Monday, February 29, 2016

Broken Record - Chapter 16 - "Interrupted Intercourse"

          Shtvtsk looked pleased at my agreement, but didn’t immediately give away any evidence of increased trust.  Instead, she pivoted to sit upright, still keeping eye contact.

          "I’m glad to hear you’re open to partnership, Stchvk.  I know what you want from me.  We can work on arrangements as we go, but first we should offer a few good-faith tokens.  I feel like I’ve contributed first: I haven’t laid any blame on you for intruding on my privacy.  I let you know, right away, that I knew.”

          “How did you know, by the way?” I interrupted.

          Her crest fluttered as she laughed.  “Kkk kkk, already asking for more?  I’ll tell you, if you explain how you got a copy of my key.”

          That wasn’t too much of a trade secret, I supposed.  “I made my own copy.  These magnetic scan locks are easy to fool.  In fact, it’s almost like they want to be tricked: the reader itself exerts force on the key, highlighting the regions where it expects differences in polarity."

          I stopped before I got too technical.  Shtvtsk seemed like the type to get bored easily by tech talk.  I wondered if I’d given away too much, though, with the slip about ‘wanting to be tricked’.  I don’t believe that every word reveals hidden truths about our psyches, but sometimes thinking about a topic makes it show up in unexpected phrases.

          She didn’t seem alerted, nor bored by my explanation.  She only shrugged athletically and replied, “I see.  At least I don’t have to sue the landlady, although I should probably speak with her about upgrading my lock.  I thought you might have slipped my key out of my pouch sometime earlier… but I think I would have noticed you before.”

          “You don’t know… I could have quiet, nimble claws.”

          “I might have to see if that’s true,” she trilled.  “But it seems your mind is trickier than your hands.  Part of the standard private investigator package?  Or a personal talent?”

          Now it was my turn to hold out on her.  “That sounds like a new question.  For now, let’s say I have many talents.  Which ones, and how I learned them, can be the topics of future discussion.  But it’s your turn now.  How did you know I’d been in here?”

          She finally showed some irritation.  “A micro-camera in the room here.  I always make sure to make a record of any visitors, in case of disputes about services rendered.  Not in the nest, by the way.  I’m lawfully recording business transactions, not creating entertainment.”

          I raised a hind-claw in defense.  “I understand that.  So are we being recorded right now?”

          “We are.  But it’s entirely modular and local.  I could turn it off, if I decide to.  I’ll also delete the record if we decide anything gets too private to risk sharing.  But until I know I’m safe, the record is a little extra insurance.”

          She managed to be both reassuring and threatening at once.  A good trick.  So was the recorder.  I really should have assumed something like that was in place.  An escort with video documentation generally got paid more reliably… or else she could start demanding even higher payments.

          Or he.  As rare as mate substitutes are among Vislin, it’s a gender equal profession for the same reasons.   I’d never met a male escort, but then again, I wasn’t a potential client for one.

          Shtvtsk, herself, increased my experience with female escorts to two.  The other one had been an extortion target for Pack Vzrrk.  We weren’t threatening to expose her; we just offered insurance so that her clients wouldn’t get robbed while they slept.  Unexplained thefts on their property tend to ruin any business.

          “I see.  Well, it’s your turn.  What else do you want to know?  Keep in mind, what you ask is just as revealing as what you answer.”

          “Don’t try and teach me, detective.  We both read people as a professional skill.  I need to know what they like and dislike; you need to know what they’re hiding.  I believe I’ve already plumbed more of your secrets than you realize… maybe more than you know about me.”

          “Sss?  Maybe I should see if that’s true.  I’m curious what I’ve given away.”

          “You’ll stay curious.  I can’t be teased into revealing my discoveries.”  She ventured to reach toward me, tapping a foreclaw against my left shoulder guard.  When I didn’t flinch away, she ran the sharp tip down the leather plate, leaving a shallow scratch. 

          I did shift my gaze to watch her hand move.  She was right to assume my lack of reaction implied a desire for more physical contact.  Not jumping away also conveyed a certain degree of trust.  Whether or not she realized that my complacency was the result of deliberate restraint, rather than paralysis or desire, was the real question. 

          She could have tried to tear out my throat.  She could have hooked my armor and dragged me close for a bite.  She could have thrown me to the ground, pinned me, and searched my pockets for weapons, keys, or her missing compad memory.  There were lots of risks, though all those scenarios were pretty unlikely.  She had no reason to assault me… that I knew of.  Even so, I was tempted to pull away.  I suppressed that reaction to prevent her from realizing I had such thoughts.

          You might think this is a lot of complicated processing for one hectad’s action.  True, I probably overstate the depth of my thoughts.  But some of what I’m describing is an elaborate, verbalized version of a much faster set of instincts.  We were trading nonverbal cues faster than either of us could explicitly recognize and interpret them.  Like a martial arts match, we were reacting on trained reflex more than actually planning out our attacks and counters.

          All of that is true, plus I probably interpret my actions more kindly in hindsight.  I’m sure my mind and body had a few actual reasons for my actions that were far dumber than the explanations I come up with afterward.

          So she touched me, I didn’t jump, and our relationship entered a deeper level.  Good job, instincts.

          For similar reasons, I feigned irritation and demanded, “That’s fine.  Unlike most of your clients, I didn’t come up here to talk about myself.  I’m pleased you’re so interested in me and my job skills, but I’m more interested in the reason our paths crossed today.”

          Her beak gaped open, a child’s gesture of petty demand.  “Ttt, Stchvk.  Don’t get tedious on me now.  I’d like to keep this exchange going pleasantly for as long as possible.  If you start setting terms, then I have to draw lines as well, and lines just divide us.  Remember, you agreed to work with me.”

          I stuck with my stern approach.  “I did, but I can’t ‘work’ without knowing what you’re offering or what you want in return.  I’m not saying spell everything out, but at this rate, we’ll be past our prime before we ever start.”

          “Fine,” she huffed, drawing herself up even straighter.  Her hand fell away from my shoulder and her beak continued to flex, an exaggerated reminder of petulance

          The Chill.  Next tool in the manipulation kit.  Give a little attention, then pull it away.  Make them apologize and offer anything to get back in your good graces.

          She didn’t freeze up for long.  Turning to glance back at me across one shoulder, Shtvtsk relaxed visibly and offered: “You were looking for information about Vzktkk’s death, weren’t you?”

          “A question and an answer, all in one.  I like that,” I praised, rubbing a claw down the arm of my own chair.  “And in reward, I’ll confirm: I’m working his murder, yes.  Mind sharing what you know?  I already heard from the neighborhood that you and he knew one another.”

          She blinked, but that was her only sign of hesitation.  “We did.  I appreciate that you don’t assume how we knew one another.  I’m sure the ‘neighbors’ did.  Assume, that is.”

