Monday, January 25, 2016

Broken Record - Chapter 13 - "Empty Nest"


            It took almost a full decad and a couple of painful shocks before I managed to reformat my magnetic door key.  Then, using the blank and my compad battery, I realigned the coding until it matched closely enough to fool the lock to Apartment 401.  I came close to draining my ‘pad’s charge; I’d have to keep its use minimal until I could plug it in again. 

            Still, the complicated approach was better than shorting out Shtvtsk’s lock directly or kicking the door down.  If tricking the lock hadn’t worked, I might have been tempted to try one of those techniques, instead.  Having few investigative options was making the leads I could pursue seem more urgent.  I wanted to know Shtvtsk’s connection to Vzktkk.  I wanted that knowledge in a manner more carnal than intellectual.

            Even feeling that urgency, I managed to slide the door open slowly and quietly.  I listened for movement, breathing, anything that might indicate an occupant in hiding.  As much as I had knocked, there shouldn’t be anyone asleep inside. 

            The apartment remained quiet for the five hectads I spared to listen: the limit of my patience.  I opened the door wider and stepped inside.  It was a nice, comfortable space: a little bigger than my new place downstairs, but not by much.  The impression of extra room was enhanced by the large houseplants and a couple of strategically placed mirrors. 

The main living space felt like the reception area of an upscale business.  Maybe it was.  Prospective clients might wait in here before being escorted elsewhere.  That didn’t necessarily mean the nest room; the full faux mate experience probably included homemade meals in the dining area and grooming in the bathroom.  Some of her clients might prefer to go out – to a restaurant, to the theater, maybe to a sporting event – rather than spend the day “at home”.

Those would be the clients not worried about insulting an existing mate.  Being seen in public with a new female acquaintance isn't scandalous, no more than hanging out with a male friend, but if you go out often enough with the same person, especially to social events, questions arise.  You certainly can’t treat a strange Vislin of the opposite gender as if they were as close as pack, if they aren’t and aren’t your mate. 

If the gossip had Shtvtsk labeled right, that experience was what her clients wanted: the emotional support of being accepted, being close with someone.  Was Vzktkk one of those clients?  I hoped to find out soon.

I made a discreet dash for the nesting room.  I assumed the lady’s boudoir was the most likely resting place for any clues.  Maybe I’d find a written note, as rare as those were becoming.  Maybe there was a piece of armor in Vzktkk’s size hung up inside.  It was over a week since Vzktkk's death, so the chances of finding any personal belongings were slim.  Unfortunately, the key evidence I wanted – an address book – was probably on Shtvtsk’s personal compad, which would be on her person.

Or not.  I actually froze in the entryway to the apartment’s nest room, stunned by my luck.  A compad.  On a low table right next to a very comfortable looking padded nest.  I barely noticed the rumpled linen sheets and the smell of musk and perfumes.  I was just that amazed.

The paralysis wore off fast.  I darted for the ‘pad, not wanting to waste time puzzling over this rare opportunity.  Still, confusion lingered.  As I booted up the unit and considered the password screen, I was still wondering why any Vislin – much less one with a reputed business requiring careful privacy – would leave their ‘pad behind. 

A stomper might leave a 'pad at home, sure, but they’re not as fond of personal electronics.  They prefer to meet up in person whenever possible.  I’m not criticizing; actually, I find their social traditions and ideals pretty admirable.  Might be one of the few redeeming qualities for the noisy lumps of muscle.  I’m just saying, they don’t keep their ‘pads as close to the heart as we do.

I tried a few default passwords just to see how far my luck would stretch.  Not that far; Shtvtsk was savvy enough to set up proper security.  I had a few different options to bypass the password screen.  I could just steal the whole compad, but that was messy and would lead to complications.  For one thing, Shtvtsk would know the unit was missing and know someone had broken in.  If she was connected to Vzktkk’s death, she’d be wary and possibly come looking for culprits… or send someone else looking.  Living in the same building as my quarry, I would be easily spotted, watched, and caught. 

Frost, I might already have been spotted.  Though that was somewhat my intent in moving to Isstravil, I didn’t want to create trouble too soon or on terms I couldn’t manage.  As long as Shtvtsk thought I was only poking around, she might not overreact.  If she was linked to the mercs who shot at me – and possibly blew up my apartment – then setting her off too soon could be deadly.

I could try and borrow the unit just long enough to break the security.  Tskksk might help with that, if her curiosity and willingness to help could override professional ethics.   I was curious if we could confirm this ‘pad as the source of the calls to Pkstzk on the night of Vzktkk’s murder.  The problem with this plan was similar: I’d have to remove the whole ‘pad, risking Shtvtsk’s return before I could get the ‘pad back in place. 

I could try to hack the compad myself.  I dismissed that option quickly.  For one problem, I doubted my skills were up to the task.  Even if I managed to puzzle out the right approach, I probably didn’t have enough time to finish before Shtvtsk came back. 

Finally, I decided on a hybrid solution.  Voiding the compad’s warranty, I unsealed the back panel with a claw tip, then popped it off, exposing the component structure.  I might not be an electronics genius, but I knew enough to find the memory matrix.  Most components of a compad are integrated for size and simplicity, but the memory always has to be removable. 

