Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Broken Record - Chapter 10 - "Abrupt Discharge"

          In a relative sense, matters progressed quickly after Detective Nrissilli’s visit.  That is to say, things went faster compared to what you might expect for a multiple gunshot victim waiting in custody.  From my perspective, time dragged on with agonizing slowness.

          I sat idle until lunch time.  With no video screen, compad, or other entertainment, I was left alone with my thoughts for several hours.  Given that those thoughts were focused on a single subject with no new inputs, I wasted the time looping without any new results.

          To tell the truth, crime detection does not involve sudden revelation after extended contemplation.  You have to go out and collect facts - often more than you strictly need - before a pattern becomes apparent.  Sometimes, you have to actively provoke your prey into motion, not just chase its trail.

          I needed to get back onto that trail.  The last tracks I had led to Pkstzk.  To keep moving forward, I needed to find her.  I was still concerned about her safety and her good opinion, but these motivations were rapidly losing ground to a close third: a growing need for answers about her case.

          What had her mate, Vzktkk, been doing on an unremarkable side street in a seemingly random middle-class neighborhood?  Why was someone waiting inside a defunct pet store for him to pass?  Why had they shot Vzktkk?  Why had someone locked starving animals inside said pet store, apparently primed to attack anyone investigating the place?  Who was called, right before and right after the shooting?  All of these puzzles led to the key question: Who killed Vzktkk?

          Last night, the case gained some new questions: Why had there been three well-armed Vislin waiting in Pkstzk’s hotel room?  Had they been waiting for me or for her?  Why did they try to kill me?  Why had they done such a poor job of it?  Where had they gone afterward?  And why was there so little evidence of their exit… or seemingly, their entry?

          Just to round out the set: Who were those guys?  Were they connected to Vzktkk’s murder, and if so, how?

          My claws itched for my compad, so that I could at least list my questions.  I was probably still missing a handful of important concerns beyond the ones I could list.  There might be relevant evidence in Tskksk’s EM recording from the night of Vzktkk’s murder.  I wanted to talk to her and bounce off ideas to research. 

          Pkstzk’s behavior had been questionable.  I wondered if her co-workers knew anything I should know.  She certainly knew a lot I should know.  I wanted to bounce a few theories off her to see what made sense.

          Bouncing off of either female would normally sound like a great idea.  Sadly, I wouldn't be up to such strenuous activity for a while.  Thinking about my injuries reminded me that, legally, I wasn’t supposed to be following up on this case at all.  I was going to ignore that order, of course, but I’d have to be subtle in my approach.  Not that I didn’t usually try to be subtle; nobody wants to be caught breaking and entering, pickpocketing, borrowing evidence, conning a witness… you get the idea.  But I’d have to cut down on the personal visits and physical antagonism.

          Shadow and claw all the way, then.  I started the deception by playing 'good patient' as much as possible.

          When the nurse arrived with lunch, he was thrilled to find that I’d earned my hands free.  My diet was upgraded to solids: fried ground meat patties topped with salted belly-fat strips rendered and crisped in the oven: a childhood favorite.  I also got another serving of broth, this time served in a cup.  I thanked my visitor for the meal and let him know I’d have given him a tip, if the constables hadn’t confiscated my credit strip.  He assured me that he’d tack the extra charge onto my hospital bill.

          Kidding aside, it was a solid meal, better than any I’d eaten since returning home, better than most I’d eaten before my recent expense-paid vacation.  Given my appetite and the non-specificity of my holiday memories, I might consider the hospital food more enjoyable than anything I’d eaten while abroad.  After life on short rations the last couple of days, all that grease rumbled a little in my lower digestion, but the discomfort was well worth it.

          I tried to make the meal last, but eventually I had to lick up the last oily scrap and return to contemplating the already contemplated.  Given the freedom of my hospital room, I considered testing my limbs, maybe pacing a bit.  I could ransack the drawers for interesting toys. 

          I decided not to tempt either the medical staff or my constable guard by causing trouble.  I also needed to save my strength for whenever I had to strain my stitched muscles.  For example, when lunch decided to shove out my previous meals to give itself more room.

          Could I nap, instead?  I had already ‘slept’ through part of a night under sedation.  That didn’t count much for rest, though.  I’d been woken regularly during the early morning hours.  Combine that fatigue with the soporific effects of my painkillers, and I was, in fact, feeling drowsy. 