          She paused then, clearly working out what to say next.  I suspected she was deciding how much to tell me, and how much of that information would be true.  She also had me hanging on her next words and probably knew that, as well.

          Finally, she hissed and said, “Kkk, they were right.  Vzktkk was seeing me… professionally.  He was leaving from a visit when he died.  The constables haven’t connected us yet; we were both at least that discreet.  His mate, Pkstzk, didn’t even know he was seeing me.  I knew both of them, if you didn’t find that out already.  Socially.  She and I used to work together, three years ago, on housecleaning duties.  She introduced me to Vzktkk, when they started considering each other for mateship.  So I noticed when things between them became difficult, after they’d been mated a year.  I offered my help; he accepted.”

          “Your help being…”

          “Professional companionship.  Look, Stchvk, I’m not ashamed of what I do.  Let’s be clear about that.  I’ve just found that being too explicit ruins the experience for many clients.  It spoils the illusion.”

          “Whereas I’m not fond of illusions,” I ventured.

          “No.  No, you aren’t,” she mused in return.  “You want all the grime and fluids of reality.  I wonder if I’m more appealing to you than an actual mate.  Of course, to many of my clients, I am more appealing than any real mate, but as a fiction, not as my real self.  Am I right, Stchvk?  Are you more interested in Shtvtsk the escort than Shtvtsk the female next door?”

          “We’ve gone back to me as the topic,” I cautioned.  “But I’ll admit you’re right; I like you better when you’re being honest.  As to whether I’d prefer an actual mate, that I can’t answer.  It’s not like I’ve had an offer to compare.  Most females want a potential mate with a better life expectancy.”

          “I assume you mean your evident job hazards,” she trilled, her gaze running over my several wounds.  “Not some chronic disease.”

          I rolled my eyes.  “No, it's a disease.  I occasionally break out in bullets.”

          “Rrr, sarcasm.  You spared me that until now.  If you thought I might find it unattractive, you were right.  Don’t deflect or deflate.  Let me tease, Stchvk.  Let me play.  It’s my privilege.  More, it’s my professional talent.  If you pick at my dialogue, it spoils the effect.”

          “I thought you just said I liked it better without role-playing.”

          I couldn’t help it.  I couldn’t resist the temptation to provoke.  It’s a tendency that gets me in trouble with potential friends, as much as it proves useful with many suspects.  I could see the edges of her self-control starting to wear away: the tightness around her knuckles, the sharper clamp of her beak at the end of words.  I didn’t want to get her angry, but it seemed the more I annoyed her, the harder she had to work to keep up the pretense of seduction. 

          I admit it; I’m a terrible client.  I wouldn’t just shut up and let the sorceress weave her spell.  Too bad.

          With thinning glamour, she rallied: “Let’s not get tangled in particulars.  I can give you whatever you really want.  It’s up to you to decide what that is and whether you want to accept.”

          When I didn’t respond to that bare offer, she continued: “Vzktkk received exactly what he wanted.  I reminded him how successful, noble, and generally worthwhile he was.  Between what he told me about Pkstzk and what I’d seen of her at work, I could reassure him that any problems in the relationship were completely her fault.  That wasn’t a fiction.  Their problems really were her fault.  I doubt you want a full recounting of her flaws, but the chief one was: she was an awful mate.  She neglected him.  Used him.  Took his credits plus kept her own, spending it all with no accounting for where the funds were going.  She was away from home more evenings than she was there.  It really sounded like she was the one seeing someone else, rather than him.”

          I wondered if Shtvtsk knew what she was doing, incriminating Pkstzk.  When I knew Pkstzk, she was a doting, loyal, supportive mate… to my old packmate, Rsspkz.  Sure, she was happy to spend the credits Pack Vzzrk pulled in from our various enterprises, but she spent them with Rsspkz.  I saw no reason she wouldn’t be as devoted to a second mate… unless she was still mated to the first.  If she wasn’t giving Vzktkk her love, it might mean she was still pining for her original, imprisoned mate.

          Worse, she still might be supporting Rsspkz in one or more ways.  Credits can be funneled in and out of prisons even in a secure, law-abiding city.  In Layafflr, the jails have holes only small enough to keep the prisoners from slipping out.  Frost, Pkstzk could be seeing Rsspkz in person.  She said their mateship was cancelled when Rsspkz went to prison, but she could have lied.  Conjugal visits would explain both her absences and her cool behavior toward Vzktkk.

          Shtvtsk was giving me a lot to worry about.  She was providing a perspective on Pkstzk that I wouldn’t have obtained, otherwise.  The very value of that information made me immediately doubt its validity.

          Shtvtsk could be pointing me toward Pkstzk to divert suspicion away from herself or from some third party not yet identified.  She could be setting up Pkstzk as a suspect out of revenge, petty spite, or else lingering loyalty to her deceased client.  She could be biased against Pkstzk from her conversations with Vzktkk, and now painted Pkstzk as questionable without any intent to implicate her as a murderer.  Sometimes, suspects lie without even realizing it.

          “So Vzktkk’s mate was ignoring him,” I summarized, “and you provided what she couldn’t.  I get that.  That’s why he was in Isstravil.  The problem is, someone knew he would be here.  You either weren’t as discreet as you thought, or else you’re a likely suspect: either to shoot him yourself or to advise the killer about Vzktkk’s whereabouts.”

          “Why would I kill Vzktkk?” she argued playfully.  “I liked him.  More than that, I worked for him.  I had no reason to wish him ill.”

          “No reason that anyone knows about,” I continued to accuse.  “I could come up with several possible reasons why an escort might have a client killed.  Failure to pay.  Violent, abusive behavior.  Ending the relationship.  Getting a better deal from someone who wanted Vzktkk dead and offered to pay well for your help.”

          “You really don’t think well of me,” Shtvtsk replied, all apparent seriousness.  “For someone who doesn’t like illusions, you spin a lot of stories.  None of those scenarios has any support in fact.  Vzktkk paid me well, in credit and in trade.  He’s the reason I could leave that housecleaning job without any lingering difficulties… just like he was for Pkstzk.  The cleaning company isn’t wholly owned by its public stockholder, if you understand my meaning.  Vzktkk made it more trouble for the management to harass me than to let me go peacefully.  He was nothing but a gentleman.  In fact, if he wasn’t so honorable, himself, he would have left Pkstzk several cycles ago.  There was no chance he’d end our arrangement.  He needed me.  I won’t claim I would have fought for his life, but I wouldn’t want to end it, no matter what I was offered… not that there was anyone offering.”

          “Hearing more about Vzktkk, I’m even more sorry about his death,” I commented.  I managed to make the potentially sarcastic comment sound plausibly heartfelt.

          Shtvtsk gave me a questioning glare but didn’t probe further.  She remained quiet, creating a silence that stretched uncomfortably until I gave in and spoke again.

          “So… do you know who would want Vzktkk dead?”

