Friday, March 4, 2016

Broken Record - Chapter 17 - "Out of Business"

          I half-hobbled, half-fell down the stairs.  Halfway down, I realized I could have taken the elevator; Shtvtsk’s copied key would grant me access.  But by then, it was already too late to bother and changing direction would just waste more time.

          I admit, I was beating myself up on purpose, self-flagellating for my assumed harm to Tskksk.  If I crippled myself in the effort to rescue her, it was less than I deserved, especially if she died.  Flashbacks to my old packmate, Fzpktk, crept in: she had been shot by constables in the aftermath of a job gone bad, the murder-for-hire that put Rsspkz in prison.  I hadn’t caused that death, but I hadn’t stopped it, either.  I hadn’t participated in the fatal operation, but I let them take the job without protest.  I owned some part of the blame for two deaths there: Fzpktk and her victim.

          My guilt was even greater in Tskksk’s case.  I knew I was putting her at risk.  I persisted even still, discounting the hazard and ranking it below my own needs. 

          My worst fears were confirmed as I skidded out of the apartment building’s front door.  Flickering light poured down the street from the electronics store, and smoke funneled upward to cloud the narrow strip of sky above.  I could hear the crackle of flames and the bursts of smaller secondary explosions.

          I could only hope she wasn’t in the building when the blast went off.  I suspected, though I hadn’t confirmed, that she lived upstairs in the same building as her shop.  Maybe she had been out visiting, drinking… anything.  She had already lost her business and her livelihood.  I only prayed she hadn’t lost her life.

          As I fought my body, begging it to move faster down the street, I really did pray.  I offered a desperate sapient’s honest prayers: to my totem, Kktkrkz, and to any gods or goddesses who cared to listen.  I asked them to protect Tskksk, the way I hadn’t.

          I was nearly there.  I could see the storefront, shattered and pouring out fire.  This hadn’t been a concussive blast, like the one used at my apartment.  This attack had arson thrown in; it was deliberately destructive, not just murderous.  Either the culprit had wanted to make sure Tskksk was wiped out financially, in case they missed wiping her out personally… or else they were destroying evidence.

          There were a few other sapients out on the street along with me.  I thought I recognized a small herd of Taratumm from my earlier canvas of the neighborhood.  They hadn’t told me much; I hoped they were wracked with guilt if they did know something related to my case.

          Probably not.  Most of the residents, including the handful that were emerging to check on the explosion, were likely clueless about the criminal activities in their area.  Besides being workaday sorts who barely noticed the world outside of their home and workplace, Isstravil’s inhabitants were more likely to deliberately ignore trouble, as if denying the problems outside their door would make them disappear.  At least my neighborhood… my old neighborhood… acknowledged its local evils, even if the residents couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything about them.  Or were the evils, themselves.

          Along with all the strangers, I noticed that Shtvtsk had followed me downstairs and outside.  Funny thing to do if she was worried about lurking assassins.  I was sure she’d claim to be concerned for my safety.  Totally noble, no ulterior motive there.

          I didn’t spare her enough attention to discern her attitude further.  I pushed myself as close to the burning storefront as I could bear, the raging heat prickling at my face and stabbing my wounds.  As far as I could tell, there was no safe approach.  The back of the building seemed less damaged than the front, but I’d have to go around the block to check for a rear door.  The thought of that travel was almost more than I could stand.

          I almost couldn’t stand.  My leg really wanted to rest, if not separate itself from the rest of my body.  If it revoked its support, it could argue that I really wasn’t supporting its needs, either.

          My thoughts were wobbling, also.  There was definitely some electrochemical chaos going on in my brain.  I was having trouble focusing on a plan, much less a single line of thought.  I thought of the stolen memory beads, mourning the loss of my only substantial lead, then immediately afterward chided myself for thinking that way when Tskksk was probably dead.  Priorities, Stchvk.

          Where were the fire responders?  For that matter, why wasn’t the fire suppressant system in Tskksk’s building reducing the fire, if not putting it out already?  How had the fire gotten so powerful, so fast?  There were ways of packing a lot of accelerant into a small package, but that still didn’t explain why I wasn’t seeing foam, powder, or at least sprinklers cutting into the inferno.  Frost, my building had decent fire control, and I was sure the builders had cut so many corners it was practically a sphere.