          True sleep still managed to evade me.  Even though I couldn’t do anything more to resolve Pkstzk’s case and its related threats, those troubles still managed to intrude when I tried to rest.  I settled for physical inactivity and closed eyes while my mind continued to churn.  I realized, eventually, that I could still work the case without Pkstzk’s input.  I could work it backward, starting with Vzktkk’s personal business and acquaintances.  At the least, I might get some idea what he was doing on that street in Isstravil… something Pkstzk might not even know.

          Even better, I could subcontract personal meetings with Vzktkk’s acquaintances to a third party acting on my behalf.  I knew a few reliable fellow PI’s that could handle the assignment.  The problem there was that I couldn’t pay them for their services; a cut of the nothing Pkstzk was paying me was still nothing.  She might be able to pay something – I’d never had a chance to ask – but getting that credit would require contacting her.  Did I trust a third party to manage that, too?  Would she trust a request for payment coming from anyone but me?  There were a few shared secrets I could use to reassure her an intermediary actually came from me, but most of those tied into our mutual association with Pack Vzzrk… and I didn’t trust anyone among even my ‘trusted colleagues’ with that information.

          I wasn’t owed any favors currently, either; could I persuade anyone to work on credit?  Offer unspecified favors to be repaid later, with a ‘no criminal acts’ proviso?  Did I know anyone who would trade for my personal favors?  The answer to all these questions, much to my chagrin, was no.

          I briefly considered letting Tskksk in on the details of Vzktkk’s murder case, in trade for her help tracking down possible suspects.  That should tell you how fuzzy-headed I was.  Getting a civilian involved in a case like this – a potential witness, no less – was a terrible idea.  Even worse, if she succeeded and the case tied in to Pack Vzzrk, like I feared, she’d be privy to my and Pkstzk’s unarmored bellies.  She didn’t seem like the sort for blackmail, but that knowledge could be as much a danger to her as an asset.  Not that I had much to offer for ransom, anyway, but there’s more you can extort with a secret than just credits.

          Hmm… did I have anyone I could coerce into helping?  I did have a neighbor who tampered with his water meter to keep its readings low.  He’d be useless for investigative work, though.  I should save that gambit for the next time I needed free plumbing repairs.  I knew some choice details about the security system in Tskksk’s shop, which I might trade for some hacking work or even a sub-AI program to make calls on my behalf.  I'm kidding, of course.  I’d never betray her trust like that, even if my old criminal mind did consider the possibility.

          No, that was it, almost no resources at all.  If I were shadier, or this case less so, I would have more potential assistance.  Being a good guy in a bad situation limited my options sharply.

          I did have a small amount of credit in the bank, still.  Was it worth spending everything on a single hire, for a single assignment, if it meant complete poverty afterward?  It might be, for Pkstzk.  If she was innocent of any wrongdoing, I ought to be willing to sacrifice for her justice.  I’d have to see who would work cheap but still be thorough.  At least, with me providing most (if not all) of the background research on the case, they would just be managing the person-to-person interface.  That wouldn’t cost as much as the complete PI package.

          I spent the remaining empty decads of my drowsing imprisonment reviewing potential candidates for the job.  Mostly, this involved thinking of names and trying to remember what they’d done to or for me, what I’d done to or for them, and what scandals I could remember connected to those individuals, if any.  I amused myself by comparing my assessment of each competitor with their likely assessment of me.  In most cases, I came out (unfairly) lower in their eyes than they did in mine.  I wondered how many sins other PI’s kept successfully hidden.  How would their piles of skeletons rank next to my giant, invisible one?

          I was ranging dangerously close to self-pity when the door finally opened again.  I was also ranging dangerously close to a digestive accident.  I hoped whoever was coming in would oblige by helping me to the bathroom.

          A female Taratumm in constabulary armor entered the room.  Not my first choice for personal assistance; in fact, I’d had nightmares that started in similar fashion.

          While I was trying to decide between one embarrassment and another, she spoke up: “Stchvk, you are released from custody.  You may stay or leave as you prefer, depending upon your doctor’s recommendations.  I will be leaving shortly, myself.  If you have any concerns about your personal safety, please contact Constabulary Precinct Kef to request further protection.”

