Thursday, December 3, 2015

Broken Record - Chapter 9 - "Clean Bill"

          For a night that had ended so badly, my morning was full of pleasant surprises. The night held surprises, too, the unpleasant surprises of being woken up every couple of hours by my nurse. The cheery Hrotata male withdrew blood once, replaced my intravenous fluids once, and checked my bandages once each, spread over three visits. Each time, he also reviewed my vitals. The first visit was hazy, but the subsequent two were clearer each time.

          By the time I was ready to wake up and stay awake, my head felt considerably less clouded. That was the first pleasant surprise: I was decently clear-headed, neither woozy from medications nor overly distracted by pain. Either the pain meds weren’t scrambling my brains as much as usual, or else they’d lowered the dosage and my wounds were healing well.

         I had a strange moment when I tried to stretch: both arms and both legs ached in protest. This wasn’t surprising for my arms, since both of my wrists were tied with medical cuffs to the bed frame. On the left side, this served an actual purpose: keeping me from moving my injured arm. I wasn’t formally a prisoner, but I was being kept in custody until the constables were satisfied.

         My legs weren’t restrained. My right leg had a bandage wrapped around its lower half, securing a pad which covered an embarrassing number of stitches. I had been lucky the bullet that caught me ripped parallel to the muscle, rather than through a major artery or bone.

         So why was my uninjured, unrestrained leg hurting as well? And here was another oddity: for a brief hectad or two, it had felt like I had casts on both ankles. After that sensation faded, the ache in my good leg went away, while the pain in my right side migrated to the torn muscle above. 

         Once this symphony of pain settled down to a few notes, those notes faded to a more muted background. I was aware of the pain, but it didn’t aggravate me the way it had when the detective was questioning me. It certainly wasn’t as severe as I might have expected from bullet wounds; it wasn’t as severe as I remembered from past projectile injuries.

         Good drugs? Or good medical care? Vaktrri Medical was a better facility than I usually visited. It was possible they had materials and/or techniques more advanced than at lesser hospitals. Frost, that was the soul of inequality, wasn’t it? Not only did the poorer neighborhoods get less care, and need it more often, the patients even suffered more pain per ailment. If the doctors at Vaktrri could fix me up faster and with less agony, that had to be a function of the available funding.

         I waited, half-awake and bored, spiraling in my own thoughts, until the nurse returned with breakfast. I might be a prisoner in my room, but at least they offered room service. The smell of broth poured out of a covered dish as the nurse set up a tray in front of my bed.

         “Are you going to feed me?” I asked him, rattling the bed’s arms with my bindings for emphasis.

         “Sorry to disappoint, but no,” he answered lightly. “We’ve got another drinking tube. I hope they’ll cut you loose before we move you up to solids.”

         The nurse opened the bowl and retrieved another flexible siphon, putting one end into the broth and the other at the corner of my beak, replacing the water tube. I took an experimental sip and found the liquid thicker than expected and also better tasting. Actual meat had been cooked down and then pureed into the broth. For hospital food, the meal was still better quality than the synthetic, rehydrated swill I drank most mornings.

          Since I wasn’t going to be conversational for a while, the nurse stepped out to let me eat quietly. Drinking out of a hose aside, I managed to enjoy breakfast. The meal also gave me time to think.

          It was possible I would be moved from the hospital into a prison. My involvement with Pkstzk’s case might end there, along with any ability to help her. On that path, my concerns would focus more on keeping myself - and her - out of worse trouble.

          Alternately, the detective might question me a while longer and then cut me loose. I was savvy enough to realize that this option would be a trap. Detective Nrissilli would have me watched closely to see where I went and who I met with afterward, in the hopes that I would incriminate myself further… or take the risks for her while finding the actual criminals. Either outcome might be worth the risk of letting me go ‘free’.

