The procedure shouldn’t have felt so final; even if I succeeded at framing Shtvtsk and freeing Tskksk, there would be more dangers, more questions, and more work to resolve. If I failed on either or both counts, I’d have to fight guilt and grief along with healing my physical injuries. The original question - who killed Vzktkk? - was still completely unresolved. And wherever Pack Vzzrk figured into all this, I’d need to identify the players, their partisans, and the degree of ongoing hazard to myself and my reputation.
That was assuming I’d have any reputation left afterwards. Everything could go wrong with the constabulary before my actual enemies got a chance to ruin me. I had Detective Nrissilli’s temporary forbearance, but she was one officer out of hundreds. It would take only one overzealous underling to notice my activities and force my arrest. Even if I was cleared of actual wrongdoing, I could still have my license revoked for technically legal improprieties. Not to mention, I really was guilty of several illegal acts, just in the past few days.
I didn’t feel guilty on those counts. If I played strictly by the legal codes, I’d accomplish very little. No disrespect to the stalwart investigators like Nrissilli, but the same problem plagued the constabulary: they either bent the rules or failed to solve crimes. There was plenty of both flaunting and failure going on; the citizenry just hoped that a minimum of legal flaunting resulted in a maximum of worse criminals getting caught. That’s not just a Layafflr City problem, or a Chttkttp problem, that’s the case in every city, on every planet, in every society.
Sorry, but the noble, by-the-book cop who still manages to catch the bad guy is a fantasy character. There are a few noble constables like that – I’d met some – but they often as not file cases as unsolved, after hitting a legal blockade. Sometimes I resolve the problem for them, giving not only plausible deniability but a completely ignorant denial of wrongdoing, while I do what needs to be done to identify the criminal. There are also officers who claim to be pristine, while having unofficial agents – like me – knowingly doing their dirty work. Some break the rules, personally, and just lie about it.
There are a thousand shades of ethical greyness. Personally, I’d rather see laws that protect wrongdoers broken, whether that protection was an accidental effect of an otherwise worthy law or a deliberate use of the law as a shield by a cunning or powerful criminal. That seems more ‘ethical’ than strict obedience. But that’s me. And maybe my willingness to discard one set of rules is no better than those who toss aside imperatives not to lie, cheat, abuse, steal, and murder.
I’m an investigator, not a philosopher. I chose my methods long ago, or rather re-chose them, after seeing the hurtful effects of my original creed. Now, I act however seems best and let outcomes evaluate whether I chose well. At least I don't ignore one set of outcomes in order to justify others.
For example, what I’d done to Tskksk stung hard. If I knew for certain that burning my future would ensure hers, I’d have handed myself over in a moment: to the constables or to the murderer. Murderers?
Again, I had to wonder just how complex a conspiracy I was really dealing with, and what its goals actually were. Were they – or he or she – also dealing with the aftermath of a plan gone wrong? Had I disrupted something, or was I playing along as expected?
There was no way of knowing, not yet. The points of fact I assembled thus far failed to outline any solid shapes. In fact, some of the lines I tried to draw crossed over one another, observations conflicting and contradicting one another. Was Tskksk victim or collaborator? Was Shtvtsk a murderous seductress or a conniving bystander? Was Pkstzk a grieving widow or a mate-killer?
The web could extend beyond these three females. What about the housekeeping service Shtvtsk had mentioned? She hinted that the company had criminal ties, probably shadow control from some gang. She also said that Vzktkk helped her and Pkstzk get out of their employment with the company, which might have been difficult otherwise. Was that act of defiance the source of the present violent rampage?
It would certainly explain our enemy's access to bombs and assassins. Generally you needed personnel and money to manage the level of threat I’d seen recently. Pack Vzzrk, for all their willingness to commit violence, currently did not have the membership or resources to mount such a campaign. Unless Rsspkz had some very loyal friends I knew nothing about, he’d be hard pressed to hire even a single mercenary or buy a single explosive, even assuming he had someone to contact and some way to place the orders.
Pkstzk was the most logical point of contact, if Pack Vzzrk were somehow involved.