          She seemed to deflate at the question.  “The classic detective line.  Motive.  I can only help you partially there.  Vzktkk was getting paranoid the last few times we met: about Pkstzk, about being followed by unnamed persons, about being investigated at work.  He thought he was in danger.  It turns out he was right.  But nothing he said to me suggested a threat on his life… just someone looking into his affairs: business or pleasure.  I don’t suppose that was you?  Your turn: how did you get involved with Vzktkk’s case?”

          I watched her closely as she asked.  If she had any specific suspicions, she hid them well.  I thought about evading her question or lying outright in response, but quickly recognized that my most productive response was the truth.  I wanted to hear what she thought about...
          “Pkstzk,” I answered.  “Vzktkk’s mate asked me to find his killer.”

          She nodded, as if expecting that answer, but added: “No wonder you’re starved for credit, if you’re doing charity work.  That rktpk doesn’t have much to spend and wouldn’t spend much for Vzktkk, so I imagine you’re working cheap, if not free.  Let me guess: she wants you to get the constables off her tail.  It’s the only reason I can see her caring about his death; that, or if there’s an insurance payment suspended pending the investigation.”

          Her bitterness didn’t seem forced.  Maybe Shtvtsk did care about Vzktkk.  She certainly had formed a low opinion of Pkstzk and her relationship to her mate.

          I tried to remain neutral.  “I shouldn’t comment on my professional clients, though I realize the hypocrisy in that.  But I am keeping a healthy skepticism about Pkstzk’s motives, yes.  As to what she’s paying me… I have practical reasons to keep that confidential, beyond any ethical considerations.”

          "We’re far beyond ethics here, Stchvk,” Shtvtsk chittered, quietly.  “But I can assume from your reluctance that you know you’re getting underpaid.  Maybe she’s even offered what I do.  I assure you, my offer is much more honest, and even if she follows through, I’d be more enjoyable.”

          She paused as if waiting for my protest, but continued herself, instead.  “I wouldn’t be surprised if Pkstzk was involved in killing Vzktkk.  You might have reasons for a different opinion.  But I have reasons to think she was checking up on him.”

          I avoided pointing out how, a decad earlier, Shtvtsk boasted that Pkstzk knew nothing about her and Vzktkk’s liasons.  Instead, I offered a silent vacuum for her to pour her thoughts into.

          She obliged, adding, “I was receiving calls from her this cycle, more frequently than ever before.  We maintained social contact after leaving the housekeeping job, but usually only talked a few times a year.  In the last week, I talked to her three times, and she seemed very interested in my activities, acquaintances, whereabouts…”

          I could see the path she was leading down.  I gave her credit: this dialogue was one of the subtler and more thorough indirect accusations I’d ever heard.  She never outright said Pkstzk had Vzktkk killed, but suggested it was possible.  She hinted at clues and signs.  She outlined a scene with Vzktkk as the noble victim and Pkstzk the corrupt villain.  The worst part was that I could believe the scenario she was building.  It held just enough correspondence with what I knew – provided I discounted a few personal assumptions about Pkstzk – to take seriously.

          The main thing that discouraged me from buying the package was how hard Shtvtsk was selling it.  Her insistence sounded like deflection.  The fact that she was hinting around her point rather than outright arguing for it only made me suspect a setup more.  Suppose Shtvtsk was implicating Pkstzk in order to cover for some other murderer.  Who?  Herself?  Someone else of her acquaintance?  Another ‘client’?  She might be providing more services than mate surrogacy.

          I did my best to hide my true interest, as I asked, “And when did you talk to her last?”

          Her eyes narrowed.  Freeze and crack.  She was putting pieces together.  I’d fouled enough encounters to know when a suspect was about to shut down. 

          Then I felt a wave of vertigo, accompanied by a slight vibration of the floor.  At first, I thought I was suffering from anxiety, drug aftereffects, or a combination of both.  I thought: not now.  Not when I need a clear head the most.

          The shaking only intensified, though, and I could tell from Shtvtsk’s reactions that she  felt it, too.

          "What was that?” I wondered aloud.  I started to rise, but was hampered by stabbing pains across my tortured back.

          Shtvtsk looked unconcerned.  “An earthquake?  It wouldn’t be the first time the forecasters missed a prediction.  Maybe an aircar went down.”

          I continued to lever myself upright.  Shtvtsk put out a hand, either to help me up or nudge me back down.  I didn’t find out which.  As she moved, I had a sudden realization: Tskksk.  Bomb.  FROST.

          I straightened with agonizing speed.  My pain could wait.  If Tskksk was in trouble, it was my fault.  If she wasn’t, I still couldn’t take the chance of ignoring that possibility.  I shrugged away from Shtvtsk, forcing myself to move.  It was possible I was already too late, that Tskksk was already incinerated.  The thought only drove me harder.  If the worst had befallen, I could at least observe the scene and maybe even catch the culprits nearby.

          My pain didn’t want to wait.  Whether it was the sudden movement or the drugs wearing off, my leg flared like it had been shot anew.  My arm joined in, wailing its own protest.  I staggered as Shtvtsk reached out, supporting me under my good arm.

          “What’s wrong?” she asked.  I was hurting so badly, I couldn’t even analyze her reaction for genuine concern. 

          I pulled away from her, another unconsidered move.  I headed toward the door, calling back, “The people who tried to kill me.  They might be back.”

          Her response as I opened the door nearly made me stop and turn around: “Why go out to meet them, then?  Stay here, where they won’t look… where it’s safe.  Why would you need to go out there?  Unless there’s someone else you’re afraid for?  Who are you running to save, Stchvk?”

          Even in my haste and distraction, I heard enough of her parting words to file away for later digestion.  Why would she think I was going to rescue someone?  Was she just making a general assumption about my altruistic nature?  Or did she have someone specific in mind… someone she shouldn’t know about?

Sunday, February 28, 2016

February Update - In Piscibus Sole

Hello, Empyrean readers!

You may have noticed that, after a longer-than-expected gap, I've started updating regularly, more quickly than even I expected.  The last few chapters of Broken Record bubbled up rapidly, and in fact, the story is completely drafted.  I'm just catching up on the editing now before posting each chapter.  It was also a longer story than I ever thought.  At around 95,000 words, it's actually the longest Empyrean story yet, longer even than The Wreck of the Untranslatable (~82,500 words).  That's practically novel length.  Slap Bad Egg and Broken Record together, and you've got a classic sci-fi two-pack for publication.

I like that idea.  I really like how both stories came out, separately and together. I have several further ideas for stories about Stchvk, not to mention the Scape Grace crew.  So I'm definitely on the lookout for a publisher. 

But first, I have other manuscripts also on offer.  Between getting them in presentable shape and prepping submissions for agents, I'll have to set A Bureaucrat's Tale aside for now.  It'll still get done, just more slowly. 