          I nodded to acknowledge her statement and she let herself out, duties complete, off to report and relax.  Once she closed the door, I carefully turned and lowered myself to the floor.  My offended leg pulled and protested, but supported my weight just fine.  I didn’t feel any tearing as I stepped cautiously across the hard, cold floor; another good sign.  I made it to the toilet without incident and settled down for a long stretch of contemplation.

          So… nobody would stop me from leaving now, but nobody would stop an assassin from coming into the room, either.  I wasn’t expecting anyone to shoot at me here, but then again, I hadn’t expected that at the hotel.  I wondered what I’d have to say to warrant an official protective detail.  Certainly, I needed more solid evidence than I had for this case already.  Given that I was officially barred from pursuing said case and said evidence, the offer of protection seemed like a meaningless gesture.  I supposed I’d know there was a problem when it started blasting again.  Of course, it might be little late by then for the constables to be much help.

          I wouldn’t even have my sidearm for self-defense.  The constables sure seemed confident I had nothing to be afraid of, leaving me unarmed and unguarded.  I hoped they were right, though there was a strong possibility that I would deliberately prove them wrong.

          I briefly considered the possibility of buying a new heater.  While I was at it, why not shop for a fully automated self-defense drone, with mini-grenade launchers and a fluoride gas laser?  It seemed like as soon as I had a little credit saved up, I quickly thought of multiple ways to spend it away.

          It could take a cycle or more until my Rtrtr was released, depending on how long it took to find my attackers.  I wished, uncharitably, that all three would end up shot by constables.  That outcome would spare us all a long trial and spare me a protracted separation from my weapon.  Alternately, less violently, they could all turn themselves in, confess, and simplify matters that way.  Kkk, the death-by-constable scenario was far more likely.

          I wouldn’t normally wish a painful death even on attempted murderers, even when the murder they had attempted was mine.  But this attack hadn’t been personal, whether it was aimed at me or Pkstzk.  These were hired guns, practically mercenaries.  Whether they were attached to a pack with an interest in Pkstzk’s death – possibly to end her inquiries into Vzktkk’s death – or had just taken payment for an assassination, they were the worst sort of evil.  I live in a city full of crime, most of it petty and profit-oriented, but murder for hire is at the top of my most hated list.

          I’d pull the trigger myself, if it came to that.  If I had a trigger to pull.  I supposed I could settle for throwing them out an eighth-story window; justice at its most poetic.  To be honest, though, I hoped I’d never see any of those egg-kickers or their like again.  Revenge fantasies aside, it was better to avoid mercenary killers entirely rather than hunt them down yourself.  Let the constables find and punish them; I’d accept whatever method of execution was approved.  Or a life sentence, same thing.

          I supposed it was a badge of honor that everyone else who’d ever tried to kill me was either dead or in prison.  I hadn’t made that many personal enemies.  The impersonal ones rarely bothered enough to try and murder a nuisance PI.  Like Detective Nrissilli, a private detective was an inevitable symptom of crime.  There was no point attacking an investigator.

          If a culprit wanted to stop an investigation, they had to deal with my employer.  Just offing old Stchvk would only save that employer the credit they owed me... which they could use to hire a new PI.  Even if the idea was to scare off any investigator from taking a case, you’d have to kill two or three PIs before the risk overrode our desire for profit (or priced the hazard pay above the employer’s budget).  In other words, sapients in my line of work were used to a certain risk of attempted murder.  Plus, there's truth to the old saying: the harder they're trying to kill you, the closer you are to the nest.

          So, while getting shot at wasn’t a rarity for me, being pursued beyond that initial awkward shootout was rare.  I didn’t expect to be hunted down this time, either.

          It was at about this point, as I thought about armed killers coming to find me and finish the job, that I realized I could just stand up and walk out of the room.  I could even request my discharge if I so chose, although I suspected that escape would be against doctor’s orders.  First thing, I should finish up in the toilet and make sure I could walk enough to ‘walk out’.

          Once I left the stall, I took a few more experimental steps around the room.  It still hurt, but no more than before.  With a compression band and maybe a cane or crutch for support, I probably could hike downstairs and out to a transport stop.  Doing so, right away, would probably cost me some blood and future scarring, but that cost might be worthwhile to spare my sanity.  I had never had the luxury to sit still and conduct business by remote; I had no patience for it now.