          I could get lucky; the third, least probable outcome was if the detective decided that I was not only not guilty, but that I could be an asset. In that scenario, the constables might share their information in return for mine and trade my assistance for my freedom. It had happened before, but not often. Usually, the best returns I could hope for were dropped charges and a warning to say out of constabulary business.

          In this case, the ‘good’ third option actually wasn’t much better than the second. I’d still be dancing across a minefield, trying to pursue whoever had killed Ktkkrz and whoever tried to kill me and possibly meant to kill Pkstzk. If those weren’t the same party, or if one or both were linked to Pack Vzzrk, I might not be able to dance nimbly enough to dodge the explosions. I definitely wasn’t in prime dancing form, what with my recently perforated leg.

          I expected my next visitor to be the nurse or possibly Detective Nrissilli. Instead, an unexpected third party stopped in: a male Vislin in beige doctor’s robes. His scales clashed with the light fabric, most of them a black so dark it reflected blue from the indoor lighting.

          He carried an official compad and wore an ID badge, so I assumed he was, in fact, a doctor. That wasn’t a given; I had pretended to be a doctor at least once before to sneak into a hospital room. An assassin could easily do the same to get access and catch me defenseless.

          My paranoia was reduced somewhat by his demeanor: he did absolutely nothing to put me at my ease. An assassin would have either shot me outright or tried to lull me into feeling safe, in either case making sure I didn’t call for help. This doctor gave me plenty of time to inspect him and worry. I could have called the chief of constables in the time he took dawdling around.

          He checked over his compad, looked up at me without catching my eyes, and then looked back down at his screen again. Then he crossed to my vital monitor and compared its display with his ‘pad's. Like the nurse, he made a few notes with a claw-tip. The entire time, he neither spoke to me nor acknowledged my presence. It was like being dark matter studied by an astronomer; I was apparently invisible but somehow produced measurable effects in his universe.

          It wasn’t until he removed the feeding tube from my beak and I muttered, “Thanks” that he indicated any awareness of a patient inside the bandages.

          “Stchvk?” he mused aloud, glancing again from his compad to me and back.

          “It’s true. I do exist,” I quipped back.

          He either missed the joke or ignored it. “I’m your doctor, Ssvktk. I’ll need to check your injuries. We’ll start with your leg, see how the stitches are holding.”

          He put the compad down somewhere behind my field of view and came around the opposite side holding a tray and a pair of scissors. He continued his monologue: “I’m going to lift your leg slightly and cut off the bandages. There may be some pain from both actions.”

          I finally put it all together: his muted demeanor, his averted gaze, his careful warning; Doctor Ssvktk was afraid. Even with my arms tethered, he was afraid of me. What had the constables told him? That I was a suspect involved in a public firefight? Or had they just left it at ‘dangerous suspect’ and let him fill in the details? I suspected that this section of Vaktrri Medical didn’t see many patients in custody. Otherwise, the doctor might have come in with a security escort or at least been a tougher sort.

          I was tempted to abuse my position and terrorize the doctor. That urge passed quickly as I recognized that he was my doctor and – for what it was worth – my healing was in his hands. I stayed quiet and still as he lifted my leg, which only protested slightly in response. He cut away the bandages, which clung slightly and pulled at the wound, then inspected the stitching on its underside.

          “Tt?” He clicked, which I assumed was doctor-speak for either “That’s bad,” or “That’s odd.”

          It turned out to be the latter. As he wrapped my leg in new gauze, the doctor informed me, “Either the injury was less severe than we thought, or you heal quickly. It’s already sealing… our surgeon can’t take credit for that much improvement.”

          From past, hard experience, I knew that I wasn’t a “quick healer”. I was willing to believe that the gunshot wound had looked worse – and felt worse – than it actually was. Cleaning up the blood, removing the loose and impacted scales, and stitching up the tear would have improved its appearance considerably. Still, it had hurt quite a lot at the time, and if past experience was any indicator, it still ought to sting badly.

          I had been assuming that topical and internal pain medications were suppressing that sting. Maybe they had less work to do than usual.