In the meantime, you have five more chapters of Broken Record to look forward to in March, including the big, revelatory ending.  I hope it's as thrilling for you to read as it was to write.  Once that's done, I'll post another update for both of you to read. 

All of you.  I'm hoping we get some retroactive traffic later, once Laine and I are famous.

- Nathan

Friday, February 26, 2016

Broken Record - Chapter 15 - "Trade Negotiations"

          Preparing myself for confrontation with Shtvtsk was confusing.  What kind of confrontation was I expecting, really?  Threats?  Foul play?  A hidden laser?  Knife in the back?  Drugged drink?  Seduction or other bribery?  A really nasty argument?

          I kept my nerves under control largely by ignoring any anticipation.  I tried to assume we were going upstairs for a quiet chat, maybe including some details to help my investigation.  That scenario was still one of the possibilities.

          But if she was simply an informant, why did Shtvtsk know my name?  I remembered that I hadn’t given my name to the uptight Hrotata couple, so she couldn’t have heard it there.  The landlady, of course, had all my public data, so that remained a possibility.  The last and most likely source of intel was Pkstzk.  I already knew that she and Shtvtsk were in contact.

          So the question became: how did the two females know each other?  The timing of their calls around Vzktkk’s death was suspicious at the least, chilling at the worst.  Had they been in contact even before that fatal night?  Were they already associates, with Vzktkk’s visits social or related to business other than Shtvtsk’s apparent profession?

          And even if Shtvtsk and Pkstzk were on speaking terms, before, during, and now after Vzktkk’s death, why wouldn’t Pkstzk mention her to me as a lead?  Granted, Pkstzk and I hadn’t had much opportunity to talk.  Maybe Shtvtsk’s name was going to come up that night at Taburket’s, if our meeting hadn't been interrupted by assassins.

          Well, enough speculation.  I was going to learn something, even if it meant I had to plunge directly into the water without checking it first.  Should I hope it to be deep, warm, and pleasant… or cold, shallow, and shocking?

          I preceded Shtvtsk as offered, giving her plenty of access to my unguarded back.  Not that I expected any attack in the stairwell, but a trivial show of trust might count for something.  I even unlocked her door with my still-modified key, showing her that I had nothing to hide.  Again, I was hiding plenty; confirming that I had broken into her apartment was a confession intended to forestall deeper suspicions.

          As we walked into the apartment, Shtvtsk spoke behind me: “Please, sit down.  I’ll be with you in a moment.  I just need to check my messages.”

          Frost.  I had to wonder: did she just realize that her compad was here, in her apartment, unguarded, at the same time I had access?  Would she discover its malfunction and connect it to me?  Or had she already been home, found the ‘pad blanked, and figured it out herself… with the comment about ‘messages’ meant to taunt me?

          I gave away nothing.  I chose a padded, leather-covered lounge chair and settled myself carefully into the soft cushions.  Shtvtsk drifted past me into the nesting room, the low light glowing off her pale scales and silvery armor plates.

          I tried to watch without staring.  There was something fascinating about her, something almost unnatural, that had nothing to do with appearance or behavior.  Not that she didn’t have plenty to appreciate physically, but she was also fascinating personally.  She radiated strength, confidence, and danger; attractive qualities in almost every species.  

          Yet I had known females with each of those qualities before, sometimes all at once.  And yes, I was attracted and excited by most of them, but not like this.  Pkstzk had the lure of the forbidden, of youthful nostalgia, and a certain reckless enthusiasm… which seemed to have been drained out of her, now that I thought back to our meeting at her workplace.  She also had never seemed competent, always relying upon others to complete her wild plans and support her needs. Tskksk had fresh, young energy, shapely curves, and a competent and devious intelligence, but she seemed safe and orderly as a starship. 

          Shtvtsk was another kind of creature.  She maintained a business – again, so I assumed – which hovered on the edge of legality and threatened one of the supports of Vislin culture.  Prostitution might be legal and even encouraged by the Hrotata side of the Great Family, but again, the Vislin and Taratumm view of such activity was unsympathetic.

          Shtvtsk, now that I saw her, was the kind who could make such a profession work.  I could see why males would prefer her over an existing mate, paying her to pretend she was theirs for a while.  A lonely, unmated male would certainly be drawn toward her, even if he had only an average libido.  Again, it wasn’t just sex.  It was the feeling that, if such an impressive being was interested in you, you must be an impressive sapient, yourself.

          I was certainly feeling more important, just sitting in her waiting room and waiting on Shtvtsk to return.  Whether or not she came back out cursing, I had become part of her life.  She wanted to talk to me.  We might even have a meaningful conversation.  The worst outcome I could think of was being dismissed as unworthy of further attention.

          That realization, reached as Shtvtsk returned to the room, was what made me alert again.  Yes, I have been attracted to many females in my life, mostly unwisely, certainly excessively.  But never before had I failed to see – and sometimes appreciate – their flaws along with their assets.  I never treated them like fictional goddesses.  That was what my brain and other organs were trying to do with Shtvtsk.

          It wasn’t chemical, though, at least not like Hrotata toxin.  The world wasn’t dissolving into a soft-edged happy haze.  No, the unreal aspect was concentrated on her and my reactions to her.  You remember how I mention my ‘unique reactions’, frequently?  Well, the chief advantage of experiencing that urge regularly is that I’m aware of it, its nuances, and when to ignore it.  A novice wouldn’t have had a chance against Shtvtsk.  I flattered myself that I knew something was amiss.

          Not that I didn’t melt further into the chair when she fixed me with a steady yellow stare and addressed me in pleasant tones.  “Nothing of importance,” she said, implying that I was more important than any other person who might be calling.

          No messages?  Her compad shouldn’t even have booted a comm program.  She was covering her reactions well… and possibly waiting to see mine.

          I thought I managed well enough hiding my surprise.  “That’s a shame,” I answered, going for a playful approach, “I’d expect you to have frequent callers.”

          Instead of teasing along, she frowned, settling herself onto the couch to my immediate left, just barely within reach.  “I’m not sure what you mean by that.  Are you implying something, Stchvk?”

          Her regular and familiar use of my name was another clue.  Not ‘Detective’.  Not ‘Citizen’.  Not ‘Master’.  Nothing formal.  She assumed both superiority and informality right away. 

          I persisted with my own approach.  “Just that an attractive sapient like you should have plenty of company: a mate, a pack, or interested bidders for either.  Plus you’re clearly not hurting for credit, so I’d expect business calls, either for work or to offer services.  And from your images…” I waved a claw toward the displays in the waiting room, “…you clearly have social associates.”

          Her scales flickered momentarily darker, a voluntary warning.  Yet she leaned closer to me as she intoned, “You seem very interested in my activities, Stchvk.  Should I take that as a compliment… or a threat?”

          “Both.  Let’s not waste too much time here.  You know I’ve been asking about you, that I took the opportunity to look around your home.  I’m assuming you have some idea about why I’m interested.  You also know what your neighbors think, or at least what they assume about your livelihood.”