I stopped there. I’d stepped into that mental mire once already. Trying to wade further into the morass of our filthy past wasn’t going to help my present needs. I could keep the possibilities in mind, pending future information, but for right then, I needed to focus on immediate problems.
I made it to the pet store without collapsing. The Hrotata toxin was almost completely gone, but my pain medication was still going strong. Really good stuff. I’d hate going back to generic analgesics after my prescription ran out. Then again, I’d rather avoid the circumstances that led to me getting the ‘good stuff’: severe injuries in questionable circumstances, which got me transported to an upscale hospital on the public bankroll.
If I’d gotten myself blown up at my old apartment, I’d usually expect to wake up stitched with gut, lying on a cot, and grudgingly pumped with narcotic painkillers. I exaggerate, but the contrast was stark enough.
Kkk, enjoy it while it lasts, right?
A crime scene barrier was still intact in front of the pet store. I learned to bypass those while I still had egg-teeth. Then there was a new lock on the side door: a warded lock needing a physical key. That was trickier; it took me a decad and a snapped claw-tip to work out the tumbler sequence. The constables long ago learned that solid-state, analog locks were slower to override than maglocks or other digital solutions… but only by a matter of degree.
If you want to know, the best security is multi-part: a deadbolt and a magnetic seal, each activated by some combination of biometric scanner, analog key, and a unique chip card with redundant coding. By the time an intruder has managed to find or forge duplicates of all three keys, they’ve already exceeded the cost of almost anything you might lock inside. They've also wasted enough time that you could have moved your valuables elsewhere.
To any professional, this warded lock was only a speedbump: a big, painful bump, but only a nuisance otherwise. While I worked, I proved to myself that I could learn from more recent experience: I scanned the hallway for hidden cameras. I assumed that the constabulary couldn’t afford miniature jobs. If they were planting micro-cameras now, I’d never spot those. But I didn’t see any lenses or boxes for standard surveillance equipment.
I might have been observed entering from outside. There was nothing I could do about that. However, when I went inside, I also checked the outer room of the pet store thoroughly.
I was unsurprised to see that the show floor had been swept clean. I mean that literally; it looked like someone had wiped up all of the dust and litter, not to mention blood and animal corpses. Any evidence from Vzktkk’s killer, if not collected by the constables first, was certainly gone, along with any evidence of the starved, dead animals previously imprisoned there.
Even the wall displays were stripped, cleared of hooks, tags, and other commercial debris. There wasn’t much in the room to hide a camera behind. I didn’t feel safe, exactly, but it was unlikely the constables had left anything behind, surveillance or hazards.
The clean floor also meant that I wasn’t leaving footprints, though I knew I was tracking outdoor grit inside. Forensics would know someone entered, even if I was careful not to leave genetic debris and tell them who had come in. That presumed anyone would think to check here. I had tried to tip off Detective Nrissilli about where to look, but she could have missed the point.
I couldn’t waste much more time. Besides potential recordings, my entry might have tripped a silent alarm. I was probably giving the constables too much credit, again, but assuming the worst was still a good policy.
Opening the door to the back room, I couldn’t help a certain amount of cautious apprehension. There was probably nothing back there, but I’d thought that before.
The second time, there really was nearly nothing in the back room. The rktpk corpses were gone, of course, but so were the stacks of empty food bags, the dirty animal cages, and even the old desk I’d seen before. All swept away into an evidence locker, presumably. And what the constables didn’t take, the criminals might have.
Somewhere in this room was a false floor panel with a cache beneath. Funny that the constables had searched so thoroughly and yet missed that secret. Then again, they might have found the space with nothing inside. Nothing said the killer couldn't return after the scene was searched and drop off the murder weapon then. It was actually a pretty cunning plan: hide the evidence somewhere already searched. Few detectives would think to go back and check a scene again later.
But they might, if they thought something was missed the first time. Cunning or not, there was a certain amount of dumb risk associated with using a former murder site for later plans. Why not destroy the weapon or keep it in a third, completely unknown location?