          I was giving up a couple of other perks: regular pain relief and a guaranteed, likely edible dinner.  Those two sacrifices, alone, should tell you how much I hated the idea of further downtime.  Besides mere freedom, there was another important need driving me out the door: time.  The longer I waited to pursue this case, the better the killer could hide.  Given the week that passed between Vzktkk’s death and my initial investigations, a day or two might not seem like much… but if the hotel attack was related, that meant that the case was still hot.  Someone was concerned about me and/or Pkstzk, maybe both of us.

          I was willing to put up with additional pain and hunger if it meant a better chance at some answers.  I limped over to the door and found it unlocked, as promised.  Opening it showed me a hallway somewhere on the 12th floor of Vaktrri.  There was a nurses’ station about a hundred feet away.  My mealtime friend and sleep-time tormentor wasn’t visible, but there was a Taratumm staffer at the desk.  He looked up as I hobbled down the hall.

          “Are you all right, sir?” the nurse asked.

          “Amazing.  A credit to the doctors here,” I told him in a strained voice that nearly contradicted my words.  I was trying not to be sarcastic, which was nearly as difficult as hiding the winces and gasps evoked by my protesting wounds.

          “Can I… help you?” he persisted.  His expression suggested both that I needed all sorts of help and that he was only interested in the kinds he could directly provide.

          “I’d like to collect my belongings.  I want to be discharged as soon as possible.”  I phrased this politely, as a preference rather than a demand.  My tone hinted that I would make life difficult for him if he opposed my preferences.

          He tried to placate me: “I’ll notify your nurse and doctor.”  He didn’t make any move toward a ‘pad or other comm device, though.

          I continued, in case he was waiting for acknowledgement: “Please do, and soon.  I need to check on a friend’s safety.”

          My added excuse was a mistake.  He challenged me: “If you had immediate concerns, couldn’t those be addressed by the constables that were in your room earlier?  I can have the officer who just left paged…”

          I did my best to humor the stomper.  “They told me she’s fine, but they won’t spare an officer to protect her full time.  Could you please help here?  I’d like to do this the right way, rather than storming out and undoing my surgeon’s good work."

          He looked down at a wide display set into the nursing station’s surface.  “All right, I see you’re cleared for release on your discretion… although the doctor did recommend you stay an additional day for observation.  I’ll ask that your belongings be brought here from secure storage and notify your nurse.  Please wait in your room until we’re ready to authorize your discharge.”

          I realized this response was probably the best I would get.  Fine.  Let him have his little moment of officious power.  I wondered how many patients gave him trouble by asking to leave quickly.  If I had the time, I’d have milked a stay at Vaktrri for every day my insurance would cover.  The damage was already done in terms of my billable deductible.  Every pill or meal after that was free, paid by the City’s coffers.  Normally, my policy wouldn’t cover admission at Vaktrri, but since the constables had taken me there, I couldn’t be blamed (or upcharged).  Anyone else who was paying higher private premiums to qualify for Vaktrri Medical care probably wouldn’t waste their hard-earned comfort.

          Then again, there might be a few workaholics, claustrophobics, and other anxious sorts who refused to stay in the hospital a hectad longer than necessary.  I supposed I almost fit that category.  I was asking to leave so I could get back to work.  Plus, there were some anxieties involved.  But I wasn’t making a fuss, just asserting my option to get out and manage my healing on my own recognizance.  I just hoped this medical bureaucrat wouldn’t delay my exit any longer than honestly necessary.

          Having done my best, I turned and slide-stepped back to my room.  It was while I opened the door to go back in that I finally registered one last anomaly.  Why hadn’t I noticed it before?  Maybe my head was sharper from increased blood flow, upright posture, and a declining amount of medication in my system.  The weird thing was: no intravenous line.

          Almost every other time I had been admitted to the hospital, the first thing they did was start an IV.  Whether putting in blood, antibiotics, or just rehydrating saline, IVs were SOP for EMTs and other medical responders.  I was pretty sure they had installed a line back in the ambulance.  Why, then, had I woken up without one?  I didn’t even have a bandage, a wound, or a sore spot from an intravenous needle.  Surely, after my wounds and surgery, I had needed some transfusion of fluids?  I was fairly sure antibiotics were called for after major injuries, even as relatively minor of major injuries as I had sustained.

