Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Broken Record - Chapter 11 - "Sudden Movement"

          I returned to awareness through layers of emotion.  The first was aggravation, due to protests from my abused body.  Second was relief that I was waking up at all.  Third was confusion and discomfort from finding myself lying on pavement, staring up at young Vislin faces and the tops of buildings.  The last layer was a mixture of gratitude for my rescue and appreciation that at least one of my saviors was rather nice to look at.  She was… Vstktrr?  Vstkrt?  Something like that.

          She was also part of a pack who’d never bothered to give me their name, despite living in the same building, only two floors above.  I hadn’t tried hard to get to know them, either.  Like I said earlier, we usually only meet our neighbors during times of crisis.

          Blended into the emotional mix was guilt: regret that I was the cause of their troubles that day.  Granted, I was also the main sufferer of those troubles, but none of us was likely sleeping at home that night.  Plus, their apartment and belongings would have smoke damage and they'd be smelling the stench for cycles to come. 

          I wondered how much I had left.  My real items of value were mostly outside of the apartment: my compad, which had come out with me in its carry-case, and my heater, which was in a constabulary evidence locker.  I regretted the loss of my hand-carved wooden desk, particularly since it was my hand that carved it, along with the accompanying chair.  And my coffee table.  And my living-room chair.  Most of my furniture, actually.

          I wanted to cry, then wondered if that would look pathetic in front of Vstkrt.  Maybe she liked vulnerable types?  The moment passed in a haze of conflicting priorities. 

          I thought then of my other item of value: my drugs.  I looked around as best I could from my prone position.

          These were my kinds of kids; they figured out what I was looking for right away.

          “We picked up your medicines on the way out,” one of the males told me.  “You look like you needed them… even before that explosion.”

          I tried my voice and found it functional.  “You read that right.  Thank you…”

          “Rptrkch,” he supplied, “Pack Tksshs.  We live above you.”

          “I’ve seen you around,” I acknowledged, “Thank you, Rptrkch… Pack Tksshs.  I appreciate you rescuing me and my meds.  Could I have one of the blue ones, please?”

          The female ratcheted open the correct bottle and handed me a large blue pill.  She looked at the label with unashamed interest while another of the males helped me up enough to swallow.  The fourth of their number, a third male, handed me a sports bottle full of electrolyte solution.

          “Good stuff,” Vstkrt said, praising the painkiller directly.  “I guess whatever’s under those bandages is serious.”

          “More serious than what’s outside of them, thanks to Ktktrz’ fast claws,” I agreed with rare, genuine piety.  I swore by my family totem-goddess frequently, but usually for ironic effect.

          The male who was holding me up was an upright youth.  He nodded and echoed, “Thanks to Her.”  I didn’t know if he meant we shared totems or he was just paying respect to mine.  Either way, such sentiments were unusual in the City, particularly in our neighborhood.

          Vstkrt stuck to her area of interest.  “That was your apartment that blew up, wasn’t it?  But you came home from the hospital.  Someone trying to kill you, detective?”

          Why was it always the females?  Supposedly, Vislin weren’t that different in temperament across genders, but I always got more trouble from females.  Maybe the answer was in the questioner; I treated them differently, after all.  The fact that I also provoked Hrotata and Taratumm females disproportionately might or might not be related.

          I braced my back against the building where I had slumped earlier, still holding onto the sport bottle.  My expression of genuine pain helped hide my discomfort at her question, although it reinforced her reasons for asking it.  I took another swig of the briny athletic drink before handing the container back.  It gave me a moment to think about my answer.

          I decided to start with honesty.  “It seems so.  Twice now in two days.  First time, some commandos shot at me.  I guess when that didn’t work, they set me up a homecoming present."

