I came back confused at first. I smelled smoke and acrid chemicals. The wind whipped around me, carrying the lingering chill of dawn. There were a few sounds of machinery, but otherwise, my surroundings were quiet.
As I roused further, my body reported in. My tail was numb from being pinned against a cold concrete sidewalk. My back ached, both from the shotgun wounds and my uncomfortable sleeping position. When I struggled to sit upright, my perforated arm protested, too.
I rolled gingerly to my knees, sparing my lower legs as much as I could. When I finally got my eyes open, I received a double shock. First, I was still on the street, Kzk Tsstkt in Isstravil. Second, nobody else was on that street with me.
The fire responders had finished and gone. The neighbors who stuck around to watch were long gone, in bed or off to work. There weren’t even any constables or investigators lingering to search the site. A plastic and wire barricade closed off the front of Tskksk’s gutted storefront, warning away intruders with the threat of trespass charges.
And Tskksk… Tskksk was gone. Why had she gone without waking me?
My first coherent thought was that she must have been called away somewhere urgent. Into the store to retrieve her personal effects, under constable guard? To an aircar depot, if she couldn’t get pickup from the street here? Maybe to a pharmacy, to get supplies for my obvious infirmities? The worst thing I could imagine was if she had been arrested, charged with arson for insurance fraud. That would be brutally unfair; to have someone sabotage your business and then get accused of the crime yourself.
I struggled to override my protesting flesh and stand upright, intending to search around the area for Tskksk. As I sat straighter, my compad chimed from within its carry case. I pulled it out and tapped the screen awake. I didn’t recognize the caller code. My first assumption was that this was Tskksk, calling to let me know where she’d gone. We’d never called one another, so neither I nor my compad knew her code.
I accepted the call and was relieved to see Tskksk’s face, as expected. Then I processed her expression, and my heart sank. She looked miserable: crest flat, eyes dry, scales rippling with fearful patterns. When she spoke, her voice was tentative and quiet.
“Stchvk. I’m so sorry…” She sounded close to despair. What had the constables done to her? I swelled with anger, imagining a righteous rampage into the nearest precinct house.
“Tskksk…” I started, but she spoke again before I could reassure her.
“They found me. They were watching, just like you said. I should have believed you. They took me right off the street… threatened your life if I didn’t come quietly.”
Shock kept me listening to her rambling words. Finally I asked, “Who? Who took you?”
“I’m not sure,” she answered. “But they’re with whoever killed Vzktkk. I was told to tell you hello from the old pack… I’m not sure what that means. Your pack?”
I wanted to vomit onto the pavement. Considering I hadn’t eaten in over a day, that wouldn’t accomplish much. The small blessings of starvation.
Pack Vzzrk. Bring on the Ice Age. How in the glaciated wastes were those egg-swallowing monsters involved with this mess? And what did they want with Tskksk?
She answered my question by holding up a small scrap of vellum, an archaic medium still handy for simple notes. “They gave me instructions to read to you. I have to say it exactly as it’s written… and you have to do what I say… or they’ll kill me. Stchvk… I think they’re serious.”
“Of course they’re serious. Just tell me what it says. I’m listening.” I tried to reassure her, but felt only devastation myself. I could only imagine what her kidnappers might want… nothing good.
She read: “Stchvk. We have your friend. She will die if you do not do as told.”
Tskksk paused to swallow, still struggling with her terror. She continued: “You will set up Shtvtsk for the murder of Vzktkk. Go to the pet trader’s store and search the back room for a panel in the floor. Inside you will find the murder weapon. Plant it in Shtvtsk’s apartment with her genetic material on the handle. You will find a way to obtain a suitable sample.”
Tskksk twitched, writhing from the same nausea I felt. These demands weren’t just criminal; they were twisted and evil.
She finished reading: “Don’t worry; no rktpk will attack you this time. Call this number back when you are finished. Do not get caught; do not tell anyone else what you are doing. The constables will arrive once you are done, tipped off about where to go. Your case will be solved, your friend returned, and everyone will be satisfied. Or you can fail and disappoint everyone.”
Tskksk paused to breathe after she was done. Then she inhaled, starting to say something off the written script. I heard: “Stchvk, you can’t…” before a hand reached in from off-camera and cut the call.
I fought the urge to slam down my compad in frustration. I prayed, internally but with thunderous force, that no harm would befall Tskksk. Despite my injuries, I would pursue her kidnappers relentlessly, doubly so if they became her murderers.
