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?”
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.”
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.”