          Her crest rose at that: amused.  “My neighbors get the basic idea right, but have strange thoughts about the particulars.  I would say I am a companion, an escort, maybe even a therapist for those in need.  They just have the wrong idea about which needs those are.”

          “I figured that part out.  And I’m not judging.  But that wasn’t my real interest.”

          “No?  Not originally, perhaps.  But are you interested now?”  She was close enough to smell, probably close enough to transmit pheromones.  If she got any closer, she could check for herself how interested I really was.  I wondered if she doused herself with anything chemical, something subtler than outright musk. 

          “I admit that I am,” I agreed with admirable calm, “But I doubt I could afford your services.  I haven’t been paid well lately.”  Like with Tskksk, it hurt to mention my poverty, especially in the context of mate-interest.  I imagined it was like a mammal admitting to impotence or infertility.  Just don’t bother, move on, this one’s useless.

          Shtvtsk didn’t reel back in disgust, though.  She didn’t even pause to reconsider.  “I don’t always work for credit,” she teased.  “Barter often provides more value than money ever could.”

          I warred between just offering and demanding answers outright, versus playing along.  I had already as much as received a promise of ‘services’ in return for… something.  So what did she want?  What did she think I could do for her?  Answer her questions?  If she gave me what I needed, I’d have happily traded secrets back, maybe more than I should.  She didn’t need to offer herself in trade for information. 

          I have to admit, though, I like verbal games.  Sometimes, I suspect I stayed an investigator so long just for the challenges: the puzzles and the conversational sparring.  An erotic frisson was just added spice to my desired meat. 

          So I answered, “Barter?  So what kinds of trades do you accept?  What are you shopping for?”

          “Sometimes, I just need a skilled friend.  Pack is wonderful... and I do have one, by the way… but you don’t always have the talents you need among your loved ones.  A mate?  I have one for every day of the year, Stchvk.  I wear the one that suits the occasion.  The right client is like the right accessory; fashionable and functional.  So if you fit my need, then you don’t pay me, I buy you.”

          Her words were cynical, better suited for a bitter rant or a proud declaration.  Yet she delivered this cold assessment with warm, enticing charm.  She made her mercenary ways sound like sensible, even admirable behavior.  Frost, I caught myself wanting to hang in her closet… and on her shoulders, when she chose to take me out.

          But if she was that desirable, that successful, shouldn’t she be settled in a penthouse in the city center?  Nesting in a private hunting lodge, kept by a planetary politician?  Why, if she was so obviously valuable and willing to trade on that value, had she not traded up to something better than a one-nest apartment in Isstravil?

          I wanted to debunk her words; I wanted to sympathize.  Obviously, her luck had been as poor as mine.  Maybe she had a similar limitation keeping her from claiming everything her talents offered.  Neither skepticism nor pity would endear her to me, though.

          Instead, I ignored her boasts.  “All right.  I’m flattered at your implication that I’m worth trading for.  I didn’t misunderstand that, did I?”

          Her crest fell.  “No.  That was the idea.  I mean, you’re not ideal.  I did notice your intrusion, not to mention your investigation.  You clearly have been caught where you shouldn’t be, recently, before now.”  Her gaze took in my body, lingering on my wrappings.  I still couldn’t help wishing she’d linger elsewhere, but appreciating even that observation.

          “I’m on limited time and resources,” I countered.  “If I had more leisure, I could work more subtly and with less injury.”

          "That sounds like an excuse,” she chided.  “The best in their field don’t let such pressures interfere with their performance.  I can get equally good results in a decad as in a day.”

          “I’m sure you could, but then again, you rarely have anyone directly opposing your work goals.”

          She flared again, lifting her head higher to look down into my eyes.  Checking my expression for more information?  “You know that’s not true.  But I suppose my opposition is less likely to resort to violence.”

          Now we were finally getting to something substantial.  Part of me wanted to break out of innuendo and get directly to the bones of our situation.  How did you know Vzktkk?  How do you know Pkstzk?  Did you kill Vzktkk?  Do you know who did? 

          I might eventually get around to raking her with such nakedly sharp questions.  But I’d had enough witnesses freeze up when attacked to know better.  She obviously had an approach planned out, some proposal or scenario in mind.  If I kept going her way, she might still give away what I wanted to know.

          I pushed as carefully as I could.  “I guess you do have opponents: social, maybe personal.  Maybe that opposition could get violent on occasion.  Has that happened much?  Recently?”

          “You can see me as well as I see you,” she retorted, lounging back on her couch to make the point elaborately.  “Do I look like I’ve been recently assaulted?"

          “You don’t look as much like you lost a fight, no,” I agreed, giving her displayed body the expected inspection. 

          “That’s because I never do the fighting myself, in person,” Shtvtsk confided.  She settled back into the couch, her legs and tail toward me now.  “If I have a problem, I usually find a friend who can solve it.”

          “So I should be a friend, rather than a problem.”

          My direct summary struck home.  She stiffened and her crest dipped involuntarily.  She recovered well enough, though, relaxing back into her assumed pose without betraying any aggression.

          “We should all strive so,” she lectured.  “No one should create trouble.  Everyone should please one another.  Don’t you agree?”

          “Absolutely.  But my work is predicated on the fact that sapients create trouble for one another.  And I have to be a problem for those sapients.  If I have any disdain for your work, it probably comes from the fact that you get to make your clients happy... whereas I frequently make my clients more unhappy, even when I do everything right.”

          “Sss, but surely someone is happy when you succeed?  The constables?  A victim?  Society in general?”

          Her voice suggested the answer we both knew.  All too often, nobody was pleased when an investigation found the culprit of a crime.  Sometimes, sapients preferred not to know, if the answers were painful.  ‘Society’ sometimes was the criminal, either through direct corruption or indirect causation.  She seemed sympathetic… and maybe, suggestive that I might profit more from failing, once in a while.

          That insinuation stiffened something inside me, other than the obvious organs.  I can bend a lot of principles, but I sensed we were heading toward a bigger bend than I could accept.  Even the suspicion brought me sorrow.  I was going to have to disappoint this gorgeous, amazing, provisionally-willing goddess.

          I tried to warn her, a little: “I am.  I’m happy.  When I solve a case.  Otherwise, this job wouldn’t be worth doing.  I don’t want to insult you… I certainly don’t want to discourage you from what you’re doing right now… but my real pleasure is finding what’s being hidden.  I hope you get some pleasure, yourself, out of solving your client’s problems?”

          If she was offended, she hid it well.  Obviously, she knew becoming angry or defensive would ruin the spell she was trying to cast.  Instead, she tacked to a new approach.  I could admire her craft and persistence even while recognizing the maneuver.  Being savvy also didn’t immunize me against enjoying her work… or doubting my analysis.  I still wanted to be on her side, in her favor, and not treating her like a suspect.