Repeating the process with my own ‘pad, I removed a blank memory bead.  I pulled all the beads out of Shtvtsk’s matrix and replaced them with the single blank.  When she booted the ‘pad, it would report a blank, reformatted memory.  I was counting on her to be insufficiently savvy to spot the dramatically reduced memory capacity, instead ascribing the problem to a hardware error or virus.  My subterfuge would be spotted immediately if she popped the cover, but most users are loathe to do so precisely to avoid warranty issues. 

If I was really blessed, Shtvtsk would take her malfunctioning ‘pad to the nearest local service location… Tskksk’s little shop.  That’s where the removed beads would be, after we had finished copying their contents.  Tskksk could easily swap back the original beads, seal up the ‘pad, and make up a story about some hardware fault or malware or something.

That was still assuming I could convince Tskksk to not only help with the data transfer but also lie to a customer.  I was also assuming a lot about Shtvtsk’s likely response.  She might be more clever than I assumed.  Or she might take the ‘pad somewhere else.  When she found out all her original memory had been stolen, she’d go looking for the culprit. 

Ideally, by then, I’d have the case solved and could either apologize for the mistake or gloat at her through prison bars. 

The whole swap, including time to reseal both ‘pads, took less than a decad.  I likely had more evidence now than I could have hoped for, but I still wanted to sweep the rest of the apartment.  I gave the nesting room a cursory search, but with less desperate intensity.

There was nothing out of the ordinary.  Nothing screamed ‘male’ or ‘foreign’.  As much as I might have wanted to linger over the bedsheets, I had no legitimate reason to hang around.  Instead, I stepped out and checked the dining area.  Nothing on the counters; nothing in the cold box; nothing in the drawers.  Well, nothing about the case.  There were plenty of modern electronic conveniences, plenty of food in the box, and some respectable knives in the drawers.  Shtvtsk wasn’t hurting for kitchen supplies… or much else, for that matter.  By contrast to this luxury, my old apartment would have looked like the aftermath of a home robbery... even before the explosion.

The old place looked much worse now, I was sure.  Clean nothing is better than burnt anything.  Shtvtsk's apartment was fairly clean, I noticed.  Other than the rumpled nest and a couple stains in the kitchen, the rest was almost pristine.  The bathroom was polished and the living area tidy. 

            Other than admiring the housekeeping, my remaining search of the apartment didn’t turn up much of interest.  Checking the living room drawers turned up a couple of take-out menus and some business cards, but nothing really personal.  There was a small locked security box in the front room, under a chair, but I decided not to test my luck trying to pick the lock.  If I had to guess, I’d say it contained anonymous credit chips from customers or possibly valuable tokens of affection. 

            If my check of the compad memory turned up nothing, I might return for that box, but I suspected I had everything I needed about Shtvtsk already… if there was anything to see. 

            I had just decided to finish up and slip out when a familiar chime caught my hearing: an incoming call.  I checked my ‘pad, but the call wasn’t for me.  It was Shtvtsk’s ‘pad pinging from the nest room. 

            I briefly considered picking up the call.  Unfortunately, with the address book extracted along with the ‘pad’s memory, I wouldn’t know who was calling until I answered.  I couldn’t risk being exposed, though.  Particularly if the caller was Pkstzk, I’d give away too much.  I could try answering while turning the camera away and staying silent… but that would still be an anomaly, one the caller might mention to Shtvtsk later. 

            While I considered my course of action, the opportunity passed.  The chiming stopped.  It was just as well; my best idea had been to do nothing anyway.  The event wasn't without value, though.  I marked the time on my own ‘pad.  Hopefully, Tskksk could do something with the information… maybe we could confirm this ‘pad as the source of the earlier calls to Pkstzk.

            A moment later, I was peering through the gap of the apartment door, watching and listening for any witnesses.  The hallway looked clear.  Locking the door behind me, I slipped out into the hall and scrambled back to the stairwell.  Once I reached the third floor, I was safe.  No one would have any reason to suspect I was doing anything other than going to my own apartment.

            There was one last problem.  My key was still coded for Apartment 401, not 309.  I’d need to clear and recode it again before I could enter.  Fortunately, there was another power outlet on the third floor, but I’d need another uninterrupted decad to fix the coding… not to mention a recharge on my compad battery. 

            It appeared I’d have to walk to Tskksk’s shop a second time today.  I’d have to go there anyway to copy the stolen memory beads, but it might have been wiser to do that the next day.  Twice in a few short hours would get suspicious, if anyone was watching.  Repeated visits also upped the probability that I’d run into Detective Nrissilli or another constable, if they were checking in on Tskksk as promised. 

            But sooner was better for other reasons, like getting the data transferred before Shtvtsk noticed the absence.  And I could check if that recent call set off any matches.  And I could recharge my ‘pad and fix my key.  Seeing Tskksk again was just one benefit of many.  Stacking all those plusses together seemed to outweigh a few low-probability, highly-dangerous risks. 