          Was it possible to sabotage a fire suppressant system?  Short of cutting the water supply or sabotaging the triggers, I couldn’t think of a way to prevent such countermeasures from firing.  Had the bomber been that thorough?  I couldn’t imagine that Tskksk wouldn’t notice such extensive activity inside her shop, awake or asleep.  The thought encouraged my hopes that she had been absent.

          But then… why blow it up?  Why not steal everything – memory beads, compads, paperwork, whatever – and avoid such a spectacle?  This attack was a message: maybe a warning to me, certainly a pointed threat to Tskksk.  Who knew, maybe it was aimed at Shtvtsk, separately or inclusively.

          I wanted to rush in and see what – or who – could be saved, but my last vestiges of good sense teamed up with my sensory nerves and kept me from any potentially fatal acts.  Instead, I waited, and watched.  I flattered myself that I was being a better observer than the other mere gawkers.  I was paying attention to the little things.

          Those little things kept battering against my dazing distraction.  Why?  Why blow it up?  Why wasn’t the fire going out?  What did Shtvtsk know about this?  How was Tskksk identified?  Why destroy this evidence and not the pet store?  Would I find that space wiped down, a shooter’s footprints and three dead rktpk gone?  Even if so, why go subtle there and explosive here?

          If Pkstzk was at the root of this trouble, how would she have known where I was, or who I was talking to?  The question answered itself if she already knew to watch Isstravil for my presence.  She could have confederates in the neighborhood, possibly residents themselves.  Paranoia is only a problem if you give it too much weight; sometimes, it gives accurate warnings.

          Having Shtvtsk standing close behind me was only adding to my paranoia.  All her disparagement of Pkstzk could be cover for her alliance with the other female.  She could be the local agent for a mastermind… of what?  What, Stchvk?  What convoluted scheme are these two females supposedly involved with, and why does your mental plot necessarily include the remainder of Pack Vzrrk?  Maybe Shtvtsk was actually Tklth, after extensive plastic surgery and perhaps mental reconditioning.  It was just as plausible, in the absence of evidence.

          So I stood there, tense and staring, shaking and wanting to run either forward, backward, or sideways.  I doubted I’d ever been so miserable before in my life… and I’ve seen my protruding viscera, on a really bad day.  Physical pain, even the pain of impending death, is nothing compared to the horror of failure, of grand failure so vast that it causes deaths, lets the killers run free, and leaves you baffled and snapping at empty air.

          I heard Shtvtsk step forward, claws clicking against the heated pavement.  I mentally willed her not to touch me, not to even speak.  Hurt as I was, I might lash out at her verbally or even physically.  In my pain and confusion, I was the basic, undecorated Stchvk: hunter, fighter, protector.  She did not want to become a threat.

          Shtvtsk started to say something: “Stchvk, you should…”  I didn’t get to hear her advice or react to it.  Instead, she was overridden by a much louder, more welcome voice.

          “Stchvk!” I heard, in a younger female register.  My name had been shouted from somewhere down the block, back toward the intersection past the apartment building.  It was distant, but very loud, and it sounded like…

          “Tskksk!” I called back, turning to spot her sprinting up the sidewalk toward me.  “Thank the gods!”

          Her crest rose high as she crossed the last few meters, stopping a meter or so short of me.  “Thank my grumbling gut.  I was out for dinner when I heard the place had gone up.  It had to be…”

          Then she stopped, noticing Shtvtsk close behind me, paying close attention to our conversation.  Other bystanders had turned to listen upon overhearing our shouts, but Tskksk caught on that this strange female had been ‘with’ me, intent on both of us from the start.

          “Hello,” she began again, weakly.  “You look familiar.  Are you one of my customers?”

          Clever girl.  Don’t assume, don’t imply, don’t give anything away.  My relief at Tskksk’s safety was doubled by a feeling of unwarranted pride.  I could pick the really good ones.  Maybe someday, one of them would pick me back.

