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.
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.
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.
looked up as I crossed the threshold, blinking in surprise at my battered
you look terrible!”
“Thanks. Sorry, I can't return the compliment,” I managed, saving the remainder of my breath
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."
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.
accepted the offered stool with mumbled gratitude. She started to run off to get me water but
stopped when I croaked, “The call. Any
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.”
you’re losing me, and not just because of the medications,” I admitted. “Recompiled?”
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.”
turned out well. I’m flattered you kept
working on this case without being asked."
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.”
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
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?”
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.”
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.
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.”
you don’t have any suspects yet,” she pointed out. “There isn’t anyone you’re
thinking of, is there?”
possibilities,” I exaggerated.
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…”
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.”
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.”
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
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.”
confirmed, “I get you. Anything else you
can leave me before you have to disappear next door?”
like to leave you a weapon, but the constables took mine as evidence. You have any protection?”
stunner. I hate to keep it out,
though. Don’t want to tempt a customer
to use it on me.”
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.”
not much comfort. I’m a businesswoman,
not a fighter.”
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
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
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…
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
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
think I know who the outside caller could be,” I forced out through a clenched beak.
“Oh? Who?” Tskksk asked, innocent of my distress.
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
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.
assent. “If that’s her, your client was
called from here both times. That’s why I labeled that side the
definitely not her checking up on Vzktkk,” I concluded grimly, “and not him
calling home, not afterward.”
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
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.
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…"
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 naïve. 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
The male eyed me suspiciously. “Wouldn’t you know? I thought pack mates knew everything about
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.”
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.