          The doctor moved on: “I’ll take a look at your arm now. I will need to unbind your arm. Please remain still. Any sudden motions could damage your injury further and will be exceedingly painful.”

          I had had enough. I blinked theatrically and informed him, “Look, Doc, I appreciate the play-by-play, but I’m not dangerous. I ended up in the right room at a bad time and some actual criminals put some holes in my hide. Just do what you need to, and I promise you, I won’t do anything ‘sudden’... or stupid.”

          I didn’t add: you can untie me, and I won’t go anywhere, I promise. I was tempted to, but that’s exactly what a criminal who was planning to escape would say.

          He didn’t respond directly to my statement, but he did stop pre-narrating his actions. He used the scissors to gnaw through my left wrist restraint, then to remove the bandages on that arm. This time, I could see the injury. I knew the bullet had gone through my forearm, not far from the wrist. I had been fortunate it missed the bones to either side. Even so, I expected a nasty, puckered wound, stitched together with some difficulty or even packed to keep the bleeding down.

          Instead, I saw neat straight incisions on both sides of my arm. It looked like the bullet had opened the flesh with minimal effort and politely closed the doors on the way back out. This wound, even dressed, had to be the tidiest gunshot wound I’d ever seen.

          The doctor gave his little click again and started in, “This is very good…”

          I interrupted, “It’s surreal, is what it is. Is Vaktrri experimenting with some next generation medical tech? If so, I’m not complaining, even without signing any contract. Either that, or my attackers were using some experimental ‘low damage’ ammunition.” I tried not to sound angry. The weirdness probably wasn’t this doctor’s fault. I really wasn’t complaining, either. Being less hurt was a good thing. I just wished I could explain it.

          I couldn’t blame Doctor Ssvktk for giving me a pained look anyway. He shook his head and stepped back, setting down the tray with its discarded bandages and retrieving his compad. He took a picture of my arm and tapped the screen a few more times, likely transmitting the image to a colleague. Possibly, he was querying the surgeon who had seen my wounds originally.

          “No, while Vaktrri Medical is near the state of the art for ChtkKttp, no otherwise special techniques were used in your surgery,” he finally and flatly stated. “It is possible that armor piercing rounds were used, and you had the good fortune to be struck only in non-vital areas.”

          I stared at the doctor in disbelief, long enough to make him uncomfortable again. He looked away and then shuffled away to put down his compad again.

          He returned with a new tray and said, “Last, I’ll look at your back.” At least he spared me any further instructions.

          I rolled over obligingly, balancing myself on my good arm where it remained tethered to the bed rail. My abused tail stretched automatically, flicking against the mattress. I hadn’t realized how cramped it had been until painful tingles started running from its base to tip. A hospital bed was a poor substitute for a proper nest, no matter how ergonomically it was designed… and no bed is comfortable when you’re strapped in place.

          The doctor didn’t flinch when my tail moved. I took that as a sign that he was relaxing. He pulled at one of the patches on my back and dropped the bandage onto his tray. He probed around the area with a claw-tip, I assumed to check for any remaining embedded shrapnel.

          “I’m going to attribute this result to your armor and distance,” he offered right away, rather than clicking and pausing first. “The shot didn’t penetrate very deeply, but even so, you ought to show more impact trauma.”

          “It sure kicked hard enough,” I responded, working our rapport toward camaraderie. “Practically threw me out a window.”

          He did click, once, in reply to that statement. He worked quietly and quickly afterward, removing and replacing pads. I counted them to entertain myself: eighteen. Eighteen separate pock marks from my shoulders down to my tail base. I supposed I was fortunate my tail had kept any shot from going up my backside, but I was also glad my angle had kept any projectiles from smacking into my skull.

          So, three armed attackers had done their best to murder me in a locked – though admittedly spacious – hotel room, and I came out with nothing worse than twenty-one lines of neat stitches? Between medical glue and self-absorbing sutures, I’d be almost intact in a few days. The soreness would fade before the scars did, but at least the scale-less patches weren’t anywhere obvious.

