskksk. She mentioned you. I know this part. She said you were looking into the pet importer/exporter across the street. What was that about?"
Bait taken, now set the hook: “That’s where the shooter fired from. I found a pane of glass in the door lintel wiped clean, where the others were dirty. The cashier’s counter inside was also wiped down, no dust… I figure they stood on it to line up the shot.”
“That would have been nice to know. When were you going to share these important details?”
“After I talked to Pkstzk. Which was supposed to happen tonight. So this conversation is actually right on time, just in a less comfortable setting.”
“All things considered, I’m not sure which option I would have preferred. Actually, I would have preferred the one where you shared your insights before creating a military incident.”
I winced, only partially from my own pain. “Anyone else hurt?”
“No civilians, if that’s what you mean. No constables. In fact… we never caught the shooters.”
“What?” Now it was my turn to be incredulous. “How was that possible? They were trapped inside."
“That’s my question. We know they were there; hotel cameras show the gang checking in, going upstairs, going into the room… and then running out when they heard sirens. We know they keyed the elevator… and then nothing. Pffft. Vanished. Any idea how?"
I was stumped. I was also angry. “Now I’m suspicious. If constables were covering every exit, like they should, how could they get past? Tunnels? Maybe you should let Internal Affairs know to look into those officers’ credit accounts."
She bristled at the implication, but said only, “I’ll take it under advisement. I actually hoped you might have an idea. Short of Ningyo tech, they shouldn’t have had any way out. No other guests, so far, and no constables said they saw them go by. We had a unit on the roof and yes, at every exit. A scene tech swept for any hidden routes or lingering spatial distortions… nothing."
“That’s fast work,” I said with honest praise. Layafflr City might see too many of these sorts of armed incidents, but the extra note of weirdness seemed to have prompted a quick, thorough investigation in this case.
“Thanks. So, no ideas. Anything else on the other case? Connections to this mess?"
“I don’t have any, yet. Again, I’m hoping Pkstzk can warm up some… provide some help.” Kkkk, bad choice of metaphor. “There was one other thing, if Tskksk didn’t mention it… I was attacked at the pet store, too.”
“She mentioned some abandoned animals. What happened there?”
“Someone left three rkptk, and maybe some other animals, locked in the building to starve. When I entered – my fault on the lock, by the way, I’ll cover the damages if the owner gives me a call – the sole survivor broke out of the back room and tried to take a bite out of me. I shot it dead. You’ll find the corpse on the floor; I didn’t want to handle it."
“Another crime scene I wish you’d mentioned at the time. It’s going to stink something awful by now. Guess who’ll be touring that store next?” She gratuitously pointed at her own chest.
“Sorry. I wanted to wait until I had a connection between the building and the murder,” I explained.
“You wanted to have the whole case wrapped up for your client before you fulfilled your obligation to the public,” Nrissilli accused. “I get that from every other P.I. out poking around in this city. I didn’t expect that from you."
She sounded like she really had followed my career, more than I might have expected. While gratifying in other contexts, right now she sounded like a conscience. Not my actual conscience, which had grown up with me and understood the complexities of my life and work. Some other conscience, freshly assigned to the job, without any experience.
“Maybe. Maybe I waited too long. Maybe I got too concerned with impressing this female. Guilty. But I wasn’t deliberately hiding anything. I got Tskksk’s recording to you. Honestly, if I had known the undercurrents or if I discovered them after meeting with Pkstzk, I would have called in right away.”
I was delivering an impressively mingled blend of truth and deflection. I had been honest with Pkstzk when I warned her I wouldn’t conceal criminal acts from the authorities, nor would I give her the name of her mate’s killer without first advising the constables. At the same time, I did tend to keep the law at claw’s tip until I was ready for them to be involved. It made certain investigations easier. It was a practical deception, not a deliberate criminal act.
Detective Nrissilli spoke my thought for me: “I mostly believe you. But you’re lying to me. Maybe you’re lying to yourself, too. I’m taking a break so I don’t have your suffering on my conscience… but I’m coming back later. I hope you’ll have a few new memories by then.”
I hoped so, too, but not in the way she meant. I kept quiet while the detective left the room.
Shortly afterward, the nurse returned and slipped a syringe into my intravenous line. The stuff made my extremities feel cold and tingly, then steadily less painful. As I started to drift off, I thought about the detective’s demands and my possible responses.
I wasn’t pack bound to Pkstzk. If she was involved in something bad now, I’d have no problem turning her in. I was protecting myself now and I'd protect myself later. Yet if I thought my silence was endangering Pkstzk, I’d have to choose between my freedom and her life, and life had to win. I wasn’t quite convinced the situation was that dire, yet. I was biased toward myself enough to need a clearer threat. If Pkstzk couldn’t be found soon, though, the balance might tilt toward complete disclosure. If I got a hint that Rsspkz, her former mate and my former pack mate, was involved, I’d know it was time to come clean.
We weren’t to that point yet. I didn’t owe the detective anything more until then. If she chose to keep me in custody in hopes I’d reveal something more, I couldn’t do anyone any good. If, however, she was uncertain about her suspicions, she might err on the side of trust and let me go.
Frost, explaining the entire story right now might convince her to arrest me right away, and then where would Pkstzk be? If it wouldn't actually help her to speak up, I shouldn't.
Actual ethics isn’t about the law. That’s especially true in a city like Layafflr, where crime is built into the literal laws. I’m sworn to uphold those laws, but I choose to fulfill their real purpose, not the interpretations favored by the gangsters in charge.
Big words, I know. But I’d been a gangster, even if just a little one. I recognized their rules when I saw them.