          I didn’t feel dehydrated… or infected, for that matter.  It was possibly I’d already been thoroughly pumped with whatever I needed before I woke up.  Maybe Vaktrri had gotten just that advanced that they could manage without older techniques like a tube in your arm.  Maybe the doctor was bright enough to recognize that I didn’t need an IV and respected enough to override standard orders.  But maybe the omission was due to oversight.  Maybe it was neglect; when the constables had ordered ‘no painkiller’, someone might have detached the IV, then forgot to bring it back later.  In that case, I was fortunate I hadn’t suffered from the absence.

          Whatever the reason, I hadn’t had to dance with an IV stand when going to the bathroom or exiting my room, for which I was grateful.  I just hoped I wouldn’t pay for that minor liberty with a dehydration headache or anemic shakes, later.

          I sat back on my bed, trying to wait patiently.  I’d give them… some reasonable amount of time.  Without a clock, viewscreen, or compad in my room, I had no way to measure time exactly.  I expected that I’d be anxious and bored after maybe half an hour, so that would do as a deadline.

          I never reached that level of discomfort.  I hadn’t even gotten comfortable again, yet, when the door opened and my Hrotata nurse arrived.

          He looked me over with rhetorical exaggeration, taking equally theatrical notes on his service compad.  I watched him and avoided spoiling his act with an interruption.  I did tilt my head from side to side like an audience rapt with attention to a performer.

          Finally, he looked up from his records and told me, “I wish I could find a good reason to keep you.  All I’ve got is a warning that your arm and leg wounds could reopen if you strain them too much.  You’d be safer here, especially with me checking your readings, but there’s nothing potentially fatal about you resting up at home... quietly.  That is, provided you get there in a well-cushioned vehicle.  Do you have anyone there to change your dressings?”

          “Actually, I’m sort of hoping to use these bandages for sympathy, see if I can persuade a certain female to take care of me.  That was the ‘friend’ I mentioned to your co-worker.  You know, she rebandages my back, I guard hers…”  I offered an eyeroll and click to sell the friendly joke.

          He looked serious, though.  “I hope you really do have a friend.  If you leave those pads on to fester, you’ll be back here with blood infections… if you’re lucky.  You’re a native, right?  You know how the microbes are here.  You don’t stay clean, you pay the price.”

          I knew what he meant.  Spore wasn’t just a clever name for the planet.  Our lush world was home to a profusion of unicellular detritus: actual spores, pollens, bacteria, and a few unique parasitic microbes.  No few of those organisms would relish a foothold in my exposed flesh.  Most would be suppressed by a decent antibiotic - and I planned to fill that prescription along with the best painkiller they’d allow me – but letting my dressings sit and get foul would give the crawlies too much advantage for an antibiotic to overcome.

          If it came to that, I’d drag myself to the neighborhood emergency clinic for maintenance.  It’d cost a bit, but not as much as hiring an in-home nurse.  It still wouldn’t be as costly as sitting around the hospital, if you counted values beyond credit.

          I summarized these thoughts to the nurse by replying, “Understood.  Yes, I have someone to help me.  I’ll follow the discharge instructions.  No offense to your excellent work.  If it wasn’t urgent…”

          He squinted at me as he interjected, “…you’d stick around and wait for the next constable visit.  No, I understand.  I overheard a little about your business.  Well, good luck.  I hope we won’t be seeing you again soon… er, I mean, in the hospital.  Don’t end up dead, either.”

          He managed to recover without stammering.  I respected that.  His discomfort showed that he did care, despite his hints that I wanted to leave for less-than-noble reasons.  He could think whatever he wanted, provided he hurried up my discharge.

          “All right, here’s the form,” he obliged, showing me his compad screen.  The illuminated document thereupon ran to several pages of text.  I made a show of reading it like any other legal release form, which was to say I skimmed the headers and ignored the rest.  I was taking my chances, the hospital wasn’t to blame for any harm I caused myself by this choice, and so forth.  I was a little late to be risk averse.  I scrolled to the bottom of the document and signed the screen with a claw tip.