But who were ‘they’? There was no one left from Pack Vzzrk at liberty, except myself. If you counted hangers-on, they were all accounted for, including Pkstzk.
Pkstzk. Shtvtsk had been pointing toward Vzktkk’s mate, suggesting that she was still connected to her former mate, my pack mate Rsspkz. Maybe Pkstzk was behind this effort to point the claw back toward Shtvtsk. She could be the pivot point between all my recent troubles and Pack Vzzrk. She might have hired me originally intending to use me to implicate Shtvtsk, then shifted to this more direct approach when that plan was interrupted…
Wait. Why was someone trying to kill her, me, or both of us? Maybe Pkstzk wasn’t responsible for Vzktkk’s death or Tskksk’s kidnapping or any of it.
I tried out a few other hypothetical explanations. Maybe there was another faction here, one first opposing Pkstzk and then me by extension. Maybe Rsspkz was reaching out from beyond prison and trying to destroy us both. Maybe Pkstzk was acting on behalf of Pack Vzzrk and hired me to this mockery of a case as part of an elaborate revenge scheme... against me. When the conspirators couldn’t kill me, they chose this setup to ruin me, instead.
At least the effort to frame Shtvtsk told me she wasn’t Vzktkk’s killer. Or was she? Whoever had taken Tskksk might be trying to make sure the real killer would be unambiguously identified.
Why was I even assuming Tskksk really was kidnapped? She could have been part of this scheme from the very beginning, inventing the whole caller identification tale to point me toward Shtvtsk… no, wait. I’d never mentioned any problems with my old pack to her, just that I had ‘lost’ their association. Even if I assumed she was a great actress and reading off a ‘letter’ she herself had written, she shouldn’t have known to mention the pack as a threat. I couldn’t discard the theory, but it had big, big holes.
All the spiraling, branching, mutually inconsistent threads wrapped around my brain and squeezed. The resulting headache just added to all my other pains, opposing my efforts to stand up. At this rate, I wasn’t rescuing… or incriminating… anyone.
I rummaged through my pockets and found the pill bottle. I supposed I was past due for another dose, but my reliance on the drug was starting to bother me. Even if the stuff wasn’t physically addictive, I could get psychologically reliant on it. Once again, a few hectads after choking down a tablet, my various aches faded down to a manageable thrum of muted protest.
There was that drug, my continuing bouts of unconsciousness, and the injuries themselves to consider. Plus, I felt like I was reaching a critical mass of inexplicability. I’d had some very eventful, very strange weeks in the past, but nothing like the last few days. Even if my body held up, my mind was getting exhausted by all the threats, changes, and yes, even the sudden wealth of love interests.
Plus there were multiple other weird elements: the previous case that I somehow failed, but couldn’t quite remember how it went. Hearing from Pkstzk after so long. The starving rktpk behind a locked door in the pet store. The grav lift in the closet at Taburket’s; my amazing escape and minimal injuries. The missing video of my attackers. My unexpected release from hospital and constabular custody. Avoiding the bomb at my apartment because my keys were in the wrong pocket. Meeting my neighboring pack for the very first time. The whole business with the compad calls… an investigative tool I’d never heard about before. And now the byplay between Shtvtsk and Tskksk, followed by Tskksk’s immaculate kidnapping.
It was almost enough to make me suspicious of the world in general, like everyone was in on a joke at my expense. I couldn’t keep thinking that way, though. There was an underlying explanation for all of it… most of it, anyway, with the rest covered by coincidence and my distracted attention. Whether or not I discovered that explanation, it had to exist.
So what was I going to do? For the moment, just staying upright and moving somewhere seemed like enough challenge. I should get indoors. It was nearing dawn. If I hadn’t already drawn suspicion by sleeping on the street, continuing to loiter after I woke up would definitely get me arrested as a vagrant. As a starting point, I stumbled toward my apartment building.
And then, Stchvk? Come on, you have a serious problem and limited resources to solve it.
The easy route, believe it or not, was to frame Shtvtsk as instructed. Tskksk’s kidnapper was right: I had the skills to pull it off, maybe even to make the setup stick. Plus, with a clear culprit, almost everyone would be happier: I’d get paid, Pkstzk would be thrilled, Tskksk would be saved… maybe. Only Shtvtsk would suffer. And justice. Justice would get laid out bleeding.