          “I do.  I didn’t mean to sound so dismissive of my clients.  Call it pride, personal and professional both.  Stchvk, you don’t think badly of me, do you?  I sensed we had some understanding of one another.  We’re both hard workers, struggling to earn what we deserve for our talents.  I just manage differently; different domain, different currencies.  We could work together, as partners, rather than separately.  We don’t have to be at odds.”

          There it was, the center of our conversation.  I still didn’t have anything substantial about the case - just a load of suspicions - but now I knew why Shtvtsk had approached me.  She wanted me on her side, either as culprit, as bystander, or as victim.  She spoke with calm, confidence, and even a touch of conspiratorial fellowship, but she needed my cooperation.

          In fact, I was impressed all over again to hear how smoothly she entered this new approach.  Since naked (not naked enough) appeals to my personal pride or lusts hadn’t worked, now she was working on my professional pride.  She had me identified as defined by my work, ruled by achievement rather than ambition or physical desires. 

          She wasn’t wrong there, I suppose.  I want a lot of things, but when priorities clash, the job always wins.  The main reason I'm not more successful is that, in Layafflr City, ‘success’ means you occasionally fail to find the bad guy… or you catch the good guy for the bad.  I don’t know what I’d do if solving a case meant causing harm for an innocent sapient; it would be a painful decision.

          Still, having even a legitimate drive worked for advantage could become annoying.  I might be flattering myself to think so, but lately, it seemed like even my strongest desires were resistible, even as I felt their undiminished power.  Maybe that was the benefit of advancing age.  I had assumed such drives faded in intensity, becoming muted enough that existing restraints became sufficient to hold them in check.  In my case, it felt more like my internal controls – perhaps empowered by the weight of past mistakes – were rising to hold back a still-potent tide.

          If only this female’s goals and mine were in alignment, and I could stop resisting!  That was what made Tskksk a much better interest than other females; while I might not ache after her as hard, I didn’t get repelled by any warning signs, either.

          While I thought, my silence encouraged Shtvtsk.  She turned around on the couch, leaning toward me across its length, flipping from reversed supine to a facing prone crouch.  Her crest rose slowly, her beak parting, claws pressing into the leather surface.  She could really fake interested arousal well.

          I knew what I had to do.  There was only one way this encounter was going to be resolved.  Shtvtsk had made it abundantly clear: she wasn’t giving up any real information until she was sure I was hooked.  She was going to keep probing my controls until she found the way to make me another obedient ‘friend’.  To get what I needed out of her, I had to end this farce.

          I looked deep into her bright, yellow eyes, leaned forward, and said what I had to say:

          “You’re right.  I think we could work together.  What did you have in mind?”

Friday, February 19, 2016

Broken Record - Chapter 14 - "Hard Decisions"

          When I reached the compad shop, I was aching and panting, but still holding myself upright.  Seeing the ‘Closed’ sign in the window almost dropped me to my haunches.  Had Tskksk closed up early?  It was almost evening, but it wasn’t quite dusk.  I hadn’t bothered to check the shop’s hours; this could be her normal closing time for the day.

          The security door wasn’t down, at least.  There was some hope.  Plus, I couldn’t just come back the next day.  I rapped on the door and waited a few hectads. 

          Fortunately, that was all the time it took for Tskksk to come loping to the door.  She waved at me through the window as she disarmed an alarm and retracted the door bolts.  Her greeting was more enthusiastic than I expected or deserved.

          “Stchvk!  Great timing!  I got something!”  She almost bounced on her hind-claws as she backed up to let me enter.

          I hated to spoil her surprise, but couldn’t resist showing off, myself.  “You got a hit on the other compad: the one that called out locally."

          She stared back at me, eyes narrowing.  “How did you… did you find out who it was already?  Was that where you were?”

          “Could be,” I answered without any intent to tease.  I elaborated, “I talked to some people in the neighborhood.  They pointed me to a likely friend of Vzktkk’s in the area.  While I was at her apartment, she got a call.”

          “But she didn’t answer, right?” Tskksk prompted, playing along rather than getting irritated at my lousy storytelling. 

          I grinned back.  “No, she didn’t have a chance.  All right, I was there alone.”

          Tskksk looked up and down the street through the windows, a conspirator in mime.  “Sounds morally questionable.  I’d better close the door.”

          She did so, her crest flicking in amusement rather than anxiety.  She whirled on me right afterward, holding out her hand.

          “What?” I asked, pretending innocence.  “The door was unlocked.  I went to make sure she was all right.  Are you implying I might have done something criminal?"

          She flexed her claws, palm still up and waiting.  Finally, I reached into my compad bag and pulled out the handful of memory beads.  She looked disappointed as I offered the components.

          “You didn’t get the whole 'pad?”  Then she brightened with realization.  “Sss, you swapped out the memory!  That works.  Most of the important information will be in there anyway."

          “Most?” I asked.  “I thought all the contacts would be on there.”

          “Ttt, they will.  And call records.  But the actual call signal and frequencies the ‘pad uses are firmware, built into those components.  We’ll learn almost everything from the saved files, but they won’t give perfect confirmation.”

          I tried not to sound too hurt about my implied ignorance.  “Well, this isn’t for evidence.  If the owner is involved in Vzktkk’s death, the constables will have to make their case on other grounds.”

          “Involved?  You said this came from a friend of the deceased.  You mean this person might be a witness?”

          I paused, wondering how much more detail I should provide.  Could I trust Tskksk, ally though she might be, with the specifics of a personal case?  More importantly, should I get her deeper into an obviously dangerous matter?

          I decided that, for all my concern, she was already pretty tangled in this mess.  Denying her information now actually put her at more risk.  I wasn’t going to give away more than I needed to, but she needed some details just to proceed effectively.  I explained as much as I could while I plugged in my compad to recharge.

          “Friend might not be the right term.  Business associate?  Special friend?  Co-conspirator?  I don’t know which is the more appropriate label.  The neighbors suggested Vzktkk was seeing this female, named Shtvtsk, for companionship.  From what I saw, that certainly seemed to be her profession, or at least one of them."

          “So the victim was cheating on his mate?  I can understand why she might want him dead… wait, but wasn’t the mate the one calling this Shtvtsk?  That doesn’t work…”

          I signaled agreement.  “I can think of some explanations, none of them good… but none of them very plausible, either.  I didn’t tell you before, but since you'll get the name soon enough anyway: Vzktkk’s mate, my client, is named Pkstzk."

          She interrupted to snark, “I knew that already.  Vzktkk’s obituary mentions her."

          “And you read it after my last visit,” I finished for her.

          “Yes.  You were saying?” she led on with mock innocence.