Obviously, the laser was kept for this frame-up. Putting it in the pet store was probably done so that I could retrieve it, from a location I already knew and could access. How far in advance had this plot been devised? Were the players chosen from the beginning… or was my involvement a later scheme? Once again, there was a whole spectrum of possibilities, ranging from Shtvtsk being the intended target all along, to her being a convenient scapegoat identified by my investigation.
I lowered myself to the floor as best I could and searched along the faux-wood tiles for a seam, a catch, or some other access. On a hunch, I started near the former location of the missing desk. Sure enough, at the back corner of the room in that area, I spotted a ‘knothole’ which had no purpose in artificial wood. Inserting a claw tip, I levered the tile upward with a little exertion.
Underneath was a neatly paneled cache box, built out of the same laminate material as the floor tiles. The owner had probably stored credit slips, spare keys, or other valuables down here. As security measures went, it wasn’t bad. I hadn’t thought to look for it before, though I had some distractions earlier. As unlikely as theft was in a pet store, even a dedicated burglar might miss checking the floors.
Inside the box was, indeed, a laser pistol. It was small, simple, and neat, a high-powered mass-produced weapon used mostly for personal protection. Getting shot anywhere but a vital organ was painful but survivable, and the beam wouldn’t penetrate anything sufficiently thick and opaque. That property made such firearms ideal for use aboard starships, since they were unlikely to damage protected systems and completely unable to breach a hull.
Against an armored target, a hand laser was nearly useless. It didn’t have much ‘stopping’ power, unless you had excellent aim. But in a close situation with a normally-dressed opponent, you could hurt them a lot without worrying about accidental death due to blood loss.
The other properties the laser had in its favor were plenty of range and loads of ‘ammunition’. You could fire one of these over and over at multiple attackers or hold down the trigger and sweep the beam over them, just hoping that you’d hit something vital. Alternately, in the hands of a trained user, a simple laser was obviously sufficient to deliver a fatal hit with just one shot.
Was it the weapon that killed Vzktkk? It certainly looked like the right type. I had no doubt that forensic tests would produce an impact effect identical to the hole in Vzktkk’s skull. Even if it wasn’t the exact same gun, it was close enough to be believable. With Shtvtsk’s traces on its handle and her relationship to Vzktkk established, having this weapon found in her home would give the judicial system a quick conviction.
I retrieved the pistol gingerly with the tips of my claws. If I’d had time, I would have brought gloves or at least a cloth to avoid any transfer of my own. As it was, I didn’t even have a bag or other container to carry the frosted thing away unseen. The only way I could transport it without handling it was to put it in my own empty holster.
Placing the laser in Rtrtr’s former spot felt like cheating. I actually prepared a little apology to my beloved heater, telling it I wasn’t replacing it, just temporarily holding another weapon out of necessity. I wasn’t even going to use the laser, I promised, just carry it a little way. I hoped Rtrtr would understand. I already felt terrible for leaving it locked up so long, but what could I do?
I wish I was joking. At least I prioritized the hostage situation involving a real, living victim above the one with my firearm. Sacrifices were necessary; I would do everything I could to pull off my ‘orders’ successfully.
Carrying the laser openly actually wasn’t a bad plan. It would be visible, but only someone who knew what they were looking for would be suspicious. Otherwise, it looked like I was carrying my own, personal weapon. Hidden in plain sight, one of the classic subterfuges.
On that note, I strode openly out of the pet store, pausing only to lock the door again behind me. Not that there were any witnesses out on the street, but if there had been, my confident demeanor would convince them I was going about business as normal, everything legitimate, no illegal activities going on here, none at all.
My purposeful strut was spoiled only by a slight limp in my complaining leg and a hunch in my abused back. I was also feeling a little light-headed from all the chemicals and my continuously empty stomach. Vislin can go quite a while without eating… but only after a big meal. My full room service at the hospital had been nice, but wasn’t quite a feast I could subsist on for two days running.
I’d treat myself to a nice lunch after this caper was done. I’d definitely feel like eating after framing someone for murder. The stress of possibly being caught would help, too. Nothing stimulates the appetite like anxiety, right?
But seriously, I needed to eat soon. I might even be tempted to steal a few things from Shtvtsk’s undoubtedly well-stocked kitchen. Why not? A little petty theft was minor compared to other intended violations. And like those violations, it would be for a good cause: my continued health and survival.