            I dry swallowed one more pain pill.  The meds were working admirably and without noticeable side effects thus far, aside from an understandable fuzziness of thought.  I begged the chemical to keep it up just a little longer.  I promised my body a long rest afterward, even if it was on a bare floor.  We’d all make it through.  I just had to unravel this case before I could really rest.

            I mean, I’d still be broke, hurt, and dealing with whatever neurochemical weirdness I’d developed, but at least I could stop worrying about being arrested or murdered.  Maybe I’d even end up ahead, with a new friend or two.  Somewhere in the mix was the need to do my job, to solve the case… and to avoid being rendered unable to work again.  Going to jail and losing my license was almost as awful a thought as being shot.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Broken Record - Chapter 12 - "Threshold Lurker"

          Given my injuries, I shouldn’t have walked even the short distance to Tskksk’s storefront.  My leg continued to tug and ache.  I was past due to change the bandage, not to mention to lie down with that leg elevated.  Seeing as how I didn’t own a bed, that would be difficult.

          Ignoring a potentially critical lead also would be difficult and painful.  The urgency of pursuit helped me push aside my discomfort.  I might need another pill after the present excitement had passed, even though I had doubled my dose earlier.

          I kept my pace measured, resisting the urge to lope the last few steps into the store’s open doorway.  As I entered, I spotted Tskksk in her usual place at the back, hovering over a work table tiled with active ‘pads.

          She looked up as I crossed the threshold, blinking in surprise at my battered appearance.

          “Detective… you look terrible!”

          “Thanks.  Sorry, I can't return the compliment,” I managed, saving the remainder of my breath for recovery.

          She clacked in irritation and found a folding stool from somewhere in the back room.  “Here, sit down,” she insisted.  “I’d suggest you lie down but there’s nowhere suitable in here."

          I was too tired to catch the easy setup, to suggest that we both lie down somewhere else.  It was just as well.  I was also too sore to enjoy anything physical, in the off chance that my pickup was successful.  Kkk, right, I also looked awful, so my chances would have been absolutely zero.

          I accepted the offered stool with mumbled gratitude.  She started to run off to get me water but stopped when I croaked, “The call.  Any progress?”

          She squinted as if in pain herself.  “No, not really.  I have the timing of each call, the distance for the local caller and the later recipient, and the frequencies for all three coms.  If any of them connects again I’ll have comparison data.  I'm still waiting on the original local caller to show up again, though I’ve only been monitoring since this morning, when I got the security program recompiled.”

          “Sorry, you’re losing me, and not just because of the medications,” I admitted.  “Recompiled?”

          “I rebuilt the code… changed the program so that it watches for certain patterns and alerts me if they show up.  That took some time.  Sorry if I ignored my calls while I worked.”

          “It turned out well.  I’m flattered you kept working on this case without being asked."

          She turned a questioning eye on me.  “It’s a puzzle, right?  I wouldn’t work with tech if I didn’t like solving puzzles.  I figured I could be useful.  It’s not as if the constables don’t have access to the same tools, they're just restricted about when and where they can use them.  I’m a private citizen living near the crime scene, so I can do something they can’t.”

          “Something I couldn’t do, either,” I added.  “Really, you’re pretty impressive.  If this approach works out, you might be able to hire out as a consultant.  I’d hire you… if I wasn’t dead broke.”  I wasn’t sure what prompted the admission.  I’d praised her because I wanted to and because she deserved it.  If I was trying to seduce her with flattery, my last comment wasn’t exactly attractive, nor particularly necessary.

          Her crest twitched... embarrassed about being noticed?  She swung the focus away from herself by interrogating me instead.  “Not getting paid up front?  It looks like you should ask your client for hazard pay, between that rktpk and whatever tore you up this time.  You smell like smoke, too… was there a fire?”

          I could have diverted her questions, but I took the opening to impress upon her the dangers of getting involved: “A bomb.  In my office.  I came down here to find a new place to live… as a bonus, it lets me search the neighborhood more closely.  I might draw out Vzktkk’s shooter, so this could be the last time I come here in person, until everyone involved is caught." 

          I indicated the bandages on my arm and leg, "These... are from three attackers that came after me two nights ago.  I think they were aiming for Vzktkk’s mate.  Either way, someone’s working hard to remove any knowledge about this matter.”

          “Which means they might come after me.”  Her voice was steady, but her body language gave away her fear.  Her legs spread, claws splayed, as if getting ready for a dash backwards.  Her crest went back down fully and her shoulders tightened.

          I couldn’t be very reassuring.  “It’s possible, but only if you’re likely to find something critical, and then only if they know about it.  Then again, I’m still wondering what I might know that could matter.  We – I and Detective Nrissilli – agreed to keep your name out of any reports, just in case.  Even your evidence isn’t logged yet, not until we have everyone in custody and are ready for trial.”

          “But you don’t have any suspects yet,” she pointed out. “There isn’t anyone you’re thinking of, is there?”

          “A few possibilities,” I exaggerated.

          “Well, call them,” she suggested.  “Or have them call you.  Either way, I’ll be able to compare the signals.  I was considering going through the comm listings for the buildings around here and calling each one myself, to see which one matched to the earlier recipient, but I figured that would be time-consuming…”

          “…and dangerous,” I concluded for her.  “A brute force approach has its uses, and I applaud the general idea, but I agree that it’s an impractical plan.  Also, illegal to endorse, particularly for the constables.”