          “Anyway, what you won’t find in public record is that Pkstzk and I are old acquaintances, ourselves.  I’d appreciate if you didn’t share that with Detective Nrissilli, by the way… or any other constable.  But I know Pkstzk, her past and her personality.  She might rip a wayward mate bloody herself, but hiring someone else to off him?  Not likely.  Contacting the other female to conspire also seems out of character.  Then again, maybe Pkstzk called to threaten Shtvtsk and demand she stop seeing Vzktkk."

          “Or to gloat?  Maybe the first call was, ‘I know he’s there with you’, and the second was ‘Now see what you did.’,” Tskksk offered.

          “Again, that assumes Pkstzk was involved.  I don’t think so.  No benefit to her to have Vzktkk dead.”

          Tskksk winced, “She sounds lovely.  If I can ask, how did you know this Pkstzk?  Coworker?  Brood-sibling?”

          “It’s complicated.”

          Tskksk flexed her claws, releasing that particular prey.  “Fine.  I can tell when I’ve hit a firewall.  You do know I may find out while browsing through these?”  She rolled the memory beads around on a table-top for emphasis.

          “If it becomes relevant, you’ll know,” I allowed.  “But it’s enough to say I’ve seen Pkstzk get very possessive.  If she was going to blast anyone, it would be the other female.  Her mate is hers… at least while she still wants him.”

          Tskksk paused and offered tentatively, “Well, is possible that she didn’t want her mate anymore?  I admit it sounds really cold, put that way.”

          Her hesitancy actually made me think harder, myself.  “I wouldn’t have said so, at first… but it’s not an impossible theory.  Not a dissolution of the mateship, but something else.  It’s possible she wasn’t ever interested in him.  I’ve been thinking about her in terms of a grieving ex-mate, but there’s enough about this case that suggests there might be something else stalking under cover.”

          “Sss…?” Tskksk asked, without voicing her question further.

          I raked the air with a hindclaw, killing the subject.  “Later.  When we know something more solid.  For now, yes, I would be very grateful if you could extract everything from those memory beads and give me a copy, plus the originals in case I get a chance to return them.  Doubly grateful if you avoid prying deeper into the contents of those records.  If you get a visit from a neighbor named Shtvtsk, before I’m able to retrieve the beads…”

          “Swap them back in under pretense of ‘repairs’,” Tskksk finished.

          “Like you read my mind,” I joked.  She clacked back, still in good humor herself.

          I felt obligated to remind her of serious matters.  “Don’t forget, I’ve had two attempts on my life since I started this case.  One was definitely aimed at me; no reason to think that it wasn’t related to my investigations.  Once whoever it is tracks me to this area, you could be at risk.  Don’t take any chances, don’t mention the case, and keep your security up.”

          She acknowledged my warnings with due sobriety.  “I understand.  Normally, I’d curse you for bringing me trouble… but I could have warned you away the first time.  I’m aware and accept the risks.  Besides, now I really want to know how this mystery turns out.  If I’m threatened, I still reserve the right to panic and run.”

          “Fair enough.  I’m the only one here who sold their rights to self-preservation.”

          “Is that what clients pay you for?”

          “Exactly.  Investigation is one percent intelligence, ninety-nine percent recklessness.”

          “I’ll stick to electronics repair, then.”

          “Good idea.”

          We finally exhausted our supplies of wit and settled into a satisfied post-banter silence.  I excused myself from the store, retrieving my compad from its charging plug.  Without prompting, Tskksk locked up behind me, pulling down her security door and turning off the lights in the front showroom.

          As I left, I glanced toward the pet store across the street.  Technically, there had been three attempts on my life since I started this case.  I couldn’t decide, though, if the rktpk attack should be considered random or connected in some way to Vzktkk’s murder, and/or my subsequent investigation.  There were still too many loosely connected incidents in this situation.

          I was counting on Tskksk’s findings casting some light on this case.  I was running low on leads again, not to mention being overdrafted on credit and low on time.  Eventually, my would-be killers would make another attempt.  I needed to identify them (or their employer) before then; at worst, I should anticipate and have constables waiting for their next visit.

          I wasn’t avoiding the constabulary forever, after all.  I’d eventually have to get their help, either to protect myself or to wrap up the case.  All hopes of keeping my involvement quiet had evaporated when a bomb went off at my apartment.  When I discovered Pkstzk’s connection to this neighborhood, that permanently ruined any chance of obscurity.  I still retained some hope of hiding my past; ideally, Pack Vzzrk had no relevance to Vzktkk’s murder.  If the constables could wrap up his case without further investigation, they might be satisfied without any deeper detail.

          It wasn’t the first time I'd counted on constabulary neglect to preserve my freedom.  Like I noted before, successful investigators were allowed wide legal latitude in exchange for the returns they produced.  A PI only ended up on the receiving end of prosecution if they created more problems for the law than they solved… if they became an embarrassment.

          Being noticed publicly – particularly when flouting the law – was the worst possible sin, followed by implicating a constable in a crime.  Never make the law have to defend itself, basically.  It will fight and it will fight hard.  I was fortunate I’d never had to face that battle. 

          I think for the most part the constables who knew of me considered me a lucky loser: a sapient who solved cases by persistence and trickery, coupled with a repeated failure to die.  I say ‘loser’ because I never seemed to parlay my successes into a better class of clientele… whose fees would provide a nicer office, wardrobe, and living space. 

          The truth was, my detractors were mostly right.  Given the types of cases that came to me – and the few cases I’d turned down – I generally had to get my claws dirty to win and didn’t earn much for winning.  I could advertise better, but my innate fear of discovery tended to sabotage such plans.

          I’d only argue about the ‘lucky’ part.  Sure, I was still alive, but my aches and pains sometimes made me regret that.  I wasn’t lucky in a lot of ways: love, pack, money, looks… 

          The shred of pride left after all my self-abuse argued that I’d solved most of my cases, not just by luck or brute force, but by logic, insight, and cunning.  I was persistent, yes.  And my ‘tricks’ were hard-earned and useful skills, abilities that could frosted well pay me back for the trouble of learning them. 

          Plus, I’d added to my repertoire since my misspent youth.  I learned how you could hack a conversation, just as much as a compad or a magnetic key.  Find the right cues, tap the right nerves, and some closed-off people open right up.  It’s no more noble than picking a lock, but it’s more legal.  Granted, getting caught gets you in almost as much trouble. 

          Enough rambling.  Mostly, I thought about hypothetical scenarios as I walked back to my new apartment in Isstravil.  How were Pkstzk, Vzktkk, Shtvtsk, and the mercenaries at Taburket’s (and possibly, my old apartment) related?  Were any of these connected to Pack Vzzrk?  What was Pkstzk’s game?  Was there even a game, or was Pkstzk unaware of any role Shtvtsk played in her mate’s death?  Was Shtvtsk involved in killing Vzktkk or having him killed?  There were lots of possibilities, some more likely than others, but none completely disposable.

