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?”