          The stares I got in return were worth the confession.  Hey, if I couldn’t be young and attractive, I could be old and experienced.  In reality, detective work is mostly boring.  Some of my competitors are scrawny, pale clerks.  The dashing, buff, martially-trained PI is a rare creature outside of entertainment.  Still, there are some moments I would like to be more athletic, not to mention dashing.  Besides being more fun, those traits would make my job easier.  I’d settled for being canny and tough enough to survive, then flaunting my scars.

          I had plenty to flaunt right then.  I could feel the skin tightening beneath the scales of my face and hands.  I’d be fortunate if I only lost a few scales.  It actually didn’t hurt too badly, just a dull burning like too much sun.

          Rptrkch was the first to react.  He asked, “Should we be concerned… I mean, more than just about the bomb in our building?”

          “I doubt it.  Especially if they think they succeeded.  I should disappear for a bit.  The constables are already searching for the guys who shot me… hopefully they’re the same ones who did this or know who did it.” 

          I added the last part to reassure the pack-mates that I wasn’t working alone.  Nope, I was going through official channels and everything, like a good citizen.  Kkk, I’m a chilling fraud sometimes.

          “Well… good,” the male with the drink bottle said.  “None of us is getting back inside tonight.  The fire crew should be here soon, right?  I’ll need to get my ident if we’re renting a room.”

          Vstkrt clacked at him.  “If they don’t find us emergency shelter, I’ll file a complaint myself.  We’re victims of a criminal act.  That qualifies for assistance, as does the fire.”

          Rptrkch groaned.  “Our insurance is going to explode, too.  We’re already paying back half of what we saved by living here on the theft premiums alone.  Now we’ve got a fire claim…”

          Vstkrt cut him off: “Seriously?  You’re budgeting now?  Priorities go in this order: immediate crisis, potential threats, then money.”

          While I make it sound like they were arguing, the sense was more like a series of in-jokes, although more drawn out and strained by the stress of the situation.  I was seeing a pack in its formative years, when the members weren’t quite integrated into a comfortable whole, both enjoying and straining against their tightening bonds.

          For my Pack Vzzrk, that formative period also had involved the occasional bombing, although in a different way.  We were usually the ones setting the bombs, not for murder but for arson or just a night’s entertainment.

          This was a very different kind of pack and very different kids.  I felt terrible mixing their world with mine.  Still, they’d have an interesting story to tell their families and lesser acquaintances, later.

          We all recognized that the emergency responders were being slow to respond.  Ours was a low-priority neighborhood.  We’d never get ignored, but the fire department and medical crews never seemed to feel the same urgency to respond to the fringes as they did when reports came from further inside the City.  With callers saying a bomb had gone off, they’d be even less enthusiastic about showing up early.

          I took advantage of the delay to catch my breath, then use it to make a request: “Ttt, Tksssh, could I ask a favor?  I haven’t talked to the client on my current case since I got shot.  Given this mess, I’d like to make sure she’s all right.  If I’m here when the authorities arrive, I’ll be held up for treatment and questioning.  They can collect me there just as easily as here.  Could I possibly ask you to bring a ‘car around so that I can fly to her place, first?”

          Rptrkch looked uncertain, while Vstkrt seemed to be considering my request.  The third male, the one I could see, looked agreeable, like he bought what I was selling.  And I was selling.  Lying, actually.  I had no idea where to find Pkstzk.  Even if I did, I wouldn’t go straight to her.  I also didn’t want to be questioned by the constables, period.  I did want a place to crash; not a client’s home, but some anonymous flop.

          I had one lodging in in mind, in particular: one already searched in my compad, related to my current case, and close to someone I wanted to check on.  That private building in Isstravil might not have a reservation for me, but I had enough credit to potentially overrule that problem.

          Finally, Vstkrt clicked her agreement.  “If we said no, you’d probably try to go anyway and hurt yourself worse.  Still, leave us the address?  That way, if something happens to you on the way, we can let the constables know where to look for the body.”

          Such a cheerful youth.  I had to agree with her, though.  “Kzk Tsstkt, in Isstravil.  I don’t remember the number, but it’s next to the computer store.”