          Shtvtsk narrowed her eyes slightly as she answered: “No, just a neighbor.”  She made a formal bow of greeting.  “So glad to see you weren’t harmed, Tskksk.”

          Her formality was made strange by the flickering firelight directly behind us, the remnants of Tskksk’s property going to ash.  The heat and light from the blaze washed over us all.  In fact, now that Tskksk was here, we didn’t have any reason for standing so close.

          I did think of one concern beyond my own: “Tskksk.  Is there anyone else in your building, upstairs?” 

          She waved a negation.  “No, I own the whole thing.  Owned.  Frost!”  She began to blink rapidly, shifting from foot to foot in distress.  The reality of her loss was starting to sink in.  I struggled to push past my own agony and agitation, preparing to support her when the emotional crisis crested.

          “Good,” I answered.  “I know this is difficult, but we should probably move back.  It isn’t safe this close, and the fire responders should be here soon… we don’t want to be in the way.”

          Both females stared at me in surprise at my sudden outbreak of sensible caution.  They didn’t argue, though, and backpedaled down the sidewalk, away from the burning building.  I followed, forward but at the same reduced pace.  I really wanted to pass out, but fought the haze back until I was certain the crisis was over.

          “The responders should be here already,” Tskksk wondered, echoing my thoughts.  “What’s keeping them?  For that matter, how did it get this bad already?  My suppression system was just inspected.  My insurer is going to own that fire protection company… and my security provider, too.”

          “Either they’re incompetent… or whoever caused this was more competent, still,” I suggested, watching Shtvtsk’s reaction as I ‘revealed’ my suspicions.

          Shtvtsk didn’t even blink.  She asked, “Do you think this was deliberate?  Not an accident?”

          Of course I thought it was deliberate; I said as much when I fled her apartment.  She was acting for Tskksk’s benefit.  Why?  No reason for that on my account.  She was playing dumb for the other female?  Come to think of it, she hadn’t introduced herself or explained away her proximity to me.  Let’s see how she liked being on the receiving end of someone else’s game.

          “Tskksk, this is Shtvtsk.  She lives and works on Kzk Tsstkt, too.  We were just talking about Vzktkk’s murder.  I think she might have given me some ideas about what happened.”

          Tskksk looked closer at Shtvtsk, as we came to rest ten meters further away from her burning store.  Tskksk kept up the charade like a pro: “Sss, great.  You know, I wished I could have been more helpful, when you came around earlier… and now I really wish I could help you catch these egg-foulers.  If you think it’s related, that is.  Would they really come after me just for talking to you?  Is Shtvtsk here in danger, too?”

          Her mock concern was a thing of beauty.  Yes, I realize that I was praising the qualities in Tskksk that I had criticized in Shtvtsk.  I’m a self-aware hypocrite.  But to be fair, Tskksk’s performance was that of a talented amateur achieving beyond her training, while Shtvtsk was a seasoned pro barely giving it her best.  I expected less of the former and more of the latter.  Plus, Tskksk was obfuscating for me, rather than against me.  Like I said, self-aware hypocrite.

          The contrast between the two females was highlighted as we stood together: Shtvtsk tall, pale, slender and muscled, with bright clear eyes and an aura of confident, calculating hedonism.  Tskksk shorter, mottled, rounder and softer, younger and more innocent, despite her attempts at clever subterfuge.

          Anyway, Shtvtsk didn’t venture a response to Tskksk’s provocation.  Shtvtsk only looked at me closely, searching my reactions for a clue.  I focused on the thought that I’d never mentioned Tskksk to Shtvtsk.  If she gave away any prior awareness of the little, younger, more publicly acceptable businesswoman… I had her caught.

          I nudged a little more.  “Possibly so, but I think there’s a difference.  I talked to Shtvtsk, here, just like I talked to a hundred others in Isstravil.  Nobody else was targeted.  I think they went after you to destroy your evidence.”

          Now I had both Tskksk and Shtvtsk puzzled.  Tskksk was probably wondering why I’d given away our secret.  Shtvtsk was hopefully wondering what evidence I meant, or realizing I meant her evidence, or even recognizing that I was telling her that I knew she knew… ow.  By that point, my brain was getting as battered as my body.