If the sarcasm isn’t coming through, I wasn’t going to steal anything, no matter how starved I felt. I might tweak the law and preach about having good reasons for my offenses, but just taking whatever I wanted, for my own needs, was a good place to draw the line. That was where roguish misbehavior crossed into selfishness. I might be going further down a bad path, but I didn’t need to backslide into past corruption.
Into the apartment building, up the stairs – the elevator would record any key use, and I wanted to avoid being recorded – to the fourth floor, apartment 401.
I was there; I had the weapon; I had the key. Now, was Shtvtsk home? There was no reason she should be out, in the early morning hours following the tumultuous day before. But there was also a chance my controllers, Tskksk’s kidnappers, had cleared the way for me by luring Shtvtsk away.
There was only one way to find out. I pressed the signal button to alert anyone inside that a visitor was waiting. Six hectads passed with no response. I signaled again, then tapped on the door. Another twenty hectads and still nothing. She might be inside, dead asleep. Could I get inside and plant the pistol without waking her? Sss, and get some of her genetic material on the weapon, as well?
The best option for the latter challenge was to check her bathroom for shed scales. If she used a scouring powder, her trash can might be full of abraded material I could use. Despite the caller’s insinuation, I wasn’t going to try and collect any bodily fluids. Suddenly jumping into Shtvtsk’s nest after the scene yesterday should raise plenty of alarms, even if she proved willing.
I remembered the waiting room cameras before I tried opening the door. I’d have to deal with those, as well. That meant taking a few decads to search the room, hopefully finding all the hidden devices before I continued. Kkk, the removal, destruction, or deactivation of those units would be a point in Shtvtsk’s favor if her arrest went to trial. She could claim a setup on the basis of that negative evidence; someone had clearly broken into her apartment to plant the weapon.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t screw up in her favor like that. I had to remove any sign of the cameras’ existence, so that her claims about them would be unprovable, maybe even treated as an attempt to sow doubt in court. It was possible that the kidnappers would hold Tskksk until Shtvtsk was convicted, in which case I had to do my best to make sure she was found guilty. Shtvtsk could be released later once the verdict was overturned on new evidence… but if we didn’t find Tskksk before the trial was done, I might have to rely on getting Shtvtsk falsely convicted.
Removing the cameras was also in my own best interest. It remained possible that I could squeak out of arrest and/or ruin once this mess was done, but not if there existed hard evidence of my involvement in an undeniable criminal act. Detective Nrissilli wouldn’t jeopardize her career trying to cover for me in the face of such evidence.
So when I let myself into the apartment, I immediately scanned the room for any lens reflections, visible wires, glowing lights, etc. I also listened carefully for sounds of movement or disturbed slumber. The door to the nesting room was closed, which was both boon and problem. If Shtvtsk was inside, the closed door might muffle my noises enough to keep her dormant and would hide me if she opened her eyes. But I couldn’t know for certain if she was in there, until she made a loud enough noise to hear.
I had to assume the worst and proceed with stealth. My aching arm and leg made that doubly difficult. I had to pick my way around the room, lifting objects to check behind and under and even inside, while limping slightly and favoring one arm.
While moving aside a digital image frame, I got a good look at the displayed image. As I saw before, it looked like Shtvtsk posing with two other Vislin of uncertain gender. Their attitude looked like friends or coworkers out for a drink. More employees of the infamous housekeeping service? Other acquaintances? Pack mates, maybe?
I was struck anew at how little the Shtvtsk in the picture looked like the vision of grace I knew. Perhaps she had metamorphosed from mediocrity to glamour in the intervening years. Surgical reconstruction, exercise, better diet, and lots of practice becoming a desirable escort could account for some of the transformation.
But the female in the picture was different in several ways: snout shorter, nostrils wider, eyes greener, crest less perfectly aligned. It was only Shtvtsk by process of elimination, not a clear match. For all that the pictured female resembled the current Shtvtsk, the image could be someone else’s, even a default sample used to demonstrate the digital frame while on sale.