          She looked irritated then.  “So I just have to wait.  And possibly the killer will eventually make or receive a call.  While I’m searching, I’m in trouble… but not searching means it will take longer to find this egg-biter.”

          I savored the vulgarity and the righteous loathing which spawned it.  I could really work with this sapient, and not just as a potential mate.  But she was right; the morality was murky.  I couldn’t tell her to do anything more, but I really needed her to keep working.

          I settled for a semi-moral compromise.  I told her, “Do what you decide is best.  If you have something more, call me.  I’m not ‘allowed’ to call you, but I don’t have to refuse a call, especially if you might be in danger.”

          She confirmed, “I get you.  Anything else you can leave me before you have to disappear next door?”

          “I’d like to leave you a weapon, but the constables took mine as evidence.  You have any protection?”

          “A stunner.  I hate to keep it out, though.  Don’t want to tempt a customer to use it on me.”

          “Carry it on you.  It might look strange, but if anyone asks, just complain about the bolder thieves these days.  If it’s on your hip, they’ll have to tangle with you to take it away.”

          “That’s not much comfort.  I’m a businesswoman, not a fighter.”

          I waved off her disclaimer, “You’re Vislin.  We’re all dangerous, at some level.  Just don’t let them know you’ve evolved past feral violence.  I’m a cuddly mammal, really, despite looking like a pit brawler.  I just have good survival instincts.”

          The conversation had taken a strange turn.  I fought to bring it back around to business.  “What was the time on that call, exactly?”  I pulled out my compad, intending to make a few notes before I left.

          “It started at five hours and seven decads,” she relayed after checking her own records.  She added, “Fifteen hectads… running until five and eleven decads, thirty-three hectads.”  Her precise measurements were typical of someone for whom miniscule units of time could be professionally relevant.  She might have diagnostic programs that distinguished events in the micrads.

          I punched in the numbers, tickled by a sense of recognition.  Well, she had said the call came in very recently, during the time I had been at the apartment building.  Just before she called.  When I was…

          Feeling dizzy in a way that had nothing to do with physical injury or drugs, I switched programs on my compad and brought up my communications link.  There were my last two calls, Tskksk’s at five-and-fifteen… and the previous one starting at five-and-seven-and-fifteen.  Ending, of course, at five-and-eleven-and-thirty-three.

          Pkstzk.  She had spoken to me at the specified times.  She also had spoken to someone in this neighborhood right before her mate died here.  Then she spoke to that same recipient again shortly afterward.  I didn’t like the picture my mind was painting.  I reached out for possible alternatives.

          “I think I know who the outside caller could be,” I forced out through a clenched beak.

          “Oh?  Who?” Tskksk asked, innocent of my distress.

          I looked at her, hoping I didn’t look too pathetic.  “My client.  Which means either your recordings are trivial... or they’re telling a very bad story.”

          She put it together fast.  “She was the one calling before and after her mate was killed?  So maybe he was calling her?  No, wait…”  She turned back to the compad holding her security recording.  “First call, second call, both short but a little long for just a ‘call me back’ message.  Plus the modulation doesn’t look like a long ring time on either.  Whoever it was wasn't left waiting for an answer."

          “You can tell who initiated the calls?” I asked.

          She clacked assent.  “If that’s her, your client was called from here both times.  That’s why I labeled that side the ‘recipient’.”

          “So definitely not her checking up on Vzktkk,” I concluded grimly, “and not him calling home, not afterward.”

          “Who would have been calling her?” Tskksk voiced the question for me.  It was like I was talking to myself, but better, since part of me suddenly understood computing technology and wasn’t hurt or drugged.

          I paused, but managed to stay professional.  I ventured, “The shooter?  That’s if I finally admit that maybe, she had her mate killed.”  The admission churned my empty stomach.

          “Or a friend in the area, telling her Vzktkk had been shot… or that he didn’t show up for a planned visit?” Tskksk offered.  Nice of her to provide an alternate theory before I did.

          “Right.  A lot depends on who was making those calls from here.  But this all means that someone around here does know Pkstzk.  It might mean that our mystery target probably did know Vzktkk, if only indirectly.  The calls might or might not be connected to the murder, but the evidence is suggestive.  And the fact that Pkstzk didn’t mention these calls to me…"

          “Maybe she didn’t think they were relevant,” Tskksk suggested, still propping up my ego whether she knew it or not.  “She might not have matched the timing with her mate’s time of death.  It might really be a coincidence.”

          But it might not.  I really should have considered Pkstzk a suspect from the beginning.  Did I not want to admit the possibility of her disloyalty?  Did I have some kind of secondary pack bond that blinded me to her potential for betrayal? 

          Worse, had I been fooled by the classic ruse: a client hiring a detective to investigate her own crime in order to make her look innocent?  Was that why she had hired me?  Because I would work free, and be sympathetic, and potentially provide her with cover?  Or did she want to use me to turn up any incriminating details she might have missed?