          Shtvtsk broke first.  “Evidence?  You mean you know something about Vzktkk’s murder?  Why didn’t you mention that before?” she demanded.  I couldn’t tell if her offense was real or manufactured.  I was starting not to care.

          That complacency was as dangerous as the pain that encouraged me to inattention.  I fought to control my reactions and my phrasing.

          “Don’t be upset,” I chided her, as calmly as I could.  “We just hadn’t gotten to that part of the conversation.  To be honest, I wanted to see if your observations matched up with Tskksk’s, before I biased your memory with my information.”

          Her stare could have started another fire.  She aimed an emerald laser into my pupils, barely managing her own agitation as she answered, “I see.  That’s fair, I suppose.  But you’ll understand if I feel a bit misled.  I thought I was your best lead, perhaps your only one.  But I see now that you had multiple leads in progress.  I’m sure you had the best of reasons for deceiving me.”

          I wanted to laugh.  Her entendres were too absurd given our surroundings.  Her attempt to sound like a jilted lover was more farce than fury.

          The laughter piled up against my restraint, a hysterical pressure of staccato mirth.  I fought hard to keep my beak still and my crest low.  As much as I hate to taint a suspect, as much as the circumstances opposed humor, as much as I had wanted to curl up next to Shtvtsk and play house… it was funny to see her implode.  She was realizing just how much her hard work had counted for nothing.

          Not nothing.  She had gotten quite a bit out of me.  To be fair, I hadn’t gotten that much definite intel out of her… but I knew she was involved.  I knew she was thick with Pkstzk.  I got the feeling she knew much more than she would ever reveal.  She certainly wanted me under control, or at least pointed in one preferred direction.  Now I knew where to look… and just as soon as I could move again, I would start running in the right direction, for a change.

          It was a frosted shame to lose those memory beads, not to mention Tskksk’s whole store.  Still, she didn’t sound too worried; she might come out of this situation all right.  I might manage, myself.  Even without the hard evidence, I might pull a win out of this case after all.

          As we stared each other down, Tskksk hissed in discomfort, drawing my attention.  Shtvtsk’s gaze broken, she also turned to look at Tskksk.  The younger female actually started backward at the intensity in her eyes.

          Tskksk looked embarrassed at interrupting, but explained herself: “I can keep an eye on things from here, if you need to get back to your conversation.  It’s not like we can do anything to put out the fire, ourselves.”

          She wasn’t being sarcastic; there literally wasn’t any way we could deal with the fire.  We were miles from any open water.  A few buckets filled from taps or portable extinguishers from homes weren't going to make a dent in that conflagration.  Unless someone had an industrial wrench handy, we weren’t going to be tapping into the water mains.  Actually the fire responders usually used chemical suppressants, anyway, which worked faster and more thoroughly than water, and were often more portable.

          Now, if they would just get there… and there they were.  As I strained to listen, I was rewarded by the screech of sirens.  All hail, the rescuers finally arrived.

          Hearing the oncoming responders, the crowd started to disperse.  Some, only there to make sure the blaze wasn’t going to spread to their homes, hurried back inside to barricade themselves against smoke and chemical dust.  Others just backed away, continuing to watch but avoiding getting in the way of the show’s second act.  The remainder probably wouldn’t have moved even for the responders, but followed their more responsible neighbors to the opposite side of the street.  Sometimes, herd mentality indirectly leads to better behavior.

          Large aircars descended into the urban canyon, taking the center of the roadway for themselves, cutting off the spectators from the burning storefront.  Even before they landed, fire technicians started lobbing powder bombs toward the building’s front, pushing the flames back to give themselves a wider safety area for offloading.  The team, mostly Vislin with a couple of Taratumm, wore full-body environmental suits with air filters, looking like first explorers on a toxic planet or ancient heat-suited night warriors.

          The three of us stood uncomfortably, watching their assault get underway.  I started to reply to Tskksk: “They might need your information, once the fire is out.  I guess we should get back…”

          Shtvtsk interrupted to say, “That’s all right.  I think we were nearly done, anyway, and this commotion has left me exhausted.  You’re probably about ready to drop, too, Stchvk.  If you can get yourself safely back home, I’ll bid you a good night?”