          In parallel, I was thinking about how to extricate myself from the case once it was resolved.  I wanted to keep my mentions in the official reports as minimal as possible.  It was beginning to look like my only means of doing so was cooperation with – and the good graces of – Detective Nrissilli.  I thought I'd earned some trust from the Detective, or at least sympathy.  Then again, it was possible the Hrotata let me go just to see where I ran… or to stake me out like a sacrifice and see what predators emerged.

          I wasn’t faulting her in either case.  I would have left willingly, even knowing her motives were underhanded.  We were just playing our roles.  She didn’t know my true background, ability, or plans.  I didn’t know hers, and it didn’t matter anyway.  For now, for this incident, we had no choice but to play the game one particular way.

          Dusk was creeping in around the edges of the skyline as I arrived ‘home’.  It wasn’t an enthusiastic homecoming.  I still didn’t have a nest; only a bare floor waited for my aching, fatigued body.  Even before resting, I needed to reprogram my own key just so I could get inside.

          I entered the familiar foyer, realizing that I had spent more time there than anywhere else the same day.  The hall's sparse, utilitarian looks summarized my day pretty well.  Just doing what one must, without luxuries.

          Speaking of comfort, I realized my pain meds were wearing off.  The drug probably had been waning for several decads already, but I was just noticing it as my thoughts turned toward rest.  I checked the bottle rattling in my armor pocket: about a dozen days' worth.  It was supposed to be a fifteen day prescription, but I’d been leaning heavily on the pills after the explosion.

          I allowed myself one more dose for the night, dry-swallowing with some difficulty.  Couldn’t they at least afford a water fountain in this cavern?  As I straightened up, steeling myself for three flights of stairs, I heard a beak click calling for attention.

          Turning around, I saw a tall, graceful, female Vislin standing at the base of the stairwell.  She must have entered from the side doors or else came out of the landlady’s office.  She had also walked so quietly that I didn’t notice her approach until she was already in the foyer.  That alone was quite a feat, even given my distractions.

          Her stealth and physical presence weren’t the only exciting qualities about her.  She wore a simple armor sheath of soft white leather plated with titanium panels over belly, thighs, and inner arms.  It complimented her pale cream scales, a perfection unmarred by variations in hue.  Her eyes were deep, clear, and focused pleasantly on me in an expression not of revulsion, but interest.  She performed a simple nonverbal greeting, adding a tail flick that indicated genuine pleasure to be in my presence.  And her voice… when she finally spoke, she coupled the precise, clear diction of a scholar with the modulations of a Great Pack leader.

          “Stchvk?  I must assume it is you.  Even if you’ve suffered some wear since your public images were recorded, your pattern of injuries is distinctive.”

          I didn’t recognize her.  Believe me, if I had met this female before, I would remember her.  I would remember her daily and while asleep at night.  Just knowing that she knew my name and showed such evident curiosity about me was scrambling my mental functions.

          Do you know, Humans call their ‘lower’, more basic mental functions their ‘lizard brain’?  It’s funny, because Vislin actually suffer less interference from those basic biological urges: arousal, hunger, aggression, and fear.  That’s not counting frenzy, of course, or the demands to protect pack and offspring.  But day-to-day, we tell fewer stories of Vislin thinking with their hormones than mammals do.

          Well, right then, I was belying that species pride.  The urge to stare silently was fighting a siege action against the urge to say something equally fascinating in return.  I really, really wanted to impress this female.  The forces fighting for silence argued that, no matter how clever I thought I was, whatever came out of my beak would be idiotic gibberish.  In response, the speaking faction countered that my quiet could be equally mistaken for imbecility.  Finally, the two sides reached an impasse and compromised on mysterious simplicity.

          “I am,” I confirmed, “Who are you?”

          “I’m surprised you don’t recognize your neighbor.  You’ve had plenty of time to look at my personal effects.”

          She spoke without anger, but I still froze as I understood her words.  Shtvtsk. 

          I should have recognized her from the images in her apartment.  Yet even the best recording wouldn’t have prepared me for the vision in person.  The few glimpses I’d had were of a younger female, surrounded by other Vislin and the occasional Hrotata or Taratumm.  She was either buried in the press of a party or else soberly staring into the imager.  She certainly hadn’t been wearing that armor in any of the images.

          How did she know I had broken in?  The reasonable guess was a confederate in the building.  The landlady?  Frost, the Hrotata couple that gossiped about her originally might have tipped her off to my interest, unable to resist gossiping about me to her.  Kktkrkz devour all chatty rodents.  Then again, she might have had hidden cameras in her apartment to watch for intruders… or to record clients for later pleasure or blackmail.

          I hadn’t thought to check for such ‘security’ measures.  My haste in searching the apartment was no excuse.  I’d hit more private targets before and thought to thwart or destroy recordings… I just hadn’t expected such things in a personal residence. 

          Well, maybe she’d reveal her tricks.  I struggled to haul my psyche out of its erotic mire.  I summoned my own personal charm to see if I could out-charisma an obvious master.  I hated the thought that I might spoil her lovely air of attraction, whether it was genuinely intended or just an act.

          I started out slow: “I’m sorry?  Your personal effects?  I’m not sure I understand.”

          “Let’s not play games, Stchvk.  I assume you’re uncomfortable standing here and will only become more fatigued the longer we clash beaks.  You know who I am, and I have a general idea who you are… and why you’re here.  Discussing our business together here, in public view, is likely to become embarrassing.  So why not come upstairs with me and we’ll talk.  More privately.  More professionally.  More… comfortably.”

          Professional was right.  I was sparring well outside my class, and we both knew it.  The only question was, was I fool enough to follow her onto her own territory, continuing the battle with even fewer advantages?  All I had on my side was a little more knowledge, including the bargaining chip of her compad memory.  She had many obvious assets, plus a very inviting apartment and the implied promise of other comforts. 

          My resistances were already low, as she had correctly assumed.  The only tether keeping me from falling completely was the reminder that this female might be Vzktkk’s murderer.  I hadn’t seen a laser weapon in her apartment, but I hadn’t been looking for one, either.  This invitation could be a trap.  A really pleasant looking, well-designed trap.

          But it might be a legitimate invitation.  Not just for pleasant companionship, either.  She could be a witness wanting to come clean about her role in Vzktkk’s death.  She might have information about Vzktkk or Pkstzk to share.  Frost, she might have taken my break-in as a sign that her anonymity was lost and preferred to make her statement to me rather than the constables.  I could be doing a civic service here.

          Maybe it was the nature of the invitation that was making me nervous.  It just seemed too good to believe.  It contained everything I wanted: a seductive, available female; a lead on this aggravating case; not to mention, a soft nest for my aching corpse. 

          Maybe it was a death trap.  At that point, I was willing to take the risk.  Better to lie in a comfortable grave than on a hard floor, alone, wondering what secrets I had missed hearing.

          I mustered my most confident crest display and answered her, “All right, lead on.  Then again, I could lead instead… I already have a key.”