It wouldn’t be her first beating, or her last, or her hundred thousandth, not in Layafflr City. She might actually be dead, for all I’d seen. But I hated the thought of joining the horde slashing at her body, whether alive or corpse. I’d be killing more than a concept; I’d be killing my image of myself.
Without pack, without mate, without much achievement to speak of, all I had were my solved cases. I needed true answers and the feeling that I was making some difference. The job had started as a salve to my guilt about my many crimes with Pack Vzzrk, but grew into something bigger over the years. Even if there wasn’t a job title and a license attached to what I did, I’d probably still do it, at least until I got arrested.
The problem was, if I refused the ‘easy way’ and avoided framing Shtvtsk, then I had to deal with whatever happened to Tskksk. Her death would be another injustice. I could pretend her murder wasn’t my fault, that it was the responsibility of whoever held her, but that was a dodge. Once I had her involved, I should have protected her identity, at least, if not her physical self. Now that she was deep into my mess, I had a duty to try and rescue her.
Some rescuer. Besides being half-crippled, I had no weapon. I also had no idea where Tskksk could be, much less who, specifically, she was with. Any ideas about a roaring rampage of revenge were squashed by those heavy realities.
The constables might be able to track her down using clues here, at the scene of the kidnapping. Surely there had been at least one witness who saw the sapient who led her away after threatening me, presumably both at gunpoint. Given time and a little luck, I could probably put the pieces together myself.
I had very little time. I suspected, also, that efforts to search for Tskksk would agitate her captors. While I paused in the lobby of my building, I started to come to terms with the idea that I couldn’t solve this case. Either give in and frame Shtvtsk or stand by my principles and consider Tskksk their sacrifice.
Maybe I could set up Shtvtsk as requested, then turn myself in to the constables after Tskksk was released? I’d be finished, professionally, but if the kidnappers were honest about letting Tskksk go, it would be worth my own sacrifice. They might not, of course. They might kill her, me, Pkstzk, and any other loose threads that jeopardized a neat finish to the situation. If they did renege on their offer to release Tskksk, though, I’d have no reason not to enlist the constables or go after them on my own. Again, I felt confident I could eventually track down the egg-suckers responsible, previous failures notwithstanding.
I went to the elevator and spent a long, stupid decad trying to convince it to take me to the fourth floor. Then I remembered that my key was still coded for Shtvtsk’s apartment on the third floor. So, the elevator wouldn’t allow me access elsewhere. I sighed heavily. Either I’d have to forgo resting at ‘home’, or else I’d have to recode the key for my own door, then swap it back to Shtvtsk’s coding… and there was a chance that with all that manipulation, I might just burn out the device entirely.
I stepped back out of the elevator and sat down on the bottom stair, trying to rally my thoughts enough to settle on a single, definite plan of action.
My head was settled into my hands, so I heard a voice before seeing its owner approach.
“Detective Stchvk? I thought I saw you out there, earlier.”
I didn’t want to look up. I recognized the thick, forceful, accented tones that battered me once before, in the hospital.
“Detective Nrissilli,” I muttered dolefully from between my palms. “What an unexpected pleasure.”
“Hrrrm. An obvious arson happens a few blocks away from the site of my murder investigation. Witnesses identify a bandaged male Vislin matching the description of a victim of an attempted murder: also my case. He’s been seen going in and out of the bombed store. All this happens in the course of just a few days. Are you really going to call my presence unexpected?”
I raised my claws skyward and looked up with supreme effort. “You got me. I defied your orders. But in my defense, I needed somewhere new to live and it just seemed convenient to move closer to my troubles.”
“I saw that,” Nrissilli confirmed, not unkindly. She was dressed in a more conventional uniform, a one-piece tube shift with short sleeves and belts to carry various tools: a miniature compad, a stun-prod similar to Tskksk’s civilian version, adhesive restraints, and a few other devices I couldn’t immediately identify. Compared to her hospital visit, she was more obviously on-the-job as an official constable. She also looked exhausted, with red rings around her eyes and patches of ruffled fur she hadn’t had time to groom.
I also noticed that she smelled like smoke and chemicals. She certainly had been working the arson.
“I didn’t think anyone died in that fire outside… why is a homicide detective investigating it personally?” I ventured aloud.
“Attempted murder still counts,” she snapped back. “Unless you think the owner set the place aflame herself? There was plenty of evidence that the safety systems were sabotaged.”