          Rptrkch trotted off right away, likely bound for the aircar station a few blocks down.  These really were good kids.  I regretted that I hadn’t talked to them before, under better circumstances.  I regretted, again, causing them trouble.  Last of all, I regretted abusing their trust to pursue my own goals.  At least I wouldn’t be endangering them further by sticking around.  For all I knew, a Mauraug strike team was on its way to demolish the block, just to make sure I was finished.

          That idea was silly, but then, this entire situation had become absurd.  While I waited for Rptrkch to return with the aircar, my mind went back to the questions I was considering before I blacked out.  Why target me?  Who did it help to have me dead?  What was I getting close to that needed to be kept hidden?

          My decision to fly off to Isstravil had more to it than just a desire for intellectual closure.  My need to check on Tskksk was actually fourth down on the list, just below my need to avoid more official questions.  At the top was a growing, ignoble but honest anger: I was furious at whoever had blown up my home, whoever was targeting me and Pkstzk, and whoever was hiding from justice by these acts.

          I had not been threatened like this before.  I mean, I had been threatened, but it was usually more direct and specific.  Someone would call, say “drop the case or die”, and maybe explain which case they meant.  Sometimes I would get a gun or claw waved in my face.  But this… this hunting… this was new.

          I was going to Isstravil because that seemed like somewhere my persecutor would not want me to go.  I’d be in deep trouble with the constables for visiting there, but if I worked quietly enough they might not find me until I found a lead.  I intended to pry harder into the clues I already had.  If I moved into one of the rental units in the area Vzktkk was visiting, I could talk to the neighbors while I recuperated and see if one of them recognized his image.  I could research Tskksk’s evidence without pulling her away from her business.  I could even go over the pet import store one more time, if the constables didn’t have it under guard.

          If none of that worked, I might still provoke the killers again by being seen in the neighborhood.  Let them think I was getting closer.  This plan wasn’t the smartest, safest idea, especially with me unarmed and only partially mobile, but like I said: I was more angry than rational.  Plus, if I didn’t pursue the case now, I’d chew my claws off from frustration.  Safety wasn’t really a healthy choice, either.

          Maybe it's just as well I’ve never mated and reproduced.  I don’t have the best traits for self-preservation.  My continued survival sometimes seems more like a statistical quirk rather than a product of personal merit.  Even my pack mates in jail are better off than I am some days.  At least they're eating regularly, sleeping normally, and not exploding.

          I remained obediently prone on the concrete and willed my bloodstream to cycle pain blocking molecules to their designated nerve receptors.  The effort seemed to be working.  While the burns on my front and the bruises on my back were new contributors to my overall agony, I didn’t feel more tortured on the whole, compared to the way I’d felt walking into my building.  During and immediately after the explosion had hurt horribly, just like being shot had burnt and stung, but once I recovered from the initial trauma, it seemed like my mind established an upper threshold upon the pain it would report.  My new hurts only averaged into that pool, rather than piling up atop it.

          Once again, from prior experience, I knew that the reverse was usually the case.  Every new injury added to the whole, and there was no upper limit, at least not until shock knocked me unconscious or frenzy overrode the torment.  Or a new, more painful injury could become the focus of attention, if it surmounted the current high point.  But the idea that I had developed a cap on my sensation of pain was unbelievably ideal.

          Maybe it was the drugs.  Rather than just lowering the overall sensation of pain, this prescription somehow held the mix at a manageable level.  While I’d prefer total obliviousness, there were medical advantages to such an effect.  I could remain more aware and avoid worsening my injuries.  I wouldn’t be fooled into thinking I’d healed more than I actually had.  At the same time, I could balance out the multiple injuries and not worsen one area while trying to favor another.

          Well, good on Vaktrri Medical, again.  It might have been nice if they told me they were prescribing me something other than the standard narcotics, but I’d accept the gift nonetheless. 