          There was a second signature required, releasing information to my insurer for payment and accepting charges.  Seeing that hurt more than my injuries.  The deductible would eat half of my remaining credit, by itself.  I could claim it as damages if they caught and convicted my shooters, but I’d gladly lose that much if they died first.  Frost, I'd pay that much to ensure they were dead… Ssss, hypocrite.  Pay who?  A contract killer?

          After that, we were done.  The nurse, whom I finally found out was named Thrisstil, wished me well and confirmed that my belongings were being delivered upstairs.  I could wait by the elevators if I wanted, although he recommended taking advantage of my hospital bed just a few decads longer.

          I obliged him that much.  No point in compounding the strain on my leg.  I sat patiently, tediously, while the circuits of medical bureaucracy cycled.  I tried to be grateful that everything was now networked and integrated, with no paperwork to shuffle; I was only waiting on the organic processors to do their part.

          Eventually, the nurse returned with a plastic crate.  Inside were my compad and my tattered armor.  Since I wasn’t excited about going outside in my patient robes, I chose to risk the armor.  The back plate was tattered, of course, and the left greave shredded, but the anterior pieces were only scuffed, mostly from my landing.  There was enough intact for basic propriety, even if I would look like… well, someone who had been shot.  I chose to think of the look as ‘wounded soldier’ rather than ‘mugging victim’.

          Thrisstil stepped out to let me get dressed.  Once I was done there, I woke up my compad.  A handful of messages were waiting for me, among them the note with Detective Nrissilli’s contact info.  There was also a formal issuance from law enforcement regarding my detention, another about my release, and a third spelling out my status: restricted from travel out of Layafflr City until further notice and forbidden from any activity pursuant to investigating the murder of Vzktkk.

          To my surprise, there was also a short video message from Tskksk.  She apologized for missing my earlier calls and reassured me that she was just staying busy, not avoiding me or in any trouble.  That was nice to know, although since her call was now eleven hours old, its reassurances were slightly dated.

          And there was a message from my landlord reminding me that rent was due.  Great.  One more expense to deplete my remaining credits.  It seemed inevitable that I would return to bankruptcy, one way or another.  My only choice was the route by which I arrived.

          I typed back a response to the detective to acknowledge receipt and included that I’d heard from Tskksk.  I also reminded her of her permission to contact the tech store owner, an option I intended to exercise.  I didn’t notify the detective of my intention to call Pkstzk.

          I figured that since our relationship – at least the employer-employee version – was already exposed, I could get away with a live call.  Hopefully, Pkstzk would agree with my reasoning and answer.  Still, I wanted to wait until I was safely away from the hospital and any prying ears before calling.  For all I knew, nurse Thrisstil was reporting back to Nrissilli.  The big detective might have persuaded the young male to track my activities; she had more to flash at him than just her badge.

          I walked out of the room and down the hall, then past the unstaffed floor station.  My pace was slow due to caution.  Both the stitches and my pain tolerance were holding well.  Eventually, I’d need to get off my feet, not to mention pick up and take my medications.  Assuming the hospital submitted the authorizations properly, I should be able to claim my antibiotics and analgesics at any networked pharmacy.

          I made it to the elevator, down to the lobby, and out the doors before I allowed myself to believe that I was free.  For some reason, the whole time, I had been expecting someone to rush up behind and order me back to the room, perhaps even to tie me down again.  This paranoia struck me as odd.  Granted, paranoia is my default state, but usually I reserve my fears for bigger hazards: death, injury, unexpected expenses, public humiliation, and the like.  Spending extra time in the hospital wasn’t exactly a frightening prospect.

          The fear, I realized as I lumbered down the sidewalk, came from my urgency to resolve this tangled situation.  I had gone beyond wanting to protect Pkstzk and myself.  I needed answers.  Too many unexplainable circumstances were piling up lately.  They might not all be connected, but solving this case would at least clear away whichever oddities were its fault.  Then I could get to work solving whatever situation had produced the other anomalies, like my memory difficulties and erratic sleep patterns.

          A public aircar station was located, logically, on the grounds of the medical center.  By now, the surge of familiarity I experienced when approaching the kiosk was itself a familiar experience.  Seeing the adjacent public comm booth evoked a dim feeling of amusement and revelation, without being actually amusing or revealing.  I rented a ‘car, barely feeling the sting of one more credit drain.