          She was leaving her tail tip close enough for me to nip.  I thought about jumping for it, even trying to salvage her good graces, and maybe even recouping enough credit to get into her nest for the night.  Then I realized that the effort would be more painful and tiring than just sleeping on my bare floor.

          I nodded and gave her a parting bow.  “That sounds fair.  I can get back, no problem.  Have a good night… sorry to drag you out on my tail.”

          On the surface, our words were polite, neutral, maybe even slightly friendly.  But underneath was a growing chill.  She might not have tagged me as an enemy yet, but I wasn’t the friend Shtvtsk had hoped for.  That was a shame on several levels.  Though, if she was the kind of operator I suspected, I didn’t want that sort of friend.  I’d had pack like her, and I wasn’t scrambling to get back into their company.  I could live without Shtvtsk’s association.

          That didn’t stop me from watching her tail, regretfully, as she walked away.

          For all her troubles, Tskksk wasn’t distracted enough to miss my interest.  She asked, quietly, “Did I intrude on something important?”

          I gestured for her to hold her beak tight a little longer.  Shtvtsk was still close enough to overhear, even with the noise of the fire and its encircling opponents.

          Tskksk turned back and started to step toward the fire responder vehicles.  I turned and followed her a little way.  When I felt that enough distance had opened between us and Shtvtsk, I answered Tskksk’s question.

          “Not you, but this fire did break up a very interesting conversation, earlier.  She’s definitely involved with the case.  She knew the victim and his mate.  I was just getting to the details when we heard the blast… but I’m not sure she was going to give up anything substantial.”

          “Kkk, I wonder about that.  You look like you wanted something from her.”

          The pain on my face came from more than just my injuries.  “I’d like to say I was playing along to keep her interested…”

          “But so was she,” Tskksk finished.  “It’s fine.  I get it.  You’re working on something important, but distractions happen, too.”

          I suddenly wanted her good opinion back, in a very different way than I had wanted Shtvtsk’s approval.  But unlike the glib banter I offered back upstairs, I found myself unable to choose the right words to appeal to Tskksk properly.  Such a great manipulator, Stchvk, until it actually matters.

          Tskksk’s expression softened and she turned around to look at me more closely.  “You look like a mess, actually.  I’d offer you a place to sit down and clean up, but…”  She gestured toward the dwindling flames.  The gutted storefront now poured out more smoke than light, and responders were entering the space that once held tables and compads.

          “I was actually thinking of offering you a place, but it’s just a place.  I don’t even have a nest to inappropriately offer you.”  I winced at my own attempt at humor.  My stress hormones were definitely wearing off.  My focus was getting sharper, but my strength was fading fast.  I shivered involuntarily, a reaction Tskksk couldn’t miss.

          She also didn’t misinterpret it.  “You idiot.  You came out here to help and you can barely stand, yourself.  All right, time to turn to pack.”  She hissed, resigned to further difficulty.  “Sit down, stay here, and I’ll make a few calls.”

          Tskksk pulled out her compad and scrolled through her contacts.  She added, while she searched, “I don’t suppose you have family or pack to stay with; otherwise you’d be calling them already, yourself.”

          I dipped my crest and claws in shamed negation.  “I’ve been isolated for years.  No sympathy needed; I lost one pack and haven’t been able to replace them.”

          “Well, I might want to lose mine, but that’s just childish spite talking.  I love the idiots and they love me, but… you’ll see.  We’re very different sorts, which pack-bond didn’t take into account.  Just promise me you won’t talk business while we’re visiting there?”

          “That’s an easy promise,” I agreed, while slumping down against a wall, my tail pinned awkwardly against the concrete.  “Right now, I don’t want to think about this case for a while.  Enough time to start chasing leads again tomorrow.  If you can get me a nest and a meal, I won’t say a single word for hours.  Promise.  And for me, that’s a big concession.”

          “I can hear that.  Now shut up and rest.”  She tapped the dial button and waited while her compad rang the number.

          I had a sudden worrisome thought: “Wait.  Will we be putting your pack at risk?  Maybe I shouldn’t go anywhere.”