          Pretty good deal, all told. Very good. Too good. If I were more religious, I’d owe a Goddess or two an offering for such amazing luck. Maybe I had been blessed for my virtues? Yeah, let’s laugh a moment at that thought.

          The doctor cleaned up as I considered more secular reasons for my good fortunes. Had they been trying to wound but not kill me? I reviewed the attack in my memory, which was functioning amazingly well for recent events despite its problems with more distant recall. No, they had definitely been trying to kill me. Maybe they were a little slower on the trigger than seasoned professionals, but that could be explained by a) surprise at seeing the wrong Vislin in their trap, and/or b) not actually being seasoned professionals, despite their gear. Other than their delay, they had certainly installed enough lead into the suite to make a convincing case for murderous intent.

          My evasive skills weren’t the reason, either. I have a pretty quick dodge, honed by necessity and natural talent, but I’m no trained martial artist or soldier. If I managed to move away and turn aside enough to minimize injury, that wasn’t by intent or skilled reflex.

          I supposed, lacking any new information, I’d have to reluctantly ascribe my survival – actually, my minimal damage – to sheer stupid chance. I guess every so often, even a hard-luck sapient gets an undeserved favor.

          Another bit of luck: the doctor didn’t bother to re-bind my free, injured arm. I wondered if that was deliberate, but I was alert enough not to mention it. No need to remind him of forgotten duties in this case.

          He nodded to me as he started toward the door, only belatedly remembering to throw in basic courtesies. “Medically, I believe you can be released today, citizen Stchvk. You should require only further rest with minimal strenuous activity for the next half-cycle, before being evaluated again.”

          He continued, reciting the rest of his dialogue from a familiar routine: “Notify your physician if you notice any swelling, discoloration or discharge from any wound site, if you experience increasing pain, numbness, or warmth, or if you have fever or weakness lasting more than one day."

          Last, he went off-script to note: “Of course, your discharge depends on the constable overseeing your medical residence. You may be moved to a holding facility at her or his discretion. In either case, I likely will not be needed again. Thank you and good day.”

          He was out the door before I could respond. Busy sapient, other patients to see, still afraid for his safety, you know, the usual. I settled down, this time on my side, and prepared myself mentally for another long wait.

          I missed out on the anticipated boredom. Less than a decad after Doctor Ssvktk stepped out, the door opened, and Detective Nrissilli stepped in.

          I straightened out and tried to settle my left arm back into place. “Detective, welcome back,” I greeted her. My ruse clearly hadn’t worked, as her eyes went to my freed arm. Instead, I lifted it and waved slowly. “It appears I’m in good hands here.”

          “So I hear,” she confirmed with a smile. “The doctor says you don’t need to stay here long, although you might want a crutch for that leg.”

          “What’s next, then?” I asked, getting right to the point.

          “I think that’s up to you,” she countered, “We’re still right at the same point where we left off."

          I clacked at her in irritation. “Except today I’m not in as much pain.”

          She had the grace to look embarrassed, even lifting a paw and tilting her head down before stopping short of grooming an ear. “You know that’s standard procedure. I’m doing my job according to protocol. Otherwise, I might do something like let you go and see if you lead us to Pkstzk… or have you shot up with hypnotics until you tell us where she is.”

          “She’s still missing?” I sat up a little, betraying my concern.

          “Officially, she's not 'missing'. But she hasn’t been located, either. As a person of interest in an attempted murder - even as the potential intended victim – we have constables out looking for her. I’m confident we’ll track her down soon, assuming she’s still alive. Sorry.”

          I waved off the attempt at sympathy. “I agree with your fatalism. I’d like to join the search myself, but I suspect there may be difficulties there. I assume my attackers haven’t been located, either?”