          By the time Rptrkch returned in the rented aircar, I surprised everyone by standing up.  Now that I understood that my pain was limited to a certain level, I wasn’t sparing myself.  As long as I didn’t actually fold up and fall, I was all right.

          Not once did it occur to me, at that time or earlier, that I might be recovering from my injuries faster than normal.  Like at the hospital, I expected neither my natural fortitude nor medical science to spare me a standard recovery time.  Instead, I ascribed my seemingly miraculous functionality to the wounds having been less serious than originally thought.

          Call it luck or call it reflex, but I had avoided a broken back, serious burns, or shrapnel impalement from the booby trap.  Maybe the same fortune had spared me earlier.  The idea that something else was manipulating my luck hadn’t yet arrived, even after my series of ridiculously minimal gunshot wounds.

          No, at the time I just hoped that I’d keep going long enough on chemicals and pure force of will to learn something useful before I was forced to collapse and recover.  I pulled myself into the aircar seat with a little help from my new friends.  I waited until the lid closed before giving the destination address.  Not that I didn’t trust my young pack of neighbors, but what they didn’t know they couldn’t reveal by accident… to the constables or to my hunters.

          The aircar soared away.  I took advantage of the travel time to catch some actual sleep.  No further philosophical questions or hypotheses troubled me during the flight.

          An automated chime woke me in Isstravil.  I spilled out of the ‘car, blinking and stretching, only belatedly realizing how bad an idea it was to strain my back.  My body distinctively reported each of its various insults.  I took another blue pill, swallowing it dry.

          Trying not to look even more conspicuous, I checked the building where I had been deposited.  It was the right address.  The unassuming apartment block was older than my own building but in better repair.  Given that maintenance and its preferable location, the rent was likely half again what I normally paid.  I was about to find out.

          I walked around to the front entrance and tapped the comm request button on the entry pad.  After a few hectads, an answering chime acknowledged my signal and connected an audio line.  I heard a rough voice, probably Taratumm by the accent, answer, “Your business?”

          “Looking for a short-term residence.  Do you have a unit available?”  I kept my replies short, simple, and quick, hoping my interrogator would assume whichever interpretation was most appropriate for the situation.

          “We do.  You have credit and ident?” the voice rasped, worse even than a Taratumm speaking the K’khztk dialect.

          “Of course.  My last place was too cheap; I just barely survived a fire there.”  I figured they could see me, so I provided a thin cover story for my obvious injuries.  “I’ve decided to look for something better while I wait on the insurance case.”  There we are, a reason to seek lodging on short notice and a promise of future income, meaning assured rent payments.  I may not be a paragon of honesty, but at least I have a talent for keeping my stories simple.

          “All right.  I’ll show you what we have, but minimum is three cycles, all paid up front.”

          There went my entire credit account.  At least I’d have a comfortable home while I starved to death.  Yes, there’s food assistance in Layafflr City, just like any civilized Great Family settlement.  But you have to register for it, which means showing up in person and providing an address, both of which went against my current purposes.  Hiding from the constables meant going hungry.  I’d have to bend my personal ethics a bit and either beg, borrow, or steal a little credit, at least until this case was finished and its dangers eliminated.

          The entry pad chimed again, three times, which I correctly interpreted as a signal that it was unlocked.  I opened the door and stepped into a lobby of convincing faux stone.  The carvings were too regular to be anything but mass produced pressings, but the overall effect wasn’t bad.  The smell was even pleasant: moisture and limestone and warm grasses.  Somewhere inside the ventilation system was a scent synthesizer, a bit of comfort for tenants coming home.  I wished that I was actually moving in long-term.

          A side door opened up and an elderly, hunched Taratumm emerged.  He – or she – was at that age where it became difficult to distinguish gender.  Usually female Taratumm are noticeably more massive, but some females lose weight as they get older and some males put it on.  I decided I didn’t need to know and mentally defaulted to female.

          “Her” voice was just as grinding in person as it had been over the circuit.  She welcomed me: “Let’s see the ident.”