          She looked at the ‘pad, then at me, then muted the call at her end before the other party picked up.  “Stop being stupid.  I wouldn’t ask them if I didn’t think they’d accept the risk.  And I’m not about to let you stay around here given the circumstances.  You think you’re the only one with noble ideals?  Let me worry about your safety for a change, hero.”

          “Fine, fine,” I assented, spreading my claws in surrender.  She had me figured out, actually better than Shtvtsk had managed.

          As her contact answered, Tskksk exchanged greetings and then explained the situation briefly.  She told the other party, a male Vislin from what I could overhear, that she’d had a building fire and couldn’t sleep at home that night.  It sounded like a recent, familiar explanation, even down to the complaints about building safety and the downplaying of any sinister causes.  The respondent clacked loudly, irritated, but agreed to make space for her at his home.

          When Tskksk indicated that ‘a friend’ was also homeless as a result of the fire, she got some protest in return.  “We’re not operating a charity,” was one warning I heard, along with: “Why this person?  Do you know him well?  Why is this not someone we’ve met?”

          Tskksk waved off the interrogation, explaining that I was a new neighbor, a coincidental victim of the same disaster, and that she felt obligated to help me out, considering that the fire had started in her store.  This explanation earned her another lecture, about her clearly poor building maintenance and the mistake of buying the building in the first place, and why couldn’t she have just contributed to the farmstead like everyone else…

          Farmers.  Oh, blight on the fields and Kktkrkz trample the rest.  We were going to the great green wilderness.  No wonder Tskksk lived apart from her pack.  She was a tech-trading city lizard among dirt-crusted country folk.  I supposed I’d be getting my claws dirty.  Hopefully they could send the freight car around to haul us to the backwoods.  Would I be seated next to a big, drooly rktpk or a gassy old krptzt?

          Finally, Tskksk managed to end the conversation on an agreeable note.  In fact, we’d have to take public mass transport out to the pack’s farmstead.  But at least we were welcome there, both of us, for as long as we needed to recuperate… and if Tskksk wanted, she could stay there like she should have in the first place would he just shut up already?

          My heart went out to her.  My packless life suddenly looked less bleak.  Imagine being bonded to someone like that, whose idea of supporting and defending you meant warning you away from all your bad choices and trying to convince you to follow their plan for your life, instead.

          My thoughts must have shown as Tskksk hung up her call, or else she correctly anticipated my reaction.  She said, “At least, he means well.  Fsktcht is the most solid, reliable Vislin I know, just…”

          “Righteous,” I offered.

          “Always right, yes,” she confirmed. 

          “I can’t criticize.  Literally.  I’m almost asleep here.  Mind if I doze while you call for transport?”

          "Just don’t pass out.  I could lift you, but I’d rather not.  I’m almost ready to collapse, myself.”

          “Do my best.  And thanks.  You shouldn’t be doing any of this for me.”

          “Shut up, Fsktcht.”

          As I drifted off, I grumbled a last thought: “You might want to keep an eye on any bystanders.  One of them could be the arsonist or a lookout for them.  Seeing if you survived.  Confirming the damage.”

          “Kkk, you’re still working, even half-awake.  All right, I’ll take a look.  I wish I could go inside myself and see how bad the losses are.”

          “No chance.  Arson investigation.  Insurance.  Owner never gets to go in until afterward, then escorted,” I slurred, struggling to get the thoughts out.  “Besides, you don’t want to see.  It hurts.”

          “It already hurts… won’t be any easier later, either,” she answered as she wandered away.  Then her voice changed tone as she added: “At least I didn’t lose everything.”

          The implied humor caught my dwindling attention.  “What you mean?”

          She shook her compad pouch, producing a musical rattle of crystalline beads bouncing together.  “We’ve still got your lead.  We can spend our time in the country copying and reading the contents.”

          I managed to crack one eye and stare at her.  My crest bounded upward.  I got my beak open enough to say, “Be my mate?”

          She didn’t respond, but her embarrassed pleasure was evident.  I lapsed into unconsciousness with that beautiful sight still lingering in my memory.

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