          And yes, she might be innocent, but then there was still the matter of those calls to explain.  She could be involved in some other way – something she hadn’t admitted to me or the constables – without being directly responsible for Vzktkk’s death.  That was even more plausible than her putting a hit on her mate.  They might both be involved with criminal business, like some deal that went bad.  Being the mate of a crook who overreached and got himself hurt would fit her historical pattern exactly.

          It fit almost too well.  I suspected the theory just because it might be a projection of our shared past onto the present.  Yet wasn’t my own behavior much the same?  Wasn't I once again an outsider worshipping Pkstzk, blind to her flaws and thinking her blameless while she followed another male into folly?

          Finally, I might be wrong.  Pkstzk might be innocent.  I eventually ended (most of) my misbehavior; she could have done the same.  I couldn't assume she was involved on the basis of prior faults and a couple of pieces of coincidental - if suggestive - evidence.  For now, I could only be angry at myself for my lack of objectivity and skepticism.  I could be angry at Pkstzk later, if there was proven reason.

          Tskksk stayed quiet while I contemplated, though she did force a glass of water into my hand.  I obliged by taking a few sips, but my stomach was still unsteady.

          Finally, I reassured her: “Several possible explanations exist.  That said, we have a connection now between someone at the crime scene and a person linked to the victim.  That can't be dismissed.  You mentioned triangulation… could you compare signals to tell if the local speaker was standing at a particular location?”

          She thought about it a moment, then answered: “I think so.  At least, I can calculate distance from the recording point, here.  I could draw a circle and see what falls within the given range.  There's no way to derive directionality, though.  I can’t really ‘triangulate’ unless I get a second recording of the same signal from a different location.”

          “I’ll bear that in mind in case I find someone else nearby using the same security program.”  We both knew that was unlikely. 

          “What I have should still help,” she said, turning back to her information and using a third compad to bring up a local map.  “Relative strength... assuming a standard compad transmitter... divide by… got it.  The source was about nine hundred fifty meters away, give or take ten.”  She sketched a circle on the screen showing the map, which I assumed indicated that estimated distance from her store.

          When I started to get up to look, she waved me back down and brought the map over, herself. 

          “Sorry I hadn’t done this earlier.  Everything takes time and attention.  On days like these, I get liberal on A.I. issues,” she quipped, adding, “It would be nice to have someone do the work for me in a fraction of the time.”

          “That’s how the demons get you,” I joked back.

          The Great Family was officially opposed to the expansion of true sentient A.I. beyond the Terran sphere, but in reality was probably the Collective culture least offended by the possibility of artificial minds.  Declining resistance to A.I. among Great Family citizens was a common theme for humor, which suggested that official resistance was a hollow shell, a mask worn for the reassurance of other, more conservative cultures.  The Family had lost the chance to develop artificial intelligence on its own, but if the balance of sentiment eventually shifted elsewhere in the galaxy, we might someday import and improve upon the Terran ‘Brin’ model.

          Until then, we had to manage non-routine research using our own ‘real’ intelligences.  In this case, drawing a logical conclusion became trivially easy once the digital data was translated into analog maps.

          The dashed circle created by Tskksk’s markings clipped through buildings on the same block, north and south.  It included two spots on the rear street - one far to the south and one to the north - and two spots on the facing street.  The more southerly of those spots was near a familiar landmark: the pet import/export store.  If I traced the line down and allowed a little extra distance, it crossed comfortably inside the building itself.  The search area could easily include the front room of the pet store, where someone had stood while aiming a laser to punch through Vzktkk’s skull.

          We looked up together, needing few words to confirm our shared suspicions.

          Tskksk tilted her head in mimcry of a speaker addressing the compad: “He’s here… he’s dead.”

          “Could be,” I agreed, “But there are other locations covered, too, other possibilities.  It looks bad, but this much wouldn’t stand up in court, not by itself, and for good reason.”

          “I know that,” she complained, finally sounding tired of my reticence, “But coincidental or not, the coincidences are getting decreasingly likely.”

          “I know.”  Something finally crossed my mind.  “Nrissilli.  The constables.  You need to contact them and pass on this analysis, somehow, without mentioning me.”

          “But how would I have known it was Pkstzk if you didn’t tell me she called you?”

          I cocked my head at Tskksk.  “I didn’t tell you that.  I just told you I thought it was Pkstzk."

          “Sss, I figured it out.  How else would you have known, if she hadn’t been the one calling you at exactly the time I detected a match?” 

          She was correct, of course, but I was still uncomfortable about her phrasing.  She’d ‘misremembered’ the actual events, even if she had the underlying facts right.  That behavior would be a problem if she was called as a witness in court, but that wasn’t my only concern.  Something about her leap of logic made me suspicious.

          I shook off the lingering distrust.  What, one potential mate lies to me and possibly sets me up, so the other one is suspect, too?  While I couldn’t assume Tskksk was as honest, selfless, and brilliant as she seemed, I also had no reason to think she was anything else.

          So I told her: “You’re right, but keep the details straight.  It’s important, not just for detection but also if you need to explain this to a courtroom.”

          She actually seemed to appreciate my lecture and take it seriously.  She agreed, “I understand.  But I can still mention that the radius fits the pet store's location… which you’d already told me about.  And that I picked up another call today matching that original recipient.  I wish we could tell them it was her, though.”