          The detective looked irritated, then. “No. I was really hoping you might have remembered something else… because otherwise, they’ve vanished. You’re fortunate other guests and the clerk remembered them entering, because otherwise, they might be considered fictional. Now, I’m not disputing the facts of the firefight up there…” She held up both paws to forestall my nonexistent protest. “…because there’s plenty of broken glass, holes, and a fried grav lift to verify your story. But how do I explain three armed and armored Vislin getting in and out of a hotel without leaving any sign on video?”

          She paused, actually waiting to see if I could offer an explanation. Actually, there was something nagging at me… “Wait, no video? I thought you said you saw them going in, on the recordings from the lobby cameras.”

          Detective Nrissilli stared back at me and answered smoothly, “Did I? I must have been assuming we had that. It turned out we didn’t. I talked to the officer who reviewed the video… no images of them.”

          Was she lying now? Was she lying back then? Was she actually sloppy enough to claim evidence she didn’t have, by mistake? My instincts said she had meant what she said earlier, which meant she was either hiding something now… or testing me? It wasn’t uncommon for a detective to deliberately misstate facts in a case, seeing if a suspect or witness would let the error pass, getting caught in a lie or revealing their actual uncertainty about a detail. I had used the technique myself in the past.

          But what possible value did it hold to alter that particular detail? What suspicions about me were related to the hotel video? Did she think I somehow removed or altered the recordings or had someone else do it? Did she think it would be a problem for me to either have or not have the videos?

          I didn’t get much time to consider the possibilities. To be honest, some of these ideas occurred to me later in the day, after our conversation. Detective Nrissilli pressed on, changing the subject in a way that was itself suspicious.

          “Actually, there’s not much evidence indicating you committed any crime: no bodies, whether or not you fired in self-defense. We’ve already searched your compad: you were clearly working the Vzktkk case, but I didn’t see any earlier calls between yourself and his mate… actually, no calls at all. Very clean work, even for a P.I. We know you two met at her place of employment, had a drink, and she gave you the hotel key there. A check of your recent travel shows that you were out of town at the time of Vzktkk’s death."

          I did my best to keep my feelings out of my response: “All accurate, and thank you for noticing. Very thorough work, yourself. You are correct: there is no evidence I did anything illegal, because I haven’t. Improper, maybe. Imprudent, definitely. But I’ll swear to you, if it will help: I’m just the hired hunter here, trying to find a killer. Maybe I found three. I’ll be the first to admit this case got bigger than I expected and I walked into the middle of it.”

          “I still think there’s more between you and your ‘client’ than you’re telling. Why hasn’t she called you… why didn’t she call you before, at least once? What would you or she be afraid of that required phone silence? If it was the fact of your hire, then why meet with you in public?"

          I had an answer for that, at least: “She came to my office while I was out of town and left me a note to meet her. She figured coming to her workplace would give us an excuse to talk without drawing attention.”

          True so far, but then I reversed away from the truth: “I don’t know why she was being so careful. She said she didn’t want anyone knowing she had hired private help. Maybe she thought I would be more effective if the killer didn’t see me coming. Maybe she thought she was protecting me from whoever shot her mate.”

          “That didn’t work so well,” the detective offered, deadpan.

          “I assume she didn’t know they would track her reservation at a dockside hotel,” I suggested. “But she booked it under her own name, so she wasn’t being totally cautious.”

          “I’m still not convinced,” Detective Nrissilli warned, “but I will admit that I don’t have anything – yet – to hold you on. Given your injuries, I’m going to trust your good sense and let you go home to recuperate. Consider yourself off Pkstzk’s case. Unhired. If she makes contact, you let me know. My number is on your compad, which you can pick up when you check out here. We have to hold your heater as evidence until the hotel incident is resolved. You can have your armor back, although I’m not sure it’s worthwhile to repair at this point… maybe bury it with honors.”

