"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?