          I tried not to wince, either at her demand or at my aches, as I withdrew my ident card and presented it for inspection.  She produced a compad and waved the card over its reader.  The ‘pad’s screen lit up with an image of my face, younger and less battered.  She compared the scan with my current appearance and grunted, apparently satisfied.  The ‘pad could now also inform her that I was self-employed, give her my former address, and produce a background file listing any public offenses.  There was plenty on that list – even without my publicly unknown offenses – to give a landlord pause.

          She didn’t seem immediately put off, though.  That was good; if I had the right idea about this place, a few misdemeanor convictions shouldn’t disqualify me from residency.  Frost, she might not care if I had a murder charge and prison time, so long as my credit cleared.

          “Follow me.  I’ll show you the open unit,” she directed, shuffling toward elevator doors tucked into the backside of the lobby.

          I obeyed.  After she pressed the call button, the doors opened, and I squeezed into the too-small car next to her.  She didn’t bother with small talk, which was a blessing.  At this range, she smelled like seaweed and cheese; I could only imagine how much her breath might reek up close.

          The elevator spilled us out onto the third floor landing.  I squirmed out as best as my limp would allow, jumping at the reprieve from elderly-Taratumm odor.  The landing was a basic small foyer with four doors: one for the stairwell, one for a utility closet, and two for hallways leading to the individual apartments.

          Grandmother Friendly turned to the left and I followed.  She opened the hallway door with a small stick key, rather than a card, then continued into the hall.  We went past three doors, ending up in front of apartment 309.  She was just reaching down to unlock that door when my compad signaled an incoming call.

          Pkstzk.  I recognized the number as soon as I looked at the screen.  Great for her to call; lousy timing to talk.

          I waved my ‘pad toward the foyer and explained, apologetically, to the landlady: “Friend checking up on me after the accident.  I’d better let her know I’m all right.”

          “Make it quick.  I need to get back downstairs,” she grudgingly allowed.

          I retreated while tapping the ‘pad to accept the call.  Pkstzk’s face appeared along with her voice.  Her appearance was welcome, even if her words weren’t.

          “Why are you calling me?” she demanded, sounding more annoyed than afraid.  “I understand the situation has gotten more complex, but that’s even more reason to avoid unnecessary contact.”

          I cut off whatever she was going to say next.  “You don’t even know half of it.”  I dropped my voice to a near-whisper.  “After I called you, my apartment exploded.”  Even being quiet, I couldn’t be sure I wouldn’t be overheard, so I didn’t say someone tried to blow me up with a bomb.

          She looked absolutely furious, but when she spoke, her voice dripped with concern. “Why… why would that happen?  Who would want to hurt you?  Where are you now?”

          “Finding a new home.  The old one is a mess.  Look, I can be overheard here.  Real fast: the constables know I'm working on your mate’s case.  They officially warned me off.  If anyone asks, that’s why I called: to let you know I’m done.  But I’m not.  I’m working on an idea now.  I still need to know what you know, but I’ll have to work out a way we can meet without being noticed.  I’ll let you know when I’m settled.”

          She protested, “Tell me what you know… what you can.  I might know who was waiting for me at Taburket’s, and why, but I don’t want to bias your ideas.”

          I was spared a response by the landlady’s bellow: “Hey, Unlucky!  You coming?  I don’t have long… I could die while you keep me waiting.”

          I looked back her direction, exaggerating the gesture for Pkstzk’s benefit.  “Like I said, not just now.  I’ll call again soon, I promise.”

          I could practically hear Pkstzk’s beak grinding from frustration.  After a hectad, she spat out, “Fine.  But don’t keep me waiting long.  I want to know what you know about Vzktkk.”

          Not: Who killed Vzktkk?  Not: Who tried to kill me… and you?  Her phrasing troubled me.  At the time, I interpreted the feeling as disappointment at my once-beloved’s callousness.  I covered up my dismay by hanging up the call.

