Monday, January 25, 2016

Broken Record - Chapter 13 - "Empty Nest"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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