          From the station, I stopped at a pharmacy and picked up my waiting pills.  I took the recommended dosages immediately, assuming I had already waited sufficiently long since the hospital gave me anything.  I kept the aircar waiting while I shopped, then dragged myself back inside when I was done.  The hold cost more, but I had few alternatives if I wanted to spare myself unnecessary walking distance.

          Finally, it was time to go home.  I was tempted to visit Tskksk in Isstravil or go looking for Pkstzk, but I knew my condition was too poor – both physically and legally – to take such risks.  At the least, I shouldn’t venture out without a plan.  I could still place calls from home.  Calling either female, or anyone else connected to Vzktkk’s case, was still against constables’ orders, but it would take them longer to notice that offense than if I traveled somewhere forbidden in person.

          Since the aircar ride from uptown to my neighborhood was a lengthy one, I decided to use the time unwisely.  I searched out Pkstzk’s number.  Maybe it was the drugs kicking in, maybe just my short patience, but I hardly considered the risk involved in calling my confederate immediately after getting my compad back.  I hadn’t even searched it for monitoring devices or software.  Then again, if the law was going to such lengths, it wouldn’t scruple at bugging my apartment, tapping the call remotely, or indulging any of a hundred other surveillance tricks.  I was good at avoiding physical security measures, but I was no adept at virtual stealth.

          There was no answer to my call.  Pkstzk’s unavailability kept me out of further trouble, at least.  I left a message letting her know what had happened: I got to the hotel, some armed Vislin tried to kill me, I escaped then was arrested and taken to the hospital, I was out of the hospital in surprisingly good shape, and now I was resting up, worrying about her safety, and hoping she could please call and reassure me she was alive.  Also, if she didn’t mind stopping by and filling me in on all the background details of this case I was no longer officially working, that would be great, thanks and goodbye.

          It was exhausting for a voice message.  I felt fatigue piling on top of me as the aircar covered the last few miles to my home.  When it signaled arrival and opened the door, I could barely haul myself out and stagger through the building’s entrance.  As I pulled myself up the stairs serially, I wondered how long I would sleep this time.  Half a day?  An entire day?  Or would the pain wake me early?

          I reached my door before I thought to pull out my card key.  I checked the slit pocket in my armor where I usually kept the key along with my PI license and ident.  The other cards were there, but the key was missing.  I was certain I couldn’t have dropped it, even with all the jostling I’d had.  Someone must have removed it.  But why?  To search my apartment?  There wouldn’t be anything interesting there.  Anyone who knew me would know I didn’t have any valuables to steal, other than my compad and heater, and those would be on my person if I was out.  Besides, if they’d taken my key card while it was in constabulary custody, they could have taken the other items already.

          If the idea was to wait for me inside the apartment, then the door would be unlocked – or else I couldn’t get in – and that would be suspicious.  On a sudden hunch, I checked the other slit pocket on the armor’s opposite side.  There was the keycard.  So someone had taken it out and replaced it on the wrong side.  Possibly an innocent mistake while the detective went through my possessions.  Possibly, a telling mistake for someone who used the card and put it back, wanting me to come home without noticing anything.

          I tested my door: locked.  That didn’t mean there wasn’t another hit squad waiting inside, watching for me to unlock the door and enter.  I could oblige them, I could just stand in the hall, or I could go somewhere else… but where?  How foolish would I look, getting spooked over nothing?  Besides, I was really tired.  The possibility of danger had perked me up some, but there was no certainty that I could get to the local aircar station without dropping unconscious on the sidewalk.  I might be able to crash at a neighbor’s apartment – one of the few I trusted – but that was just postponing the inevitable.  I didn’t have enough reason to call the constables.

          Inside, then.  If I was still armed, I’d have drawn Rtrtr before turning the latch.  As it was, I rotated the lever slowly, standing close to the door as I slid it open a crack.  My idea was to look and listen through that gap, ready to jump back at the first sign of presence or motion.  Instead, my warning came from the door itself.

          I had entered and exited my own door thousands of times.  I had a certain familiarity with its range of motion and its sticking points.  This time, I encountered resistance at an atypical point as I pushed the door open.  That, plus my heightened nerves, was enough to send me stumbling backwards.