          Her tone was light but her words heavy. I understood the warning. She wouldn’t expect me to honor her ‘orders’ to drop Pkstzk’s case, but if the constables enforced jurisdiction, I would be fully liable for any damage or infractions caused while pursuing that case. I was already guilty of one known breaking-and-entering. If I persisted, I certainly wouldn’t have any friendly witnesses regarding the shootout at Taburket’s. Plus, if I was found at any scene related to this case – like Taburket’s, the restaurant, or the murder site in Isstravil – I could be arrested on sight for ‘tampering’ or ‘trespassing’.

          The same applied if I had contact with Pkstzk before the constables found her and didn’t call the detective immediately. That oversight would be considered ‘interfering with an investigation’ or ‘obstruction of justice’.

          Holding my weapon, Rtrtr, hostage to my good behavior… that was just cruel. Besides leaving me unarmed, keeping my heater in lockup was punishing a good weapon for its owner’s misfortunes. The detective probably didn’t realize how much I loved my sidearm, but she understood that I was less likely to start any (more) trouble without it. Yes, it actually was evidence, but that was a secondary concern.

          My body must have betrayed my frustrations. Detective Nrissilli squinted at me and added: “Do we have an understanding? Your release on good behavior?”

          “Sure. Fine. I’m not happy, but I get your meaning. I’ll be good for a day or two, anyway, just to make sure these stitches don’t pull out. I hope you’ll have everyone rounded up by that time.”

          “I’m hoping to have your three, plus Pkstzk, in custody by the time you’re discharged,” the detective shot back. “And you’re not entirely loosed from my claws: Stay in town and out of trouble. You may still get a free ride downtown if I hear something I don’t like.”

          “Heard. So, can you cut me loose here?” I indicated my bound wrist. With all the turning and twisting, the restraint tie was cutting in enough to make my fingers feel cold.

          The detective actually obliged, digging out a pair of scissors and cutting off the bindings the same way the doctor had. I flexed my good arm and hand gratefully, getting the blood back where it wanted to go.

          “Stay in bed,” Detective Nrissilli warned. “Besides your good health, there’s still a guard outside. Don’t make him nervous.”

          “No problem,” I confirmed. “I’m still not sure how well I can stand up. I’ll wait on the nurse to help out there. Tttt, one more thing: Would you mind if I call Tskksk, make sure she’s all right?”

          She twitched an ear in agreement. “We have a patrol checking in on her. She opened her store on time this morning, no signs of any trouble. She doesn’t answer her ‘pad very well, though.”

          “I noticed that.” I relaxed slightly, relieved that at least one possible victim of this case had avoided trouble. “Thanks. I don’t expect any attention toward her, considering you already spoke with her and others in the neighborhood about Vzktkk’s murder. I haven’t mentioned the new evidence to anyone… and I’ll keep it that way.”

          “Good,” the detective replied. “Although I don’t know yet what value that evidence will be to the murder case. If someone does come after her, that would tell me it's important.”

          I didn’t like the sound of that. I countered, “But even if that was the case, now that we have the recording, there’s no reason to bother her.”

          “Sometimes, criminals don’t need reasons. Murder may have a motive, but that doesn’t mean the motive isn’t irrational.” Her lecture was strange, coming from a constable detective to a private detective who, she knew, had dealt with more than one murder case. Then again, she was far ahead of me in years and experience; maybe she had been exclusively dealing with death for a long time.

          She was right, too. Just knowing that Tskksk had provided evidence that might implicate him or her, the killer might target her as retribution. I hated the thought. For one thing, it gave me additional incentive to ignore the detective’s warnings and help find the killer that much faster.

          “Well, let’s not give them any reasons, either way,” I declared.

          “It won’t be public knowledge until we have the killer on trial,” she confirmed. “And then, only if it is relevant. Get some rest, would you? You’re winning here, don’t push it.” On that note, she left the room, locking the door behind her.

          I didn’t feel like a winner. Fortunate, yes. But the game was still being played. And by the empty shells of my mother’s unlaid eggs, I wasn’t about to get off the field just yet.

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