The frame didn’t conceal any cameras, so I put it back down and moved on. Yet the incongruity lingered, ticking at my brain, joining and reinforcing all the other unexplainable details I’d been accumulating.
I really, really, wanted some answers, and soon. My impatience at dealing with ambiguity and anomaly was becoming a dangerous force all its own. If I didn’t collapse with pain or fatigue, or die during another murder attempt, I might self-destruct from the pressure of all the intellectual aggravations.
I kept looking for cameras, all the while wanting to go back and check the picture again. I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was important. It was probably just my data-starved brain hoping that something would provide a key to the case: some kind of solid matter that would precipitate my stirred, dissolved life.
Finally, I found one small camera box, nestled in a houseplant, mounted on a small stake. It looked like a deep-set peering eyeball within a furry green face. It was entirely self-contained, with battery, recorder, and memory bead all in one package. I wondered, belatedly, if it also had a wireless transmitter. If Shtvtsk were smart and tech-savvy, she would have remote storage somewhere backing up everything her cameras collected, or maybe even a cloud account to protect her recordings from destruction.
If she did, there was little I could do right away. I wished, not for the first time, that I was more skilled in the technological arts. I hadn’t a prayer of hacking even a local system, much less a globally distributed account. That’s where someone like Tskksk could be a huge asset. Sure, after I saved her from being killed, by grossly violating the law and an innocent sapient’s freedom, she’d be thrilled to associate with me further. It actually wasn’t impossible, but I wouldn’t want to work with me, right then.
I completed a circuit of the room, poking into every corner that could conceivably hide another camera. I found nothing else. Was that one unit, half-hidden, really the extent of Shtvtsk’s surveillance? It could be; that one camera would have cost a few hundred credits. If her business was as poor as I suspected – not as affluent as she boasted – she might not be able to afford another camera.
Still, I made another round just in case I missed something, looking in even less likely spots: beneath a chair, between two bookcases, in a closed drawer. I cringed every time I bumped something hard enough to produce a noise, freezing to listen for any response.
The apartment, including the nesting room, was utterly quiet. I started to doubt that Shtvtsk was there. I might be wasting valuable time by moving so slowly and thoroughly. After the second pass of the outer room, I decided I’d done the best I could, and started to move toward the bathroom to check on ‘genetic material’.
I passed the troublesome image again. My eyes were unavoidably drawn to it. It was in the context of the bathroom trash, the kitchen, Shtvtsk's income, a cleaning service, and its workers, that I realized what I was missing.
I picked up the picture again and looked more closely. That was it. Shtvtsk in the picture didn’t look like Shtvtsk now, but she did look familiar. She looked like… the idea was ridiculous, almost impossible, but undeniable the more I studied her face. She looked like Ktchvch, my pack mate Rsspkz’ sister.
I remembered Ktchvch now, a youngster I'd spotted around Rsspkz’ home the few times I visited. Usually, those visits were only to pick up my pack mate before going out for a day of mischief. Ktchvch was a little female, too young to bother with, even if talking to her wouldn’t be offensive in her brother’s presence. By the time Pack Vzzrk broke up, Ktchvch was independent of her brood, with her own pack and a job.
Food service. I remember she’d had culinary interests. When I checked up on her later, once after I’d started my investigation business and a second time just a few days ago, she’d shown up as a line cook for a restaurant. Not quite a chef, but on that track. If Ktchvch was Shtvtsk, that information was false… or at least, outdated. And she’d changed more than her appearance; she’d changed her career.
Wait, that was assuming Shtvtsk/Ktchvch didn’t have a separate day job. Maybe she cooked by day and escorted by night. Being a good cook would certainly augment her value as a surrogate mate. My stomach gurgled just thinking about the subject.
All those possibilities assumed my perceptions were correct and I wasn’t just seeing illusions again. Yet if Shtvtsk was Ktchvch, that would explain the connections to Pack Vzzrk. Maybe Rsspkz was striking out at a sister he perceived as disloyal. Or maybe someone else, someone separate, was striking at Pack Vzzrk through its outliers. Ktchvch. Pkstzk. Me.