I might not appreciate Nrissilli’s presence, but she gave up information more easily than any of my other recent adversaries. I was right, at least, that the fire looked uncontrolled.
“I don’t really know the owner that well,” I started, then raised a claw to forestall the detective’s oncoming protest. “All right, I met her. I talked to her. She gave me some information and ideas about how to pursue my case… details about the neighborhood. She had the call data, but you already have that. I also talked to another dozen sapients all over the area, including another store owner… all before you warned me away… and none of them were threatened.”
“But you talked to Tskksk again, more recently. As in, yesterday. Don’t even try denying it, we have witnesses and video. And yes, only she was apparently targeted. So what else did you discuss with her that was more important than what you learned from anyone else? Was she involved with the murder? Or was this just about the call recordings?”
I tried to raise my crest and pretend humor in my response: “No. I considered her more important since none of my other informants was an attractive young female. You remember, you gave me permission to warn her, after I was attacked?”
“I said you could warn your client, while quitting the case. We were going to handle any contacts with this Tskksk. You’re already up for arrest for interference, by defying a direct order to abandon your investigation. I’m wondering if I should add charges of willful endangerment… or even accessory to a crime.”
I stared her down, crest dipping involuntarily. “I was not involved with that explosion. I came outside after it happened, like everyone else living here. When I saw where it was, I wanted to help… but there was nothing I could do.”
“You can relax on that count. We know when you showed up. We also know Tskksk wasn’t hurt. Neighbors spotted her, too. In fact, they said you were talking with her and another attractive, if not young, female, on the street. So much for two more lies. I’m serious now, ‘detective’ Stchvk. Start giving me something real, or you’re coming to the precinct, bandages and all. For starters, where is Tskksk?”
Frost. Frostfrostfrostfrost. If I didn’t get past this interrogation, I’d lose my last choice out of my few remaining options. If I was arrested, I couldn’t frame Shtvtsk. I could either say nothing and wait out Tskksk’s death in a cell, or else spill to the constables and then pray they were competent enough to find Tskksk before she died. Either way, I was finished as an investigator. This wasn’t one of those situations where the law would look the other way.
How could I satisfy Nrissilli enough to remain free, even if I used that freedom to pervert justice afterward? Even on my best, most clear-minded day, I might be challenged to outwit a seasoned Hrotata investigator. Right then - fatigued, drugged, and wracked by events - I could barely tell myself a coherent story, much less weave a tale to fool an expert.
I started to stand, hoping to forestall her with bluster and maybe a little sympathy for my condition. Maybe I could plead for a few hours’ rest before I laid out the details. My memory was hazy from all the beatings, that kind of thing.
Then, as I got upright and swayed, my shakiness proved my inspiration. I made as if to take a step toward the wall for support, then completely failed to make contact. Stumbling, I put my weight on my wounded leg, which obligingly collapsed, sending me pitching forward.
Fortunately, Nrissilli was matron enough to catch me rather than watch me slam into the floor. She did curse viciously in an older Hrotata dialect, probably the native tongue of her home region. Her body language screamed disgust and aggravation as she hauled me back upright and helped me settle back onto the steps.
While we were tangled, I made sure to rub up thoroughly against her fur, paying special attention to the groomed patches along the sides of her neck. I wasn’t being extra perverse; I was making sure to get a solid dose of the natural Hrotata neurotoxins.
Their happy druggy secretions were the key to my plan. For the first time, I greeted the tingle of that complex hormone with welcoming pleasure as it seeped through my scales. It wasn’t just that the toxin would blunt my pains even further and put me into a more pleasant state of mind. It was that I would soon become far more receptive to the detective’s requests
If anyone was watching us right then, they would have seen a wounded Vislin accidentally fall, coincidentally coming into contact with a Hrotata of significant maturity. If he accidentally let something slip afterward, maybe it wouldn’t be his fault. I had to play the reaction carefully, though. Giving everything away, all at once, wouldn’t be excused by any competent blackmailer. I needed to betray just enough to clue Nrissilli in, just enough to be explainable by the intoxication, without revealing too much.
I looked up, visibly fuzzing as the relaxant effects took hold. “Thank you, mistress. I’m sorry I’m such a nuisance.”
Nrissilli looked at me with a mixture of confusion, irritation, and outright disgust. “You’re a mess… and I don’t just mean physically. What’s wrong with you, snoop?”