          “Sorry!” I called down the hall as I headed back.

          The landlady's crumpled bulk was propped against the wall of Apartment 309 when I entered.  It wasn’t a bad space, actually.  The area wasn’t much more than in my former apartment, but it was laid out better, with less space wasted in the main room and more allotted to a separate nesting room.  The kitchen appliances were more recent, and I suspected the bathroom was less decrepit, as well.  The walls showed signs of age, but this was a mixed curse: while decaying, they also had more character than the cheap extrusion cement of the tenements.  Actual plaster friezes in floral patterns merged the walls to the floor and ceiling, and colored stain formed pleasant blobs of natural color in-between.

          I nodded, needing little effort to look pleased at what I saw.  I was basically arranging long-term hotel lodgings, so I could do much worse.  If I wasn’t restricted by my geographical needs, I would have chosen worse to keep from emptying my credit account, all at once.

          I made a show of looking into the bathroom and walking the apartment’s perimeter, surveying the view from the one small window, turning the taps and generally pretending to check for flaws.  In the meantime, my host didn’t move, other than to shift slightly in place, rasping her age-roughened scales against the wall.

          “Well?” she finally burped.

          “It looks good,” I admitted.  “A little small, but all right for short notice.”

          “Small?” she scoffed, “I saw the address where you were living.  This is a palace by comparison.”

          Frosted old-time local.  She had area knowledge I could only dream of acquiring, someday.  So she knew my neighborhood.  That was a possible hazard for my anonymity, not to mention my bargaining position.  At least I hadn’t planned to negotiate much.

          I waggled my crest a little, feigning embarrassment.  “True.  But since the insurance will be paying, I had hoped to find someplace nicer.”

          “And if you abuse that benefit, they’ll drop your payments,” she warned, with the cynical wisdom of someone experienced in petty frauds.

          “I suppose so,” I sighed.  “What are you asking, since we’re at that point?”

          “Nine hundred a cycle.  Half that for cleaning deposit; you get it back if you do the cleaning.  Three cycles up front, six cycles minimum lease.”  Her recital suggested she could read me the entire lease contract from memory.

          I kept up the first few dance steps just so she wouldn’t think anything was strange.  Kkk, anything else besides my appearance and story, at least.

          “Nine hundred?  Thirty-one-fifty all together?  That’s tough; that’s most of my savings.  Could you leave me a couple hundred for the week and I’ll catch it up later?”

          She was just lowering her head in negation of my offer when my compad chimed again.  This time the caller was Tskksk.  I glanced down then up again, looking as apologetic as I could.

          “Another friend?  Good to have friends,” she grunted.  “Go ahead, but the price is fixed.  Say yes or say no when you are done there.”

          She heaved herself upright and started toward the door.  “Lock it behind you.  I will be in the office.  If you agree, bring your credit chip and I’ll trade you for the key.”

          I missed the initial call, but called Tskksk back as the landlady’s steps retreated back toward the elevator.

          She started talking first, as her image appeared.  “I caught the caller again!”

          “Sss, what?  What’s that?”  I couldn’t decipher her statement at first.

          “The one from the recording?  The calls right before and after your client’s… your client’s mate’s death?  I set my security program to notify me if any signals matched that one.”

          I was once again torn between the urge to propose mateship and employment.  Instead I said, “So you can do that?  And you got a match?  When?”

          “Just now.  A decad or so.  Well, it’s half a match.  The incoming half.  Whoever called the person who was here in Isstravil just called someone else – someone different – but near the same location.”

          I still wasn’t getting the message clearly.  “Slow down for the elderly.  You mean someone in this neighborhood just got a call from the same person who called the possible shooter?”  My blood started to warm from fear.  I didn’t know if I should be concerned for my safety.  Had the unknown enemy tracked me to Isstravil?

          “Slow down, yourself.  You’re nearby?  How close?”  Tskksk asked, sounding pleasantly surprised.