I really wanted to open my compad and search for new connections. Was Rsspkz’ other sibling, his brother Zfzptk, really out on an asteroid mining team? Had some accident befallen him, even out in open space? At what restaurant was Ktchvch supposedly working, and could they identify her by that name and her new face?
I had a disturbing thought that perhaps Ktchvch/Shtvtsk worked the back kitchen at Kzztkrt Tk, the same restaurant where Pkstzk waited tables. That could be another useful fact Pkstzk had been unable to pass along… not to mention something Shtvtsk avoided mentioning.
Maybe I had something fundamentally wrong. Maybe Shtvtsk had a picture of Ktchvch for other reasons… maybe the two females were separate but related in some other way, like having worked together once.
There was enough physical resemblance to pull me toward the identity theory, but maybe there was another explanation for that, too. Maybe they were cousins. Vislin don’t necessarily associate between siblings after joining packs, and contact between more extended relatives is rare… but not impossible. Influence from the Hrotata and other mammalians led more Vislin to maintain and even enjoy extended family ties.
I considered stealing the imager for reference. The picture was one of those solid points that might unlock other secrets. But its absence would create more problems than its possession would definitively solve. So I left it on the shelf and reluctantly continued into the bathroom.
That part was easy. I found discarded scouring dust in the garbage, just like I’d hoped. Using the corner of a towel, I lifted some dust and tapped it over the handle of the laser pistol. Then I brushed off the excess, without wiping down the weapon too thoroughly. I didn’t want to undo my work, but I also didn’t want to make it look like obvious planted evidence. Hopefully, just enough scale fragments would cling to the weapon for identification… and hopefully, the forensic techs wouldn’t note the suspicious presence of scouring powder.
Now, where to plant the weapon? I couldn’t put it out in the open or anywhere else Shtvtsk would spot it right away. Imagine finding a laser pistol randomly placed in your home! Even if you didn’t connect it to the recent murder of someone you knew, you’d instinctively be horrified by its unexpected presence. Shtvtsk likely would get rid of the laser right away and probably do a better job of it than the real killer.
A kitchen drawer? Perhaps less noticeable, but a little odd. Not the place the ‘real killer’ would hide key evidence against herself. The most plausible spot would be in the nesting room, maybe in the material of her nest… but that wasn’t an option, for obvious reasons. Leave it in the bathroom? There weren’t any real concealment spots there, short of the toilet tank. I didn’t have a plastic bag to seal it in, for that to work.
That left the waiting room. Not the best choice, but at least there were a few options for hiding spots. Under a couch? In a side table? Behind a bookcase?
While I tried to decide, I heard the scratch of claws on a door. I froze as I realized the sound hadn’t come from the nesting room, but from the front door. Someone was coming in… probably Shtvtsk.
I chose the nearest available hiding spot for the laser: in a drawer I had left open while searching for cameras. I managed to slide it closed and drop myself into the adjacent armchair as the door opened.
I did my best to compose my expression, trying to look like a love-sick stalker rather than a scheming intruder. Maybe Shtvtsk would buy my presence as a creepy attempt to win back her affections. I wouldn’t buy that story, but who knew with her? I’d been selling flimsier stories all week, with surprising success. Even if she got suspicious, I could try revealing what I knew about her and Ktchvch (not much with certainty, to be honest), and using that as a cover to explain why I broke into her apartment again.
The door finally opened and a female stepped inside the room… but it wasn’t Shtvtsk. It also wasn’t Detective Nrissilli or another constable, which would have been my second guess.
It was Pkstzk. Not only was her presence unexpected in the extreme, her appearance boggled my already-abused mind. She was wearing sleek, black tactical armor, not exactly the same as my attackers at Taburket’s wore, but similar enough. She wore no helmet, which is how I knew it was her. She also carried a small plasma pistol, drawn and aimed.
Once she entered and looked around, she spotted me and froze. Her weapon followed her gaze, pointed right at my head. She wasn’t just unhappy to see me; she looked like she was prepared to permanently end my investigations.
Her evident confusion echoed mine. We stared at one another for long moments, like actors in an overwrought drama.
I decided to break the silence. “Pkstzk. Hello! Should I ask what you’re doing here… or should I go first?”
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