          “Detective Nrissilli seems sharp.  She’ll figure it out eventually.  If not, I intend to look into Pkstzk further.  I’ll have to meet with her, eventually, somewhere private.  In the meantime, keep listening.”

          “Will do, detective.”  She stopped short of saluting, but I caught the obedience in her voice.  Ktrkrz’s insane laughter, the last thing I wanted was to recruit her as an apprentice.  Colleague, partner, sure, maybe.  But not a student.  Not a subordinate.

          I made sure to look as pathetic as possible as I rose and walked out.  Pay attention, kid; these bandages are what nosy PI’s earn.  Keep quiet, be smart, and don’t think this job holds any glamour.  I’m using you, sure, because I have to, but I never want to use you up or sacrifice you for my goals.  I was already legally damned by talking business with Tskksk.  I’d encouraged her to continue looking into the case.  I didn’t need to be literally damned by getting her hurt.

          I excused myself from the compad store, not knowing which direction to turn next.  Back to the new apartment to sprawl on the bare floor and attempt rest?  Over to Pkstzk’s restaurant to try catching her there?  Back to my old apartment to see what I could salvage, presuming it wasn’t under constant constabulary surveillance?  Straight to the public assistance office to sign up for food and housing support?  I had a window before the charges went through for the new apartment rental, where I could make a few purchases and overdraft my credit slightly without bouncing the rent payment and forfeiting the contract deposit.  If I wanted to do any significant travel, it would have to happen soon.

          Or maybe I should just fly to the nearest constable station and turn myself in for credit fraud, obstruction of justice, and disobeying an officer.  I might want to confess all my past crimes while I was at it.  This game might not last much longer.  If I did have to confront Pkstzk, she would certainly use our history as a threat to keep me from revealing what I knew to the law.  Little would she suspect that I’d already advised Tskksk to pass (almost) everything on.  I couldn’t be blackmailed, but she could ruin me on the way down.

          If she was guilty, I had a chance: deny everything, accuse her of fabricating stories out of spite, and hope she didn’t have enough specifics to make her accusations stick.  Just calling me a bad egg, a thief, or a confidence trickster didn’t prove anything, unless she remembered what I had stolen and when.  Her old mate in prison could possibly help her with details, but why would he now if he hadn’t before?  It wouldn’t save her to indict me – even if Rsspkz was inclined to help her after all this time – and it might harm Rsspkz to corroborate stories of our unknown past exploits.  Plus, he might be still pack loyal to me, like I thought.

          I realized I could actually address several goals at one time, without even spending credits to travel.  I was still waiting for Pkstzk’s call anyway, so why not go relax near ‘home’ until then?  I could loiter in my new building’s lobby and see if any of my new neighbors passed through.  If my hunch about the apartments proved valid, I might stumble upon a resident who knew something.

          See, if you need to loiter in a particular place without looking like a visitor, you move in temporarily.  That was as true for Vzktkk's killer as it was for me.  My new building seemed like the perfect place for a stalker to lurk.  The older apartment complexes would require more background scrutiny and a longer lease, if not a higher rent.  The other buildings with short-term tenancy were reserved for businesses or their clients.  There was no hotel close by.  Therefore, I followed the pattern my hypothetical killer might have taken.

          There were alternative explanations.  Someone could have learned that Vzktkk had a pre-existing travel pattern that brought him to or through this neighborhood.  Then, they only needed to lie in wait at the pet store on that single night, in order to zap him dead.  The exact lineup of the shot argued against that single-night scenario. 

          Alternately, someone might have waited in their urban hunting blind for several nights, until Vzktkk finally walked along the precise route needed to line up his skull with their crosshairs.  More plausible, but then surprising that no one had seen a stranger enter or leave the pet store building on at least one of those nights.

          The fact that someone was working hard to cover up this crime – by leaving traps and hiring mercenaries – indicated that there was something worth covering up.  That secret could be some business Vzktkk was involved with, and possibly Pkstzk, too.  I was willing to bet that meetings related to that secret business had been conducted here in Isstravil, near my building if not necessarily within it.

          My imagination offered up uncountable possibilities: Vzktkk and Pkstzk had been planning to defraud his business or rob her workplace, until she decided to cut him out of the plan or the profits.  One of the two had been threatened in order to ensure the compliance of the other in a criminal scheme, and then Vzktkk was shot as an example.  Vzktkk was cheating on Pkstzk and he had him punished.  Someone – maybe on the orders of Pkstzk's old mate, Rsspkz, had killed Vzktkk out of jealousy.

          Each of these theories would have made a solid plot for a detective thriller.  I could make money off such tales if I was any good as a writer.  These stories were also as fanciful as they were entertaining.  Each fit the facts in evidence, but introduced far more conjecture than they explained anything known.

          As a starting point, I needed to know who had called Pkstzk, from here, on the night of the murder.  I needed to know who Vzktkk was coming to meet.  Were these entities the same person? 