          “At an apartment building down the street.  It’s a long story, but I needed someplace new to live and figured I’d move closer to the job.  Are you at work?  I’ll head that direction once I’m done here.  Oh, just so you know, this is all unofficial now.  That constable detective you talked to, Nrissilli, wants me off the murder case.  So we’re just talking out of personal concern… checking on each other’s well-being.”

          She didn’t respond for a long couple of hectads.  Finally, her head cocked to the side and one eye scanned my image, probably taking in my singed scales and dilated pupillary slits.

          Are you okay?” she asked slowly, “Should I be concerned?”

          “No, I'm not, and yes, you should,” I answered with plain honesty.  “But hopefully not much of either.  Keep your involvement with me and this case private from anyone you can’t completely trust.”  I didn’t tell her to "tell no one"; if she did have bonded pack, she’d want to let them know about any possible danger, even a remote one.

          “I’ll tell you more in person,” I finished weakly.  “I understand if you’d rather have that meeting somewhere other than your place of business.”

          “No,” she waved me off, “I feel safer here than anywhere else.  I can block surveillance and throw down the security gates if I have to.”

          “Not what I meant, but thanks,” I replied.  “All right, keep scanning the waves and we’ll compare notes soon.”  I hung up before she could say anything else foolish.

          Young, resourceful, and braver than she was cautious.  That combination was familiar, but lacked my early disregard for the welfare of other sapients.  No, she was going to get herself hurt trying to help someone – namely, me – rather than trying to rip someone off.

          Lately, I was meeting a lot of surprisingly noble characters.  Even the crusty old landlady seemed to be gruff for show but decent underneath.  The bartender at Kzztkrt Tk who cared so much about Pkstzk, his coworker.  The cheery nurse and skittish but competent doctor at Vaktrri Medical.  My neighbors in the pack upstairs.  Even Detective Nrissilli wasn’t so bad, despite our inevitable professional conflict.

          This rare surplus of worthies contrasted sharply with the anonymous villains who had tried to shoot and then detonate me, who had shot Vzktkk, and who might still be stalking me and Pkstzk.

          I didn’t know much about Vzktkk yet, whether he fell into the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ category or was a normal, slightly selfish neutral like most of us.  Pkstzk clearly fell into that latter category along with me.  We wanted justice but weren’t going to limit ourselves to purely moral lines of action.

          While I mused, I left the apartment, locked the door as instructed, and then took the elevator down.  I returned to the rental office and signed paperwork with some further perfunctory griping about the price.  Then I presented my credit chip, which rested on the landlady’s ‘pad while it scanned my biodata.  She handed me the stick key to my new home, purchased at the cost of everything I had left the world minus the armor on my back and the compad in my carrier.

          I still had my life, too.  I supposed that alone was a fair deal.  I wouldn’t actually be getting any insurance payments, but I planned to extract satisfaction from the scales of my prey.  Once this case started to reveal its secrets, I looked forward to ruining the lives of some criminals as much as they had ruined mine.  Vzktkk’s killer, my attackers, and anyone else connected to them, they would suffer… legally, of course.  I might be able to collect damages, but that was unlikely.  Really, my only likely profit would be Pkstzk’s gratitude.  Plus, I still needed to know if the case had any connections to Pack Vzzrk I needed to bury… otherwise my life could still get worse.

          I left the office, not bothering to explain to my new landlady why I wasn’t going straight upstairs to collapse.  If she had asked, I would have said I still needed to buy a nest pad.  Actually, I was just walking a few doors down to Tskksk’s shop.  A nap would have been wise, but I had many reasons to delay my rest. 

           We had a lead, a real lead.  Somewhere nearby was a potential link to Vzktkk’s killer.  We could triangulate the newer call’s location, especially if the same caller – or the original recipient – appeared again.  If my hunch was right, the local contact would be found in one of the buildings nearby, possibly the same building I had just left.

          As it turned out, that hunch was exactly right.  Some of my other assumptions proved dangerously wrong.

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