          My reaction turned out to be exactly correct.  A concussion wave of force and flame hurled my apartment door against its frame and buckled it outward.  Only my distance and the barrier itself spared me from a crippling impact.  As it was, the blast was merely agonizing.  The punch from the explosion threw me across the hall, revisiting the earlier shotgun blast, as my back slammed into the opposite wall and rattled my wounds. 

          When I landed, my torn leg gave out and I toppled to the floor.  My face and hands stung from the heat of the flash, but didn’t feel worse than first-degree burns.  I couldn’t hear anything after the initial roar, which meant I’d been deafened, but at least my eardrums hadn’t been perforated.  Believe me, a Vislin knows when their sensitive ears have been traumatized.  That I was still conscious confirmed that I wasn’t experiencing the pain of a burst eardrum.

          I’d also been spared shrapnel wounds from the bursting door.  The few shards of hardwood that had flown past were fairly large, and any smaller pieces bounced off my armor.  I wasn’t having generally good luck, but my recently acquired talent for avoiding serious injury seemed to be holding.  The non-serious injuries were still enough to keep me flat on the floor, gasping.  If I hadn't been so stunned, I might have been frenzying down the stairs.  I hurt more than the pain medications could manage.

          A flickering light from inside my apartment caught my attention.  Oh, it was burning.  That was bad.  Among other unpleasant meanings, a fire meant that I couldn’t keep lying in the hallway.  Fire would hurt a lot.

          A more recent or more expensive building would have fire suppression systems, ending any serious blaze within seconds.  Even this stack of shacks had fire reducing materials in the walls and sprinklers in the halls.  At worst, my apartment would be engulfed but the neighbors would be spared.  They still might inhale the smoke, though.  I needed to sound an alarm.  Actually, the explosion already should have alerted everyone to the danger.  I needed to get up and out of the way.

          Evacuate.  That was the word.  My already abused brain was definitely having problems with basic functions… like standing up.  I lifted myself to hands and knees three times and collapsed twice, before staying halfway upright.

          It turned out the effort was moot.  By that time, my upstairs neighbors, a small, young Vislin pack, descended enough to spot me.  I was privileged to see their expressions as they looked from my battered body to my shattered door.  I’m sure they weren’t surprised to identify my apartment as the source of the explosion.  I hadn’t often taken business home like this, but they knew me as a PI.  To most citizens, that meant a trouble-seeking idiot.

          What they couldn’t reconcile was the fact that not only was I hurt, I was already bandaged.  I probably looked like I’d come prepared to be blown up.  Considering that the damage to my armor was on the back, but my burns were on the front, I would have been thrown off at first glance.

          Credit to their character, the kids didn’t pause long to think.  One, a slight male in slick synthetic armor, stooped to pick me up by the unbandaged arm.  They might have said something to me.  Maybe they were talking to one another.  I couldn’t hear at all and couldn’t see well either, but their beaks were moving.  I could smell smoke and see the haze starting to obscure the air.  I did my best to assist as my rescuers hauled me toward the stairs, the one on my arm and another hoisting me by the waist.

          We hurried downstairs as fast as the group could manage and spilled out onto the street.  Still thinking smart, the pack crossed the street, my old carcass in tow.  It was unlikely the fire would spread or that anything else would explode in our building, but better to be safe.  Not knowing the reason for the sabotage, these citizens might be leery about additional bombs.

          What was the reason for this attack?  This time, I was certain I was the target.  But why?  As I slumped down against the building wall where my rescuers settled me, I tried to summon enough awareness to decipher this new danger.  Why try to kill me?  Usually, when someone tried to kill me, I was getting close to something sensitive.  I didn’t know what I was close to, though.  What did I know that was worth killing over?  What might I eventually know if I kept prying?  I didn’t even know what this case was about, aside from murder.

          Was it due to my association with Pkstzk?  With Pack Vzzrk?  Was this attack set up because I’d stumbled onto and/or foiled the ambush intended for Pkstzk at Taburket’s?  Or was this bombing entirely unrelated to my current case?  Was it somehow related to my previous case?  A bomb was worse than a memory gap or a sleeping problem, but only by a matter of degree.

          Whether it was the new trauma, the old wounds, my situational narcolepsy, or some combination of all three, my internal processing ended there.  I passed out, relieved of duty once again.

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