          I would really have liked some physical evidence linked to the killer, but he or she had been too careful for easy identification.  The constables would have swept the pet store by now.  They had better forensic tools than I could hope for.  If they hadn't identified the culprit yet, there probably hadn't been any genetic detritus or tell-tale litter left behind.

          For one afternoon, I would sit down, relax, and watch the passersby.  I was also letting the passersby see me.  I might not discern much from reactions to my presence - I doubted anyone would walk by with guilt written on their scales – but I might provoke further action if a guilty party felt threatened.  At the least, it was one more thing I could do that the constables couldn’t… just sit around being obvious.

          The building lobby didn’t actually have any chairs I could rest in.  I was certain that was deliberate, to discourage the sort of loitering I had in mind.  However, there were steps leading up to the side stairwell and an empty planter I could commandeer if necessary.  I walked in by the front doors - incidentally confirming that my apartment key was functional to open said doors - and settled in as comfortably as the molded stone steps would permit.

          It would have been nice to have something productive to do with my idle time, but I had to admit that I was out of ideas.  Most of my remaining leads were either Pkstzk - with whom I was reluctant to speak until I had a clearer head – or scattered associates of Vzktkk who might know more about his business in Isstravil.  This case was becoming one of those jobs that demanded greater freedom of travel than I could usually afford.

          I just had to hope that a witness nearby would give me something substantial.  No one entered the lobby during the first half-hour while I sat playing puzzle games on my compad.  I started to wonder if I would have to wait until the evening.

          Then my first prey arrived.  A well-dressed Hrotata couple descended from the upper stairs.  The glossy dark female wore a purple dress gown cinched at throat and waist, with an archaic collar arching over her head.  The male, whose fur was a calico mottle of red, white, and black, did his best to compliment her coloration with his charcoal-colored formal robes.  Both wore bootlets on their back feet, an affectation rarer on ChtkKttp than on ‘civilized’ worlds like Hrotata Prime.  The pair looked like high rollers out for a night at the casino or possibly the theater.

          Their padded footsteps gave me just barely enough warning to stand aside before they needed to pass me at the bottom step.  In their passing, I gained an opportunity to impose upon their attention.

          “Excuse me, Mistress, Master?” I addressed them, trying not to sound too pathetic.  My battered appearance was bad enough.  I looked like a nuclear age war veteran begging for change.

          They did their best to treat me like a beggar, too.  The female didn’t even look my direction, and the male only glanced briefly then turned away even faster.  They walked around me like I was furniture.

          I chose to be polite but firm.  “Excuse me… I’m moving in here.  I was supposed to meet my packmates, but they’re not answering.  Could you please tell me if you’ve seen them today?”

          The female tried to continue onward with a mumbled dismissal, but the male tugged at her forehand, saying, “Hold on.  I’ll take care of this.”

          He took a protective step forward, putting himself between me and his presumed mate.  He said, “I haven’t seen any strange Vislin today, other than yourself.  Do your packmates live here?"

          I clacked confirmation.  “We’re all moving in here.  There’s a female, Pkstzk… about my height, lighter scales, a little heavier… and her mate, Vzktkk, taller, checkered pattern, but closer to my build.  She might have been wearing a waitress’ uniform?”

          The male indicated uncertainty.  I jumped upon his hesitation to bring up my compad and open stored pictures of Pkstzk and Vzktkk: both public ident photos, a little outdated but still recognizable.

          The male looked, with an expression that shifted from irritation to amusement.  “Oh, I’ve seen the male around before.  Didn’t think he lived here… just a visitor.  The female isn’t familiar.  You say she’s his mate?  Was there another female in your pack?  There’s one upstairs, but she lives by herself.”

          His commentary brought his companion around to peer over his shoulder at my compad screen.  She interjected, “You don’t mean Shtvtsk in 401?”

          The male’s nose bobbed up several times, sniffing a recovered memory.  “Yes, that’s the one.  This male was around her door oh… a week ago?"

          The female Hrotata gave a nasty laugh as she turned away.  “Dear one, you’re so adorably na├»ve.  That priestess sees a great many parishioners in her temple.”

          He caught her meaning immediately and cringed in embarrassment.  It took me an extra second to translate from Hrotata idiom to common language.  Lots of visitors… and she wasn’t precisely giving religious instruction.

          Now, Vislin don’t have the powerful cultural heritage of prostitution the way mammals do.  A female Vislin offering sex for payment would be considered mentally ill by most of us.  However, there are psychological aspects of mating that are worth a certain cost.  A particularly lonely, packless Vislin – male or female – might desire the attention of a temporary mate not merely for procreative pleasure, but for reinforcement of their self-worth.  I myself wouldn’t pay for mating play, but if I had the credit, I might be tempted to hire a companion for an evening out or for a few days’ vacation.  Then again, my particular madness tended more toward physical needs and less toward emotional difficulties.  Being alone wasn’t as bad as being constantly tempted by bodies I couldn’t have and shouldn’t want.

          It wasn’t hard to play my chosen part further.  I protested, “I’m sure you misunderstood.  Vzktkk wouldn’t be coming here for that.  He and Pkstzk are happily mated.  Maybe they worked together before, or they’re clutch siblings?”

          The male eyed me suspiciously.  “Wouldn’t you know?  I thought pack mates knew everything about one another.”