“I really messed this case up. I mean, really. A lot. I keep losing females. Pkstzk. We haven’t talked since early this week. I think I scared her away. Tskksk. Found her, lost her. Shtvtsk, the other pretty one? Probably will lose her, too. They all leave. You can arrest me. Maybe that way I won’t lose you, too.”
“All right, joker, you didn’t get that much of a pat-down,” she answered, still obviously pissed off at me. But then she started to process what I’d said. “Wait, Shtvtsk? There’s a new name. What do you mean, lost? We know Tskksk is missing. Are there others being targeted?”
I lifted my crest, actually enjoying myself on several levels. “Shtvtsk is the female next door… upstairs… beautiful. But doomed, like all my loves. I want to give them gifts, but I have no credit. I have nothing. No home, no credit, no weapon, not even a pet rktpk to snuggle.” I clicked my beak, in dramatic hysterical laughter. “Put me in a cell; at least I’ll sleep and eat. Or else my tormentors will put me back in the hospital, where I can rest.”
Detective Nrissilli stayed silent, letting me rant, a confused expression slowly giving way to hesitant understanding.
“Who are your ‘tormentors’, Stchvk? Come on, you can trust me,” she ventured.
“I don’t know!” I squawked, the simulated vowels of our cross-species interlingua proving perfect for conveying my tortured cries. “They tried to kill me… to kill Pkstzk… to kill Tskksk…”
“And Shtvtsk,” she concluded for me. “She’s in danger.”
“They’re all in danger,” I confided quietly. I leaned forward, as if attempting to snuggle up against Nrissilli again. She flinched backward, but let me close to within a few centimeters without actually touching.
I added, “They told me so. They’re going to hurt everyone… everyone I touch. Maybe you should lock me up, before I get someone else hurt.”
The detective radiated disgust, either real or feigned, and spat at me: “You’re drugged, in more ways than one. You’re not making any sense. And I have other things to do right now. Go home, get some sleep, and come to the precinct in the morning, cleaned up. If you don’t, I will have you hauled in. You’d better have some clearer answers for me then. In the meantime, I’m going to do some real investigation of my own… and if I find out you’re deeper into this case than you claim, we really will have a reckoning.”
I splayed my claws in submissive agreement. “Of course. Of course. Thank you, mistress. I’m only trying to help. I don’t want anyone else to get hurt.”
I thought she got it. I had to trust not only the detective’s perceptiveness and intuitive skills, but also her ability to pick up the right cues without giving anything away. She certainly had seemed outraged, but she also hadn’t arrested me outright. At best, she was giving me credit for my own competence. She had access to my past cases. She knew I wasn’t the incompetent mess I seemed, that she accused me of being. She should know that I could run a con. I just hoped she picked up which con I was actually playing.
Detective Nrissilli stalked away, muttering about insane Vislin and their overwrought emotional wiring… at least I assumed that’s what she was saying, in her quiet and foreign speech. I hoped she was just overplaying her role and not actually upset with me. I’d find out before long.
The lingering Hrotata toxin was making it easier to ignore my pains, not to mention ignoring my problems and feeling more confident in myself. I stood, once again surprised that my wounds didn’t overflow the artificial pain threshold induced by my wonder drug. I felt like I might actually succeed.
Even doped up, I knew I was overestimating my chances. I had to get to the pet store, retrieve the laser weapon, stash it at Shtvtsk’s, and get out, all without being spotted by Shtvtsk or blatantly seen by a constable. I also needed to leave as much evidence intact as possible and delay as long as I could, giving Nrissilli time to look into Tskksk’s disappearance.
Even if she couldn’t get a lead on Tskksk, at least she would know to check on Shtvtsk. She would know that the upcoming tip about where to find Vzktkk’s murderer and the murder weapon would be false. They might have to arrest Shtvtsk, but now a conviction was unlikely.
The remaining hazards were whether my exchange with the detective would be identified as collaboration with a constable – if the conversation was even noticed by agents of my shadowy enemy – and whether I could convince that enemy to release Tskksk. I hoped they would, to ensure my continued cooperation with their frame job.
If I couldn’t figure out who was behind this mess and how to find them, I and Tskksk (and maybe, Pkstzk) would be facing further threats even if we escaped the current crisis.
Kktkrkz devour me, I actually felt ready to get to work.