          I did my best to feign embarrassment.  “We’re… newly bonded.  Just moving in together.  I don’t know, maybe Vzktkk wanted to add this female to our pack before everyone was completely settled.”

          The female took advantage of my perceived emotional weakness to taunt me.  “I’m sure you’d all be thrilled to have such a popular priestess among your number.  You can’t over-estimate the value of regular spiritual counseling.”

          “401, you said?”  I directed my question back to the male, deflecting the conversation.  Changing the topic would be expected to avoid further teasing, but it also served my underlying purpose: to back out without further uncomfortable questions.

          The male indicated agreement.  “First door off the stairs.”

          His mate huffed and added, “Perhaps your pack mates are waiting there, worshipping together.”

          I couldn’t resist the urge to shock the society matron back.  “Kkk, no wonder they’re not answering my calls.  I’d better go knock.  I wouldn’t want to be left out.”

          Flipping my crest, I turned around and started to climb the stairs.  My limping gait probably made the action more ludicrous than I had intended.  Even so, I left them startled at my shift from blush to bravado.  Hrotata think of their Vislin and Taratumm ‘brothers’ as prudish by their own orgiastic standards.  For one of us to indicate a hearty interest in carnal pleasure could provoke either shocked confusion or pleasant surprise, depending on the sort of Hrotata who witnessed the revelation.

          I might have blown my cover there, but it was always fun to disrupt expectations, and besides, the pair had given me plenty of direction already.  So, Vzktkk was visiting an escort?  If these were Hrotata or Terrans I was investigating, there’d be an obvious explanation: jealous wife kills cheating husband.  That might still be the reason, although the Vislin version would usually involve one mate irritated about the other wasting their credits on personal entertainment and jeopardizing their mate-bond.  You know, practical considerations rather than petty emotional ones.  Kkkk, frost that.  It would still be emotional, just for different reasons.

          As I hauled myself up the stairs, I recognized that other explanations could fit.  This Shtvtsk could be part of some criminal enterprise involving Vzktkk, with the two having a falling-out resulting in Vzktkk’s death.  Maybe he was her procurer.  Maybe they were blackmailing clients. 

          But then what was the connection back to Pkstzk?  There could be a third party watching both of them on Pkstzk’s behalf, the killer or just a witness to the murder.  Maybe all three of them – Shtvskt, Vzktkk, and Pkstzk – were complicit in something dirty.  I had added one to the number of players in this drama, but that didn’t mean I had the entire cast or even a sense of the plot.

          I was getting closer than I had expected, however.  My instincts about this building had been right.  Amazingly right, on a laser focus rather than my usual plasma spatter.

          Rather than making me feel proud, though, the lucky guess made me slightly suspicious.  This case could have wandered off in any of a thousand directions.  I had expected to need Pkstzk’s information before I could make any sense of the events leading up to Vzktkk’s death.  Instead, I was hopping from stone to stone on a strange trail across an ocean of possibilities.  I was never this lucky.  Usually, I had to dig and push and provoke much more to get anywhere on a case; sometimes, I even failed despite every effort.  Shocking, I know.

          Most of the time, my successes come from a combination of solid physical evidence and observation of known suspects.  In this case, I had nearly no evidence and no suspects to start with, yet leads were practically multiplying at my touch.  There was also the strangely immediate pushback I had encountered: the ambush at Taburket’s and the bombing at my apartment.

          It was starting to feel like I was a playing piece in someone else’s game, with only the illusion of making my own moves.  That impression might be more than metaphor; I already suspected Pkstzk of manipulating me somehow.  She might not be the director in this production, though.  She might just be a means to get me involved.

          I looked forward to collecting a little more insight into this strange case.  I reached the fourth floor and found Apartment 401 right next to the stairwell, as described.  Knocking on the door, I mentally prepared my approach.  No doubt this Shtvtsk would be attractive, if the suggestion about her profession were true.  I’d have to be on my guard.  At the same time, my best tactic to get inside and ask some questions, without raising suspicion, would be to propose employing her ‘services’.  If I was actually forced into making a payment, I’d be overdrafting myself into bankruptcy.  At that point, I might as well take advantage of my purchase… I’d just have to suffer that sacrifice.

          As it turned out, my mental preparations were unnecessary.  No one answered my knock or three signals on the door bell.  I risked listening at the door, but heard no movement inside.

          Looking at the door again, I withdrew my own room key.  Basic magnetic scan, low-tech even for Layafflr City, probably original to the building’s construction.  I could probably recode it with an electrical current… the wall sockets in the hallway there might do.  As long as I wasn’t interrupted for a few minutes, I could enter Shtvskt’s apartment.

          Manipulated or not, I was tired of wandering blind.  If something relevant could be found here, I wasn’t going to be delayed.  In fact, if Shtvskt was involved in Vzktkk’s death, her absence was an unexpected benefit.  If all went well, I’d have time to search her apartment for information.

          Then again, maybe this opportunity wasn’t so unexpected.  It fit my recent run of good fortune.  If it wasn’t for the bullet wounds in my body, the loss of my home, and my empty bank account, I might start to think my luck had changed.